With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Catherine Clark, who recently retired from the Texas Association of School Boards, served as the associate executive director for Governance Services and, on more than one occasion, Governmental Relations. Prior to joining the senior staff at TASB, Clark was director of research at the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She has also served as director of the Texas Center for Educational Research from 1991 to 2000.
Disclosure: Clark was cited in Judge John Dietz’s findings of fact in last week’s school finance ruling.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Why has it proven to be so difficult to create a constitutional system to fund public schools in Texas?
Catherine Clark: I think it’s difficult to find a constitutional system to distribute resources to schools because of the nature of the partnership between school districts and the state.
This is a situation that is present in nearly every state. Only Hawaii has a single school system, and other states have experienced litigation as well on topics that would be familiar to Texans.
Trib+Edu: Are we seeing the same basic conflict over and over again with these court challenges? Or is the conflict changing with each iteration?
Clark: With respect to just the finance numbers and property tax considerations, we are seeing some of the same issues come up over and over again. Something new that has come into the equation in Texas and in other states is the new data available on student performance.
This has largely arisen since the early 2000s when the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented and states other than Texas were pushed into the system of having a statewide test and a lot of test data, which reflects how well the students are doing in the system that state devises.
So, in addition to simply having information about where the dollars flow, Texas and other states have information about what those dollars are accomplishing with respect to student performance.
Trib+Edu: One thing we’ve seen over and over again is round and round of court challenges that lead to a ruling telling the Legislature to fix the system. And then, a few years later, we’re back in court. Are there better ways to resolve the problem than to rely on litigation?
Clark: I don’t think there’s a better way to do this if we’re going to have a representative democracy where legislators come from very different parts of a very large state with considerable variation in constituent interests.
We want to put together something that works for Texans but will work also in an environment — our state and others — that changes all the time. Economic circumstances change. Demographic circumstances change. And the system is continually in need of refreshing and revision. Sometimes that’s easier for legislators to do than at other times.
So I think the mechanism by which we develop and improve and then go back and revisit may be the best one we can have in our democratic system.
Trib+Edu: Are you optimistic the state will eventually get to a system that holds up for the long term?
Clark: I think the Legislature will address the improvement needs that the Supreme Court identifies. I think there’s less interest in developing a response to the trial court ruling before the Supreme Court has had an opportunity to make its determination. But that’s just my opinion on this. … My sense of it is that there’s going to be a period of waiting to hear what the Supreme Court has to say.
One thing I would like to see in Texas is a serious attempt to examine the program weights within the school funding system. I think that they are appropriate. Texas was a leader in the 1980s in developing a school finance system that recognized the different costs associated with special programs for students.
We have not taken a long, hard look at those weights, what they represent and what they should be. I think that’s a task the state should undertake and that the Legislature should consider seriously.
In addition, we have some other formula elements that either need to be scrutinized and revised or we set them aside because they don’t do the job that they should do. I’m thinking specifically of the cost of education index. It really does need an update. If we are to recognize the costs that are outside the control of school districts, I think those are very real and a good cost of education index will serve us better than the old one we have right now.
I’d like to see the state look at simplifying the formulas so that more people feel they understand them and can rely on them. They’re just so difficult to wade through and then you add the target revenue system to that, I think people in a way give up on trying to understand why it’s not working so well.
If they were to better understand it, I think they would have more faith in the system.