A look at educational inequality in Texas

Photo by Tamir Kalifa

The confidence I felt as a high schooler vanished within my first few days of college. I found myself lagging behind most of my peers in topics ranging from Greek mythology to Newton’s laws of motion. I would lock myself in my dorm studying from dusk to dawn while my classmates glided through the same material. I spent those days wondering whether my acceptance to college was a mistake. What I realized was that the resources available to many of my peers had never been offered to me as a low-income student in Texas.

Over the past decade, Texas has experienced a stark decline in per-student state funding for public education. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding from 2008 to 2015 dropped 16 percent. This shift made me, along with millions of students across the state, a victim of educational inequality. Given the state government’s increasing dependency on local governments for funding public education, it would come as no surprise if this trend continued in the coming years.

Many Texans are already concerned that a heavy reliance on local governments will perilously leave a number of students behind. We ask ourselves why certain students suffer in schools with leaking roofs while others thrive within the walls of million-dollar-buildings. The answer is simple: property taxes.

School districts in Texas receive the majority of their funding through property taxes. Unsurprisingly, regions that suffer from poverty tend to have lower home values; whereas the opposite holds true for high-income regions. This approach, addressed in part by formulas for equalizing differences of wealth and out-of-date adjustments for diverse educational needs, leaves schools in the poorest regions of the state lagging behind their neighboring districts. Such educational inequality seems paradoxical to a nation built on the principles of egalitarianism.

There are a number of Texans who insist that the solution to Texas’ current educational crisis is to expand the number of private schools. To claim that private schools have demonstrated success over the years seems fair enough. In taking this route, however, the state would still leave a considerable number of students without a formal education and public school employees without a job.

The public school system remains a crucial component of the state with 5,359,127 students enrolled in Texas public schools during the 2016-17 academic year. Private schools don’t have that kind of capacity; they’re not taking the place of public schools anytime soon.

How, then, do we devise a school system built on equality? The Texas Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby dealt with this question in 1991. Eight school districts and twenty-one parents challenged the state's methods of funding public schools. They argued that the system discriminated against students in poor school districts, thus violating the Legislature’s constitutional obligation to provide an efficient and free public school system.

The Texas Supreme Court asserted that the then-existing system of public school funding, one that mirrors the system we see today, was unconstitutional. This led legislators to adopt a multi-option plan to help equalize school funding by recapturing funds from wealthier districts and sending them to poorer districts.

Unfortunately, the formulas have not been updated for years. This left students of low-income and students who do not speak English — two of the fastest growing student-groups in Texas — with unsuitable educational resources.

Some of the most acclaimed public school systems in the world operate under updated, broad-based funding formulas that guarantee educational equality. Texas has not followed suit. Consequently, the state’s educational system continues to be ranked within the bottom ten in the nation.

While I was accepted to Columbia University, many of my childhood friends did not make it past high school. It’s because of this that I consider myself extremely fortunate despite never having had the same opportunities as my peers.

The time has come for the state to reexamine what ways it can ensure all communities receive equal resources. In this way, we can truly ensure no child is left behind.

Tanya Reyna

Student, Columbia University