(MintPress) – Alleged disparities in public education funding have launched a hotly contested lawsuit in Texas that shows around 600 school districts challenging the state’s school finance system. The districts argue that drastic reductions in funding made during the 2011 Texas Legislature were made without accounting for an influx of students and disproportionately hurt already-poorer districts. Opening statements in the case on Monday highlighted issues that have been scrutinized in Texas since the 1970s.
The crux of the case hinges on six different lawsuits brought forward by various organizations with similar claims. Five of the lawsuits have already been consolidated into one trial because they are so similar, and the Texas Tribune reports that the sixth lawsuit will likely be included in the same single trial. The News Journal in Longview, Texas encapsulated the bulk of the complaints by comparing the funding of two school districts in the same region involved in the lawsuit. The publication notes that Hallsville ISD receives $6,046 per student, while Gladewater ISD receives $4,836 per student.
As a result, the districts are in the highest and lowest paid brackets respectively, despite being only 22 miles apart from one another. But that is what districts are currently contending with after the legislature cut $5.4 billion in funding for public schools without considering funding for an increase of 80,000 students. The number of low-income students in Texas has also grown, which poses a further issue with funding because many of those students require further instruction to learn English or participate in special programs. That special instruction costs districts more, requiring a higher per-pupil budget.
In the plaintiff’s official petition, Mark Trachtenberg and John Turner, attorneys for some of the plaintiffs, say the cuts are already being felt within the affected districts in terminated positions and overcrowding to accommodate for the influx of students.
“The total 5.4 billion cut to public education in the 2011 legislative session has forced districts to eliminate thousands of positions for teachers and other support staff,” the petition said. “Budget constraints have driven school districts to request thousands of waivers of the State’s own statutory class size requirements.”
The scenario in the petition is being brought forward by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund – one of the six plaintiffs involved in the consolidated lawsuit. The group contends that the per-student allotments for schools that have English-language-learning (ELL) students have not changed in the state since 1984, resulting in a drastic underservice to students.
Between the six plaintiffs, three legal arguments are driving the trial: Efficiency, adequacy and meaningful discretion. According to the Texas Constitution, the state is required to fund schools efficiently and adequately, but prohibits a statewide property tax. In the past, courts have said that districts must have “meaningful discretion” in order to propose a property tax rate in their respective districts.
In the trial, each plaintiff is interpreting the “efficiency” clause differently. The general consensus, however, is that because the state of Texas has not conducted a recent study of how much it takes to educate a child, it is not handling the budget in a way that promotes efficiency in schools. Four of the plaintiffs say the state is violating the “adequacy” clause of the state Constitution by not dedicating enough money to public education, thus not allowing them to meet state standardized test standards.
The last argument from some of the plaintiffs says that the state is not providing districts with enough flexibility to determine property taxes in their district. They say the restrictions are essentially a statewide property tax cap, something that is unconstitutional in the state accord.
Along with the Texas Charter Schools Association, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, Fort Bend ISD Et Al. and the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, the Texas School Coalition is another one of the groups in the lawsuit claiming the state has failed to adequately fund schools. Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, argued that a change to public school financing is needed when looking at the growing number of districts that cannot capitalize on property taxes because of the state’s interference.
“The fact that more districts qualify for this status than ever before reinforces the fact that our method of funding public education is broken,” Rome said. “Texas has just over 1,000 school districts and having close to 400 of them considered property wealthy shows that there is not enough money in the system overall.”
In the trial’s opening statements, Trachtenberg addressed the issue as a combination of factors that can only be addressed by legislation. In a release submitted to MintPress by the Texas School Coalition, Trachtenberg said the complaints laid out in the first day of the trial provided a successful foundation for the case to move forward.
“Today, in opening arguments, we were pleased to present our two primary claims to the court. First, school districts lack the funding they need to meet the State’s own mandates and expectations for schools. Second, our districts have to use their available taxing capacity just to try to meet State requirements, and therefore lack any real control over setting their local tax rates. The result is a de facto state property tax,” Trachtenberg said. “The combination of higher academic standards, growing populations of economically disadvantaged students and significant budget cuts in the last legislative session has led us to where we are today.”
Other plaintiff organizations were unavailable for comments regarding the case.
The cost of education
At around $4,000 in per-student funding per year, some school districts in Texas are in levels that may not be able to sustain a proper education. In a 2006 study of high schools in Texas, researcher James Blincoe, in a presentation at the University of Texas, claimed that 40 percent of the high school facilities in the state rated at fair, poor or in need or replacement. The average age of those facilities was 34.5 years old, according to Blincoe. Through his research, he found a strong correlation between the quality of the facility and the achievement levels of the school’s students.
“Determining the effect of inadequate high school facilities on student achievement can help inform the education and legislative communities of any correlations between the condition and age of a high school building and the academic achievement of the students in these buildings,” Blincoe wrote. “Providing school facilities that are safe and provide quality learning conditions are issues that must be addressed in Texas.”
With a total state average of $8,746, Texas ranks near the bottom of per-pupil education expenditures in the nation. Massachusetts, widely regarded as having one of the best public schooling systems in the country, spends an average of $14,350 on public education per student.
Kansas falls into the middle of average spending around the nation. At around $9,000 in 2009, superintendents say the average demographic can succeed. But factors such as cost of living and teacher skills play a role in finding out how strong the correlation is to spending and student achievement. Cathy Milligan, a retired superintendent from a Kansas school district, said using the money wisely can make it go a long way.
“If the money is spent on the right programs, and those programs are carried out well, it would likely increase student achievement even further,” she said. “But there’s no way to know or guarantee how that will compare to what another district is doing.”