BROWNSVILLE, RGV – In a roundtable discussion hosted by Greg Abbott at the Brownsville Economic Development Corporation offices on Tuesday, state Rep. Rep. René Oliveira said he would like to know the Governor-elect’s thoughts on public school finance.

Abbott kept those thoughts to himself, though he did open up more in response to a question Oliveira posed on higher education.

The event took place at the offices of Brownsville Economic Development Corporation and drew a large number of Rio Grande Valley leaders.

On public education, Oliveira wanted to know where Abbott stood on public school finance, given that, as attorney general, he has often defended the State of Texas in court against claims that current funding levels are inadequate and inequitable.

“I am real, real, concerned about public education funding,” Oliveira told Abbott. “You know we have been through this loop before where the Supreme Court has found it (Texas’ school finance system) unconstitutional – you know this better than I do – so many times and here we are again.”

Oliveira was referring to a state district judge’s ruling in August that Texas’ school finance system is unconstitutional.

Oliveira pointed out that Abbott would soon have to “switch hats.” As attorney general, Abbott has had to defend Texas’ school finance system in court against lawsuits filed by, among others, a number of Valley school districts. In about out six weeks, Oliveira pointed out, Abbott would have to deal with public education funding from a governor’s perspective, not an attorney general’s perspective.

“Cuts in education are devastating to us. I am certainly willing to listen to your creative ideas about trying different things,” Oliveira told Abbott. “I think we need to do that. I do not have any troubles with shaking up the system a little bit.

But, Oliveira said, “cutting education it is a major, major, step backwards. Are there some savings and some creative ways? Possibly. But do we need to level the playing field? I think in your heart of hearts you know the answer,” Oliveira said to Abbott.

Oliveira pointed out that too many Valley schools students are “still fighting” over who will use an old computer in the one computer lab their high school has. “We somehow have to equalize funding in a way that is permanent and we don’t have to be embarrassed in the courthouse every few years and then come up with another band aid approach,” Oliveira told Abbott. “It is totally unfair to ask what your solution is going to be because it is something we all have to work on together. But, I would really like your thoughts on that.”

Governor-elect Greg Abbott and state Representative René Oliveira are pictured at a roundtable discussion held at the Brownsville EDC offices. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Governor-elect Greg Abbott and state Representative René Oliveira are pictured at a roundtable discussion held at the Brownsville EDC offices. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

If Oliveira was hoping for an expansive answer from Abbott he was to be disappointed. Abbott referenced the success of a schoolchild in Weslaco and then said: “Every child in every school should have the same access to those same tools and technologies so we are elevating every child up that ladder.”

That was the extent of Abbott’s dialogue on school finance.

As recently as last August, state District Judge John Dietz ruled that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. Dietz said the current system cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas school children; that it does not spend enough money to meet the constitutional standard that all students be taught a general diffusion of knowledge; and that all Texas students do not have substantially equal access to educational funding.

“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,” wrote Oliveira, in a commentary piece at the time of Dietz’s ruling. “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.”

On the subject of higher education, Abbott was more expansive. Oliveira said he believes there are not enough Tier One universities. “We are going to splutter if we don’t focus on that. Education is the great equalizer. If we fix that everything else falls into place,” he said.

Abbott responded by saying he often chides California but acknowledged that there is one area where that state easily outperforms Texas. “Five of the top ten public universities in America are in California. Zero are in Texas. As governor I want to change that. As governor I want five of the top ten public universities to be in Texas. We have to rededicate or change the way we are focused on higher education.”

The way to change that, Abbott said, is that administrators in higher education need to “row the boat in same direction. And, he said, there needs to more funding for research. “We need a better strategy,” Abbott said, before paying tribute to the new UT-Rio Grande Valley. “UTRGV is going to be a transformational education opportunity for students in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The subject of Texas’ school finance system was also discussed at Brownsville Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Wednesday. The event focused on Brownsville’s legislative agenda. Dr. Carl A. Montoya, superintendent of Brownsville ISD, said school funding levels do matter and highlighted the difference between the amounts of money his school district gets to spend on students compared to that of Highland Park school district in Dallas.

“We get a little over $5,000 per student from the state. Plus, we probably get another $3,000 per student (from the federal government) because we are a very at risk school district. That is very low when compared to school districts up north, in the Dallas area. For example, Highland Park, a really wealthy district up in Dallas, they get about $15,000 to $20,000 per student. They can actually get almost two and a half times the funding source that we get.”

The reason for the disparity, Montoya told the Guardian later, is that Highland Park ISD has the property wealth to tax itself more. “We can’t do that. Our district does not have the wealth to do that,” he said.

At the breakfast event, a reporter asked state Rep. Eddie Lucio III if a more equitable school finance system would be put in place in the upcoming legislative session, given that the state’s coffers have been swelled by severance tax receipts from the Texas oil boom.

“The optimistic side of me says I hope so. The realist side of me says they (state leaders) are going to put just enough in to get past the courts’ concerns with equity,” Lucio answered. “We have a fundamental problem with the (funding) formulas. In order to fix that it takes a tremendous amount of political fortitude. Until we do that we are going to have these problems where every five to ten years or so someone is going to file a lawsuit and you are going to do a onetime infusion to get past the legal challenge. But, we have a change that.”

Lucio said there is an opportunity to change the picture given that there will be a new governor and a new lieutenant governor. “There could be an opportunity there. They are going to have to have some achievements. They are. They can’t just go and shut down government. They have general elections they have to be mindful of and even primaries,” Lucio said.

Lucio said there is bipartisan agreement that work needs to be done on the school finance system. “We will see. We will know a lot more after next session.”