Don’t Mess With Texas: Supreme Court Says Byzantine and Ossified School Funding Is OK

Amy Waldman at ProPublica just interviewed National Public Radio reporter Cory Turner, who recently led NPR’s six month investigation of school funding inequity across America.  Here is how Turner summarizes what he learned as he led the team that put together NPR’s massive series of reports:

“Some 45 states have had school funding lawsuits… The challenge is when so much of that funding depends on local affluence and local school district lines.  It’s informed in a big way by old segregationist housing policy… I mean, this is the nation we live in, and the fact is, there are an awful lot of school districts that are low wealth, low income districts, and they just don’t have the same capacity to fund-raise as other more affluent districts.  That’s just a fact.  Some states have been very progressive about reckoning with that and using state dollars collected at the state level to help offset some, if not much, of that imbalance.  But lots of other states just haven’t done much, if anything, about it.”

In the weeks since NPR’s report was released, the Texas Supreme Court weighed in—again—and upheld the state’s funding as constitutional, even though the justices criticized the way Texas funds schools.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss: “The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday (May 6) that although the state’s ‘Byzantine’ school funding system is ‘ossified’ and urgently needs to be modernized, it is constitutional—a defeat for more than 600 school districts that had been fighting for years for relief.”  The Supreme Court’s decision declares: “Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements.”

School funding inequity in Texas has been on display lately as Dallas’s wealthy suburban school districts have been competing in what NY Times reporter Mike McPhate calls a stadium-building arms race: “Voters in McKinney, Tex., have given the go-ahead to spend nearly $63 million on building a high school football stadium…. The 12,000 seat facility and an attached events center would be just the latest in a growing list of supersized high school stadiums in Texas.  The McKinney project has frequently been compared to the $60 million high school stadium in nearby Allen. With seats for 18,000 people, the Allen stadium has nearly the same capacity as Madison Square Garden.  Another school stadium under construction in Katy, outside Houston, will have 12,000 seats at a projected cost of more than $62 million.”

Meanwhile, John Kuhn, the school superintendent in the tiny, rural Texas Perrin-Whitt school district describes what school funding inequity means for children whose schools struggle with very little: “Suburban public school parents want for their children precisely what author Jonathan Kozol has vividly described as the components of the wonderful education poor children deserve (and need, if they are to enter into the full promise of this nation).  These parents want their children’s schools to have well-appointed libraries, reasonable class sizes, ample time for exploration and play, comfortable climate-controlled buildings, safe surroundings, and green grass. The only difference is that poor people have little more to cling to than Jonathan Kozol’s eloquence; suburbanites have political heft and can actually make sure their children get something approaching their loving standard of educational quality.”  (Fear and Learning in America, p. 128).

The recent ruling by Texas’s highest court that found Texas school funding constitutional is only the latest in a long, long history.  Kia Collier for the Texas Tribune reports: “Friday’s ruling is the second time the state’s highest civil court has upheld the state’s school finance system.  Since the 1980s, school districts have repeatedly sued the state in an attempt to increase public education funding, and have often prevailed.  The latest case, brought by more than two-thirds of Texas school districts, is the seventh time such a case has reached the state Supreme Court.”

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding was recently exacerbated when Texas, like other states, slashed taxes.  The Washington Post‘s Strauss explains the origin of this latest lawsuit: “The Texas case stemmed from some $5.4 billion in budget cuts approved by the legislature in 2011, which the school districts contended left them with unfairly distributed funding and forced many to raise taxes to provide even a basic education for its students.  Two-thirds of the school districts in the state sued, and in 2014, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz sided with the plaintiffs in a written opinion that was appealed to the Supreme Court by state officials.  He ruled the funding system unconstitutional, just as he had twice before.” The Texas Tribune does note that, according to court testimony, approximately $3.4 billion of school funds cut in 2011 were restored in 2013, although the majority of the state’s school districts say it is not nearly enough.

And it would seem, according to Valerie Strauss, that politics is also involved: “All of the justices on the Texas high-court are Republican, the legislature is Republican-controlled, and Dietz is a Democrat.”  David Warren of the Associated Press  quotes the recent decision, in which the justices suggest that, despite the constitutionality of the state’s system, the legislature needs to improve the way schools are funded.  Warren worries, however, that without prodding from the court, legislators are unlikely to make the needed investments: “Whether lawmakers will accept that challenge remains to be seen. When the 2017 legislative session convenes in January, there will be a number of other financial obligations, including covering the continued costs of $3.8 billion in property and business tax cuts, fixing the state’s embattled foster care system and finding more money for a road and highway network overtaxed by a booming population.”

Perrin-Whitt’s Superintendent John Kuhn summarizes the power dynamics underneath school finance problems—the politics that allow a court to declare a funding system constitutional even as suburban districts are investing over $60 million apiece for their high school sports stadiums: “The politically powerless can apparently do little to stop the growth of their children’s classes, the crumbling of their facilities, the closing of their schools, and the replacing of their certified teachers with temporary interns. Inequity is the mechanism that allows tax resisters to selectively shortchange education and avoid picking a fight with suburban parents who won’t hesitate to call elected officials out if they don’t take good care of their children, and whose voices are sure to be attended to.  Inequity is enabled by results-oriented school reform, as politicians and foundations insist on averting our view from the inputs.” (Fear and Learning in America, pp. 128-129)

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Mess With Texas: Supreme Court Says Byzantine and Ossified School Funding Is OK

  1. This is happening not just in Texas but in a lot of state’s with GOP controlled state legislatures, Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, etc. Since education is a state function, I’m not sure what the solution is. These states are also busy replacing public schools with charter schools but without the accountability and oversight of public schools. Most likely, we will have to pick up the pieces and rebuild when the car their governing is riding in slams into a wall with horrific consequences.

  2. We rely too heavily upon local property taxes to fund our schools. When the tax base is low, either because there is a low supply of commercial property or a high supply of poor housing stock, there isn’t much for the schools to receive. This is typical of poorer communities, especially in small post-industrial cities.

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