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From Dallas to the border, Texas shortchanges its children and its future

One measure of the political distance the state needs to travel to address the school finance crisis might be expressed in Mean Republican Units (MRUs). Accepting a "Champions of Equity" award last month from the Equity Center (which advocates for public schools), retired Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, once the reigning legislative expert in these matters, said that public education is at a "crossroads" in Texas because, "I've never seen the public education community as united as it is today." Ratliff went on to say that longtime foes – particularly across lines of property wealth – have come together to support the schools, and to advocate significant new money for education. He told his listeners, "I want to admonish you that you don't let that opportunity slip away lightly – you don't accept less than you should accept if you have that opportunity to really make a difference this time."

Contrast Ratliff's sentiments to those expressed by the House's current education maven, Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who told Quorum Report last week that the Lege has come a cropper on school finance this year because the public education community is obstructionist. The two main obstacles to a solution, Grusendorf said, are "a lack of consensus on the part of the leadership and on the part of the school community." Grusendorf complained that the school advocates would not consider any solution that doesn't bring "more money" to the table, and so wouldn't "compromise" with Lege plans that offered little or none. Indeed, QR reported, according to Grusendorf the schools have plenty of money – if they didn't, they would have agreed to a solution imposed by the Legislature instead of waiting for an answer from the courts.

The distance between Ratliff and Grusendorf (and many of his neo-Republican colleagues, including Gov. Rick Perry) appears to be quite a few MRUs. Under those circumstances, it's no surprise that the governor's special session foundered, and that the school districts (and 4.2 million Texas students) find themselves down at the courthouse once again.

Barely Adequate

And down at the courthouse, the news is mixed. On the one hand, the case brought by the school districts against the current finance system gets more damning by the day, and on the other hand, the state's institutionally blithe indifference to the real plight of its schools and schoolchildren appears equally glaring. AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione, among officials appearing from "wealthy" districts, opened last week's testimony and delivered an illuminating description of current educational constraints.

Forgione said the district has thus far done a pretty good job of playing catch-up for the youngest students, but the state's standardized tests reflect that more than 10,000 Austin middle and high school students (28.6%) need additional resources to achieve minimal standards. At a calculated $2,000 per student, the estimate – everything from additional teaching materials to summer school – comes to $21.2 million. That is money that the district simply doesn't have. "This represents the level of funding that I would expect for an adequate education for all students," Forgione said, noting that his "wealthy" district now serves a student population that is 58% economically disadvantaged.

Former Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses followed Forgione, making much the same points about the growing difficulties of running a large urban district, one without even the per capita resources of Austin. Moses added that over the last decade, the Legislature has not hesitated to impose new mandates on schools – from medical testing to ending social promotion – without providing the necessary resources.

Forgione told the court that since AISD has reached the state-mandated $1.50 tax cap, his job had become trying to move money from areas of great need to those of greatest need. "But every parent is going to say," he continued, "I'm the greatest need – that's my child."

Assistant Attorney General William Deane was unmoved. The fact that Forgione can choose to move funds from one program to another, Deane argued, proves that the districts exercise constitutionally mandated "meaningful discretion." And if they want to pay teachers more than minimum wage, he pointed out, that's their choice.

Money Changes Everything

It was useful to keep this testimony in mind while considering the upcoming AISD bond election, by which the district hopes to raise in excess of $500 million through a tax rate increase of 4.65 cents, $6 a month for the average homeowner. By comparison, the Rio Grande City ISD wanted to raise enough money for a new middle school and ninth grade campus, but couldn't do so without raising its tax rate by 7.6 cents, if it also received an Instructional Facilities Allotment from the state. But of the 323 districts that applied for IFAs this year, only 16 received one. Rio Grande City was not among them. It was too "wealthy" to make the cut. If the district wants to go ahead with its plans – the current middle school, built to house 850 students, now has 1,400 – it would have to raise its tax rate by 36 cents.

Rio Grande City is among the 22 districts (at least 16 even poorer) known as the Edgewood intervenors, who will be once again making their case to the Texas courts over the next several weeks. When you consider the predicament of the AISD on the way to the polls next month, it will be helpful to recall their story, which makes ours look like luxury indeed. "Robin Hood" has always been a misnomer – under the Texas Constitution, every single child has the same right to a free public education – but without additional, significant funding, "recapture" increasingly becomes a tale of taking from the poor to give to the poorer.

I'll let Bill Ratliff have the last word. "But if you succumb to just letting the pressure off, you may have missed the best opportunity I have seen for a true, long-term, comprehensive solution to public school finance. That's a mouthful." end story

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Bill Ratliff, public school finance, Kent Grusendorf, Pat Forgione, Mike Moses, William Deane, Rio Grande ISD, Austin ISD

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