• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2010 •
School funding equity is a challenging objective in the best of times, but it is particularly difficult when the nation is facing financial challenges. In 1995, IDRA founder and director emeritus Dr. José A. Cárdenas, wrote: “I agree with Judge McCown that [when compared with past disparities in funding] we have come a long way. There are still inequities in the system, and the Texas Legislature has not addressed adequately the need for equalized facilities funding. Yet low wealth school districts have improved considerably over the past 46 years, since my horrendous experience as a teacher, supervisor, principal and superintendent in these low wealth districts. The system is not perfect, but it certainly is much better” (1997).
When those words were written, Texas was at the peak of its funding equity litigation marathon. A 2005 Texas Supreme Court ruling in the West Orange-Cove vs. Neeley case took the state several steps backwards by opening the door to unequalized enrichment. This increased the levels of equity that had been so hard to achieve over the prior three decades.
The same court ruling also gave its legal stamp of approval to ridiculously low levels of funding, saying they met state “adequate” education standards, and the court gave the weak state leadership permission to allow Texas school district funding to stagnate from 2006 until the present (Kauffman, 2008). The exceptions to the current funding freeze are a few super wealthy school districts in the state that serve a few hundred thousand students and that have used their unequalized enrichment options to take care of their own.
Recent Growth of Inequitable School Funding
Recent analyses of the school district allocations by the Equity Center in Austin (January 2009) reveal that the continued use of target revenues (which set funding at 2005 levels) and of hold harmless funding (that is not wealth adjusted) has seriously eroded the equity features that had been built into the system since 1993. As a result, there is little relationship between a school district’s tax effort and its revenue per pupil. Similar school districts with similar tax efforts now receive very different amounts per pupil, which is a direct violation of the “similar return for similar tax effort” requirement outlined in the first Edgewood school funding decision (Equity Center, 2010c).
Recent studies find that many school districts get more money outside of, rather than as result of, the equalized funding plan with most new monies allocated without regard to property wealth over the last few years (Equity Center, 2010b). It is little wonder that the Texas school funding scheme was given a D- in a recent national ranking of school funding equity (EPE Research Center, 2010).
State Resources Become More Limited
The recent national economic meltdown has made improving funding equity and excellence even more difficult, though Texas did not suffer as deep an impact as many other major states. In fact, the federal government’s recent economic stimulus funding was used by the Texas legislature to pump over $2 billion into Texas public schools. But this infusion only helped Texas cover growth in enrollment and funding commitments that had already been promised in prior legislative sessions. Unfortunately, the state of Texas also used that federal funding windfall to divert its own monies into the rainy day fund rather than invest it into badly-needed additional funding for the public school system (TSTA, 2009).
Even with these moves, a projected budget shortfall for the upcoming biennium, which ranges from $12 billion to $15 billion, reflects continuing dismal fiscal prospects.
Equity and Quality Pay Off
Recent research has shown that investing in improved education equity and quality yields return ratios of at least 3 to 1. Writing on the costs and benefits of improving educational equity, Henry M. Levin notes, “The results of improving educational justice provide substantial returns for taxpayers that exceed the costs” (2009).
Lacking adequate support however leads educators to sometimes make decisions that are against the best interest of teachers, students and unfortunately whole communities that feel the effects of so many short-sighted state education funding policies.
Lack of equitable and sufficient funding has a direct impact on how teachers and principals serve their students. Even if educators expand efforts to raise supplemental monies, doing so takes time away from administrative and support functions and thus impacts a school’s operations (Avilés, 2010).
Schools Forced to Make Major Cuts
Over the last year, we have seen a growing number of Texas school districts declare financial exigency status, which by state law allows them to make budget cuts (including personnel) in order to balance school district budgets. In district after district, we are seeing cuts in staff or programs serving sub-groups of students. While many of these impact low-income and minority students, the budget cuts also are often targeted at smaller programs that serve certain groups, such as gifted and talented classes, fine arts programs, music, school athletics and extra-curricular activities (LaCoste-Caputo, 2010).
Even prior to the economic downturn, Texas and the nation were losing ground in numerous educational outcomes ranging from high school graduation rates to percentages of the population with college degrees. Continuing this failure to invest in education funding equity and improving quality will have long-term consequences far greater than the short-term savings that will result from such benign neglect of persistent, systemic recurring inequity in our public schools.
Frustration with the state’s recalcitrant attitudes about the need for increased funding for equity and excellence has led some schools to explore a new round of education funding equity and adequacy lawsuits against the state (Equity Center, 2010a). Similar legal challenges have been mounted in Colorado, Connecticut and Illinois. And a continuation of high unemployment and a slow economic recovery will probably trigger a new set of court challenges around the country, including some within the state of Texas.
Despite persistent complaints about being subjected to school funding litigation, Texas and other states have demonstrated that weak leadership only takes decisive steps when it is forced to. In explaining why he issued his ruling forcing the state of Texas to improve its education and other systems, Judge William Wayne Justice used to explain that, based on his experience, “Sometimes in order to force a recalcitrant mule to move forward, you had to hit it between the eyes with a two by four” (Kauffman, 2008). Should developments continue along the same path over the ensuing months, we can expect to see school districts initiate a run on local lumber yards.
Avilés, N. “Implications of Inequitable Funding on the Quality of Education at the Campus Level,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2010).
Cárdenas, J. Texas School Finance Reform: An IDRA Perspective (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).
EPE Research Center. “School Finance Rankings by State,” Quality Counts 2010 (Bethesde, Md.: Editorial Projects in Education, Inc., January 2010).
Equity Center. “The State Facilities Funding System is Long Overdue for an Extreme Makeover,” Equity Center News & Notes (Austin Texas: Equity Center, January-February 2010).
Equity Center. “The State of the Texas School Finance System – An Interview with F. Scott McCown,” Equity Center News & Notes (Austin Texas: Equity Center, January-February 2010).
Equity Center. Inefficient, Inequitable and Just Plain Wrong, chart, Equity Center News & Notes (Austin Texas: Equity Center, January-February 2010).
Equity Center. “A $1,000 Donut Hole: The Flaw in Outside-the-Formula-System Target Funding,”
Equity Center News & Notes (Austin Texas: Equity Center, January 2009).
Kauffman, A.H. “Texas School Finance Litigation Saga: Great Progress, Then Near Death by a Thousand Cuts,” 40 St. Mary’s L. J. 511 (2008).
LaCoste-Caputo, J. “Cost May Kill NEISD School of the Arts,” San Antonio Express News (January 13, 2010).
Levin, H.M. “The Economic Payoff of Investing In Educational Justice,” Education Researcher (Washington, D.C.: American Education Research Association, January-February 2009) Vol. 38. No. 1 PP. 5-20.
Texas State Teachers Association. The Road Not Taken, web page (Austin, Texas: Texas State Teachers Association, June 1, 2009). http://www.tsta.org/legislative/update/index.shtml
Albert Cortez, Ph.D. is the director of IDRA Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2010 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.]