Friday, May 06, 2005

House Bills Fail to Help Our Disadvantaged Students


Gary Bledsoe, Ana Correa and Nelson Linder, LOCAL CONTRIBUTORS
Friday, May 06, 2005

In 2003, the Austin school district joined other plaintiffs in the West Orange Cove case. It led to a decision by state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County that gave constitutional weight to what many of us have been arguing for a long time: that Texas' system of paying for its public schools has become financially inefficient, inadequate and unsuitable. The system has proved particularly onerous for property-poor districts, with their high number of students who speak limited English or are economically disadvantaged.

We say this despite our support of the previous Texas Supreme Court decisions on this topic, although so-called Robin Hood school financing plan, which worked well at the beginning, is no longer very efficient.

Dietz admonished the Texas Legislature to address the many problems uncovered in the West Orange Cove case. So far, the most likely legislative responses are House Bill 2 and House Bill 3, which passed the House and await consideration in the Senate.

Sadly, it appears that the House's school finance legislation is compromised by an overriding concern with lowering property taxes, not with carrying out Dietz's mandate. Austinites should take note of the following:

•The bills' overall funding level is inadequate, with the so-called new money barely covering inflation, much less meeting the system's growing needs.

Under the old system, Austin was one of many districts forced to live on a fixed income. Unable to raise local property taxes above the state's maximum rate of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value, major urban districts — such as Austin — had used 99.5 percent of their capacity to raise revenue. The resulting funding crunch forced the Austin district to cut its budget by $41 million, eliminating 650 positions.

•Austin has experienced substantial growth in the number of students who are poor and who don't speak English — in other words, students who cost more to educate.

Unfortunately, HB 2 eliminates funding weights, which means that funding for low-income students, students with limited English proficiency and special education students will now be fixed. Instead of automatically increasing, schools will be forced to approach the Legislature every two years and ask for more.

•Every child deserves the opportunity to learn in structurally sound, technologically-equipped classrooms. By ignoring the need for renovation and construction to alleviate over-crowded and dilapidated classrooms, and without a permanent annual funding source for facilities, the bills leave intact one of the major forms of inequity addressed in the West Orange Cove case.

•The testing requirements in HB2, along with continued high-stakes testing in general, amount to intentional discrimination against African Americans and Latinos.

The higher failure rates of students who are economically disadvantaged or who lack English proficiency, and the effects of requiring high-stakes tests while also holding back funding, are well-established. The Legislature cannot plead ignorance.

We refer to a recent Texas A&M report, which estimates that it costs $1,960 for an economically disadvantaged student and $1,248 for a limited-English proficiency student to master these tests. The bill would provide only $877 for economically disadvantaged students and $500 for students with limited English. As a result, these students are much more likely to fail these tests and ultimately drop out of school because of it.

•Austin school officials, to their credit, have avoided the temptation to set the district's needs above those of the state's property-poor districts.

But HB2 would allow the wealthiest 10 percent of districts to unhitch their interests from the state's common interest, enshrining an "I got mine" mindset.

With the bill's limit on how much a wealthy district must share with poorer ones, along with the new method of tax increases (2 cents per year, without weights or proportions), wealthy districts essentially will be able to pay what they want to educate their students. And the problem only will be compounded over time.

By whatever standard, be it equity, economic soundness or legality, HB2 fails the test. We hope the state Senate will act more in the interests of all Texas citizens, not just a select few.

Bledsoe is president of the Texas NAACP; Correa is with the Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens; Lindner is president of the Austin branch of the NAACP.

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