In school finance decision, the poor people have lost again

Photo by Todd Wiseman

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with overwhelming facts in a case, Rodríguez v. San Antonio, showing a Texas school funding system that treated poor students grossly differently than their wealthy peers. But instead of insisting on equal treatment for all, the court slammed the door shut, holding that the system was good enough under the U.S. Constitution. The lead plaintiff parent in that case, Demetrio Rodríguez, responded, "The poor people have lost again."

Four decades later, it was the Texas Supreme Court's turn to face an extensive trial record detailing the lack of opportunities for poor students across Texas resulting from the state's terribly inadequate funding system in Morath v. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. The court held that the school finance system is good enough to satisfy the minimal standards under Texas Constitution.

So how does the Texas court turn away poor people challenging a substantially unfair system? By changing the law and the facts to ensure they can't win, of course — just as their federal counterparts did 43 years ago.

By all accounts in the school funding case decided less than a month ago, poor students struggle mightily to achieve in the classroom. All parties agreed, however, that these students can succeed if given appropriate opportunities, such as robust coursework, good teachers, smaller class sizes, quality pre-K and strong tutoring. Many of these, including the recruitment of good teachers, unfortunately cost a lot of money — especially for schools with high numbers of poor students. The record in the case undeniably showed that no matter how smartly schools stretched their budgets, oftentimes many children were left without these opportunities because the state purposefully underfunded their education.

So the Texas Supreme Court went to work to reinvent the law and the record. It did so first by holding that the Texas Legislature has "extreme" deference in creating policies that deny poor children opportunities. It was perfectly fine with the court that poor kids' teachers did not have the support they needed to help all students succeed. This, despite the court previously ruling that "all students" have a right to receive "reasonable opportunities" to achieve the standards set by the state for all children. The learning opportunities mentioned above were, by all accounts, "reasonable" and not part of a "wish list."

Next, the court held that the system "as a whole" must be deficient to be unconstitutional and that it is not enough for poor students to show they are being denied necessary opportunities. The court did not seem to care that the state recognizes the special educational needs of these 3 million-plus students as a group (three-fifths of all public schoolchildren) and then intentionally underfunds their education.

The court's rationale is akin to saying that it would be OK if schools segregated Latino children, so long as all schoolchildren are not segregated. The court even shamed the poor kids for trying to steal a slice of pie from the rich kids, but the poor never argued such. If anything, the poor kids argued for a larger pie so that they, too, could achieve their potential.

Finally, the court resurrected an argument intended to sustain privileges for the few from the Rodríguez case: "Money does not matter." This age-old misnomer based on outdated science has been debunked by several leading studies, including many presented in the trial court, but that did not matter to this court. Instead, the court pandered to the few ill-fated think tanks that hold on to that false proposition.

While money is not the only thing that matters, it is absurd to suggest in the 21st century that it does not matter at all. The extensive record showed that sufficient resources support critical learning opportunities, which, in turn, lead to increased student achievement and life outcomes, including higher earnings for poor students.

To ensure that the "poor people lost again," the Texas court changed the meaning of the Texas Constitution and attempted to change the facts — mortal sins for a supreme court. But those facts of lost potential, lost opportunities and lost dreams of education being the great equalizer remain for poor students.

Perhaps with the court out of the picture, the Legislature will finally listen to parents and commit to doing what's right for all Texas kids by fairly funding education for all students.

David G. Hinojosa

National director of policy, Intercultural Development Research Association