by José A. Cárdenas, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1997

Dr. Jose CardenasEditor’s Note: The following is excerpted from “The Status and Future of School Finance Reform,” from the book, Texas School Finance Reform: An IDRA Perspective, currently available from IDRA.

The Status of Reform

Not very long ago, following the funeral of a family member, I happened to be in the company of a group of retired educators. One of them, a friend of many years and former colleague in the Edgewood school district, was commenting on the status of school finance equity. After displaying considerable ignorance of the topic, he commented, “I feel sorry for you and IDRA. After more than 25 years of involvement in school finance, you have accomplished nothing.”

I feel that this indictment is too strong. As expressed by Judge F. Scott McCown in his January 1996 revised opinion, “We have come a long way”…

I agree with Judge McCown that we have come a long way. There are still inequalities 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 first horrendous experiences as a teacher, supervisor, principal and superintendent in some of these low wealth districts. The system is not perfect, but it certainly is much better…

In 1995, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a study on school finance equity for a congressional committee on education. The study focused on three states that experts in education finance identified as having implemented significant school finance equity reform. The three states used in the study were Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas.

The Texas case study analyzes the current system established by Senate Bill 7 (SB7) in 1993, the outcomes of the reform effort and a prognosis for the current system. The following excerpts are from the text of the system’s analysis, outcomes and prognosis as found in the GAO report.

State officials, former legislators, education advocates and others we interviewed were unanimous in saying that the new system had greatly improved equity. They noted that compromises had to be made to increase the level of funding available to poor districts while not forcing school district consolidation across the state, but they said that the amount of progress towards greater equity had been substantial…

While our interviewees cited accomplishments under the new system, they also collectively identified four concerns about inequities in the school finance system re-emerging: (1) the continued heavy reliance on local property taxes, (2) wealthy districts’ concerns about sharing their wealth, (3) less wealthy districts’ concerns about continued differences in per pupil spending, and (4) districts’ inability to meet rising costs…

Equity Sample Analysis

The impact of recent school finance reform legislation can be demonstrated by a study of Bexar County’s 12 school districts. Although the number of districts sampled is small and it is difficult to generalize for the entire state, these data are relevant because Bexar County districts provide a wide range of wealth with districts located at the various intervals in the wealth continuum, from very high wealth in the Alamo Heights district, to very low wealth in the Edgewood district.

The “Texas Tax Paradox” of high wealth-low taxation-high yield and low wealth-high taxation-low yield no longer appears to hold true in Bexar County. The only apparent exception is the Somerset school district that has an exceptionally high tax rate with an exceptionally low per pupil expenditure rate, but this exception can be easily explained by the excessive amount of the tax rate (more than 43 percent) dedicated to debt service.

Two statistical analyses were conducted on the data, Pearson Product-Moment coefficients of correlation and an analysis of variance. The correlations derived provide some tentative conclusions about the impact of the school finance reform effort in Bexar County.

The moderate correlation between per pupil expenditures and teacher turnover rates (-0.4241) indicates a moderate tendency for teacher work forces to be more stable in higher expending districts. Although this correlation is only moderate, it does denote a higher correlation than the district wealth, tax rate and percentage disadvantaged variables.

Pertinent to the assessment of the impact of reform legislation is the absolute lack of correlation between district wealth and per pupil expenditures (-0.001). Whereas these two variables had a moderate to high correlation prior to the reform effort (the correlation was 0.6410 in 1976), it is surprising to see its absence in this analysis.

Variations in per pupil expenditures correlate much higher with the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, a result of the use of a weighted student factor in the foundation school program…

Educational Resources Survey

A further determination of the status of school finance reform in Texas was made by an educational resources survey, a “then and now” comparison provided by Dr. Dolores Muñoz, the current superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District. My description of the deplorable conditions I experienced as teacher, principal and superintendent in Edgewood from 1953 to 1973 were made available to Dr. Muñoz, and she contrasted these descriptions with current conditions in the school district.

Although the superintendent has seen a significant improvement in educational opportunities for the students, she still sees the impact of school finance reform as limited. Providing adequate physical facilities, furniture and equipment is still a major problem. Improvement has been significant; equity is still to be achieved…

Intra-District Equity

In Texas, the school finance reform effort has focused on expenditure disparities between districts. It is naive to assume that similar disparities do not exist within school districts. From personal experience as well as studies of race, ethnic and gender equity, I suspect large discrepancies in funds available in the various sectors of large, urban school districts…

Parents are often interested in obtaining the best educational opportunity for their children. This is not an undesirable attitude. I too have attempted to obtain better educational opportunities for my own children. But when parents attempt to obtain better educational opportunities for their children at the expense of somebody else’s children, it creates social, moral, legal and political problems.

Texas has gone through a long era of attempting to rectify an inequity problem created by persons who obtained superior educational opportunities for their children at the expense of other children’s education and at the expense of other parents’ tax efforts. The diminishing of this privileged position by the use of the Equal Protection Clause in the Edgewood litigation will probably result in an attempt by the privileged class to seek other ways of perpetuating their privileged position. Intra-district disparities offer such an opportunity. Since the courts and subsequent legislative action have reduced the opportunity for the privileged to attain superior educational opportunities for their children at the expense of children in other school districts, attempts will be made to attain the same superior educational opportunities at the expense of other children in the same school district.

Perhaps the symptoms of such a move are already with us. I note the trend toward block grants to school districts for meeting the special needs of a variety of students. Wide local discretion is provided for the expenditure of these mixed funds. Past experience indicates extensive local competition for these funds, but the students with the most need are also the students with the least political clout and ability to access these funds. Therefore they have received the least in the past and will continue to receive the least in the future. I cannot forget the long line of school superintendents testifying that the proposed requirement that bilingual education funds be used for limited-English-proficient children created an inconvenience to the district since bilingual funds had consistently been used for other non-bilingual purposes. Will the return of local discretion again result in earmarked funds for needy students being used for other purposes?

I also note in a report by the Legislative Budget Board unusual increases in the number of students in higher funded career and technology programs. Is student participation in these programs a cross section of the student population, or is it becoming the domain of an elitist population?

Similar inquiry should be made of the gifted and talented programs, programs that IDRA has always supported. Yet we note that the number of students currently enrolled in these programs has already grown by 37 percent over funding estimates. Actual expenditures in these programs are already 352 percent higher than the legislative allotment. What kind of students are participating in the gifted and talented programs? Where are the funds in excess of the allotment coming from? Are children not identified as gifted or talented being shortchanged by funds from their basic foundation program being used to subsidize a special program for special children? Are inter-district disparities already being replaced by intra-district disparities?

The answers to these questions are unknown, but then, the questions have not even been asked. For many years, intra-district inequities have taken second priority to inter-district inequities, and IDRA staff have patiently waited for the resolution of the first priority before undertaking the second effort. The immediate future should see the beginning of an IDRA research effort to determine if there are significant differences in financial and other educational resources within school districts. Students being shortchanged by the local system is not much different from being shortchanged by the state system.

Dr. José A. Cárdenas is director emeritus and founder of IDRA. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1997 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.]