Don’t go counting school finance lawsuit money yet

The state of Texas is very likely to have to do something about school finance soon, but “soon” is not the same as “right now”.

Houston ISD counsel David Thompson was exuding confidence Saturday that Texas school districts will prevail in their four lawsuits challenging state funding — but he warned trustees not to expect relief for another two years.

“I think the cavalry are coming, but we’re still a couple years away,” he told the HISD board at its annual retreat, held Saturday at Horn Elementary School in Bellaire.


He said he expects the four suits to be consolidated for a trial court, and that the districts are seeking a trial date in early fall. Anticipating a trial lasting about six weeks, he said the goal is to get a decision before the start of the legislature in January 2013. The losing side (he expects that to be the state) will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and presuming that appeal will be expedited, the earliest that a decision could be forthcoming would be late 2013.

A win for the plaintiffs would set the stage for a special session of the Legislature in 2014 to establish funding that will comply with the court’s ruling, Thompson said.

I don’t recall the West Orange-Cove lawsuit going to SCOTUS, but it may have just been that SCOTUS declined to hear the state’s appeal. I’ve been saying for awhile now that the pieces are in place for the 2014 election in this state to be seen as a genuine change election. There may be no incumbents running for re-election in any state (non-judicial) office, and we’ll have had one more tumultuous deficit-dominated legislative session by then. Having a special session to once again “fix” school finance a couple of months before that election could be the catalyst.

On a related note, did you catch this Patricia Kilday Hart column, in which State Rep. Scott Hochberg gives us a going-away present on school finance?

Rep. Scott Hochberg

Call it Exhibit A: Why Money Matters In Public Education. The revenue available to school districts co-relates exactly with how their students perform in the state’s elaborate accountability system.

Here’s how the numbers break out: On average, school districts that earned the “Exemplary” rating had $6,580 available to spend on educating each student. Districts earning the “Recognized” label could spend an average of $5,751 per student. “Academically Acceptable” districts, on average, had $5,662 per student. And the pariahs of the state’s accountability system – “Academically Unacceptable” districts? They had, on average, only $5,538 per student to spend.

So the school districts that pat themselves on the back for being “Exemplary” have a $1,000-per-student advantage over those rotten, no-good “Academically Unacceptable” districts.

I asked Hochberg, who has spent nearly 20 years in the Texas Legislature advocating a more equitable school funding system, what lessons we should take away from his chart.

“We have a system where the state picks the winners and losers,” he told me. “The state decides what districts are going to get the most money, and then they turn out to be ‘Exemplary’ and we act surprised. The state decides who is going to get the least money, and they turn out to be low-performing and we whip them.”

There’s more disturbing news. The wonky Hochberg decided to look at the number of students on free-and-reduced lunch in the districts of each accountability category. He found that “Exemplary” districts, on the average, have only 17 percent of their students on free-and-reduced lunch. Meanwhile, 85 percent of the students in “Unacceptable” districts qualify for free lunches, based on federal poverty guidelines. Since poor kids are more likely to move more often and have less-educated parents, they arrive at school with greater educational needs. Therefore, our so-called “Exemplary” districts “have the easiest kids to teach,” Hochberg pointed out.

But don’t worry. I’m sure if we threw more money at the poorer districts there would be no effect at all on their educational outcomes. So there’s no need to even try. Right?

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2 Responses to Don’t go counting school finance lawsuit money yet

  1. Pingback: Eye on Williamson » Texas teachers and schools need our help

  2. Tom Grantham says:

    Most of the “Exemplary” districts that I am aware of are rural and consequently have a higher wealth per student and fewer students per class room. Fewer students per classroom making the greatest difference in student performance.

    There are some “Exemplary” campuses that may reflect the characteristics that Hochberg claims exist. The dollars per student that Hochberg references does not include Federal Funding so the argument about money per student and performance really does not hold up.

    The real difference in student performance is attributable to classroom size.

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