By Gary Scharrer
Updated 9:43 am, Tuesday, January 1, 2013
AUSTIN — A lead lawyer in the ongoing school finance trial draws on plenty of personal experience while making a case that Texas public schools need more equitable funding.
David Hinojosa heads the legal team for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund that represents several parents and property-poor school districts, including San Antonio's Edgewood ISD, in the school funding case against the state of Texas.
Edgewood remains synonymous with a decades-long struggle for equitable funding and is the named party in the landmark 1989 Texas Supreme Court ruling that found the public school finance system violated the state's constitution.
Hinojosa grew up within walking distance from Edgewood High School, which lacked central air conditioning in the late 1980s when he was a student there. He chose three of his senior year classes simply because they were taught in air-conditioned rooms.
Memories of this time are harsh.
Hinojosa remembers visiting “wealthy” schools for basketball games and scurrying off the bus with his team while opposing fans called them “wetbacks.” Sometimes game time included ducking their heads to avoid being pelted by stones.
The poverty is well documented in the West Side school district, where chickens still roam neighborhood streets, Edgewood Superintendent José A. Cervantes testified recently.
The district also can tout accomplishments. Voted by his 1988 Edgewood High School graduation classmates as “most likely to succeed,” Hinojosa now fights for equitable school funding to help children attending property-poor schools in Edgewood and beyond.
Hinojosa's presence in the school funding trial played out in the Austin courtroom of 250th District Judge John Dietz. It was largely inspired after reading Jonathan Kozol's 1991 book, “Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools,” which put a spotlight on vast inequities between Edgewood and the neighboring Alamo Heights ISD.
The book taught Hinojosa “that it was the courts and not the Legislature who had helped make things better for schoolchildren,” he said. “That's when I decided to go from a political science focus to a career in law.”
The University of Texas law school graduate often returns to Edgewood schools to participate in career days and talk up education and the legal profession with students who played in the same Cuellar neighborhood park that he did years ago.
“When I go into these classrooms and I look at all of these kids, some of them aren't the best clothed. I see such promise in the eyes of these kids. And it just thoroughly upsets me — disgusts me — that the people in Austin, mostly the leadership, can be making so many decisions about these kids' future without even considering who they are and what their potential is,” Hinojosa said.
Albert Cortez, another voice from the Edgewood school district, testified as an expert witness in the current school funding case, which is likely to continue through January.
Cortez, policy director for the Intercultural Development Research Association and a 1967 graduate of Kennedy High School, has spent decades working on school finance issues. He focuses on the fundamental unfairness of inequitable funding for public schools and has testified in all five previous school finance lawsuits.
It's significant that an Edgewood graduate such as Hinojosa is leading the battle for equitable school funding, Cortez said, “because he really puts his heart and soul into the fight.”
Cortez recently testified about his research into school funding disparities, which shows that the state's poorest school districts were getting $1,431 per student less (2010-11 school year) than the wealthiest districts despite levying tax rates 11 cents higher than richer districts.
The poorest districts would need a tax rate of $1.38 (the state's maximum rate for maintenance and operations is $1.17) to generate $7,000 per student, while the wealthiest districts could generate the same amount with a 94-cent tax rate, Cortez testified.
“It's fundamentally unfair to students and families to have to deal with the fact that (inequity) exists but also to deal with either the indifference or downright resistance on the part of folks from advantaged areas,” Cortez said.
Texas assistant attorney general lawyers who are defending the state have declined to discuss the case publicly. In a pretrial brief, Attorney General Greg Abbott and his staff argued that funding disparities between property poor and rich schools are no where near as great as they were in the original Edgewood case.
Hinojosa figures his potential as a student might have soared “had it been nurtured in a better school environment.” He recorded one of the highest college entrance exam scores in his class although, he said, it barely hovered above the national average.
Hinojosa said he is driven to help children from his old neighborhood because he knows many will not “make it out successfully” without opportunities that only a quality education can provide.
Edgewood connections to school funding battles with the state of Texas run deep. José Cardenas, now deceased, played a role in the 1973 Rodriguez federal court case seeking help for unequal school funding. Cardenas became the superintendent at Edgewood before he formed the IDRA — a San Antonio-based nonprofit designed to improve public schools to work for all children.
Cardenas helped to bring school funding equity into the public square, Cortez said, because he figured Texans would become enlightened and act to address it.
“But the system was in place because people in key places want those inequities to exist,” Cortez said, noting Cardenas and former Edgewood Superintendent Jimmy Vasquez, who spearheaded the 1984 Edgewood school funding case, were often treated as outcasts for rocking the boat.
Today, more than 600 Texas school districts are involved in the funding lawsuit against the state. Hinojosa credits Albert Kauffman, now a law professor at St. Mary's University, for helping win the landmark Edgewood case nearly a quarter century ago when Kauffman litigated the school funding case for MALDEF.
“I definitely recognize him as one of my personal heroes. I've seen Al Kaufman's shoes. I don't think I'd put them on,” Hinojosa said of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling one year after Hinojosa graduated from Edgewood.
Hinojosa's own children (ages 13 and 8) sometimes complain their father spends too much time away from home. He then talks to them about the long struggle for civil rights.
“To treat people differently just because of where people live and go to school and to value those kids less is something that we at MALDEF and I, myself, will not stand idly by and accept,” he said. “And my kids get it.”
An earlier version of this article misspelled Jonathan Kozol's name.