August 20, 2004
Ratliff says Robin Hood not the problem

The school finance lawsuit is perking along, with the plaintiffs still putting on their case. Former State Sen. and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, one of the authors of the 1993 "Robin Hood" law testified that Robin Hood would still be working if the state were still kicking in the same level of funds as it was in the beginning.

"I don't see anything wrong with the current school-finance system, had the state continued to fund its proportionate share, as it was in the decade of the '90s," said Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant who retired from the Senate in January.

Ratliff said previous Gov. George W. Bush encouraged lawmakers to cover 55 percent of the cost of education with state funds. Today, the state pays for 38 percent of school costs, pushing a greater burden onto local districts.

The state Constitution forbids a statewide property tax. But state law caps the tax rate that local school districts can set for maintenance and operations, and 81 percent of children are in districts that are within 5 cents of that $1.50 cap. Many districts argue that the cap has become a statewide tax as lawmakers have reduced the state's share of education costs while raising standards and forcing property-wealthy districts such as Austin's to send their tax dollars to other schools.

"While I have taken the position in the past that it is not a statewide property tax, it is increasingly difficult for me to make that statement," Ratliff said.

Earlier testimony claimed that the assumptions underlying the current financing formula are flawed.

University of Wisconsin economics professor Andrew Reschovsky enumerated several faulty assumptions that he said would lead to the goverment's low-ball cost estimate.

The state-sponsored study put the per-student cost of an adequate education at $6,403 per year, but Reschovsky's research put the figure at $7,578 -- or 18 percent higher, he said. The state spends about $6,500 per student, per year.

"It's quite ... unreasonable," Reschovsky told the court, when asked about some of the underlying assumptions in the government's study.


Texas lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to remedy the situation this year during a special session of the Legislature. Underlying that failed attempt was a government-sponsored study by Texas A&M and University of Kansas researchers that put a price tag on the cost of an adequate education.

It was that study that came under assault Wednesday in court.

Reschovsky, the expert witness for the plaintiffs, said the government study did not properly account for differences in district sizes, drop-outs and new arrivals.

He also said the study did not look at the state's recent switch from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Both standardized tests have been the key component in the state's accountability-based public education system.

"TAKS is a harder test, and it tests at a higher standard," he said. "To call those two tests equivalent doesn't seem reasonable. ... For any given performance improvement on the TAAS, it's going to cost more resources to make the same percentage improvements on the TAKS."

Lasso looks at those numbers and asks a question:

If there are about 4 million students (thatís low) and you round down to a $1,100 gap between the two studies, thereís a $4.4 billion difference in opinion.

The Legislature couldnít agree on how to raise a lousy billion earlier this year. What if the courts order that Legislators come up with four?

I believe the answer to that question is "There will be the most fun special session you've ever seen." Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 20, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack