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Judge: Maybe Texans accept mediocre schools

11/22/2012 6:04 PM

11/23/2012 6:30 AM

State District Judge John Dietz is a veteran of Texas school finance legislation, and the issue he raised Tuesday at a hearing in Austin was not just idle chatter.

Dietz is presiding over the trial of combined lawsuits brought by more than half of the school districts in the state. Generally, the suits allege that Texas underfunds public education.

The Associated Press reported that, while hearing testimony Tuesday morning, Dietz mused that "maybe we as a state have been satisfied with mediocrity."

Most certainly not! Texans brag about everything they have -- and some things they don't. They'd never say they're satisfied with schools that educate 5 million of their children in a mediocre way.

The problem is in getting Texans, through their elected Legislature, to match actions with their words. That's been the case through 30 years of school finance legislation in the state, and the problem is getting worse, not better.

Verbally and in writing, the Legislature has pledged its allegiance to improving the quality of Texas public education since at least 1990. That's when the state's first comprehensive standardized testing plan, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, was implemented.

TAAS was followed in 2003 by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which is now being replaced by the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR).

These test regimes testify that Texas doesn't settle for mediocrity in public education. Each one has been designed to measure whether students are acquiring minimum academic skills -- which in itself sounds mediocre, but there's more. Passing scores on those tests and minimum acceptable passage rates for schools and school districts ratchet upward each year.

This is by legislative mandate, and state law recognizes the need for top-flight schools.

Steadily more rigorous testing, pushing schools to do better and better over time, doesn't sound like "satisfied with mediocrity," does it? But Dietz, who also presided over the trial of the last school finance case in 2004, apparently is not convinced.

"Maybe through our testing and accountability we have been kind of pushing people through the education factory," he said Tuesday, according to the AP. "Maybe this -- with the increased rigor -- is an attempt to reach reality."

He noted that Texas students compete with students from "South Korea, France, Holland, Germany, from Russia, Latvia, trying to be bigger, better, faster, stronger, smarter than anybody else."

The school district plaintiffs say that legislators' deeds don't match their words, that they haven't provided enough money or haven't distributed it properly to give schools the resources they need to meet higher and higher standards. They can cite generally poor performance on the first STAAR tests this spring to bolster their case.

Lawmakers retreated helter-skelter on their education budget last year. Not only did they short schools by $5.4 billion, but they ditched the concept of formula funding for education.

Increased costs due to student population growth, inflation or required new programs don't matter any more. Money for schools will be only what legislators decide it will be.

The trial is expected to continue into January, and the case is expected to go to the Texas Supreme Court after that.

Dietz also will hear another take on the education solution for Texas. Shortly after the first of the year, another group of plaintiffs in the case, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education and the Texas Association of Business, will argue that the state's public education system is set up wrong. Public schools are an education monopoly, inherently inefficient, the group will say.

Dietz should have questions about that.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.


Twitter: @mnorman9

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