School Finance Trial Will Make Mark On 83rd Legislature

A final decision in the school finance trial against the state, involving more than two-thirds of its districts and charter schools, likely won’t happen until after the lights go out in the 83rd Legislature. But that doesn’t mean what’s happening inside of the courtroom now won’t have an impact on policy under the pink dome during the next six months.

District Court Judge John Dietz plans to reach his verdict quickly after the trial concludes its last few weeks early this year. That will likely be appealed by one party or another no matter what, leaving the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in sometime over the summer — and lawmakers to reconvene to address its findings sometime after that.

The goals of one party in the suit, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, an organization made up of school choice advocates, parents, and business interests, align particularly with the agenda of leaders in the state Senate like Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s education committee. They're pursuing aggressive changes that expand the choices available to public school students in the state, increasing the number of charter schools, finding sources of public money to open up private schools, and breaking down the traditional boundary lines upon which schools have typically based their enrollment. 

TREE attorneys are attempting to prove that the state’s public education system is fundamentally flawed because it is a monopoly, and their arguments seek many of the same solutions proposed by Dewhurst and Patrick.

The testimony of state witnesses could also provide cover for lawmakers who voted for funding cuts last session — and who want to avoid restoring that money this session. Just before the trial’s holiday break, the state called University of Missouri economist and expert on education spending Michael Podgursky to the stand; he testified that increased spending doesn’t translate to increases in student performance, especially when studies are adjusted for factors like student-teacher ratios.

“I don't agree with the belief that if you spend a certain amount of money, you can predict that there will be a certain level of improvement in student achievement,” he said. “There is no evidence of a positive relationship between student performance and spending by a school district."

Then there is the bombshell dropped by an official from the Texas Education Agency, which that had previously staunchly defended the rigor of the new state standardized tests, during the state’s first day of defense. She revealed that the agency is recommending lowering the performance threshold on the new exams that students must reach to be considered college-ready. Only half of high school graduates met the standard last year. And among the ninth grade students who took the English I end-of-course exams for the first time the spring, only 3 percent — and only 17 percent who took the Algebra I exams — met the current "advanced" standard to be college-ready, which determines whether they must take a placement exam evaluating whether they need remediation before entering college.

Shortly after, a coalition of business leaders reversed what had seemed an intractable position on the accountability measures originally passed by House Bill 3 in 2009. Presenting a plan that recommended letting local school districts determine how end-of-course exams factor into students' final grades, reducing the number of exams they must pass to graduate and providing different ways to earn a high school diploma, they said it was the result of a six-month-long "listening tour" across the state where they heard the concerns of educators, business leaders and elected officials.