• by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1996 •
Editor’s Note: In September, IDRA presented testimony before the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans during hearings held by the commission in conjunction with the National Summit on Latino Children, La Promesa de un Future Brillante, hosted by the National Latino Children’s Agenda. The following is an overview of the testimony on school finance.
I am here before you, commissioners, because of an issue that has not received necessary attention: funding for school facilities.
In January of 1995, to the dismay of poor school districts in Texas and of education advocacy groups, the Texas Supreme Court handed down a decision that all but ended 25 years of a longstanding fight to achieve funding equity in Texas. The court upheld Senate Bill 7 as constitutional under the Texas Constitution and in effect declared that the state’s funding system is equal enough.
“Children First” Declaration
In response, IDRA released a declaration, “Children First,” along with the support of more than 70 individuals and organizations. The declaration outlines our commitment to the creation of a truly equitable funding system. We believe that the Texas Supreme Court erred in limiting state responsibility to the provision of an equalized inferior education for all students.
IDRA, along with the supporting organizations and individuals, stated the following:
- As the district court noted, all children are the state’s children and thus should have equitable access to educational opportunities.
- The demands of the workplace and the skills needed to be full and productive citizens require access to more than a minimum education.
- Justice is not served when the court endorses the concept of superior education for some citizens while relegating others to a so-called “equalized” inferior one, even when the commissioner of education testifies, “Our present accreditation criteria at the acceptable level does not match up with what the real world requirements are.”
- The legislature has a moral and legal obligation to equitably fund school facilities because: (1) local districts are required to provide grounds, buildings, furniture and equipment; (2) districts are currently required to bear this burden totally on their own; and (3) the ability to shoulder the load is entirely dependent upon unequal district property tax bases.
When we put children first on the list of policy priorities and when we give them the best that we have to offer, the return will be so much greater.
Texas is one of 28 states where the school funding system was subjected to a legal challenge. It is one of 13 states (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming) where the courts actually found the system of school funding to be in violation of the state constitution (IDRA, 1995).
This is a problem of national proportions that dates back to the Rodriguez vs. San Antonio Independent School District case filed in 1968. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is the responsibility of the states to deal with funding equity issues. Thereafter, the battle for fair and equitable schools shifted to the state level, starting with the Serrano vs. Priest case in California and the Robinson vs. Cahill case in New Jersey in the 1970s. It continued with Edgewood vs. Meno and other cases in the 1990s (Cárdenas, 1995).
The majority decision in the Edgewood vs. Meno case was significant because it mandated that education be identified as a fundamental right, and it required the state to achieve a greater level of equalization than had previously been available. This would be accomplished by narrowing the tax base differences between property rich and property poor schools and by requiring the state to equalize any remaining differences in revenue raising capability.
The problem with the 1995 Texas Supreme Court’s conclusion rests with the decision that allows a disparity of $600 per pupil and allows the state to sidestep the issue of equalized funding for facilities.
For more than two decades, poor school districts and advocacy groups struggled with the state of Texas for equal educational opportunities, especially in terms of school finance. Yet, after the district court ruled in favor of increasing the quality of the state’s public schools, we were pushed many steps backward by the Texas Supreme Court.
The court concluded that the extent of the state’s responsibility is to ensure that there is a “general diffusion of knowledge” that does nothing substantial to address the unequalized enrichment of school districts so long as “efficiency” is maintained (Cortez, 1995). The court then mandated that the state legislature devise an answer to the state’s educational woes; and it did. To our dismay, the resulting legislation complied with the court order even though it did little to improve low wealth schools.
Provisions for facilities funding are scant. This has created a situation where schools with few resources are forced to choose between improving the physical conditions of school facilities or being able to provide program enrichment. The forced exclusion of one or the other is detrimental. Children deserve better than a “minimal” and inferior education.
School Facilities in the United States
The need for improved school facilities is not unique to Texas. Providing children with facilities that are conducive to learning is an important part of their intellectual development, whether that be in the primary or secondary levels. Only weeks ago, stories of overcrowding in the nation’s more populated areas have surfaced in the media. The September 6 issue of The New York Times reported that during the opening days of this 199697 school year, schools in New York found themselves overwhelmed with an unanticipated swell in their student population (Steinberg, 1996). Schools that were renovated and buildings that were being converted to accommodate the growing student population in that city were not ready on the first days of school, causing hundreds of children to be turned away from the schoolhouse doors.
Similarly, across the Western states, communities of all kinds are being faced with tremendous growth in the number of children, partly as a result of the baby boomers delaying their childbearing years and, to a smaller extent, because of a population influx from other countries.
In a report issued by the US Department of Education, A Special BacktoSchool Report: The Baby Boom Echo, it is estimated that 51.7 million children are attending school this fall. Yet, somehow, cities like New York City did not anticipate the increased student population (1996). Even a minimally competent demographer would have been able to predict such dramatic changes in the general population.
It is inexcusable that children should suffer being piled into classrooms and gyms because the schools are not ready for them. School personnel must have the foresight to be equipped to handle the numbers of students in our nation’s public schools. But, in addition to building new schools to accommodate greater numbers of pupils, particular attention needs to be given to facilities funding in order to upgrade those older school buildings throughout the United States that have suffered neglect and to make way for incorporating technology and other innovations within the classroom learning environment.
A US General Accounting Office survey in June of this year exposed some troubling statistics regarding the level of attention that is being given to school facilities (1996a). According to the survey, approximately 60 percent of the 80,000 elementary and secondary schools in this country are at some level of disrepair. Almost every state reported that about half of their schools are an “inadequate environment for learning.” Many schools are specifically lacking proper lighting, plumbing or ventilation.
Another example of the need for improved facilities to meet increased enrollment is cited in the Special BacktoSchool Report from the Department of Education. In a suburban area of Atlanta, the classrooms are so overcrowded that the district estimates it will have to build three classrooms every week for the next four years just to accommodate the influx of pupils.
Also, in our nation’s capital city, 60 percent of schools reported needing new roofs, while 72 percent reported needing new walls (US Department of Education, 1996).
The continued decline of classroom and building conditions and the need for increased construction are expected to continue to burden school districts into the next century. In fact, according to the Department of Education report, this trend of a growing schoolage population has gradually increased, and there is no evidence of a decline in the near future.
As we look at the new construction activities occurring nationally, it will be important for us to be vigilant in tracking the concentrations of minority pupils to avoid resegregation and to ensure that all students benefit from local school construction and renovation efforts. States across the country will have to meet the challenge of providing adequate learning environments that can meet the educational needs of today and the economic demands of the future.
School Facilities in Texas
Based on a national survey of school officials, the General Accounting Office estimates that $112 billion is needed to repair of upgrade the country’s school facilities to good overall condition (1996a). Those most in need are the low wealth districts and districts with high concentrations of Latino students. Texas is one of the few states that does not provide support for school facilities.
The General Accounting Office report, School Facilities: Profiles of School Condition by State, indicates that in 1993, 76 percent of Texas schools reported needing to upgrade buildings onsite to “good overall condition” (1996b). Even federal requirements are not being adequately financed. For example, over half of the schools in the state reported that their expenditures for disposal of asbestos were below average; some had spent no money on this. Fiftytwo percent noted below average spending for accessibility for disabled students, while 14 percent reported having spent no money to meet the federal requirement.
Let us not be lulled into an argument of merely bricks and mortar. We are talking about the molding of the future of massive populations of children who are ready to learn, but because of bureaucracy and politics, the schools are not ready for them.
To give you an example, in 1994, schools like South San Antonio Junior High School did not provide adequate bathroom facilities for students, and leaky ceilings plagued Southside Junior High School in San Antonio. In stark contrast, South Grand Prairie High School in Grand Prairie, Texas has a planetarium in its school to instruct its students in the area of science (IDRA, 1994). While some districts have the resources to provide stateofthe art computers, other districts face the challenge of educating students with grossly outdated textbooks.
School buildings are where children live, and children should attend schools where they feel safe, where they feel proud and motivated to learn, where they feel good about their community and about themselves. Despite court battles to expand the educational opportunities of all children, we have not yet reached the stage where we can honestly and proudly claim that all children are receiving a quality education. Every child has a right to an education that will prepare him or her to be a skilled and productive member of our society.
Recommendations – IDRA’s Position
All states should provide direct funding for school buildings. IDRA has long held that any proposal dealing with facilities must include four factors:
- Equalize the differing property tax bases of school districts.
- Take into account a district’s existing facilities related debt.
- Take into account the age and condition of local facilities.
- Recognize rapid growth in student enrollment in local districts.
While states have a principal role in dealing with the facilities issue, the federal government can spurn or support facilities development. IDRA’s policy recommendations are:
- The need for federal support for facilities is a crucial need for adequate education.
- There is a need for federal funding of school facilities. The high cost of construction and bonded indebtedness makes it difficult for the states to provide the necessary funds.
- Federal funding should not be used as a substitute for state equalization. Federal funding should promote equalization by providing an incentive for states to improve state funding equity in order to qualify for and receive federal matching funds and ensure that areas with the greatest need are targeted.
- There should be an ongoing federal evaluation of equity in state funding.
- There should be continued study on facilities needs and the impact of facilities on instructional programs.
- There is a need for continuance monitoring of state equalization efforts.
- There should be federal financial support to assist states in funding local school facilities.
In conclusion, commissioners, I would like to impress upon you that children are ready to learn. We need to make sure that our schools are ready to receive them and educate them well. As Department of Education Secretary William Riley stated in the Special BacktoSchool Report:
With so many young people coming of age and needing a quality education to prepare for the future, America will surely be tested on whether we will invest in time, energy and resources so that these children and this nation can look to the future with confidence.
Cárdenas, José A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy. (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
Cortez, Albert. “The Texas Supreme Court’s Decision In Edgewood IV: Findings, Implications, and Next Steps,” IDRA Special Bulletin (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1995).
General Accounting Office. Report to Congressional Requesters, School Facilities: America’s Schools Report Differing Conditions (Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, June 1996).
General Accounting Office. Report to Congressional Requesters, School Facilities: Profiles of School Condition by State (Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, June 1996).
Dr. María Robledo Montecel is the executive director of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1996 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.]