Students leave Tasby Middle School in Dallas in 2014.  (Mike Stone/Reuters)

Two Texas teenagers representing a group of students in the Houston Independent School District have taken an unusual action: They wrote and submitted to the Texas Supreme Court a 35-page brief siding with more than 600 school districts suing the state for underfunding public education in violation of the Texas constitution.

The court justices recently held a hearing about the suit, which the state is seeking to have dropped. The school districts — about two-thirds of the total in Texas — are arguing that state authorities rely on an outdated funding mechanism that does not provide schools with enough resources to meet the needs of the growing number of high-needs students in the state and provide an adequate education as required by the constitution.

The suit was originally filed in 2011 after the state legislature cut nearly $5.5 billion from public education, and though most of it has since been restored, the districts still say they are being underfunded. A year ago, a Texas district judge agreed and threw out the state school funding system as unconstitutional.

The two students who filed the brief (see below) on behalf of the HISD Student Congress, an organization that represents about 215,000 students in the district, are Zaakir Tameez, a member of the 2015 class of Carnegie Vanguard High School, and Amy Fan, a member of the 2016 class of Bellaire High School.

Their brief explores the ways that many schools for students who live in poverty are inadequately funded and details the consequences, noting that students have a unique view of the case:

Many adults base their knowledge of public education on what they see on paper. Oftentimes, these adults don’t have kids who attend public schools and don’t really know what’s going on. As high school teenagers, we have a unique perspective. While we don’t always understand the political, economic, and legal origins of what we witness as students, we really know the issues inside the school and classroom; we experience them every day.

And here’s what they say they are experiencing:

School districts lack the necessary resources to correct the deficiencies in education that we face. With more funding, our schools would be able to provide their students with adequate resources, decrease class sizes, enhance enrichment programs, improve teacher quality, and innovate college and career readiness programs. Many consider these educational inputs “extras”, but we argue that these five objectives are vitally necessary in Texas, especially for our classmates who are English Language Learners or in poverty. In the following pages, we demonstrate why.

The entire brief is below, but here is one of the descriptions of what some districts are facing in Texas regarding funding:

Robert E. Lee High School is located at the cross streets of Richmond Ave. and Beverly Hill Blvd. in Southwest Houston. The surrounding neighborhood consists of dense enclaves of low income apartments, convenience stores, Mexican and Halal groceries, food trucks, and bus stops. The service industry dominates this part of Houston. There is high demand for unskilled labor and high availability of low cost apartments. Combined with Houston’s position as a primary destination for immigrants to the United States, this neighborhood and many others attract large numbers of immigrants and their families who often speak solely their native language.

A. As students, we know that class sizes matter.

In the 2013-14 school year, Lee was about 75% Hispanic and nearly 100% economically disadvantaged. One-third of the approximately 1,400 students were English Language Learners[3]. Many students were recent immigrants and did not speak English at all. Presented with these extra challenges, Lee did not receive the funding it needed to provide its students the chance they need to succeed in America. We spoke with Principal Jonathan Trinh about the struggles Lee High School faces as a consequence of the Texas formula funding that does not provide ELL students with sufficient resources:

“Our ELL students need more support in term of smaller class size to have more interaction and face time with their teachers. They need even more time in English classes with double and triple blocks requiring additional ESL trained English Language Arts, Reading, and Intervention teachers. [All of this requires funding.]”

3 http://www.houstonisd.org/cms/lib2/TX01001591/Centricity/domain/21231/school_profiles/Lee_HS.pdf 3

Decreasing class sizes is especially important for our ELL peers, because language classes require much more individualized attention, and for ELL students, every class feels like a language class.

B. As Texans, our naïve lack of appreciation for enrichment programs is both morally wrong and economically impractical.

In order to provide students extra assistance in English, Principal Trinh has had to cut language, art, and extracurricular programs at Lee. The school only offers Spanish because a large proportion of their students can test out, meaning he can hire fewer teachers. The principal would love to offer Mandarin, Hindi, or French, but there simply isn’t enough money for these languages, increasingly important in the 21st century economy to be part of the curriculum. Lee doesn’t have a band, orchestra or any sort of other musical outlet for students. Many students at Lee in fact have a passion for music yet have no way to express this passion, as the school can’t afford the instruments or the extra teacher. Others would love to become a mathlete or chess aficionado, but again, the money isn’t there. As a result, many funnel their boredom, frustration, and stress into alcohol, drugs, and gangs.

All high school students possess ambition, optimism, creativity, and grit. But at Lee, their aspirations are stunted due to lack of funding. ELL students not only lack the opportunity to participate in enrichment programs but also often a serious chance at learning English and avoiding exploitation in the workforce after graduation. While Lee is working hard and concentrating its limited budget on  providing what it can for its ELL students, these same students still have difficulty overcoming the language barrier because of large class sizes, a lack of enrichment programs, and a limited teacher hiring pool. Committed to providing ESL assistance to ELL students in all subjects, in 2014 Lee began hiring only ESL certified teachers. Unfortunately, these teachers are hard to find even right here in Texas.

C. Many teachers in Texas are alternatively certified in their subject, and lack the academic experience necessary to be truly qualified to teach us.

Mr. Edgardo Figueroa teaches English for Newcomers at Lee. All of Mr. Figueroa’s students come to him having never spoken English, and some unable to read or write in their native language. He accommodates them as much as he can, but with 220 students and about 32 per class, there’s only so much he can do. What has helped, he says, is the training he received through his ESL certification program. ESL trained teachers employ strategies such as the use of pictures to help students connect key words or concepts in English to their native language, in addition to many others. Teacher certification, however, is expensive and grossly underfunded in Texas.

D. All students should have the opportunity to succeed via higher education or vocational schooling.

Students’ struggles are not for lack of trying. In our conversation with Mr. Edgardo Figueroa, we learned a story of his to illustrate this point:

“In one class I had a Mexican student and a Chinese student who became very good friends. In order to communicate with each other they had to use the little English they had learned, always practicing the skills they learned in class. When they didn’t know English words for what they had to say, they used Google Translate.”

These students deserve to dream big and have a fighting chance. Although some may not be the best academically, often due to English skills and difficult home lives, all should have access to vocational and technical schooling. Those who are capable of college-level work should be encouraged to apply and be assisted in the application process by college readiness programs. Many of our peers, who did not grow up in stable family environments and lacked access to quality counseling, were never introduced to four year residential colleges, two year associates degree programs, or even summer internships and academic camps. Texas children are being deprived of this information because of the State’s dismal effort in providing school districts the funding to build quality college and career readiness programs. These programs are essential in building an educated citizenry for the preservation of freedom and democracy as the Texas constitution prescribes[4].

4 “Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”