Ratliff Helps Both Sides in School Trial
The "Father of Robin Hood" takes the "West Orange-Cove" stand
The testimony of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, more than that of any other witness in the ongoing West Orange-Cove CISD v. Neeley school-finance trial, has shown the contrast in strategy between the state and the school-district plaintiffs in the lawsuit over equity and adequacy in Texas school funding. When Ratliff left the stand on Friday, both sides claimed victory because each had gotten what it wanted out of the calm and thoughtful testimony of the man known as the "Father of Robin Hood."
And if the goal was a simple declaration that the state had dropped the ball on its share of funding Texas schools, Ratliff provided it. He, like the plaintiffs, believes the state should pick up a bigger share of the cost of educating children in Texas. Ratliff quoted the well-worn statistic that the state's portion of funding schools has dropped from 50% where it was when Ratliff drafted the funding recapture legislation to 38%.
Asked directly by attorney David Thompson whether the current funding system was a statewide property tax the central claim of the "wealthy" school districts (including AISD) that are plaintiffs in the original West Orange-Cove case Ratliff had to agree it had finally come to that. "While I have taken the position that it was not a statewide property tax, it is increasingly difficult for me to make that statement with this kind of data before me," Ratliff told the courtroom, prefacing his remarks that he was an engineer and not a school finance expert. "It is simply very difficult for me to conclude that we haven't reached that point."
And when, under questioning from plaintiffs' attorney Buck Wood, Ratliff tossed in that he always supported an equalized funding tier for school facilities, that was a bonus for the plaintiffs. The other two groups of school districts involved on the plaintiffs' side the Alvarado (middle-class) and Edgewood (poor) intervenors will hit facility equity hard in their cases.
So Ratliff thinks the state should provide financial relief to local school districts. That's no surprise. But here's the point that ought to scare the Republicans who want to save their wealthy suburban districts from the burden of sending away tens of millions in hard-earned tax money. Ratliff told the court Texas would never escape Robin Hood as long as the state does not have an income tax or a statewide property tax.
And he's right; that was the whole point of the four prior decisions in the Edgewood v. Kirby case that gave birth to Robin Hood in the first place. The Texas Supreme Court told the Legislature it must provide "substantially equal access to similar levels of revenue per student at similar levels of taxing effort." Create substantially equal taxing efforts and some school districts will always have too much money; other districts will have too little.
That's why the whole concept of recapture exists, until the state decides it wants to pick up the full burden of school funding through some type of statewide tax. So Robin Hood isn't packing up and getting ready to leave Sherwood Forest; he's settled in because it's likely he's going to stay around a while longer, or until the state finds a way to gather about $25 billion a biennium and redistribute it to the state's schools.
For its part, the state wanted Ratliff to say that student performance continues to improve under the current funding system, and it has. The state claims it has been a model for accountability-driven education, the approach George W. Bush took with him to the White House. Test scores continue to rise. More money in school district budgets goes to the classroom. The state would argue that the current funding system accomplishes what it sets out to do, and Ratliff said it all under his cross-examination on Friday morning.
Therefore, if you take the Texas Constitution on face value, the state is meeting its financial obligation, because the constitution never defined what the state's financial obligation should be. All it says is that the state should provide "an adequate general diffusion of knowledge," which the state argues it does. The 50% state funding that existed in 1991, and which the plaintiffs would like to see again, is a function of policy, rather than the law, the state says. So it will take further Supreme Court intervention or legislative intent either or both of which the West Orange-Cove case is trying to force to get more state funding into the system.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our September 3, 2004 issue: Due to a misplaced quotation mark, we inadvertently altered the Texas Constitution in last week's coverage of the West Orange-Cove school finance trial. The Constitution calls for an educational system to further the "general diffusion of knowledge." The term "adequate" is part of past court decisions and legislation on the subject, but not of the Constitution itself. We regret the error.
Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 8, 2013
Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 25, 2013
Kimberly Reeves, Fri., Oct. 1, 2004
Michael King, Fri., Aug. 27, 2004
Kimberly Reeves, Fri., Aug. 20, 2004
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