|SAN BENITO, September 3 - Legislators representing the border region have welcomed a state district judge’s ruling that funding for public education in Texas is inadequate and inequitable.
The legislators want funding cuts fully restored and a more equitable system introduced. Their views are hardly surprising considering the fact that many school districts along the border, including McAllen, Harlingen, San Benito and La Feria, filed lawsuits challenging the State of Texas.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is in disagreement with the border legislators, however. He has appealed the ruling of Judge John Dietz.
Dietz ruled that Texas school finance system is unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. First, it imposes an unconstitutional statewide property tax because school districts do not have meaningful discretion in setting tax rates. Second, the system does not provide a “constitutionally adequate education" for all Texas school children. Third, the system does not spend enough money to meet the constitutional standard that all students be taught a "general diffusion of knowledge." Fourth, all Texas students do not have substantially equal access to educational funding.
Here are the views of some of the senior border legislators on Judge Dietz’s ruling:
State Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville:
“Yet again, a judge has ruled that the state has failed to provide for an adequate education for all Texas children. The Legislature simply does not want to spend the money to do what is required. The Legislature has historically denied sufficient funding to the state's minority and poor children, and today the judge found that it has done so once again. We simply cannot prepare Texas school children for the future when we ignore our large minority and poor children.
"With respect to the unconstitutional statewide property tax, Texas continues to try to rely on funding system of state money and local property taxes. But the wide variation between the property rich districts and the property poor ones is just too great to compensate for. We have to keep the rich from spending too much, while inadequately providing for the poor district. It is a very hard balance that fails more often than in succeeds. It needs to be overhauled so that every student in the state can get a great education.”
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen:
“Today's court decision confirms that school financing in Texas is not only inefficient but unconstitutional. While the Legislature made a step in the right direction by appropriating $3.4 billion back into our public education system last session, our current funding system remains inadequate. We cannot expect to succeed as a state if we do not make smart investments in our students, teachers, and schools.
“The state's funding formula fails to provide adequate funding or distribute it fairly among school districts in wealthy and poor areas. Our children and families should not be penalized or restricted because of the neighborhood they live in. Texas must provide an equal playing field to ensure similar access to educational funds for every public school system regardless of wealth or location. Education is the best equalizer. We must give our school children the best resources we can for them to succeed and to simultaneously ensure our state's future.”
State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville:
“I am grateful for the release of today's ruling. This long-anticipated decision comes as no surprise to those of us in the legislature who have for years fought to ensure our state faces its major challenges in ensuring public schools are adequately and equitably funded. In 2011, I strongly opposed an appropriations cut in the billions of dollars from public education, resulting in devastating consequences to schools in my Senate district. While I was happy to see some of those funds restored last legislative session, the fact remains that our school finance system is unacceptably broken.
“Today's ruling means the school funding issue must return to the Legislature. We must seize this opportunity to revise the entire school finance system, including our antiquated calculations for weighted per-pupil funding, especially for the economically disadvantaged students who now comprise the majority of Texas school children. We must also thoughtfully address disparities in revenue raising for public education. It is absolutely vital to ensure property-poor school districts are able to raise similar revenue for similar effort, and are not forced to raise taxes up to the limit to keep pace with property wealthy districts. The promise of American education is that every child, regardless of where they come from, can get the same opportunity to achieve personal success. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure we keep that promise.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo:
“Judge Dietz's ruling once again is telling us what we already know: Texas' school finance system is unconstitutional and a disservice to Texas students. The legislature should meet its responsibility and fix the system during the legislative session that convenes on January 13. Doing so requires that we address not only inadequate education funding levels that have left our school districts without meaningful discretion in setting property tax rates, but also equity issues and outdated weights that impact negatively our ability to educate students with different needs.”
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso:
“Our state has not lived up to its constitutional obligation to offer equitable and adequate educational opportunities to all Texans. Today’s court ruling is yet another opportunity to do better, especially with the 84th Legislature right around the corner. The state’s attorneys should end their battle against the Texas constitution -- and our students, parents, and teachers -- and allow us to move forward on a legislative solution to this issue, which is of such vital importance for the future of Texas.”
David Hinojosa, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Guardian that his group’s lawsuit was filed to ensure students have full access to the educational opportunities they need to fulfill their potential and meet standards set by the State of Texas.
“First, there is the ‘equity claim’ which charges the State with failing to ensure that property poor districts - like those we represent - receive similar revenue at similar tax effort. Our expert’s analysis shows that on average, the bottom ten percent of property poor districts receive almost $1,000 less than the top ten wealthiest districts - despite taxing ten cents higher than the wealthy districts. So they have fewer resources, which means fewer educational opportunities to meet the State’s rising standards,” David Hinojosa said.
“Second, our clients’ ‘adequacy claim’ charges the State for failing to ensure that ELL (English Language Learner) and low income students have access to the resources they need to achieve their full potential and the State’s standards. The weights, or cost adjustments, for ELL and low income students were arbitrarily set low in 1984 and they have not changed since. Yet the demands on these school children continue to rise.”
David Hinojosa said the “dismal performance” of ELL and low income students on all performance standards (from STAAR test results to college-ready criteria) “demonstrate that these students are not accessing the opportunities they need to succeed, such as lower class sizes, high quality and full-day pre-K, high quality teachers, etc.”
David Hinojosa also said that MALDEF’s clients argue that they do not have meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates. “Four of our five districts are maxing out their maintenance and operations tax at $1.17 and Harlingen is stuck at $1.04 and unable to raise its taxes because of high facility taxes (known as interest and sinking fund taxes to pay off their debt),”he said.
MALDEF’s clients include Edgewood, McAllen, Harlingen, San Benito and La Feria school districts.