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More funding might not be solution for Texas schools

Posted Friday, Feb. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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norman A district judge in Austin may have ruled that Texas must again fix its system of public school finance, but even the most ardent advocate of more funding for schools should know it's not time to celebrate yet.

That's because the suit brought by more than 600 of the state's 1,000-plus school districts must still be argued before the Texas Supreme Court. And the final outcome of the issue might not be as simple as agreeing with the plaintiff school districts or not.

Remember that the last time the Supreme Court ruled the school funding system unconstitutional, in 2005, the final outcome was a legislative change in the system that hardly any of those districts ended up liking. Hence the current suit.

A talk this week with former Arlington state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, who was chairman of the House Public Education Committee when that 2005 ruling came down, made me believe that a new dynamic is at work in the latest case.

Grusendorf was part of a group that became a party to the lawsuit and argued that the funding system is unconstitutional not because it doesn't provide enough money, but because it supports many schools that don't -- even can't under current excessive state restrictions -- do a good job of educating students.

Two decades of school finance lawsuits in Texas have focused on the state constitution's requirement that the Legislature "establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."

Grusendorf pointed to the 2005 ruling, in which the Supreme Court said " efficient conveys the meaning of effective or productive of results and connotes the use of resources so as to produce results with little waste."

Most of the school finance suits have focused on financial efficiency.

The first suits determined that the system in use at the time was not efficient because the money available to property-poor school districts under any given tax rate varied too greatly from that available to property-rich districts at the same rate.

But the court has also referred to the qualitative efficiency of schools, the "effective or productive of results" element.

Ironically, the school districts in the current case, like those in all the previous cases, have essentially admitted that they have not been producing proper results. They blame lack of funds.

Grusendorf says broad reform of the education system is what's needed.

He points again to the 2005 ruling, in which the court said, "It is true that the plaintiffs and intervenors here have focused on funding, but parties to lawsuit are entitled to choose the issues to be raised. ...

"Perhaps," the court said, "public education could benefit from more competition, but the parties have not raised this argument and therefore we do not address it."

This time around, Grusendorf and his group, which includes the Texas Association of Business, entered the lawsuit because they wanted to raise exactly that argument, that "public education could benefit from more competition."

One more quote from the 2005 case: "There is substantial evidence ... that the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies or better methods of education."

Grusendorf's favored solution is, and has long been, to provide vouchers to send public school students to private schools.

That will give them competition and thus a powerful incentive to improve, he says.

At the same time, he wants to give public school administrators more freedom to change, like being able to quickly fire teachers who don't produce results.

Grusendorf still has a lot of friends in the Legislature, and many of them agree with him.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

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Twitter: @mnorman9

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