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Posted at 09:26 AM ET, 10/12/2011

Texas school districts sue state over funding

Scores of school districts in Texas have joined together to sue state officials — though not Gov. Rick Perry — over what they say is an unfair school funding system.

The suit is one in long line of lawsuits in states around the country over the issue of funding, arguing that state officials who require that all students must meet the same educational standards should ensure that they have the resources to get a good education.

Modern school reform has become so hyper-focused on teacher quality and standardized tests that the issue of equitable funding gets far less public attention. But it remains one of the major factors in the unequal educational opportunities presented to American children.

In fact, in her book “The Flat World, Educational Inequality, and America’s Future,” Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond writes that the United States is “one of the most unequal” in terms of education funding.

“In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states.”

According to the Associated Press, more than 150 school districts representing more than 1 in 10 public systems in Texas filed suit, saying that state officials have ignored problems with education funding in the state and made things worse over the summer when they cut more than $4 billion from school spending to help close a budget deficit.

“As a result of that action they took, there’s really just no other option for schools at this point,” Lauren Cook, a spokeswoman for the Austin-based Equity Center, which organized the lawsuit, told AP.

Among the defendants are the Texas Education and the Texas comptroller, though Perry (R), who is running for president and who signed the legislation that included the budget cuts, was not one of them.

The school districts that joined to file the lawsuit include rural, middle-class suburban and predominately low-income areas. Also named as plaintiffs, along with the coalition, are seven individual school districts, two taxpayers and a parent.

The suit argues that 2006 school finance reform gave “property-wealthy districts unconstitutionally greater access to educational dollars” than other systems.

According to the AP, that funding revision included a measure that left state aid to some districts at the same level despite changes in demographics or inflation. That served to protect wealthier districts and disadvantage poorer ones

As an example, the lawsuit says that homeowners in the Nacogdoches Independent School District (one of the plaintiffs) in East Texas are taxed $1.17 per $100 of property value. And district schools received from the state about $5,487 per student last year.

But in Austin’s Eanes district, where people are taxed at $1.04 per $100 of property value, schools got about $6,881 per student because of the measure that kept state aid at a set amount, the lawsuit said.

According to Darling-Hammond’s 2010 book, courts in 10 of 31 states where lawsuits were filed during the 1970s and early 1980s found their state’s education financial system to be unconstitutional. Some lawsuits have been ongoing for decades; litigation in New Jersey has over three decades produced court rulings that led to changes in public education funding in about 30 school districts in poor communities.

In recent years, funding issues have been hit with the argument by some reformers that money doesn’t really matter — and that more of it doesn’t lead to better outcomes.

Nobody really needs a study — and there are some — to know that while it is certainly true that a lot of education money is wasted on useless enterprises, money does indeed matter, especially to schools without enough books or with classrooms packed with 30, 40 or 50 children.

As the percentages of school-age children who come from low-income homes increases in the coming years, as is projected, funding issues will inevitably become front and center again in the loud public education debate.

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By  |  09:26 AM ET, 10/12/2011

 
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