by Anna Alicia Romero • IDRA Newsletter • September 2001

This month marks the 51-year anniversary of Dr. José A. Cárdenas’ life as a professional educator. Immediately after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950, Dr. Cárdenas started as a science teacher in the Laredo Public Schools. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he resumed his teaching career in the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) in San Antonio.

Additional classroom teaching was soon augmented by various supervisory and administrative positions leading to the superintendency of the district from 1969 to 1973. Dr. Cárdenas’ work in public schools was supplemented by many years of full- and part-time college teaching and almost 30 years in educational research and development.

In 1973, Dr. Cárdenas resigned as superintendent and founded the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) (formerly Texans for Educational Excellence). IDRA was founded to undertake school finance reform advocacy and now works with people to create self-renewing schools that value and empower all children, families and communities.

IDRA celebrates these 51 years of contributions to the improvement of educational opportunities for children with a series of conversations with Dr. Cárdenas and members of the IDRA staff published in the IDRA Newsletter. In this issue’s conversation with Dr. Cárdenas, interviewer, Anna Alicia Romero, focuses on school finance.

Anna Alicia RomeroDr. Jose CardenasYou have said that you feel destined to link yourself to the issue of school funding. Why has it become such a burning issue for you?

J.A.C.: For several reasons. One is that all of my teaching experiences have been in low-wealth school districts. I had continued frustration over the lack of instructional supplies and materials, particularly as a science teacher. The lack of scientific equipment available made it difficult for me to teach. And my concepts of equity and equality of educational opportunity came together with my lack of equity in resources, enough for me to spend 20 years in the quest for equitable school funding.

Coming from Laredo, Texas – where you grew up with these same inequities – when and how did you notice them? Despite seeing the dearth of supplies available for teaching, many teachers operate with the understanding that these inequities are to be expected. When did it strike a nerve with you?

J.A.C.: First, when I started teaching science at the junior high school level, there had not been extensive science offerings at that level. There were some readings, but no laboratory sciences as such. And teaching in a school that had no laboratory equipment left a sour note on these memories.

Second, when I started teaching science at a high school, I did not have access to a laboratory. Teaching in a shed outside with no running water, barely electricity, made it pretty obvious that there was a shortage of teaching materials and equipment for teaching those subjects in science – which was what I was responsible for teaching.

For you, how did the absence of supplies and necessary equipment become a quest for equal funding?

J.A.C.: I think that the normal progression was finding similar shortages of money in many aspects of education. In 1969, when I became superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) in San Antonio, it all came together. We started instituting school reform measures, but I found it almost impossible to bring about any amount of school reform in the absence of adequate resources for the school.

This manifested itself primarily in a high turn-over rate of teachers. It seemed that as soon as a teacher was certified, he or she was made a more generous offer from another school district and inevitably left our district. While there were many good teachers in the district, there was a tendency for the better teachers to move on to better paying school districts.

At the time, we had more than one-third of the teachers in the school district without teaching certificates. This meant that they did not meet the basic requirements for a teacher in Texas. Of course salaries for teachers were very, very low. I found it difficult to bring about any vast change in the education of the students in the absence of these three resources: teacher retention, teacher certification, and teacher salaries.

How did the situation you saw in Laredo and at Edgewood ISD make school finance such an important issue in your life?

J.A.C.: Actually, through the vehicle itself, Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD. Up to this time, no one thought that school finance could be dealt with differently. I think that the Rodríguez case showed not only that it could be done differently, but that it was feasible to do so. It was Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD that triggered my active role in school finance reform.

In the Rodríguez case, the state court found the Texas system of school finance unconstitutional. So this became, for you, a signal to move beyond the school system and the constraints in the school system?

J.A.C.: That’s right, until then I think, like everyone else in education, I had been very concerned with more money for the schools. Rodríguez changed my perspective to equal funding for schools.

Turning a state system of operation upside down is a monumental undertaking. This is not a school district or a small organization, but a state the size of Texas with its vast resources. Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD made it seem that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. You said that this type of change became feasible, after Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD.

J.A.C.: The key word here is after Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD. This case was very much a “sleeper” court case. Originally, the suit was filed against school districts. [Then they were dropped as defendants and were replaced by the State of Texas.] It was not until the end of Rodríguez that it started really looking attractive to me in terms of school finance reform, and even then I had no idea of the partial success that we would enjoy.

When I picked up the newspaper on December 23, 1971, and found out that on the basis of the suit that I had been involved in as superintendent of Edgewood ISD, the entire school finance system in Texas had been found unconstitutional – and by implication that of about 40 other states – it hit me that something big had happened. It was like being hit by an asteroid and not having been aware that it was coming.

Because, as I mentioned before, Rodríguez was a sleeper court case, it sailed past many states, and it got by the state of Texas also, without creating a lot of controversy or publicity, concerning the courts. It was not until 1971, with the initial court finding by the three judge panel, that Rodríguez got noticed.

At that point did you believe that the school funding system could be turned around?

J.A.C.: At that point, yes. The court said that we could do this and that it should be done. That it must be done. It even went further into implementing aspects of Rodríguez that the plaintiffs had not gotten into in court.

Can you give a further example of this?

J.A.C.: The regional service centers, for instance, provide services to school districts. They were created and funded by Texas, yet participation of the regional service center was through a fixed fee on the basis of the numbers of students in the school districts in each region. Therefore, Edgewood ISD’s participation with audiovisual materials borrowed from the regional service center cost $1 per child. Edgewood ISD at that time had about 24,000 students, which meant that it would cost us $24,000 to use movies, film strips, audio tapes and other things available.

For districts with a lot of money, $1 per child was not a heck of a lot of money. But in Edgewood ISD, $1 per child was probably three-fourths of our share of the foundation school program, so it was impossible for us to participate in these things.

As the wealthy got more, the poor got less, in terms of school finance. At this time, I started challenging the regional service center on the basis of Rodríguez, stating that it was illegal for them to furnish resources on a monetary basis, charging the same amounts to school districts of varying district wealth. Before this was resolved, Rodríguez was reversed by the US Supreme Court so nothing ever came of my protests.

Did you ever have serious doubts about reforming the school funding system?

J.A.C.: I think that the biggest moment of serious doubt was the day that Rodríguez was turned around. Talking to the lawyers in the litigation of Rodríguez in the Supreme Court, I never had any doubt that we were going to win Rodríguez [at the Supreme Court]. The serious doubt was when I picked up the newspaper and I found we lost by a 5 to 4 vote.

I felt as if everything had gone down the tube. However, during the litigation of Rodríguez in the Supreme Court, several things happened that made me optimistic in spite of the reversal. One of those things were guarantees given to me by the Texas governor, by the Texas Legislature, and by certain school superintendents in the state, that no one objected to an equitable system of school finance. The reason it was being fought was that they did not want it pushed down their throats by the United States court.

They also agreed that even if we lost in the appeal of Rodríguez, they would hasten to bring about an immediate reform of school finance in the state of Texas. This was assured to me by everybody.

From the moment that you began this quest, to its final stages, how did your attitude or perspective change?

J.A.C.: I had different changes of perspectives, at first I thought it was a hopeless case and we would never win. Then we won. Then we had a big change the day the Supreme Court reversed the decision in a 5 to 4 vote. Of course when you lose something in a close vote you say, “Gosh, if I had just done this or that,” and so forth. I resigned myself to the fact that the Supreme Court majority came out with a decision, and then looking at the case itself, and the way it read, that they grasped at straws to substantiate the decision that they made.

Then you start getting the feeling 10 years down the line, in the Edgewood cases that followed, that there were not going to be any promises kept. You realize that Governor Dolph Brisco, and subsequently Governor Mark White and others who had pledged to me personally that we would have an equitable system of school finance, were not going to keep their promises.

The same people who were making those promises were saying in essence, “José, we are very interested in having an equitable system of school finance, but it has to be devised in such a way that our own get more.” They wanted a system of school finance where everyone gets the same, except they wanted to perpetuate their own positions.

So, in fact, that has happened and is still happening in the state of Texas. It was very frustrating to have the Supreme Court say in Edgewood III that all school systems are entitled to equal access to funds, but once they have it some can have more.

Who was telling you they had no problem with equitable school finance?

J.A.C.: Governors, legislators, senators, representatives, Texas Education Agency personnel and school district personnel. They had no qualms with equalized school finance system, as long as the privileged would remain in the privileged position. This included not only the amount of money that was going through them, but the amount of taxes they were paying, because they were privileged in both areas.

This leads to some of the myths in school finance. One of the myths that was perpetuated for years and years, and is still present, is that there are better schools in some areas of town because they sacrifice and spend more money for the education of the children.

Supporting our schools through property taxes is inherently inequitable. At the time of the Edgewood suits, did you see other ways to fund schools?

J.A.C.: The simple answer is yes. All of the inequities can be eliminated very quickly. Texas has a system of assessment where every school district is assessed at a different rate. The whole assessment process leads to appraisal. A value is put on the land, then the assessment is done. Then a tax rate is assigned for how much of the value will be taxed.

You would have a very wealthy place that was assessed very low and taxed even lower and therefore produced low yield. And they would say, “Well gee, we don’t have enough money to operate schools, etc.” Now that can be changed very quickly.
They were making true appraisal comments and assessed appraisal comments in order to accommodate those school districts that had very low assessments. Well, with one fell swoop, they just did away with the assessment. So it went from appraisal to taxation and no more assessment.

The appraisal system underwent a tremendous change because the state set up county appraisal districts supervised by a centralized system to make sure that the appraisals are fair. Now, it is supervised centrally to make sure that the appraisals that are being made in San Antonio are comparable with the appraisals made in Corpus Christi and Odessa.

We have to un-complicate the system, and then we can come back with a very efficient system of school finance. In Texas, very little of the state wealth comes from local property taxes. Most of the state wealth comes from the sales tax, which is a very regressive form of taxation. The state government says that you cannot do this or that because they are using state taxes – sales taxes – in order to finance the thing, and these are not equitable either.

It only takes the passing of a motion to enact a state income tax, which would be much more progressive than the sales tax that we have. So you have to be very careful with statements like, “It cannot be done because…” It may be hard and some people might not like it, but it can be done.

I used to go around talking about school finance reform in a wealthy district in San Antonio [Alamo Heights ISD] telling them, “In Edgewood ISD, they are taxing themselves $2.20 per $100.00 evaluation, and Alamo Heights folk are taxing yourselves 37 cents.” The response was, “Well they can do that, but we can’t because our people do not like to tax themselves.”

This is a poor excuse to continue an inequitable system of school finance and continue hurting kids in low-wealth school districts because people in the high-wealth school district don’t like to tax themselves. Of course I cannot help but make the statement that people in the low-wealth school districts do not like to tax themselves either, they just bite the bullet and do so. Although it can solve the problem, people don’t like to tax themselves, so it is a hard sell.

What role do parents and community members play in the school funding struggle?

J.A.C.: Parents and communities are interested in the schools and, to a certain extent, the interest should be increasing greatly right now rather than diminishing. For one thing, school finances are a very complicated subject, and I notice that many school professionals have never understood the concept of what constitutes an equitable or inequitable system of school finance.

I think that the parents in the community are even more uneducated about school financing. They care to have good schools but are not sure how this would be brought about. I have been harping for the last 20 years that the shifts in our economy from manufacturing and farming to services and technology has led to a need for a much more educated population than what we have now. This is why I am concerned with the dropout rate and students doing poorly in school.

I think school has become much more important than when I was a student. I remember stating that you can dig a ditch for a living. But now there are mechanical ditch diggers that will put you out of business and will dig a ditch that it used to take 200 people to dig in the same period of time. Technology requires a much more educated population than we have now.

It is unbelievable that the state of Texas is losing 40 percent of students from schools and is not greatly concerned about it. They complain of not being able to find teachers and have even proposed ways of using emergency personnel and so forth, but don’t go to square one. What does it take to keep teachers? Why do 47 percent quit in the first year? Well, probably because they do not make enough money or the situation is not attractive enough to them. Let’s make it attractive and attain and retain better teachers.

Incidentally, traditionally low paying of teachers was attributed mostly to the fact that teachers were female. In some states it was prohibited for males or for married teachers to teach a class. Most of the teachers were single females and did not have a great need for money; or they were married and could depend on husbands, therefore, supposedly, it was a waste to give them a pay raise.

When you started the Texans for Education Excellence (TEE), what was the ultimate vision?

J.A.C.: When I started with TEE in 1973, many people in positions of power said they would be happy to change the school finance system but did not want the federal government shoving it down their throats. They guaranteed a vast movement in the state of Texas to provide a system of equitable school finance. Naive in my heart, naive in my soul, I figured in a few years, two maybe four, that we would devise a system that everybody would support – the way they had locally supported this during the Rodríguez years – and that the problem would be solved quickly.

TEE, which later became the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), was formed as a short-term organization to provide assistance in the formulation of an equitable system of school finance. Proof of this is that we did not have any money for a long period of time. We didn’t institute fringe benefits, retirement, insurance, or anything because nobody thought the institution would be around for more than a few years, four years at the most, during which a system of school finance that was equitable would be established in the state of Texas. It was not until about four or five years later that it started to dawn on us that it was not going to be as easy as we thought it was.

After the realization that it was going to take longer than two to four years and there actually was a resistance to a truly equitable system of funding, what then became the strategy?

J.A.C.: Two things became very clear, one of them was that there was not going to be improvement in the inequities nor diminishing of the inequities unless it came through a court order.

Second, there could be no court order until such time as the state of Texas had a fair, progressive, liberal Supreme Court. These factors came together in about 1984 so that 11 years after our initial efforts to develop an equitable system of school finance, we were able to go to the courts to try to get their blessings for doing so.

The issue of school facilities has been debated as part of the conversation of school funding equity. Currently, political and fiscal conservatives are claiming that additional funding for school facilities is not a necessary line item for increasing student achievement. What do you say to that?

J.A.C.: School funding is a state responsibility. Now keep in mind that at the time of the Edgewood litigation, Texas was the only one among the select group of 10 states where there was no state money used for physical facilities.

Well, I say that education is a function of the state, and all aspects of education are the function of the state. I consider myself a very good teacher. The ideal school used to be a teacher sitting at one end of the log and student on the other. There are days in which special equipment is needed to effectively teach. Facilities are part of the educational system, and the only reason that people think the facilities should be furnished by the local government is because they always were in the past.

The problem is, facilities are getting very costly. They are increasing in price at a very rapid rate because of specialization: special features, special materials and special designs. High schools, and even elementary schools, cost more, many times more, than they did 50 years ago. There is no reason to assume the costs should be born out of inequitable local funds. There is no reason to say, “Well, this little pig has to build his house out of straw, and this one out of twigs, and this one out of bricks.” I think that all having the same amount of funds, which the state offers, all the little pigs should have protective homes built out of bricks.

What are some of the more memorable moments in your educational career?

J.A.C.: The most memorable moment was when we [at Edgewood ISD] made the decision to be dropped as defendants and become plaintiffs in the Rodríguez vs. San Antonio ISD. Then, no question about this, it was the trying and the decision of the case on December 23, finding the whole system of school finance unconstitutional. Then, it was the heart-breaking reversal in March of 1973, saying that the federal government wanted no part of it. Then, it was in 1974 when we filed suit again in the state court, and in 1976 when it was tried. Then, it was the year we had the initial decision, which was the 9 to 7 vote from the Texas Supreme Court.

Chapter 41 school districts are the wealthiest in Texas. Now they are suing Texas because, as fast-growth school districts, they feel they are being targeted by Texas’ school finance equalization while their needs are increasing. What is your overall sentiment about the Chapter 41 school districts’ ability to exempt themselves from the state’s current, more equitable school funding system?

J.A.C.: Well, I think that there is excess wealth that is not being used effectively. We tend to forget that there is no such thing as district wealth. There is state wealth located in the district. The wealth belongs to the state for taxing purposes, and it is the prerogative of the state to make any changes it deems necessary in order to have a more equitable system of both school finance and taxation.

These districts want to go back to how it was before. That is ridiculous. These schools are not getting the type of breaks that they got before. Now that the state has a conservative governor and legislature, they want to see if the school funding policies can go back to how they were in the “good old days” when certain segments of the population in Texas were exploited.

I don’t think it is going to be successful. They say, you know, that once a person has a taste of freedom, it is very hard to go back to slavery. Once you have a taste of financial freedom, it is very, very hard to go back to financial slavery.

I think that it will be noted that many of the advances in education in Texas to date are attributed to the change in school finance and in some of the programs that have been in place for many years, and not to the policies of any one governor, popular as he may be.

José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D., is the founder and director emeritus of IDRA. Anna Alicia Romero is an education assistant in the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]