Monday, December 13, 2010

School finance suit on hold?

By Gary Scharrer
Sunday, December 12, 2010

AUSTIN — Texas school districts are ready to sue the state again over public school funding but likely will wait to see what the state Legislature does in the spring.

“School districts are so disgusted and fed up with this funding situation because it's the same thing year after year after year. We're ready to go,” said John Folks, past president of the Texas Association of School Administrators. Folks is the superintendent of San Antonio's largest school district, Northside Independent School District, and the former superintendent of Houston's Spring ISD.

School districts complain of funding disparities that create large differences — more than $20,000 per classroom — with neighboring school districts. They contend education funding is not keeping up with overhead costs and is insufficient to meet more rigorous academic standards.

At least 60 percent of school districts are now using reserve funds to help pay operating expenses, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Adding to educators' anxiety is the upcoming legislative session in which public school funding cuts are expected to be on the table.

State and legislative leaders have pledged to cut their way out of a budget shortfall projected to exceed $20 billion over the next two years. With public education eating up 44 percent of the state's general revenue budget, it will be virtually impossible to spare schools from the ax.

Even a 5 percent cut would mean $30 million less for Folks' school district, resulting in larger class sizes and cuts in staff and programs, said Austin lawyer Buck Wood, a veteran litigator from previous school finance lawsuits.

“School districts right now are in a state of shock,” Wood said. “Things are much worse than even I thought just a few months ago.”

Adding to the urgency is the fact that Texas is adding about 85,000 public school students a year.

“That begs the question — whether or not you are really gutsy enough to go in and start voting to fire 10 percent of your teachers in your school districts. That's what it's going to take, literally, to make that kind of cut,” Wood said.The San Antonio Independent School District feels particularly squeezed because it has one of the lowest revenue-per-student levels among the school districts in Bexar County. San Antonio ISD's $5,408 per student is $344 below the statewide average, according to Texas Education Agency figures.

San Antonio ISD would have an extra $86 million if it received the same per-student funding as Alamo Heights ISD. Funding formulas are based on 2006 allocations and a bill that Texas legislators approved in May of that year.

“We are disappointed that public education stands to be cut, but it is inevitable given that the projected deficit is over 27 percent of the state budget, and K-12 expenses make up 44 percent of the state budget,” San Antonio ISD Superintendent Robert Durón said.

Until Texas Comptroller Susan Combs provides a revenue estimate next month, state officials and legislative leaders will not know the actual size of the budget shortfall.

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he doesn't see how public education can escape cuts but is working on a plan to make sure reductions don't hurt equity or erode “adequate” school funding.

“I would like to come up with a more transparent, fairer and simpler school finance plan that is a cost-based revenue system rather than a revenue-based cost system,” he said.

The school funding system is based on how much revenue the state has instead of one based on the true cost of educating the state's 4.8 million public school children.

Durón prefers that school districts wait before seeking help in the courts.

“Waiting a few more months to see what happens cannot hurt. It will take years for a resolution to come back from the court option,” he said.

It makes sense to wait, agreed David Hinojosa, a senior lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has played key roles in earlier Texas school funding lawsuits.

“Although the system may be unconstitutional right now, we should give the Legislature an opportunity to do what's right for the children of Texas,” Hinojosa said. “But if they go in the wrong direction and start cutting public education, then they should expect a very tough fight on their hands.”

The state lost four school finance rulings before the Texas Supreme Court stemming from the 1984 Edgewood case — and another high court ruling went against the state in 2005.

Budget cuts to education could be devastating at a time when the state continues to ratchet up academic standards and school dropouts remain a challenge, Hinojosa said.

Some legislators and groups believe education funding is sufficient, although not appropriately spent.

“We want more education for our dollars. We don't want to simply continue to throw more dollars at education,” said Peggy Venable, director of Americans for Prosperity-Texas, a group that advocates for smaller government.

Only 50 percent of funding goes for actual instruction, she said.

Longtime school finance expert Lynn Moak of Austin said Texas faces a challenge and a choice.

“Reduce education funding and risk the potential of curtailing economic growth in the future,” he said. “Or, restructure the financing of education providing a firm basis for meeting educational challenges of rising standards coupled with increasing family poverty.”

Over the past 10 years, the number of Texas public school children from low-income families has increased by about 894,000 — virtually representing the entire enrollment growth.

Youngsters from low-income families are more expensive to educate because of several factors, including language difficulties.

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