When the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from school coffers in 2011, school districts and other interested parties filed suit claiming that, as a result of the cuts, the state is failing to live up to its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate public education to all students.
After several weeks of arguments, state district Judge John Dietz agreed. In a ruling from the bench in February 2013, Dietz determined that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional, but he did not make a formal, final ruling.
Since then, the 83rd Texas Legislature restored $3.4 billion of those funds. And during that same session, lawmakers passed legislation greatly reducing the number of end-of-course exams required in high school. Beginning Jan. 21, Dietz will hear from all sides regarding the impact of restoring those funds.
You can expect the state to argue that because testing requirements have been loosened, educational standards have been lowered, and thus the current funding level is adequate. Nothing is further from the truth. If we are to prepare students for college and the workforce, academic rigor must be increased.
Texas ranks in the lower 20th percentile among all states in per-pupil spending for public education. Some say Texas ranks 49th, others claim it’s closer to 40th. Either way, one could argue that even before the 2011 cuts, schools did not have the sufficient funding necessary to prepare students for college and careers in a highly technological age.
The argument about what is adequate and what is equitable has been waged since the state first gave serious scrutiny to the inequalities in the cost of educating children in 1949, under the Gilmer-Aikin Law. At the time it was an attempt to address the dire straits schools were in following the Depression and World War II. The law’s chief architect, State Senator A. M. Aikin Jr., once said of his days as a legislator, “I came here thinking a child ought to get an equal educational opportunity whether he was born in the middle of an oil field or in the middle of a cotton field.”
Despite considerable progress in the last 50 years, Aikin’s vision has not been fully realized. And it will not be as long as the quality of a child’s education and available resources is determined by the ZIP code in which they happen to be born.
At one point, the state’s share of public education funding was 87 percent. Today it is a paltry 44 percent. This is simply unacceptable. As a state we must invest in public education. It would be misguided to suggest that, because fewer tests are given, the curriculum will somehow become less rigorous.
The notion of giving all children access to the best resources is even more critical given the state’s changing demographics. For more than a decade now, urban school districts have been largely composed of minorities. A few years ago that demographic shift became the reality in Texas public schools as a whole: Ethnic minorities have become the majority.
Conversely, it is those same minority students that all too often are taught by the least experienced teachers and have much less access to technology and other advances necessary to prepare them for the careers of tomorrow.
Texas needs to find a long-term, reliable solution to public school funding. The time for management by crisis—placing Band-Aids on problems to buy a few years between lawsuits—has long since passed.
Texas can do better, and it’s time we did.