Capitol Chronicle

Who Needs Public Schools? The Long Texas Battle Over Education Equity Is Far From Over

Last week, a couple of hundred parents from Edgewood ISD in San Antonio visited the Capitol to lobby legislators on behalf of public schools. More specifically, they came to oppose legislation to create voucher programs that would siphon funding from school districts by using tax dollars to pay for parents enrolling their children in private schools. It was a spirited group that gathered at midday in the Speaker's Committee Room, shouting encouragement to those among them who told their own stories and cheering their legislators -- Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Reps. Joaquin Castro, José Menendez, and Trey Martinez Fischer -- who stood with them and vowed to defend their cause.

The Edgewood folks have more reason than most Texans to be suspicious of vouchers, since they were the initial target of the anti-public-education lobby working to establish a statewide voucher program. Beginning in 1998, the private Children's Education Opportunity Foundation's Horizon program (underwritten primarily by fundamentalist tycoon James Leininger, though he's put in only half as much as initially promised) has been offering private school "scholarships" to students who agree to leave the Edgewood schools. Since Texas school funding is based on the number of students enrolled, every student who leaves costs the district money -- while leaving its fixed costs largely unaltered. The district is 95% Hispanic and 97% "economically disadvantaged" -- i.e., underpaid working people. Thanks to Leininger's targeted "philanthropy," the district estimates it lost $4 million in the first year, and possibly as much as $7 million this year.

But the parents weren't here to talk only about money. They made it clear they believe strongly in public schools, and some had rejoined the fold after being burned by Leininger's vouchers. A mother of four, Gloria Zapata, said she discovered that the private school she tried didn't have the standard programs -- tutoring, after-school care -- taken for granted and free at Edgewood, and that her children were not being fully prepared for high school. Ritabel Garza learned that the private school would not accept her child with special needs ("It's not our choice, it's the school's choice") and that the teachers in the "nondenominational" school were in fact teaching fundamentalist doctrine. "I made a big mistake," Zapata said.

Edgewood ISD Supt. Luis Gonzalez was less animated than the parents, but quickly described the "attrition of programs" necessitated by selectively draining the district of funds. He referred to the state's budget crisis, and asked simply, "If we can't fund public schools, how can we fund private ones?"

Separate and Unequal

It's no accident, of course, that Edgewood became the target of the voucher lobby. More than 30 years ago, the district was the center of the original lawsuit that challenged the state's entirely inequitable property-tax school funding. The system allowed wealthy communities to maintain low tax rates yet spend lavishly on schools, while hundreds of property-poor districts like Edgewood could not raise similar revenues even at much higher rates. The courts eventually ruled the system unconstitutional, forcing the Legislature to design the system now called "Robin Hood" -- in theory, an equalization of revenue to provide the same educational opportunity to every child in Texas. (The wealthy districts, however, can still spend as much as $900 more per student, which district-wide can mean millions.)

This is where the voucher battle collides with the overall school-funding crisis. The new House leadership has moved to abolish Robin Hood while as yet offering nothing in its place, and has simultaneously proposed a "pilot program" of vouchers for the six largest urban school districts. Veteran Edgewood teacher Diane Herrera has been fighting this war since the late Sixties, and says that if the Legislature wants to review a voucher program, it should look at Edgewood's experience with CEO Horizon, and the answer will be obvious: "Equity works, vouchers don't."

You Break It, You Fix It

But the new educational players in the House -- led by the unlikely tag-team of Arlington Republican Kent Grusendorf and Houston Democrat Ron Wilson -- appear intent on vouchers this session. The only thing likely to derail them is the current lack of money to fund education of any kind -- let alone free money for private schools unburdened by politically loaded mandates like "accountability." Maybe they'll finally get their pilot system, and a few thousand more parents will take their vouchers and abandon the public schools -- while the four million or so remaining students will get by on that much less in resources.

The equity system is another matter. The enthusiastic suburban rhetoric for "killing Robin Hood" was sharply muted last week when the Equity Center released its calculations on the statewide effects of ending the recapture system. Because 85% of Texas students, in fact, live in districts that benefit from recapture, heavy majorities in both the House and Senate represent legislative districts that would suffer an overall net loss from ending the equity system. According to the Center, 103 (of 150) representatives and 23 (of 31) senators represent districts whose schools will lose funding if the Legislature cannot agree on an equity system to reform or replace Robin Hood.

The noisiest constituents from Highland Park or Plano may continue to descend on the Capitol demanding to keep "their" tax money -- money in fact generated and sustained by whole communities and not just the wealthiest residents. But it will be difficult for reps to ignore the undeniable numbers that make it politically foolhardy and educationally absurd to return Texas schools to 1965.

That was the real message the Edgewood citizens brought to the Capitol, insisting that the Legislature recognize its constitutional responsibilities to provide educational opportunity for every single Texas student. "This is not a new issue," said Rep. Menendez, "and these working parents made a real sacrifice to do without a day's pay to speak on behalf of a whole community, not just a school district."

"We won't let them come after our children," said Menendez, and cheered on by the crowd recalled the words of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: "'It is better to die on our feet than to live on our knees.' We will die on this issue." end story

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school finance, Edgewood ISD, Leticia Van de Putte, Joaquin Castro, José Menendez, Trey Martinez Fischer, Children's Education Opportunity Foundation, Horizon, James Leininger, Gloria Zapata, Ritabel Garza, Luis Gonzalez, Robin Hood, Diane Herrera, CEO Horizon, Kent Grusendorf, Ron Wilson, Equity Center, Emiliano Zapata

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