Here we go again. Another fight over the way we fund our schools and the amount we spend on our students is heading to the Texas Supreme Court.
By the time the issue makes it to the Legislature again, the current funding system will have been in place for 10 years. In terms of a school finance system, I guess that is a good run, but I still question the need for wholesale changes.
First, Judge Deitz talks about schools being underfunded, considering they are under more pressure to meet tougher standards. What tougher standards is Judge Deitz talking about? Maybe those standards that were rolled back last year at the behest of Texas superintendents?
We also have candidates running for office who promise to eliminate more tests and roll standards back even further this coming legislative session. That undercuts the argument that schools need more money to meet tougher standards.
And, what about the new numbers from the Texas Education Agency. The agency says 90 percent of school districts and 85 percent of campuses are meeting state standards. If we are really that successful, then it would seem that our students are flourishing under the current system. The constitution talks about a funding system that ensures a general diffusion of knowledge.
If 85 percent of schools and the students who go to them are meeting state standards, that says to me “mission accomplished.” Of course, we all know that those numbers are overblown, considering only about 20 to 25 percent of our students graduate career- or college-ready, which should be the standard by which we hold our schools accountable.
There is also the fact that surprised many lawmakers in a recent hearing: that we have not increased the passing score for the STAAR test in the past four years. To put that another way: we have never increased the passing scores for STAAR, some of which are as low as 37 percent. That also takes away from the argument that schools are struggling to meet tougher standards, because the standards have never gotten tougher.
It’s ironic at least — and hypocritical at worst — that many argue that since schools are struggling to meet standards no one is expected to meet, they need more money. The truth is we have been throwing more money at the system for years and results are still low. Yes, the Legislature made cuts in 2011, but most of those were restored in 2013. The point is there has to be some other answer out there, because money alone will not solve the problem.
One issue is efficiency. I testified on that issue during this latest school finance trial, but Judge Deitz did not include that issue in his ruling. I am hoping the Supreme Court does, because it is central to answering the question about whether we give our schools enough money to do the job they are constitutionally required to do.
Also, it is my hope that the Supreme Court will not look favorably on this ruling as a whole. I believe we have enough money in the system to educate our children. What we must do is spend it smartly and hold schools accountable for results. That means adopting an accountability system that will give us a true and accurate snapshot of the job we are doing, not turning our campuses into a glorified kid’s soccer league, where everyone gets a trophy.
The future of our economy depends on students who get a great public education and graduate with diplomas that mean they’re ready for a career or college — not diplomas that might as well be participation ribbons.
Bill Hammond is the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business and may be contacted through txbiz.org.