For a at least a dozen years now we’ve been operating across the country as though we can simply command that public schools do better and expect them to accommodate our expectations. Nothing required of us at all as citizens. Teachers just need to work harder.
Of course this is all a matter of pretend. It seems to be becoming clearer that we can’t demand ever-rising test scores as mandated by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, cut federal funding, cut state funding in 35 states lower than it was in 2008 before the recession, send a lot of money outside the public system to poorly regulated charters, and expect it all to work out.
A trial judge in Texas recently ruled that it isn’t working out at all in that state. According to the Dallas Morning News, State District Judge John Dietz , “decided in favor of more than 600 school districts who had argued that the legislature has underfunded education while imposing new mandates.” “The court finds that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren,” wrote Judge Dietz. The state will appeal the case.
The judge originally found the system unconstitutional in February of 2013, though he decided to give the legislature time to allocate more money for education before reaching a final decision. School districts had sued the state after a massive cut of $5.4 billion from the state education fund in 2011, after the 2008 recession and after the money from the 2009 federal stimulus ran out. According to the Texas Tribune, the $3.4 billion restored to the education fund since the judge‘s initial 2013 ruling still leaves many Texas school districts with less state funding than they had prior to the 2011 cuts.
Michael Williams, the Texas Education Commissioner, is reported by the Texas Tribune to have echoed the argument made recently in Kansas and Ohio that the legislature ought to be solely responsible for school funding without the oversight of the courts. Williams said, “Any revisions to our school finance system must be made by members of the Texas Legislature.” In Ohio the chair of a constitutional modernization commission has proposed removing from the state constitution language that protects the right of all children to schools that are “thorough and efficient.” Defending the importance of checks and balances through court oversight, Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University declared in testimony to the Ohio Commission, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”
According to a joint press release from the Education Law Center and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, school finance adequacy and equity cases are currently pending in Kansas, Washington, New York, Connecticut and Colorado. The press release notes that the plaintiff districts in the recently decided Texas case serve 75 percent of that state’s children and that “10 percent of all public school students in the nation are enrolled in a Texas school.”
Inequality in access to well funded schools is widespread, so much so that the Rev. John Thomas, former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary calls it affirmative action for the privileged. In his blog last week, Thomas writes: “In fact… affirmative action is alive and well, and has been for a long time. It’s just that it actually widens the gaps to access in this country, further enhancing historic privileges and deepening the divides between rich and poor, between persons who are white and those of color… Given the reliance of school funding on local property taxes, and the reductions in state funding for public education, this has led to a dramatic increase in disparities in the money spent on poor and wealthy (or modestly wealthy) kids… In some states the ratio is as high as three to one… School funding is only one part of the problem, but its a huge one.”
The Education Law Center and the Leadership Conference quote Judge Dietz’s decision: “Rather than attempt to solve the problem, the State has buried its head in the sand, making no effort to determine the cost of providing all students with a meaningful opportunity to acquire the essential knowledge and skills reflected in the state curriculum and to graduate at a college-and career-ready level.”