School funding still comes up short


No doubt about it, $3.9 billion is a lot of money. But anyone who may think that it is going to take the state off the hook in the school finance lawsuit is engaging in wishful thinking. Either that, or they are betting the Texas Supreme Court eventually will undercut public schools with an ideological decision perpetrating the myth that money doesn’t make a difference in educational quality.

TSTA and other public school advocates are pleased that the Legislature restored $3.9 billion of the $5.4 billion cut from public education in 2011. And, we are grateful to the parents and school employees who contacted their legislators and helped ensure the partial recovery. But the appropriation is still $1.5 billion less than schools were receiving two years ago, while enrollment has grown by about 170,000 statewide since that time – and is still growing. And, the Legislature left $8 billion of taxpayer money unspent in the Rainy Day Fund.

Assuming Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t figure out a way to veto any of the $3.9 billion – and that may be a rash assumption – the next decision-maker to be heard from in the school funding drama will be state District Judge John Dietz of Austin, the presiding judge in the school finance lawsuit brought against the state by more than 600 districts.

Dietz ruled in February that the state wasn’t spending enough money for schools to do their jobs successfully and wasn’t appropriating money among districts in a fair and equitable way. But he delayed issuing a formal, written decision until after the Legislature had another chance to address funding and other educational issues.

During the regular session, which ended on Memorial Day, lawmakers also reduced the end-of-course (EOC) exams for high school students under the STAAR regime from 15 to five, partly in response to school district complaints in the lawsuit but also to parental outrage over too much testing.

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick predicted the extra money and testing reductions could affect Dietz’s final ruling. “I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue,” Patrick was quoted in The Dallas Morning News over the weekend.

But I doubt that the judge will be overly impressed by the Legislature’s work product. Remember, he estimated in February that it may take an extra $2,000 per child – or another $10 billion or $11 billion a year in state funding – to meet all state standards. And, the Legislature didn’t come close to meeting that figure. Moreover, more than 60 percent of public school students are low-income, with many requiring more funding for remedial programs.

As Dietz remarked back then,” There is no free lunch.”

Once Dietz issues his final ruling, the state will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, many of whose members view the world – and state government’s responsibility – quite differently from the trial judge.

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted an item about SB346, which had been approved by both the House and the Senate, to require certain nonprofit groups that actively engage in political advocacy to publicly report their donors to the Texas Ethics Commission. It would have helped teachers, parents and others who value public schools to learn more about who is paying for political efforts to undermine public education.

I say “would have helped” because, in case you haven’t heard by now, Gov. Perry vetoed the bill. He said it would have had a “chilling effect” on the democratic political process.

In truth, it would have enhanced the democratic process. It would have forced the public disclosure of wealthy ideologues who finance bullying tactics against legislators, often to the detriment of most mainstream Texans. The veto wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was wrong, nevertheless.

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