Texas Must Provide Equity and Excellence for All Students
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.

On November 22, 2005, the Texas Supreme Court issued its ruling in the West Orange-Cove vs. Neeley school funding case. The case was under appeal after Judge John Dietz’s lower court ruling that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional because it “fails to provide an adequate, suitable education.” The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling only on the $1.50 tax cap.

The legislature created the tax cap when it set up the current school finance system over a decade ago. The cap limits how high local property taxes can be set in order to keep districts from raising school taxes too much and to help the state keep the system more equal. But since many school districts have now reached that cap, the Supreme Court ruled the $1.50 cap is essentially a statewide property tax and therefore is unconstitutional.

Education was and is a state responsibility. Over the last decade, the state government has reduced its share of funding for public education from 52 percent to 38 percent, causing the quality of education to suffer. This lack of state funding is the major factor that has forced local school districts to raise their property taxes to their current levels. While, the legislature will undoubtedly consider other means to respond to the court, the best solution is for the state to increase its share of education funding.

We are appalled by the Texas Supreme Court’s low standards for what constitutes an adequate education. In ruling that the current levels of funding are adequate, the court has disregarded Texas children. We must have excellence for all students.

Further, we are deeply disappointed in the court’s silence on adequacy of funding for special populations. The preponderance of evidence, including research presented by the plaintiffs in this case and noted by the court, shows that special population funding levels are dramatically lower than what is needed to provide an excellent education to many Texas students. This is not just a problem of a handful of children. More than half of our state’s children are from low-income families. More than half a million are English language learners.

By ruling that the state is currently providing sufficient levels of funding to meet its obligation to “make suitable provisions for a general diffusion of knowledge,” the court has put its stamp of approval on low expectations such that schools where half of the students are failing state assessments are considered to be performing at acceptable levels.

It is good that the court affirmed that the current system of recapture is both constitutional and efficient. However, the court could have taken this opportunity to remedy growing inequities that have resulted from the unwillingness of the state to pick up its share of the cost and provide excellent education for all students. They missed that opportunity.

The court acknowledges that things are unequal and have become even more unequal over the last 10 years, then declares the inequality is legally acceptable. The court suggests that all children are equal and then insists that it is acceptable for some to have an adequate education and others an excellent one.

Finally, the Texas Supreme Court’s inattention to school facilities funding is shocking. While facilities conditions have improved in a handful of isolated cases, schools all over the state are crumbling. School leaders are being forced to choose between bricks and books, between tiles and teachers. This is not acceptable. We need facilities that support excellence and facilitate preparation of students for the world of work, which requires infrastructures for technology and Internet access. This is the area of our school funding system that the state has most neglected.

IDRA stands ready to work with leaders, community members, and advocates who want more – not less – equity; who want more – not less – excellence; who want more – not less – fairness in our schools. As the state’s policymakers begin to work on the meager changes to the system supported by this ruling, community engagement and insistence on quality public schools for all children must be strongly and persistently communicated, and attempts to saddle this state with mediocrity rejected. Our communities and our students deserve nothing less.

IDRA is an independent, private non-profit organization, directed by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., dedicated to creating schools that work for all children. As a vanguard leadership development and research team for more than three decades, IDRA has worked with people to create self-renewing schools that value and empower all children, families and communities. IDRA conducts research and development activities, creates, implements and administers innovative education programs and provides teacher, administrator, and parent training and technical assistance.