Guest Post: Texas Must Prioritize A School Finance Solution

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With “Back To School” time just around the corner, Senator Jose Rodriguez wants everyone to remember that Texas still needs a solution for how we fund our public schools.

Education is a priority for Senator Rodriguez. That's why he is keeping a close eye on the coming school finance lawsuit ruling, and has written a guest post on the subject.  

He writes, in part:

Education is the single most important factor in building a prosperous, sustainable economy. It provides opportunity for everyone to be productive members of society. It is how I was able to leave the fields where I grew up as a migrant farm worker to become a lawyer and public servant.

    Texas Must Prioritize A School Finance Solution

    By Senator Jose Rodriguez

    School is right around the corner, and so is a ruling on the state's system of school finance.

    In February 2013, District Judge John Dietz issued a preliminary bench ruling that Texas' school funding system is unconstitutionally inadequate for bilingual and economically disadvantaged students, inadequate for school districts more generally, inequitable for low property wealth districts, and that many school districts lack meaningful discretion in setting tax rates.

    The decision wasn't a surprise, not even for the state's leadership, which continues to fight this issue in court instead of solving it in the Legislature. We made some advances in the 83rd Legislature in 2013 – including restoring about $3.5 billion of the $5.4 billion cut in 2011- but not enough to resolve the generations-long issue. Judge Dietz, who took additional evidence following the 2013 legislative session, is expected to issue a final written ruling late this summer or early fall.

    This, in my opinion, is and always has been one of the key issues for Texas.

    Education is the single most important factor in building a prosperous, sustainable economy. It provides opportunity for everyone to be productive members of society. It is how I was able to leave the fields where I grew up as a migrant farm worker to become a lawyer and public servant.

    Latina/o and African-American students in Texas now constitute a majority in our schools. And many of them attend schools that receive less per-student funding on average than schools attended primarily by Anglo students. This correlates to less opportunity, whether it's the physical facilities and technology or larger class sizes, reduced pre-K and other educational programs, reduced extracurricular activities, and fewer teachers.

    The Senate Hispanic Caucus, which I currently chair, and the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus have established a number of taskforces to address issues of importance to the state's future. At the top of that list is education. In a report issued in early July, the Education Taskforce ranked public school finance as the top issue impacting Latina/o students.

    “Participants identify several aspects of school funding, from the 2011 budget cuts to program weights. With only a partial restoration of the 2011 budget cuts during the 2013 session-falling $2 billion short of the 2011 cuts-Texas ranked 46th in per-pupil spending in 2013-14,” the Taskforce reported. They found that, because schools in Texas rely heavily on local property taxes, which vary greatly, “the poorest 10 percent of districts collect an average of 10 cents more per $100 of property valuation in taxes than the wealthiest 10 percent. Even with recapture and with a 10-cent tax cut, the districts in the wealthiest decile enjoy a $951 per-student advantage-a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars per school.”

    Student outcomes should not depend on which side of town you live in. Or, in legal terms, every school district should be able to raise similar revenue at a similar tax effort. School districts should not have to tax at the maximum rate available just to provide an adequate education.

    Again, even if you do not believe in equal access to opportunity because it's the right thing to do, it's in our state's interest to make sure all students have an adequate education, which provides a better chance at productive citizenship for the individual and the trained workforce employers need to maintain economic prosperity.

    This is especially true of students with limited English proficiency. Texas still uses arbitrary weights that have not changed since 1984 to serve students with limited English proficiency, who cost more to educate because of the specialized instruction necessary. At that time, experts from the Intercultural Development Research Association presented research showing emergent bilingual and compensatory education programs cost an average of 40 percent more than a district's regular program costs.

    But rather than adopting a 0.4 weight, the state opted for a 0.1 add-on for bilingual/English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and a 0.2 add-on for compensatory education programs. The outmoded weights remain the status quo, yet these special student populations are increasing in number, with more than 869,000 English Language Learner (ELL) students and 3 million economically disadvantaged students, which comes to 17.1 percent ELL and more than 60 percent economically disadvantaged students.

    Meanwhile, the situation is exacerbated by the state's reliance on standardized testing as the measure of student achievement. Additionally, the state's Cost of Education Index, which informs adjustments needed in funding based on variations in cost of living, district size, and regional teacher salaries, is similarly outdated, as it has not been changed since 1990.

    Students are back in school soon. Judge Dietz will issue his ruling soon. The Legislature will convene soon enough.

    When will we finally put all our children first, and commit to fully funding education, as Texas' founders wisely mandated?


About Author

Katherine Haenschen

Katherine Haenschen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, where she studies political participation on digital media. She previously managed successful candidate, issue, voter registration, and GOTV campaigns in Central Texas. She is also a fan of UCONN women's basketball and breakfast tacos.

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