Court conclusions spell victory for South Texas schools
As we face one of the toughest legislative sessions in this state's history, we will focus heavily on public school finance.
I urge our State Attorney General to accept the findings of State District Judge John Dietz on the closely watched school finance case that wrapped up in late summer. I also strongly encourage my fellow legislators to accept these findings and immediately address the shortcomings of the state's public education system during the next session beginning January 11.
Judge Dietz's long-awaited findings are a significant victory for South Texas. He sided with the plaintiffs, which included both property-rich and property-poor school districts, on almost every argument presented. Judge Dietz's written comments widely confirm the obstacles faced in educating our children, and particularly those in economically disadvantaged areas, like the Border.
The decision held that the current school finance system fails to provide sufficient funding for a constitutionally adequate system. Additionally, Judge Dietz stated that the system has evolved into an unconstitutional state property tax because districts lack "meaningful discretion" in setting their local property tax rates. He further concluded that the system inadequately funds school facilities in low-wealth districts and programs directed at educating limited-English proficient students and economically disadvantaged students, a growing population in Texas.
Unless we act now, we can expect that 30 percent of the Texas adult population in the year 2040 will lack a high school diploma, compared with 19 percent today. While we do not want to hurt the economic climate of Texas with imprudent tax proposals, an educated workforce is essential to an improved business environment, lessening the dependence on social welfare programs.
Texans must make sacrifices for a brighter future. How else can we attract businesses and jobs to Texas, but with a balanced funding plan that solidly invests in the education of our future workforce?
The No Child Left Behind Act, as signed by President Bush in 2002, demands higher standards and greater accountability from our schools, teachers and students without providing financial support to make the improvements. I'm extremely disappointed that sufficient funds have not been provided to support these federal initiatives. Yet, I believe our South Texas schools are to be commended for trying to meet all educational needs, despite limited resources.
Higher standards and accountability are critical for success in building a strong workforce, but local tax rates are pushing the limits and the state has yet to meet its fair share of education funding. Projections for 2004-2005 indicate that local taxes will fund 64 percent of the nearly $30 billion education bill. The state share is estimated to be 36 percent.
Because a disproportionate share of education funding is covered by local taxpayers, children in poorer areas are at a disadvantage. For example, in Brownsville, one penny of tax effort raises $4.88 per child, while one penny of tax effort in Plano raises $44.48 per child. A child should not be punished with an inferior education simply because he lives in a district with low property wealth.
As a result of Judge Dietz's conclusions, I expect the state to increase funds for education and improve educational equity for students along the Border and in disadvantaged communities throughout Texas. We should provide all students in Texas with equal access to education resources. This would level the playing field for our school children and ensure greater job prosperity for them in the future.
Judge Dietz also remarked that the state must do more to ensure equitable and adequate school facilities. I have been a persistent advocate for state aid for school facilities, as many of our poor school districts cannot afford facilities debt without prohibitively raising local taxes. For the sake of improving equity for instructional facilities in low-wealth school districts, I am drafting legislation to make facilities funding a permanent component of the school finance system. Adequate appropriations must also be provided based on the projected need for facilities funding.
South Texas doesn't have second class children. We shouldn't tolerate second class funding for our children. I truly hope state leaders pay close attention to the court's action so we can move forward as one great state.
Staff person assigned to this issue is Perla Cavazos, senior policy analyst. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 or Weslaco at 956-968-9927. Also, visit my website at the Official Texas Senate Home Page, http://www.senate.state.tx.us/.