Hundreds of districts suing the state over its school finance system wrapped up their case Wednesday with testimony that largely blamed the Legislature for creating the current funding crisis that stripped away an unprecedented $5.4 billion from public schools.
After more than six weeks of testimony, the four plaintiff groups of school districts put on their final witness, who summarized the main arguments against the funding system and asserted school districts will never be able to properly educate all their students without major changes.
On the list of the biggest challenges for schools are a rapidly increasing number of lower-income students, a new testing program that is already seeing widespread failures, the inability of districts to raise enough local tax revenue, and a cycle of funding cuts that is thinning teacher ranks and increasing class sizes.
Folks discussed the impact of education budget cuts on Northside ISD, where officials cut spending by $61 million before the Legislature took away another $85 million for the past two academic years.
The district has cut computer specialists, library assistants, gifted and talent teachers, counselors, coaches, special education teachers and classroom teachers. In all, 80 elementary teachers, 80 middle school teachers and 64 high school teachers were eliminated, Folks told Judge John Dietz.
“We went from 6,218 teachers in 2010-11 to 5,972 in 2011-12 at a time when our enrollment increased by 2,500 kids,” he said, adding that Northside had to increase elementary class sizes for the first time.
Folks also described the structural deficit the Legislature created while passing the 2006 school-finance bill. Legislators miscalculated when they reduced school property taxes and replaced the revenue with a new business tax, which fell “far short” of what’s needed to replace the property tax cut, he said. The problems were compounded when lawmakers used one-time federal stimulus money in 2009 to fill the revenue hole.
“It (stimulus funds) was one-time money. We urged them not to use that money to fill the hole because it was going away. They were told not to put that money into recurring expenditures, but that is exactly what the Legislature did,” he said.
Like most Texas school districts, Northside’s student population is undergoing a major transformation. In the past 12 years, the district’s percentage of low-income students has jumped to 54 percent from 41 percent.
“As you get more of those students in your district, you have to have the resources needed to help those students be successful. I hold them to the same standard as I do other students who are not low-income or limited-English proficient,” Folks said.
He said districts have limited options to deal with their recent funding reductions.
“There is no meaningful discretion anymore,” Folks said, explaining Northside ISD has not held a tax-rate election to raise its current maintenance and operation rate of $1.04 because it has been forced to have a bond election every three years to handle tremendous enrollment growth requiring new schools.
And now Phase Two begins.
Shelley Dahlberg, lead counsel for the state, said during opening statements in late October that the school districts must prove that they are spending their money efficiently on providing students foundational knowledge rather than on extras such as iPads, teacher aides and sports.
“They make big, big budget decisions within their discretion,” Dahlberg said.
The Legislature has delegated a substantial amount of local control to the school districts when it passes on public money to them, Dahlberg maintained, so it would not be fair to fault the state for the districts’ failure to use that money wisely.
Speaking directly to state District Judge John Dietz, Dahlberg added: “I would ask you to look at district choices.”
Of the districts’ arguments, the most sweeping — and difficult to prove — is that the state has failed to provide adequate funding to ensure that students can meet the increasingly rigorous academic standards mandated by the Legislature.
In the 2005 school finance ruling, the state Supreme Court seemed to put the Legislature on notice that it could be headed for trouble absent reforms. The court cited substantial evidence that “the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education.”
But the high court did not uphold the district court’s finding that that system violated the Texas Constitution.
“An impending constitutional violation is not an existing one, and it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes,” the Supreme Court wrote.
The state has homed in on that court language to suggest that the districts are jumping the gun in bringing the case so early in the roll-out of the new, more rigorous testing and accountability system.
So the state’s argument is basically “it’s too early to say that there are any problems, and if there are we can fix them later”. That may be true, but it won’t be of much use to the students who will be ill served until “later” arrives, whenever that is. Still, the state doesn’t have to have a compelling case, because the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs. That’s always a high bar to clear. We’ll see how much of a dent the state can make in the districts’ arguments.