Monday, December 19, 2011

Valley schools in the spotlight

Districts claim state's funding formula unfairly benefits property-rich areas

By NEAL MORTON/The Monitor
December 17, 2011 9:52 PM

Rio Grande Valley school districts have gained significant presence on litigation against the state’s school finance system, which many claim unfairly disadvantages children in poor and minority-heavy areas like the Valley.
Four districts — Harlingen, San Benito, La Feria and McAllen — received major statewide attention this week after filing a third lawsuit against the state with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.
The strength of that case — led by Edgewood schools, which has won prior lawsuits against the state’s public school funding formulas — lies in the assertion that the current system overwhelmingly harms low-income and English Language Learner, or ELL, students, said MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa.
“The data show they are truly struggling much greater than all other students, and that makes (this lawsuit) much more ripe for a victory for these children,” Hinojosa said.
“This is not a lawsuit our clients wanted to bring,” he added. “It’s a lawsuit we were forced to bring once the state raised (student performance) standards and then cut back on funding, making it even worse than it was before.”
Starting next spring, the state will implement a more rigorous school accountability system, which legislators hoped would raise college readiness when they adopted the new standards two years ago.
However, the Legislature this summer gutted public education by more than $5 billion, a move Hinojosa said stacks the deck against struggling students.
The MALDEF suit piles on state data that show low-income and ELL students — whose numbers are growing within Texas schools — already struggle to meet student performance goals.
For example, the state designated 52 percent of all students as “college-ready graduates” in English Language Arts and Mathematics; just 38 percent and 5 percent of low-income and ELL students, respectively, achieved the same recognition.
And while 26.3 percent of all Texas students completed an advanced or dual enrollment course, just 20.4 percent and 11.6 percent of low-income and ELL students, respectively, enjoyed the same opportunity.
“Districts want their students to be held to more rigorous standards,” Hinojosa said, “but the state can’t get away with upping the ante and not putting its chips on the table. That’s what’s happening here.”
His case also includes a claim found in a lawsuit filed by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which has earned popularity among Valley districts.
According to both groups, the state’s funding formulas inexplicably allocate more money to property-wealthy districts than property-poor districts.
Hinojosa looked directly to the Valley to prove that point: in the wealthy Point Isabel school district, where landowners enjoy a tax rate of just $0.95 per $100 of taxable value, schools collect $5,915 per pupil. However, in McAllen, taxpayers pay $1.17 per $100 of taxable value, and yet their schools draw just $5,088 per pupil — an $827 gap.
Similar disparities abound in the state, and nine Valley districts — including Mercedes and Edinburg schools this past week — have joined the Coalition’s lawsuit to narrow the funding gaps.
And experts expect that the Houston-based Thompson & Horton law firm will soon file a fourth lawsuit against the state, largely arguing the Legislature has effectively set an illegal state property tax.
The Sharyland school board this past week joined that effort, and Superintendent Scott Owings said a mandatory drop in school property taxes limited a community’s ability to provide for their children.
“Local communities had decided how much they wanted to support our schools, then that was taken away from them” by lawmakers in 2006, Owings said. “Now we have to start back over, and if we want to build (the tax rate) up again, there’s a cap at it.”
According to some estimates, more than 200 districts in Texas have a tax rate at a legally allowable cap, which Owings argued robbed them of any “meaningful, local discretion.”
Lawyers and school officials expect litigation to last many months before a court decides the fate of Texas’s school finance system.
But Owings said a growing number of lawsuits and districts joining them should send a strong signal.
“It shows to the state and the courts and Legislature that if you have two-thirds of districts in the state actually suing the state … there’s a lot of power to that,” he said. “Perhaps they’ll think, ‘Maybe we are wrong, if so many districts have taken us to court.’”

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