November 10, 2014

Why the “Landmark” Texas School Finance Ruling is Irrelevant (And Why It Shouldn’t Be)

By Bellwether

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In August, a Texas court declared the state’s school finance system unconstitutional, and a month later Governor-elect and current Attorney General Greg Abbott filed the state’s appeal of the ruling. The words Texas, school finance, and court were enough make this national news. The ruling responded to a suit filed by a group of school districts, charter schools, parents, and others charging that Texas neither spends enough money on its public schools, nor does it spend it correctly. It’s not the first such case; the most recent was in 2005. Nor will it be the last. But while the current ruling reflects important and distressing facts about the condition of education in Texas, the reality of the legal process means that any action to address the problems will be a long time coming. In Texas, and many other states, litigation is ultimately an ineffective way to change education policy – something that should sober those hoping Vergara-style suits usher in an era of change.
The legislature will convene for its regular session in a couple of months, but if history is any guide, the district court ruling in the finance case will be ignored by those with the actual power to change the system. Instead, the legislature will wait to act for a year or more, allowing the appeals process to run its course. The wait and see approach is justified partly by the fact that the Texas Supreme Court overturned a significant portion of a 2005 school finance ruling by the same district judge. So, rather than acting immediately on a district court ruling with a $5 billion annual price tag, the legislature will pin its hopes on the markedly more conservative Texas Supreme Court for a possible reversal or at least a less costly set of marching orders.
One challenge to urgency in addressing a system that already spends the lions’ share of the state’s money is prevailing rhetoric that money is not the answer. Strong voices in Texas’ fiscally conservative policy landscape argue that increases in public education spending haven’t yielded desired results—so clearly the answer is not more money. Correcting the course of public education in Texas cannot be solely a function of funding. But, since the Texas Supreme Court asserted in 2005 that school funding was “drifting” towards inadequacy, student achievement has lagged in the face of tougher standards. And in real dollars, funding looks pretty flat.
Some highlights (lowlights) from the court’s findings on student achievement include:

  • In 2012, more than 1 in 3 ninth graders failed at least one assessment required for graduation, even at a lower interim passing standard than the actual recommended level of achievement.
  • Economically disadvantaged students, who make up a 60 percent majority of Texas’s public school population, fare even worse with nearly half failing at least one assessment required for graduation.
  • Under the final passing standard, originally scheduled to phase in for the 2015-16 school year, nearly 80 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 would have failed based on 2013 assessment results. That’s nearly 2 million kids.

As in many states, all of these results are measured against a “passing” standard—not the higher “college and career ready” standard that’s that stated goal for all Texas students. And worse, the results are flat—student performance has not improved over the three years since the implementation of the new standards and assessments. Alarming? Yes, at least politically. Commissioner of Education Michael Williams’s recently moved to delay implementation of the full passing standards for the state assessment program by six years due to low and stagnant student performance.
The sheer duration and divisive nature of a lawsuit-driven education policy reform is part of the problem. Even if adding money isn’t the only or best solution, litigation stymies the entire debate. Uncertainty about basic funding casts a pall over every education policy discussion, making state and local leaders leery of attempting meaningful changes, small and large. It’s like remodeling a house that has foundation issues—until those fundamental structures are right, it’s hard to justify the effort and expense. That kind of environment makes garnering support for meaningful policy changes difficult, particularly those with fiscal implications at the state or local level.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Texas legislature to embrace a district court ruling written by an elected Democrat judge seated in liberal Austin and suddenly break out in well-reasoned debate that dramatically turns the tide in Texas public education. It’s equally unrealistic to expect the plaintiffs to drop the suit and partner with state leaders in developing consensus on some productive middle ground.
But waiting, potentially for years, to see whether the court will force a change, is a tacit acceptance that Texas’s public education system is good enough the way it is. That’s a tough position to defend when the 400 plus pages of the court ruling point out stark realities with immediate implications for kids and the future of Texas’s workforce and economy. This is one instance where we need more politics in education rather than less to move the education system in the nation’s second largest economy forward.

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