San Antonio Express-News, January 18, 2008: Study says schools still slight poor kids

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Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

The Texas schoolchildren who need the most help to succeed in schools often get the least, according to a national study that tracked local and state per-student spending from 1999 to 2005.

The study, by the Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization The Education Trust, cited Texas as one of 16 states where the gap in funding between high-poverty and low-poverty school districts widened during those six years, despite the state’s share-the-wealth funding system designed to guarantee equity.

“Texas is going the opposite direction,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “You have kids coming in further behind and you have to get them where they need to be with less and that’s not fair.”

Haycock and her organization support standards-based reform and the goals of the education reform law No Child Left Behind. The goal of the annual study is to assess whether schools have the resources they need to make sure every child meets the standard. The Department of Education estimates that it costs about 40 percent more to educate a child struggling with challenges such as poverty or a language barrier.

John Folks, superintendent of San Antonio’s largest school system, Northside Independent School District, said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s results.

How Texas fares
A national study by The Education Trust released Thursday compared state and local per-student spending in low-income districts with spending in high-income districts. The study found that 16 states, including Texas, increased the funding gap between poor and affluent districts between 1999 and 2005.

Gap between highest- and lowest-poverty districts:

1999: $280

2005: -$165*

Gap between highest- and lowest-minority districts:

1999: -$586

2005: -$912

Gap between highest- and lowest-poverty districts, with adjustment for low- income students:**

1999: -$796

2005: -$1,385

* A negative number means less money went to the high-poverty or high-minority districts.

** The U.S. Department of Education estimates that at-risk students, including poor and minority students, need 40 percent more funding.

Source: The Education Trust

Read the report in English and Spanish.

“It just goes to show again that the state isn’t keeping up its responsibility to equitably fund school districts,” Folks said.

The study also looked at spending for English language learners students who come to school speaking little or no English in the 10 states where those students make up at least 10 percent of the total student population. In Texas, 16 percent of public schoolchildren are English language learners.

The study found that Texas spends $1,252 less per student in districts with a high population of English language learners than districts with a low number of those children.

“You don’t need much research to figure out that if kids are coming from a background without English, you need extras,” Haycock said.

Texas has struggled for decades to figure out a way to equitably and adequately pay for public education.

Since 1993, Texas has operated under a school finance law that includes wealth-sharing provisions. The law, called “Robin Hood” by its critics, is the result of a Texas Supreme Court order that stipulates that every child must have equal access to education, regardless of the value of taxable property in that child’s school district. That means districts labeled property-wealthy must send money back to the state to be redistributed to property-poor districts.

In 2006, lawmakers revamped the way Texas schools are funded and reduced the amount of money that districts with high property values must share. The change also drastically reduced property tax rates, which means the districts are bringing in less money.

School districts on both sides property-rich and property-poor are complaining about the outcome.

Property-rich districts such as Wimberley ISD are strapped and facing layoffs because of the amount of money they have to send back to the state. School trustees voted in October to withhold $3.2 million in property tax revenue due to the state, and the district could face sanctions for that decision.

Meanwhile, at least 120 Texas school districts mostly property-poor asked their voters to improve property tax increases late last year, or face school budget cuts.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the Education Trust study paints a dire picture that isn’t entirely accurate. She pointed out that the study didn’t include federal money, which is set aside for low-income students. That money makes up a considerable amount of funding for high-poverty schools.

But Education Trust’s Haycock said the federal law that provides extra money to school districts for poor children is based on the principle that the states are providing at least an equal funding base. The federal money, she said, is to provide extra support, not the basic necessities.

Haycock called setting high standards for students without providing them with the resources they need a “massive dirty trick.”

“States need to acknowledge that these kids need more,” she said. “If they don’t, they’re cutting off their own future.”

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