By LIBBY CLUETT
In a landmark decision, Judge John Dietz, of the 250th District Court in Austin, declared Monday that state funding for Texas public schools is unconstitutional. On the following day, Mineral Wells residents and school staff heard presenters tell how dire the case is regarding public school funding.
In his remarks Monday, Judge Dietz noted that students in Texas and the U.S. will need to meet higher standards because, he said, “We are in competition with 195 other nations and their economies.”
But with this competition, the vast majority of Texans would agree, he said, with the need for higher standards, new curriculum, upgraded technology in schools, increased training for teachers, hiring new teachers in complex content areas, providing more tutoring and remediation, adding evaluation and accountability and public outreach for parents.
But he said if he told them, “I think we can do all of that for an additional $2,000 per student, or, in other words, an additional $10 [billion] to $11 billion. You support this tax increase, don't you?” He said the previous “vast majority” shrinks to a minority.
“As the economists point out, there is a cost to acting, namely the tax increase, and there is a cost to not acting, namely loss of competitive position,” Dietz said.
He said Texans support free public education for three primary reasons: “why we support education – civic, altruistic and economic.”
To illustrate the civic reason, Dietz read Article VII of the 1876 Texas Constitution, which states, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of free public schools.”
For the economic rationale, Dietz said, “It is a fact that the more educated we are, the greater income will be. The greater our income is as a state, the fewer citizens need public assistance [and] … the lower the crime rate. Likewise, the more educated we are, the more we spend on goods and services of others; the more we spend, the more vibrant is our economy. The more vibrant our economy is, the more we are able to attract desirable business to our state.”
While Dietz's ruling appears as a big win for public schools and the children of Texas, the case will go to the State Supreme Court.
“Judge Dietz's decision on the school lawsuit is a welcome first step in trying to achieve equity and adequacy in our school funding system,” Mineral Wells ISD Superintendent Gail Haterius said Tuesday. “We need adequate funding to teach all children well.”
On Tuesday, one day after the ruling, close to 50 Mineral Wells citizens gathered to hear about the state of Texas public education and why it's important to address adequacy and equality sooner than later.
Linda Ethridge, a former educator and mayor of Waco, and Bonnie Lesley, an educator, school administrator and an educational consultant, together formed “Texas Kids Can't Wait.” They spoke to Tuesday's local audience, addressing their concerns for Texas schools and students, by first explaining why kids can't wait.
“You are only a kid once and kids have dreams and they can't wait for adults to figure it out,” Lesley said about the situation of public schools in Texas.
“Education is a bipartisan thing,” she said, adding that Texans care about children and want the best for them.
But in the 2011 funding cycle, the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public school funding – which prompted the lawsuit Dietz ruled on, Lesley explained. She said that in the budget-cutting process, the Legislature, for the first time, did not fund new growth in schools, yet the Texas public school system is growing at an average of 80,000 students per year.
“There's never been a time when public education needed defending [more] than now,” Ethridge told Tuesday's audience, urging everyone in attendance to call their state legislators and State Board of Education representative, Sue Melton.
In the wake of the 2011 school funding cutbacks, Lesley and Ethridge said Waco ISD shuttered nine campuses.
Lesley said Texas ranks 49th in funding public education, spending one dollar more than 50th ranked Nevada.
“Can you think of anything else Texas is willing to be below average on?” she asked.
Texas funds its public schools, on average, $3,000 below the national per-child average, she added.
In addition, the state froze its target revenue system “in order to shield wealthy districts from having to cut their budgets,” Lesley said, adding that they also froze the tax rates.
To illustrate these points, she showed citizens a slide of maintenance-and-operations revenue for each of Palo Pinto County's public schools for 2011-12 in comparison to the state average and the weighted average of one of the highest funded Texas districts.
Lesley's graph showed MWISD at the lowest end, with $5,385 per weighted student, while the state average sat in the middle, with $5,976 per weighted student. The overall county average was $6,391 per student and Palo Pinto ISD, with $8,256 per weighted student, topped the county districts in average per-weighted-student revenue. She added Crane ISD (south of Monahans and Odessa) is funded at $10,142 per weighted student.
“Disparity was the big thing the lawsuit was about,” Lesley pointed out.
This translates to taxpayers, she said of the disparity. For example, she cited that taxpayers in Waco ISD pay $1.04 per $100 taxable property value, while Glen Rose ISD taxes at 82 cents per $100 valuation, because the state allocation for Glen Rose is greater.
The system is set up inequitably, she said, when the state does things like excuse wealthy districts from contributing more, freezes tax rates and cuts off the top the $5.4 billion.
“No other state has ever made that kind of [cut to public education] and Texas certainly can't sustain it,” she told a few audience members after the forum. “So the pot keeps shrinking and yet we are growing by 80,000 new kids a year. And, sometimes inconveniently, those 80,000 kids end up in districts, like Mineral Wells, [more] than they do in, say, in Dallas, which has more money.”
“The teachers are put in a difficult position and, from what your data shows, it's getting worse, generationally speaking,” a participant responded.
To this, Lesley said the public education budget has been cut by one-third since 2009 – one of the measures former MWISD Superintendent Ronny Collins referred to as “gutting, not cutting.”
Almost echoing Judge Dietz's remarks, the participant said, “My main issue is that these kids are going to be the future of our country; and if we don't give them what they need, then other countries are going to go leaps and bounds over us.”