school finance

A champion for school children dies; fight continues


Demetrio Rodriguez, a sheet metal worker from San Antonio who became one of the earliest champions in the decades-long fight for equity in public school funding, has died at 87, the San Antonio Express-News reports.

Rodriguez was the lead plaintiff in Rodriguez et al vs. San Antonio ISD, a federal lawsuit filed over the equity issue more than 40 years ago by a group of parents from Edgewood ISD, one of the poorest districts in the state. The plaintiffs won a strong ruling from a federal court in 1971, but the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. The high court agreed that Texas’ method of funding its public schools was lousy but said the problem wasn’t a federal issue.

Rodriguez never gave up, and within a few years, the school funding issue was being fought in state courts, where it continues to be fought today. Rodriguez also was an original plaintiff in the better-known lawsuit, Edgewood vs. Kirby, which was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in state district court in the mid-1980s.

Ruling for Rodriguez and the other plaintiffs in 1989, the Texas Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that found huge inequities in funding between property poor and wealthy school districts and ordered the Legislature to change the system.

The Legislature enacted the so-called “Robin Hood” law that still requires wealthier districts to share property tax revenue with poor districts. But after a series of subsequent lawsuits, large inequities remain. In the most recent suit, filed after the Legislature slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget, state District Judge John Dietz of Austin ruled earlier this year that the funding system also is woefully inadequate.

The state is appealing Dietz’s ruling to the current Texas Supreme Court, some of whose members have decidedly different political and legal viewpoints than the nine Democratic justices who issued the first Edgewood ruling in 1989.

Rodriguez’s daughter, Patricia Rodriguez, a third-grade bilingual teacher in Edgewood ISD, said her father fought the school funding fight for his children and others like them.

“He was my hero,” she told the Express-News.

And, he was a champion for thousands of other Texas school children.



Trying to undermine, not “reform” public schools


Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond is at it again, pretending to advocate for strong public schools while doing his best to undermine them. His latest effort is an oped in today’s Dallas Morning News, in which he complains about District Judge John Dietz’s recent ruling in the school finance case that public schools are inadequately funded.

He particularly takes issue with Dietz’s suggestion that it will require an additional $2,000 per child, at least, to fully fund all the state’s requirements for the public schools.

Not only is Hammond’s reasoning wrong, but so are his alleged “facts.”

He claims Texas already is spending $10,000 per student and claims that Texas has been “spending more money on education for a decade, even including last session’s cuts.” Both parts of his assertion are flat wrong.

In the 2010-11 school year, Texas spent $9,446 per child in average daily attendance. Following the $5.4 billion in budget cuts imposed by Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority in 2011, spending per child plunged to $8,908, placing Texas 45th among the states and the District of Columbia, according to estimates and rankings by the National Education Association (NEA). That was a cut of more than $500 per child while school enrollment across Texas was growing by about 80,000 a year. Adding another $2,000 per child, as Judge Dietz suggested, wouldn’t even bring Texas up to the national average of $11,463 per child.

Adding insult to his factual errors, Hammond and the Texas Association of Business have been longtime political supporters of Gov. Perry and many of the legislators who voted for the cuts, which cost 11,000 teaching jobs in the 2011-12 school year alone and crammed thousands of students into overcrowded classrooms. TAB continues to support Perry and many of the other education-cutters today.

Now that the Legislature has an $8.8 billion surplus and a Rainy Day Fund balance of $11.8 billion – more than $20 billion – to help write a new state budget, Hammond and TAB should be joining with the Texas State Teachers Association and other public school supporters – real as opposed to pseudo – and demanding that their buddies in the governor’s office and the legislative majority restore the school funding.

Hammond reminds us that tax dollars – no fooling — are our money. But regardless how the Texas Supreme Court eventually may rule on an appeal of Judge Dietz’s ruling, the 2011 school budget cuts can be restored right now without raising one extra dime of taxpayers’ money.

TAB apparently isn’t interested in restoring school funding. Instead, Hammond was first in line with his hand held out when the governor proposed that some of the $20 billion could be spent on special interest tax breaks instead. Hammond proposed cuts in the business franchise tax, which already is under-performing and was a major cause of the financial problems that resulted in last session’s budget cuts.

TAB’s idea of strengthening the public schools is to demand that students, beginning in third-grade, continue to be subjected to a battery of high-stakes standardized tests that do little more than rob students and their teachers of valuable classroom learning time. TAB also insists that schools be more “efficient” as if efficiency can be manufactured out of thin air as school budgets are cut and teachers are fired.

Hammond proposes at-will employment of teachers and classroom size flexibility. School districts already have both. What they don’t have, as Judge Dietz has soundly concluded after weeks of hearing evidence, is enough money to assure that all of Texas’ children will have enough resources to succeed.



Money to restore school cuts is there, backbone is lacking


Many of the legislators who voted two years ago to slash education funding by $5.4 billion – or more than $500 per student – continue to claim state government is poverty-stricken and refuse to take steps to restore the funding. The only thing poverty-stricken about the legislative majority, however, is its lack of political will to fully support local public schools and the children educated in them.

These legislators need some political backbone, folks, and the most effective way for them to attain that quality is with frequent reminders from their constituents that the cost of a strong public education system – and, with it, a strong economic future for our children – is a larger investment in under-funded public schools NOW.

In his school finance ruling last week, State District Judge John Dietz of Austin said state funding of public education clearly was inadequate and unfair. He had no firm dollar figures but suggested it may take at least an additional $2,000 per student to meet all state standards. Right now, Texas is spending about $8,900 per child, following the budget cuts. That puts Texas 45th among the states and the District of Columbia. Dietz’s suggested increase would carry an additional cost of $10 billion to $11 billion a year, and it would still leave Texas a few hundred dollars short per child of the national average.

That price tag is the main reason the state leadership will appeal Dietz’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, a process that will take at least a year. In the meantime, though, it is time for the legislative majority to restore the $5.4 billion cut two years ago. With an $8.8 billion surplus and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund – more than $20 billion — lawmakers have enough money to address the education issue, as well as funding for Medicaid and other important needs.

But their constituents – beginning with educators and parents – need to keep demanding that their legislators do the right thing.

If you can, attend the Save Texas Schools march and rally at the Capitol on Feb. 23. Check this link for details.

Also, contact your legislators and make sure they know in no uncertain terms that you expect them to restore the cuts and that you will be watching. If you don’t know who your state representative or state senator is, click on this link and type in your address to find out who they are and how to contact them.

Then contact them – early and often. The future of your local public school depends on it.

Are teacher aides luxuries?


Remember when Gov. Rick Perry said last year that he wasn’t going to fire any school teachers? He was just going to slash the smithereens out of school district budgets – which he and his legislative allies did – and if local school administrators couldn’t make do, well, that wouldn’t be his fault.

Everybody but blind partisans knows that the subsequent loss of 25,000 school jobs was largely Perry’s fault, of course. But now the state attorney general’s office has adopted the governor’s hand-washing, pass-the-buck attitude in its defense of the school finance lawsuits brought against the state by several hundred school districts.

“They (districts) make big, big budget decisions within their discretion,” Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg told state District Judge John Dietz, who is presiding over the trial.

Then, according to the Austin American-Statesman, she questioned whether it was “efficient” for school districts to spend money on “extras,” such as iPads, teacher aides and sports.


Teacher aides are not luxuries, folks, although there aren’t as many of them now as there were before the budget-cutting began. Teacher aides are particularly important in helping teachers educate an increasing number of low-income students, special education children and children with limited English-speaking skills. They also help spread the teaching load – at least for those teachers fortunate to have them – in the crowded classrooms that have become more commonplace.

I don’t know for sure but am willing to bet that most students in Texas’ public schools don’t have iPads. Many don’t even have basic classroom supplies, unless their teachers have dug into their own pockets to pay for them. But for those districts that have been able to purchase iPads, great. It is a modern learning tool that is far superior to the quill pen and parchment, which perhaps the attorney general is suggesting as alternatives. State government may want to operate in the 18th Century, but our public schools shouldn’t have to.

Sports? They definitely have their place in children’s development. Besides, does Dahlberg’s boss, Attorney General Greg Abbott, want to be the first statewide elected official to suggest that high school football be struck as a legitimate school expense? I think Abbott knows the fate that would befall him at the hands of thousands of angry, taxpaying parents, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Sure, you can argue that some school districts get carried away with extravagant football stadiums, but those are built with bonds approved by local taxpayers. They aren’t part of the school funding formulas, which the legislative majority cut by more than $500 per student last year.

Addressing the unhappiness over poor STAAR testing results, which school districts blame, at least in party, on inadequate funding, Dahlberg told the judge that it’s impossible to predict “with any certainty” how students will fare on the STAAR tests in another couple of years. There is no crisis yet, she suggested.

I disagree. I think we can predict with a large amount of certainty what will happen to STAAR test results if schools continue to be underfunded and children continue to be crammed into overcrowded classes with teachers who are stretched too thin. Test results will continue to decline, and the crisis that we are facing now will have deepened.