Vol 29, Issue 42 Print Issue

Texas School Finance Trial Presses On

The massive trial involving more than two-thirds of the state's school districts and most of its charter schools has been under way for two weeks now — and while the evidence will continue to pour in until January, the arguments of all seven parties, including the state, have taken shape.

Witnesses so far have all been those called by the four different coalitions of school districts, including former state demographer Steve Murdock, education consultant and school finance expert Lynn Moak and several school administrators. A group representing charter schools and Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, an organization representing school choice advocates and business interests, are next in line, followed by the state.

Testimony has focused on the school districts’ underlying argument: that by reducing funding to public schools during the 2011 Legislature while ratcheting up standards for academic performance through the new accountability system, the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and efficient public education. That has happened as the concentration of low-income and English language-learning students in Texas schools, groups that require more resources to educate and consistently score lower on state exams, has continued to increase.

"If we had sat down with the intent to say, 'What can we cut out that is going to impair the ability of kids to meet these higher standards', we would have cut out what we cut out," said David Thompson, an attorney for the largest group of school districts based on student enrollment, listing funding for full-day pre-kindergarten, remedial classes and after-school tutoring as examples.

During his time on the stand, Moak estimated that in addition to restoring $5.4 billion in budget cuts from 2011, schools would need an addition $6 billion to help low-income and English-language learning students meet the state’s standards. In the first year of testing, only 53 percent of students have passed all ninth grade tests they need to be on track to graduate. Among economically disadvantaged students, just 40 percent passed all ninth grade tests.

 

The state has argued that any failures in the system result from decisions made at the local, not the state level. During her opening statement, Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg questioned any spending on classes, extracurriculars or equipment not specifically tied to meeting state requirements.

“Ask yourself or the witnesses whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand new facilities,” she told the judge, adding that inconclusive studies and the “wish lists of superintendents are not sufficient evidence that the Legislature has acted arbitrarily.”

That line of argument came out as well in state attorney Nicole Bunker-Henderson’s cross-examination of Moak, when she attempted to cast doubt on the link between more money and better performance.

She asked Moak whether there was any specific evidence that showed updating the finance formulas to more accurately compensate districts for bilingual education would improve performance — and whether district spending on transportation, utilities or teacher planning periods was required to meet state requirements.

At one point she pressed Moak for proof that the state was not covering the basic needs of school districts to educate students.

"The number of districts with high concentrations of students who were failing the ninth-grade examination ... that, in and of itself, is a significant indicator," he said.