Tying Texas school funding to testing hurts students and taxpayers

Our eleven-year old daughter Louisa started the sixth grade this year. Like other proud parents in this part of suburban Houston, I pointed my car at the long line of gleaming SUVs edging toward Louisa's new intermediate school. A welcoming and well-designed building reflecting our well-to-do neighborhood, Westbrook Intermediate ranks high in our state's standardized tests. As Louisa tumbled from the car and entered the school, my wife and I counted our blessings.

But we also worry as our taxes wax and confidence wanes over public education in Texas. As slowly as our car crawling toward the entrance at Westbrook, our state has been inching toward a separate and unequal school system. While it is not quite a rawhide version of apartheid, we will reach this catastrophic state of affairs should STAAR testing, as some lawmakers now suggest, be used to as a basis for school funding.

As it does not levy a state income tax, Texas depends on other taxes for school funding. This has, at times, led to political vaudeville. In 2004, then-Gov. Rick Perry proposed a $5 tax on clients at our state's gentlemen clubs. While the proposal died in the legislature, its fame lived on in the headline of an Austin newspaper: "Tits for Tots."

Given our legislators' failure to propose a serious and systematic method of education funding, our houses have become ATMs to keep our public schools running. Property taxes have hit their ceiling of $1.50 tax per $100 valuation, but even this is not enough to fill the fill the yawning gap left by our Republican-dominated Legislature in 2011, when it emptied more than $5 billion from the state education budget, which it only partially replaced later.

Despite the increasing pain of frustrated homeowners, the little gain for our flailing schools hits poor Texans the hardest. Among the more than 5 million children in Texas public schools, about 60 percent come from economically disadvantaged homes. As it stands, they require remedial classes and institutional support that carry an additional price tag. Though our public schools cannot fully level a playing field rutted by socio-economic ills, they remain a bridge to a better future for these disadvantaged students.

With this lifeline potentially endangered, more than 600 school districts took the state to court. The plaintiffs are all subject to the so-called Robin Hood law that redistributes money from property-rich to property-poor districts — hence Austin's effort to "recapture" more than $160 million from the suddenly "wealthy" Houston ISD and shift it to the redistribution fund. But the ramshackle system mostly hobbles the wealthier districts without truly helping the poorer ones. In effect, the state is stealing from Peter in order to stiff Paul.

The plaintiffs claimed that state's method of funding its schools was unconstitutional. With one hand, the state was clawing back billions of dollars, while with the other it was imposing increasingly demanding standardized testing. Not only did this create dramatic disparities between wealthy districts (like Houston) and poor districts (like neighboring — and heavily Hispanic — Pasadena), it also meant that our state's leaders expected the schools to do a good deal more with a great deal less.

Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the plaintiffs — a decision that surprised veteran observers. Given the parlous state of our state's schools, it was widely assumed that the court would do something, if only the minimum, to redress the situation. But the court refused, overturning a lower court ruling by now-retired Judge John Dietz that found the system to be unconstitutional. Justice Don Willett, writing the court's opinion, declared that it was for legislators, not judges, to overhaul school funding. As for the ramshackle system we now have, not to worry: Our tots' education, Willett concluded, "satisfies minimum constitutional requirements."

Were these "requirements" measured in caloric value, they wouldn't pass mustard, much less muster, in our school cafeterias. As Dietz noted in a subsequent interview, the achievement gap between our economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is only growing wider. "It's undisputed, it takes 50 percent more of the resources to educate an economically disadvantaged child; 60 percent of our population in this state is currently economically disadvantaged and it's only getting worse." In sum, the majority of students in Texas' public schools are living in dire circumstances.

These circumstances, though, may now grow more desperate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, breaking from his crusade against transgender students using bathrooms in public schools — which, he insists, is the biggest issue "facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public school" — has instructed state senators to consider tying school funding to school performance. Schools that receive a failing grade would no longer receive state funding, transforming these districts into hunting grounds for charter schools.

The principal measure of a school's performance would be the STAAR exam. Yet the test has been the target of various lawsuits, ranging from its computer glitches to its distorting effect on teaching. A growing number of educators, such as the historian and former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, Diane Ravitch, have identified teaching to the test as the disease that pretends to be the cure for public education. But when it spreads to our most disadvantaged schools and students, the disease takes a particularly toxic turn. Not only do these tests evaluate little more than how to take a test but they also may now become the test of whether schools will live or die.

Nevertheless, our legislators are forging boldly ahead. As one of Patrick's allies, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, sagely observes: "I think that in the 21st century, we should be looking at other markers of success besides just showing up." Tellingly, for the upcoming hearings over education finances, showing up to testify are for-profit charters. They will no doubt echo Bettencourt's belittling of those students who show up in class. Yet, as a volunteer teacher at one disadvantaged high school in Houston, I have seen that showing up is a marker of success for many of their students. These are students who hold down jobs, who support families, who have children, and whose ambitions should nevertheless stretch further than the refineries that dot our horizon.

Make no mistake: These students, along with their teachers, recognize that while showing up is just the first step, it must be followed by sustained effort aimed at scholastic and professional achievements. But should our legislators yoke school funding to standardized test scores, it may well be the case that while Rick Perry flubbed his dancing with the stars, his former constituents' loss to STAAR will be far worse.

Robert Zaretsky

Professor, University of Houston