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Districts have vested interest in school lawsuit

By Joe Holloway
Dec. 6, 2012 at 10 p.m.

The State of Texas called Dr. Grover Whitehurst as its first witness in the ongoing school finance lawsuit in Austin on Thursday.

Whitehurst, a Herman and George R. Brown Chair and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, discussed the need for more rigorous research in the field of education reform as the State began to make its case that its funding of public education is both adequate and fair, or at least that the plaintiffs haven't proven that it isn't.

According the live courtroom Twitter feed from the Equity Center, a research and advocacy organization that focuses on the interests of children in "chronically underfunded" school districts and is involved in the lawsuit, Whitehurst said Texas schools are "doing pretty good" and "well above the average of anything I've looked at."

Since the lawsuit went to trial on Oct. 22, lawyers representing the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition have been making their own case that the Texas Legislature has failed to live up to its constitutional obligations to the state's students by cutting funding while increasing accountability standards.

"We originally filed suit because of a couple of reasons but, primarily, it was the budget cuts and how they affected all the school districts," said Tedrah Robertson, Communications Director at the Equity Center, referring to Texas lawmakers cut of public education financing by roughly $5.4 billion to balance the state's two-year budget during the last legislative session.

"Last session, what they ended up doing, they funded education, technically, at the levels at which they had, but they created a formula to go on top of it," said Robertson. "Basically they were saying 'the economy isn't doing so great and we've got all the money we can put in there but we don't have it all in the bank. We intend to fully fund it, but we can't give you that. It looks like on paper we funded you ok, but we're only giving you a percentage.'

"It's kind of weird and it's something they'd never done before."

That formula is one of the reasons hundreds of the state's 1024 school districts, including Waskom ISD and Harleton ISD in Harrison County, have signed on to the coalition.

"We were looking at the ways schools were funded and felt like it was inequitable," said Harleton ISD Superintendent Craig Coleman. "Being that our taxpayers are taxed at the highest level and received less revenue than anyone else in the county."

Robertson gave an example of one witness in the trial whose kids are in Bryan ISD.

"He said 'here it is, I'm next to College Station. I have someone who lives over there with a house the same property value that I do, they pay a less tax rate, and their kids get more money than my kids do," she said. "If you're not fair to the school system, then you're not fair to the kids, then you're not fair to the parents or even just the community in general."

Marshall ISD is not involved in the lawsuit, but MISD Board of Trustees President Helen Warwick said the district would benefit if the coalition prevailed.

"It just boggles my mind that there are people out there opposing changing the formula system," she said. "It's so convoluted that no one can give you a concise explanation of the funding formulas. That's part of the problem"

She gave another example of the perceived inequity.

"I'm just going to round off here, but we get about $5000 per kid from the state," she said. "If you go say toward Dallas, and I'm just going to use some old figures that may have changed a bit, but there's a school district over there called Lovejoy. It's the same sized district but they get $6,000 per kid. Why? Is a kid in Marshall worth less than a kid in Lovejoy? There's no fairness to it.

"There's no rhyme or reason that anybody can see why a school district somewhere else would get more than another school district."

The TTSFC's position holds that the combination of the formula-induced funding discrepancies with the increased rigor of state accountability standards places an unreasonable situation on school districts.

Waskom ISD recently joined another suit to overturn annual yearly progress ratings that are a part of No Child Left Behind, but Superintendent Jimmy Cox said WISD has been a part of the school finance lawsuit for a while as well.

"We joined that in the very early stages also," he said. "It's just so ironic that we're in a state that's struggling financially and our public education system is having money taken away from it by our state legislature and our accountability from out own state has increased."

Cox specifically referred to the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) and EOC (End of Course) exams that public school students are required to take.

"The rigor of those has gone up tremendously," he said. "We're here where the state is saying 'we're going to hold you more accountable and give you higher standards, but at the same time we're taking money away from you.'"

Warwick said it's not that the district's don't want to be held accountable, just that increasing the difficulty just as money is being taken away made things especially difficult.

"It's not that we object. Accountability is important. It's just the timing," she said. "We weren't saying 'don't hold us accountable.' We weren't saying not to change it, just not to do it this year. Let us swallow this pill first before you force the next one on us.

"We asked that they delay that and there was no give on that at all."

To make matters harder, the increased rigor of state exams and budget cuts all come as enrollment at public schools continues to increase, with English language learners and economically disadvantaged students accounting for more of that growth than ever.

"At the same time, public education enrollment is growing by 80k students per year," said Cox. "And this population that's coming in to public education is harder to educate because they are of Hispanic ethnicity and a lot of these kids are highly at risk living in low socioeconomic homes."

But Robertson said many districts are having to deal with more than just Spanish as the only other language its students primarily speak.

"We're educating more English language learner students, and it's not just Hispanics," she said. "I know specifically the H.E.B. area (Hurst, Euless, Bedford), they've got I think 92 different languages they're trying to help educate these kids.

"It's no longer just Spanish or Chinese. It's everything under the sun."

She too indicated that the number economically disadvantaged kids is increasing in public schools.

"There are way more economically disadvantaged students than there have ever been," she said. "It's increased dramatically across the state. Somebody testified that said that 65 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged across the state.

"It's kind of shocking."

According to data from the TEA, economically disadvantaged students have comprised a majority of the students in Texas public schools since the 2001-2002 school year and had grown to 58.9 percent by 2011. The average percentage of economically disadvantaged students in Harrison County school districts is 58.85 percent. Harleton ISD has the lowest percentage at 38.5 percent. Karnack ISD has the highest at 94.8 percent. Marshall ISD, the county's largest school district, is second highest with 71.8 percent.

Though the trial is already underway, school districts are still being allowed to join the coalition's lawsuit.

Warwick said Marshall ISD chose to stay out of the lawsuit for a number of reasons when it first came up in 2011.

"It was primarily a financial decision for us at the time," she said. "We were really looking at a big deficit. We didn't want to take money out of our classrooms. We didn't want to be paying lawyers for that with our limited resources."

Robertson, however, contended that districts could sign up to be a part of the suit for free.

"We're still accepting parties to our lawsuit and they are not required to pay a dime," she said. "We understand. It's tough. You're pinching pennies. You're on the verge of having to cut teacher's aids and teachers themselves and we don't want you to have to do that. This affects you and you should be a part of it and you should have a voice in it so you're not required to pay anything if you cannot.

"It is way more important for the court to know that you support an equitable system for our kids and an equitable system for our taxpayers."

Asked if his school district paid to be a part of the lawsuit, Coleman said Harleton ISD did.

"It costs very little," he said "I think we paid $1 per WADA (weighted average daily attendance) which is about $1000 for us."

Cox said Waskom ISD paid the same rate to join.

"Basically what they asked was, if you could, when you joined the lawsuit, that you would submit $1 per WADA for your school district," he said. "For Waskom ISD, we've got 865 kids in this district; our WADA is about 1150 so it cost us about $1150 to join.

"It was strongly suggested, but not necessarily a requirement. I'm pretty sure that everyone that has joined has paid that $1, but to me it was money that my board and I had absolutely no problem authorizing to spend to join that lawsuit because of the inequities that exist in the system."

Warwick did cite other reasons Marshall ISD isn't involved.

"If it comes back beneficial for school districts, we still benefit. They're not going to just change the law for the school districts that are participating in the lawsuit. They'll change the law for all school districts so we'll still reap the benefits without the costs of participating," she said. "And, more than financially, we were concerned that the burden the opposing lawyers could put on our people as far a requesting information would be overwhelming. We wanted them to focus on their primary job and that's our classrooms and our kids here in Marshall.

"We certainly agree with the groups that are out there fighting. I don't want to sound too passive, but we wanted to make sure we keep our resources in Marshall where they're doing the most good."

Still, Robertson said the coalition would be more than happy to add Marshall ISD.

"All they have to do is have the board adopt a resolution saying that they support and that's it," she said. "It's a matter of a board motion and then an email of the resolution and that's it. They can join."

Marshall ISD Superintendent Dr. Marc Smith, who wasn't a part of the board's original decision to stay out of the lawsuit, said joining it is not something the district is currently looking into, but he'd be open to the discussion if someone on the board brought it up.

"I haven't revisted it in a very focused way," he said. "It would probably require some more study. But I'm open. I'm not closed."

The Equity Center expects the current section of the court proceedings will wrap up near the end of January.

However, Robertson also indicated that, no matter which side "wins," the other side would appeal.

"It will be appealed on either side," she said. "If the State quote 'loses' they're going to appeal to the Supreme Court. If we don't win, we'll appeal to the Supreme Court.

"At that time, it's a matter of how quickly the Supreme Court will pick it up and we'll start running through all of this again."

When the court system does indeed reach an ultimate verdict, it will then fall to the Legislature to hack out a new finance system.

"Ultimately, what's going to happen, no matter what the court says, is that changes will have to be made by the legislature. That's the bottom line," said Robertson. "Really and truly I think we're thinking the end of 2013 or 2014 before we ever have a ruling out of the court system in general. Then the legislature and governor either have an option to call a special session and deal with it or wait until 2015 and bring it up then during the regular session.

"It could stretch out for years."

Until then, schools will have to decipher the system as best they can and make do with what they have.

"This is my thirteenth year being a school superintendent, and sometimes I sit down question myself about the school finance issues and how it works, all the little intricacies of who gets this money and who doesn't get that money," said Cox. "There are all these questions that just continually arise out there. I get paid to do it and I know that, if I have a hard time understanding it at points, there are people out there who are literally clueless."



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