THE BLOG
11/18/2013 08:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Equity, Testing Madness, and the Ongoing School Wars

At the Save Texas Schools rally in March 2011 on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, I was fortunate to be in Austin and present to see Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent John Kuhn's passionate speech against the billions of dollars in proposed cuts to education and the simultaneously increases in the testing regimes that were being imposed upon schools, teachers, and students by the Texas Legislature. I was impressed by his willingness to break out of the silence and speak out for the poorest and most disadvantaged children in schools in Texas. And, as an advocate for children, I am even more pleased to see his passion is as strong as ever in his new book, Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity.

The book is a tale that goes back to the original battle in 1968 in which a parent, Demetrio Rodriguez, who had a child in the underfunded Edgewood school system sued seven other school districts and the State of Texas (San Antonio Independent School District vs. Rodriguez) to require a more equitable funding system to improve the opportunity and life chances of the poorest and most disadvantaged children who should not be left behind just because of their zip code. Although the district court found in favor of Rodriguez's suit, the defendants appealed to the United States Supreme Court and won a narrow 5-4 decision in March 1973 but the battle was far from over and continues to this day.

As a child, I attended school in what was then the sixth poorest city in the country, El Paso, Texas, during the 1970s and 1980s and had parents, who were educators in those schools. Everybody did the best they could with inadequate resources, but it was difficult to not see the massive inequities. While we sat in classrooms in sweltering heat without air conditioning, students in oil- and property-rich towns of Friday Night Lights fame in other parts of the State had multi-million dollar football stadiums.

Despite subsequent rulings by the Texas Supreme Court that called for better equity in school finance, Kuhn's book tells the story of how wealthy businessmen, testing companies, and property-rich communities created an effective bait-and-switch political campaign that destroyed the equity movement for the next 30 years. Under the banner of "school reform," testing advocates and their lobbyists changed the frame and purposely undermined the quest for better equity. Instead, they advocated for moving Texas schools to a regime that: (1) imposed a one-size-fits-all testing regime upon schools, teachers, and students; (2) worked to undermine support for public schools; (3) demonized teachers; (4) helped create an environment that led to billions of dollars in education cuts; (5) institutionalized funding inequities through school funding formulas and hold harmless clauses benefitting the wealthiest schools; and, (6) created what is now an opportunity chasm.

For example, data from the Texas Equity Center and its report, Money Still Matters! For Our Children and For the Future of Texas, documents that the current Texas finance structure provides for a low of $4,650 per child in the poorest school district to a high of $14,218 per child in the wealthiest district - an astounding difference of almost $10,000 per child. And, as the Texas Equity Center highlights, it is a finance system in which the vast majority of Texas' students suffer.

In fact, according to an Education Week study, because Texas spends far less per child than the national average, has an inequitable system of school finance, and geographically has a wide majority of students living in the poorest school districts, only 12.1 percent of Texas students are in districts with per-pupil expenditures at or above the national average. That is simply not a model of success for the children of Texas, but since Texas schools educate nearly 10 percent of the nation's kids, it is also a problem for the entire nation.

To justify this inequity, business leaders, who were lobbying before the Texas Legislature for tax breaks for their businesses, were simultaneously and paradoxically arguing that money doesn't matter when it comes to education. As Kuhn says:

...business leaders behind the Texas education reform movement convinced themselves, conveniently and counterfactually, that money didn't matter whatsoever in public education. It mattered in business, of course - enough that a whole slew of business-related chichés about the topic exists: 'You get what you pay for,' for example, and 'You have to spend money to make money.' But somehow Texas reform agitators and backslapping backroom dealers found it intellectually acceptable to argue that when one crossed the public-private version of the Mason-Dixon Line, suddenly infusions of resources had no impact whatsoever on operations or outcomes.

That, of course, is ludicrous. Money not only matters -- it matters greatly. As Michael Rebell and Joseph Wardenski found in Of Course Money Matters: Why the Arguments to the Contrary Never Added Up:

Since the 1960s, when an influential federal report first raised the issue of whether money made a difference in improving public schools for poor and minority students, substantial academic research and judicial analysis has overwhelmingly debunked the methodology of the nay-sayers. The resultant studies and court holdings have strongly concluded that money spent on qualified teachers, smaller class sizes, pre-school initiatives, and academic intervention programs does make a substantial difference in student achievement--especially for poor and minority students.

Or, as Diane Ravitch wrote in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System:

Our schools cannot be improved by those who say that money doesn't matter. Resources matter, and it matters whether they are spent wisely. The best-informed and most affluent parents make sure to enroll their children in schools that have small classes, a broad curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences, well-educated teachers, and well-maintained facilities. Ample resources do not guarantee success, but it is certainly more difficult for schools to succeed without them. If we are serious about narrowing and closing the achievement gap, then we will make sure that the schools attended by our neediest students have well-educated teachers, small classes, beautiful facilities, and a curriculum rich in the arts and sciences.

Or finally, as North Carolina Superior Court Justice Howard Manning, Jr. wrote in a decision in the 2000 case of Hoke County Board of Education vs. State of North Carolina, "Only a fool would find that money does not matter in education."

The American public also knows education funding is important and is deeply concerned about it. In a survey for First Focus by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, American voters opposed making cuts to education in order to reduce the federal deficit by an overwhelming three-to-one margin (73-24 percent).

And yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Texas chose a different path for its most vulnerable children. In his book, Kuhn exposes how the testing movement has, over time, defunded money from the least-resourced schools and poorest students with the greatest needs and redirected those dollars to a testing-industrial complex that has made management and lobbyists for companies like Pearson incredibly wealthy. The culmination of this movement led to a Texas legislative session in 2011 that cut school funding by $5.4 billion while simultaneously increasing the funding for and number of mandatory test that Texas students were required to take and pass in order to graduate from high school to an astounding 15 separate tests per child.

As Kuhn says:

It was never ultimately about the children, except in the minds of a few idealistic foot soldiers. It was about adults at mahogany tables far away from the chalky smell of blackboards, adults whose prescriptions for America's children invariably deviated grotesquely from the private school prescriptions they more often than not obtained for their own.

The book ends on a high note, however. Kuhn points to a growing grassroots movement that is rising in Texas and numerous other states across the country which are opposed to education cuts, the privatization of our public schools, and the growth of high-stakes testing. As examples, Kuhn points to victories in the most recent legislative session in Texas to restore $3 billion in school funding and to cut the number of tests needed to graduate by two-thirds. He argues that Texas parents and voters demonstrated "an appetite for a more supportive and caring education policy environment for the state's children" that led to such policy changes.

On the future of education, Kuhn concludes:

If recent events are an indication, a more balanced, supports-honored approach to improving academic achievement in the United States may well be in the offing. More and more teachers, parents, students, and local businesspeople nationwide are standing up to the destructive reforms advanced by market-sniffing tycoons and neoliberal politicians. Regular people on both sides of the political aisle are savvy, and they are organizing themselves, researching the issues, and calling on their neighbors to join them in rushing to the aid of public schools - defending with word and deed that noble and most egalitarian of all the American experiments.

No matter what state you live in, if you care about our nation's children and their education, I urge you to read both Kuhn's book and the Money Matters! reports issued by the Texas Equity Center. They explain how Texas and, subsequently, the entire nation got into this mess and offer the hope of a better and more successful future for our schools, our teachers, and our children.

Disclosure: Dr. Bonnie Lesley, who prepared the Money Matters! reports for the Texas Equity Center (http://www.equitycenter.org/) that I quoted and is the co-founder of the non-partisan Texas Kids Can't Wait! (http://www.texaskidscantwait.org/) with Linda Ethridge, is my mother and she has nearly 50 years of education and parenting experience that continues to this day.