THE BLOG
02/12/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

The Myth of Texas School Funding

There's a big lie Texas politicians tell. They might care about whether Heather can get into UT. They might care whether Jake pulls good enough grades to stay on the football team. They might sincerely worry about whether Miguel and Makayla can close the gap with their Anglo classmates. And I'm pretty sure they think that applying what they learned in business school is a good idea, whether it's metrics through testing or competition through charters.

But for as long as I've been alive, it has not been the policy of this state to properly fund public schools. Since 1968, the state has now lost six straight lawsuits brought by school districts that have argued successfully that their funding is unconstitutionally inadequate and unequal. Long story short, schools say the state gives poor schools increasingly small portions of gruel, and the state says that the poor schools distribute the gruel inefficiently. That's what Judge John Dietz was really getting at when he said, "There is no free lunch. We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't."

If the last 45 years are any indication, we don't.

Dietz's ruling was the least surprising revelation since Jodie Foster came out of her not-so-secret closet at the Golden Globes. Texas is inadequately and unequally funding our public schools? Next thing you know they're going to tell us that cutting contraception for the poor results in more Medicaid births.

It's not like we weren't warned. In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court found that the school finance system had become an unconstitutional de-facto statewide property tax but held off on ruling whether schools had enough money. Writing for the all-Republican court, Justice Nathan Hecht gave Texas an "Oh honey, size doesn't matter" victory on adequacy:

"There is substantial evidence... that the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education," he wrote. "But an impending constitutional violation is not an existing one, and it remains to be seen whether the system's predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes."

Instead of halting the "drift toward constitutional inadequacy," our Republican overlords gave us a margins tax that created a structural budget deficit of at least $10 billion, according to Speaker Joe Straus. The legislature raised the financial and academic stakes by signing a $468-million contract with Pearson for the STAAR test, and then slashed school funding by $5.4 billion, making it painfully impossible to meet the higher standards. Maybe they thought the standardized-testing ukaz would motivate Texas schoolchildren to meet this latest Five-Year Plan, but in the real world, you still get what you pay for.

Inadequately funding schools to keep taxes low is a grounding principal in Texas government, but apologists have buried that hard truth under lawyerly denials, business buzzwords and political gobbledygook. Ironically, an Orwellian proclamation from Gov. Rick Perry helped Dietz reach his ruling. Using language that can be charitably called "aspirational" and statistics that Politifact called "false," our Dear Leader proclaimed that school funding in Texas wasn't just adequate, but "phenomenal".

The problem with Perry's "phenomenal" lie is that we've all seen the naked truth, and the numbers come up short. Once you figure in inflation and the 2006 margins tax that keeps short-sheeting our state's bed, Texas schools got 25 percent less money in 2012 than they did in 2002. According to the Quorum Report's Kimberly Reeves, Politifact's analysis convinced Dietz to, once again, reach the obvious conclusion that when it comes to school funding less is not more.

Perry has put out the word that he'll fight this decision all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. If he can't lie about it, he'd rather fight it than fix it. If he loses there, he'll call the legislature into a special session after the Republican primaries to figure out another way of solving school financing without raising taxes on the rich.

There is an alternative to waiting, said Dietz in his ruling.

"We as a state and as a nation are wrestling with the question of priorities and our leaders are looking for direction from you, the public," concluded Dietz. "The time to speak up is now."

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