John Kuhn is superintendent of a school district in Texas. He is one of the nation’s most eloquent spokesmen for children and public schools. He first came to national attention when he spoke at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. In 2011.
He describes the recent legislative session, where an effort was made to improve school funding, but the Semate leaders knowingly sabotaged it.
“There was a dramatic showdown in the Texas legislature two days ago.
“First, some backstory. A year or so ago, well over half the school districts in the state sued Texas for funding schools inequitably. Schools in wealthier areas with higher property values get significantly more education funding per pupil than school districts in areas with lower values, even though it is in the poor areas where one finds larger concentrations of students with illnesses, learning disabilities, and challenging home situations that make them more difficult (and more expensive) to educate.
“The Supreme Court, against all odds, found this system to “meet minimum constitutional standards.” Many were left flabbergasted trying to process how such a system truly meets the state constitution’s directive that the legislature “make suitable provision” for a free, statewide network of efficiently-resourced public schools. While holding back their gavel (and justice), the state’s justices did see fit to wag their fingers at legislators, calling the state’s school funding mechanism “Byzantine” (which apparently means awful) while stating clearly that it was up to the legislative branch not the judicial branch to decide how to fund schools. (This is akin to a parent nagging their kids from the couch to pick up their socks while making it clear they won’t be getting up to make sure the job gets done nor enacting any punishment if it doesn’t.)
“Before the ruling, several state lawmakers predicted that school districts would prevail and expressed some relief because, as they noted, the state legislators in Texas have never seriously addressed school finance without a judicial gun to their heads. After the ruling, state legislators nonetheless expressed confidently that they would repair school finance because it was their job to do so and the Supreme Court had called them out. They were ready to show leadership, they assured us all.
“Well, here we are, nearing the end of the legislative session.
“Let me note before getting into the legislative blow-by-blow that funding schools inequitably appears to be the inevitable result of our politics and our social realities in America. Other nations that outperform us on international student assessments either limit the testing population to only strong academic students (a la China) or (a la Scandinavia) have far more equal and just societies than ours, resulting in far lower rates of childhood poverty and far more equitably-resourced public school systems. Elected officials here, however, are under heavy political pressure from voters to do two contradictory things. One, voters expect them to keep taxes low, Two, voters expect them to provide high quality public schools with things like chess programs, extracurriculars, field trips, newer computers, up-to-date career and tech training programs, great math scores, etc., etc.
“You can’t really have both because ultimately you get what you pay for, but inequity provides a way to come close to at least appearing to have your cake and eat it too. By funding schools based on property value, legislators save the taxpayers money by reducing overall school expenditures at the state level to the maximum extent possible, while ensuring that the wealthy areas–where more people have voice and political clout–get the schools that meet the minimum expectations of politically-active Texas parents. One researcher noted a phenomenon called “inequitable equilibrium” wherein states are forced by judges to adjust school spending to make it more fair but then, over time, without fail, the state legislatures pass new laws and find workarounds to return to the socially acceptable maximum level of school funding inequity. This explains why Texas and many other states have witnessed repeated school finance lawsuits, one after another. Inequity is inevitable in our political and social reality. Voters in centers of power and influence are able to ignore something as esoteric as inequity so long as it only affects relatively voiceless populations in inner cities, border towns, and fading farm towns.
“Now people like me (politically active folks raising kids in underfunded school districts) tend to respond to this frustrating reality by moralizing. We write letters, publish editorials, and give speeches. We talk about what’s right and fair and just. We try to animate others to support the morally (and constitutionally) right thing to do. But then, at the end of the day, a majority of Texas voters still install leaders who are openly antagonistic to justice. We live in a post-justice world. And our moral message finds some listeners, but voting majorities in Texas primaries still nominate candidates who are religious but not moral, who play-act as righteous representatives of the people’s hearts and values but who, in the crucible of leadership, more and more of the time reveal themselves to be really pretty bad people who are effectively incapable of moral leadership. We keep electing carnival show barkers who are better at sound bites than sane decisions. Governance has devolved into something like pro wrestling, but it’s school children in underfunded schools who are getting hit with folding chairs.
“So that’s the background. An inequitable school funding system with the back-handed imprimatur of the state Supreme Court, and legislators assuring us that they’ll rise to the occasion and fix it, even though the Supreme Court is fine with it as is.
“So here was the showdown: this session the House of Representatives passed a bill adding $1.8 billion in new school funding and making tweaks to move the system more toward equity. The Senate took that bill, gutted half the money, watered down the equity provisions and–even though the House had made it clear that they wouldn’t support any legislation creating a voucher system directing state education funds to private schools–the Senate attached a voucher provision to the House bill. The House responded by requesting a conference to iron out differences in the bill, insisting clearly that the voucher language was unacceptable, and the Senate refused to agree to a conference.
“So school funding reform in Texas is dead. The Senate held equity hostage and demanded vouchers. The House, to its eternal credit, refused to negotiate over something as basic as the word “public” in public education actually meaning what it plainly means. And the Senate shot the hostage.
“They shot my son’s chance at going to a public school that isn’t getting half the per student funds of school districts north of Dallas. They made sure my son will have older books, fewer computers, and lower-paid teachers than kids born into wealthier families who will very soo be competing with him for admission into the state’s best universities and who later will be competing with him in the Texas job market. The Senate harmed my son, and hundreds of thousands of sons and daughter’s that they have condemned yet again to underfunded educational experiences, and all because folks making huge donations to them badly want vouchers.
“To top it off, these legislators will continue to grade school districts on neutral criteria. That is, even as they hamstring schools like mine by keeping them on a short funding leash, they will insist that their school accountability system–which treats all schools the same no matter their funding level–differentiates between good schools and bad. It is illegitimate to grade schools on uniform criteria while refusing to fund schools uniformly. State-approved school accountability systems with no “curve” in place for schools that the same state leaders have seen fit to significantly underfund amount to sabotage. This underhanded approach guarantees that most poorer communities’ schools will be branded as worse schools. This will translate to several harmful realities for regular folks: lower property values in communities where schools are underfunded, more limited ability for those communities to attract new businesses and new jobs, financial harm to homeowners, and educational harm to their children. Test-based school accountability combined with inequitable school funding is state-sponsored sabotage of cities.
“Ultimately, by inequitably funding public schools and then publicly labelling the lower-funded ones as failures, the state isn’t just treating teachers and children shamefully, it is undermining entire cities and towns. It is kneecapping places with lower property values and playing favorites by blessing schools in some areas and cursing schools in other areas.”
It may be morally wrong, but it is apparently politically right. This endless, blatant educational injustice reflects who we are now in America.
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