If you want a concrete example of Texas tripping over its own feet in financing public schools, look at the recent unfunded mandate from the Texas Education Agency regarding math tests.Education Commissioner Michael Williams told superintendents in February that eighth-grade students must have graphing calculators when they take STAAR tests in the 2014-15 school year.That’s because the State Board of Education increased the algebra content on the exam, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe told The Texas Tribune.But most eighth-grade math classes have not been issued calculators up until now, Tribune reporter Aamena Ahmed wrote. They cost more than $100 each.Uh-oh. That means those superintendents Williams addressed in his February letter will need to come up with money for calculators.But there’s no new money from the state for that purpose.The latest enrollment report from the TEA says there were 366,786 students in eighth grade during the 2012-13 school year.More to the point, 57.7 percent of them were economically disadvantaged. That’s 211,814 students who would not be able to buy their own $100 calculator.Do the math and you see that the cost of the mandate could be as much as $21 million.“We’ve sent millions of dollars to schools for textbooks and technology,” Ratcliffe said. Because some districts have used that money to buy tablet computers for students, TEA gave them special permission to by calculator apps and let their students used them on the STAAR tests.Let’s assume that not every eighth grader is taking math and that some of those who are have access to those tablets with calculator apps. So the problem amounts to something less than $21 million.And Ratcliff is correct: The state sent $749 million to districts in the 2012-13 biennium for use on textbooks and technology.That figure increased to $810.6 million in for the current 2014-15 budget.According to figures supplied by the Equity Center, an Austin-based organization that represents most of the state’s property-poor school districts, the “instructional materials allotment” for 2012-13 amounted to $75.43 per student.For 2014-15, its $78.76 per student.It doesn’t take a math genius to tell that $75.43 and $78.76 are both less than $100. So every student who gets a required calculator from his or her school has used not only all of their own allotment on that one item but also some of what was supposed to be used for other students.And keep in mind, those dollars are supposed to provide for all instructional materials. It’s crucial to remember that the calculators are required for mandated state tests.In decades of litigation over school finance in Texas, courts have established that the state constitution’s requirement that the Legislature make suitable provision for public schools means at the very least that school districts must have enough money to meet state accreditation standards.And getting enough students to pass state tests is required for accreditation. So Texas is on thin ice with the unfunded calculator mandate.As Ratcliffe pointed out, districts can spread their instructional materials allotment around. But when they have to take money away from things they’re already spending it on, the ice gets thinner as far as the courts are concerned.Finally, if they must spend their own local property tax money to meet state mandates, taking away all of their discretion in how to use those dollars, the ice breaks and the system drowns. It’s unconstitutional.Texas is already waiting on a decision in a lawsuit in which more than two-thirds of its school districts say their funding is inadequate and/or unequal. An Austin judge already agreed with them once, but he took more testimony this year.The case is expected to go to the state Supreme Court later this year.It’s like Texas is just looking for more trouble.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9