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Commentary: 79th Texas Legislature Missed Boat on School Finance Reform

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

You could make a pretty good argument that Republicans are the new Democrats: fractious, cantankerous, self-destructive and ultimately ineffective. They certainly don't seem to know how to govern Texas. Republicans have controlled the Texas House and Senate for four years, as well as every statewide office, and they have diddly to show for it.

The 79th Legislature tops their list of failures. For four years, one issue has surpassed all others in importance: how should this state fund public schools? And after a total of six legislative sessions since January 2003 - two regular sessions and four special ones - we still don't have an answer.

We have an official state cooking implement, the Dutch oven.

We have new, mid-census congressional districts - although I have to say, the suspense wasn't killing me. I could have waited for new lines until after the 2010 census.

And the Legislature made it safe for fast food chains to sell all the hamburgers they can without fear of being sued for promoting obesity.

The misaligned priorities would be laughable, except that the state is starting to suffer because of the lack of political leadership.

Remember what's at stake: State Demographer Steve Murdock has projected population trends decades into the future. Those trends look bleak. Median income for white Texans is higher than that for Hispanics or African-Americans. Whites also complete high school and attend college at higher rates. But whites are a shrinking percentage of the state's population - they were less than half in 2003.

Hispanics, meanwhile, are the fastest growing major ethnic group in Texas. For a range of reasons, Hispanics tend to work in lower-paid jobs, and complete high school and attend college at lower rates than Anglos. Unless Texas can close the education gap between whites and people of color, the state's median income will drop over time. We will be less economically competitive because we'll have a workforce with limited skills. The demand for services like Medicaid will continue to increase even as the state's ability to raise revenue will decline.

That's why school finance matters. Texas has to find a way to fund public schools equitably and adequately - or risk seeing the state become poorer and less competitive in 20 or 30 years.

The state's sad but distant future is too remote to motivate most politicians - especially when the solution might involve some sacrifice now. When lawmakers refuse to act, the courts are asked to step in and that's how so-called activist judges wind up involved.

The last time the state rewrote its school funding law, Democrats were in charge. They dallied until the Texas Supreme Court forced them to address public education finance, but lawmakers ultimately passed a bill.

Now Republicans are dithering. A lower court judge has already declared the school funding system unconstitutional; the Texas Supreme Court will hear the appeal this summer. Lawmakers' failure to pass a bill means judges could end up crafting a solution - or that all state spending on public education stops October 1st. Either outcome would be an embarrassing failure for the party in charge.

While I'm stirring chili in my official state implement Dutch oven, I'll be wondering how all those nice, new congressional lines will help educate my kids.


Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.