Last week's ruling by a state judge in Austin reaffirming that Texas' method of financing public schools is unconstitutional gives the Legislature a chance to repair a "resource gap" that's failing a growing population of impoverished children, Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles says.
On Thursday, Judge John Dietz issued a written ruling confirming an earlier finding that the state doesn't provide enough money or distribute it fairly to districts across the state.
The latest round in Texas' decades-long battle over equity in school finance arrived in 2011 when the state cut more than $5 billion from the education budget. Over 600 school districts sued, saying that while the state cut the budget it was also raised curriculum requirements that caused districts to need more money. The system also disproportionately advantaged wealthier districts with a higher tax revenues. Many urban districts found that they ultimately received less money because of lower property taxes, causing a split between rich and poor districts.
While the current "Robin Hood" plan dictates that wealthier districts share a portion of their tax revenue with poorer districts, many districts claim this isn't enough to supplement state cuts, and residents in wealthier districts are frustrated that their tax money benefits schools outside their districts.
Dallas ISD was one of the districts that sued the state, and Miles praised Dietz's decision. "We have a district where we have a lot of student who come to us who are behind in proficiency, a lot of students whose second language is English, and a lot of students who are challenged by poverty," he says. "It would seem that districts that have those conditions would need more resources than the state is currently providing."
After the 2011 budget cuts, Dietz ruled in early 2013 that the finance system was unconstitutional because it didn't give enough money to schools to accommodate state academic curriculum, and was ultimately distributed inequitably. In the 2013 session, the state added more than $3 billion back to the education budget and scaled back standardized testing requirements. Dietz opened a second trial in January of this year to determine if the increased funding had fixed the balance in districts across the state. On Thursday he ruled that it did not.
"I think over time some inequities have been introduced, not on purpose but just as a state or district in our case gets more students who live in poverty. We're now at 90 percent free or reduced lunch," Miles says. "At same time we know the education landscape has changed, and you get a larger and larger resource gap. So I think that's the challenge going forward for the state, to make sure that the resource gap doesn't turn into achievement gap -- and it has in the past."
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One example of a cost Dallas ISD has that suburban districts might not have, says Miles, is early childhood education. "We know that right now one of long-term plans is this investment in early childhood. And to invest in early childhood especially when you have many parents that live in poverty, it means we have to help out with preschool. We can't rely on large percentage of parents being able to pay for preschool," he says. "We know that if we want equity in education opportunities, that's a cost to us that a suburban district wouldn't have, at least to the same degree."
But while he calls Dietz's ruling a "positive step" in ensuring that kids who struggle with poverty don't also face an achievement gap, Miles and fellow supporters expect the decision will be appealed in the Texas Supreme Court. Still, Miles says the decision is a major victory in bringing attention to the budget discrepancy between districts. "I'm happy to see that there's a greater recognition that when kids are behind, when they struggle with poverty or are behind, it takes additional resources to move them forward," he says. "I don't always think money or material is the first resort, but it enforces academic matter, and if were going to get kids college and career ready by the time they graduate high school, we really have to invest more in them."
Looking forward to the next legislative session, Miles says the state needs to recognize that some districts have a higher financial need than others for programs like college and career preparation, or early childhood education. "I think it's one more call to the Legislature to take some action to develop a solution to the educational funding issues in the state," he says. "I'm a firm believer that people of good will want to see good things for kids. I think the Legislature will see this as a sign that they need to help schools. I think leaders in the state are going to find ways to help schools and districts."
While it's likely require more of a financial investment from the state, Miles says that's the cost of change and future improvement for chronically underfunded districts like Dallas ISD. "The education landscape has changed. If as a state we don't recognize that there have to be shifts in investment, then we're going to continue to have gaps." He added, "At the same time I might add I'm hopeful that collectively if we recognize the need, I'm sure our Legislature can come up with a good solution."