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School Funding System Creates Haves And Have Nots

Shelley Kofler

Texas schools will begin this year with more state money than last year, but most are getting less than they did in 2011, before state lawmakers dramatically cut the education budget.

Funding still varies dramatically from district to district, which is one of the reasons a state judge in February found Texas’ school finance system unconstitutional for the second time in a decade.

As part of KERA’s American Graduate Initiative KERA took a look at the funding gap and how it’s affecting kids in a district that is often at the end of the receiving line.

When Irving schools open this month the district expects all of its elementary classes to be filled to capacity. 

That’s where they were when school dismissed in May and we visited the classroom of kindergarten teacher Sheryl Dennehee. 

She said she often felt like she was “running from emotional needs to physical needs to educational needs,” as she tried to keep track of an overflowing classroom of children.

Dennehee began last school year with 35 active little kindergarteners in her room.  That’s way over the state limit of 22. 

She eventually got relief.  Irving hired additional teachers. But at the end of the year staffing was still so stretched every elementary class was at the limit, or had to get permission from the state to include more students than are normally allowed.

Dennehee said many of her children needed more individual attention than she was able to give.

“Some of these kids have never been in school before so breaking away from the family routine is difficult,” she said, as she led them in a song that teaches the days of the week.

“They walk into a big school and they’re just so unsure of themselves and sometimes I wish I could give them more time to deal with those emotional needs,” she added.

Credit KERA News

Here's the Texas Legislative Budget Board's funding estimates for all school districts.

Irving is a district that’s used to doing more with less.  Two years ago it received $5,308 in funding per student, the smallest amount among 14 districts in Dallas County.

That was 24 percent less than Coppell received and 30 percent less than Highland Park. 

It was so much less that Irving became exhibit A for attorney Rick Gray as he helped convince a judge to rule that the Texas school funding system is “unconstitutional” because it’s “inequitable.”

“Why should the kids in Irving be penalized just because of their zip code?” Gray questioned. 

“We are all state citizens and everyone needs to be given the same educational opportunity in my opinion,” said Gray

Gray says districts receive wildly different amounts of funding because Texas primarily pays for public education with local property taxes. A concept known as Robin Hood requires property wealthy districts to give some of their tax money to poorer districts.   Still those with higher property values raise more money for their schools.

Although Irving has received numerous awards for being efficient with the tax dollars it does have, administrators say less funding has led to painful penny pinching.

Because of a computer shortage some classrooms have had to do without when statewide exams are given.

Labs have been turned into classrooms because schools are running out of space.

Field trips for many have been cut to one a year.

Teacher workload has increased with the elimination of some assistant principals who often meet with parents, deal with discipline and ensure books and supplies.

During an interview before he resigned Superintendent Dana Bedden said the state’s funding system has shortchanged Irving children.

“Why wouldn’t all children be worth the same allocation of resources?” he asked.

“Maybe the children could have been performing at a higher level if we had all the resources,” Bedden said. 

Attorney Rick Gray says there’s evidence children do perform better when schools have more resources, though attorneys who defended Texas’ school finance system last year said money does not determine student performance.

For the lawsuit Gray analyzed data collected from the state’s 1,026 independent districts and says he found a correlation between funding and learning.

His analysis included SAT scores, ACT scores, drop-out rates and TAKS standardized scores.

“In every single instance over a period of six or seven years those groups of districts that had more did better and they did better on every single indicator,” says Gray.

“It was just striking to me to see.” 

Faced with the judge’s finding that the school funding system is unconstitutional, legislators this year restored more than half of the $5.4 billion in state dollars they cut two years ago.

Rep. Diane Patrick, an Arlington Republican on the appropriations committee, says the additional money will be distributed in a way that most helps districts like Irving.

“The funds will be distributed in the basic allotment which does take into consideration property wealth.  You will see the more property poor districts receiving more of that in the distribution,” said Patrick.

But did lawmakers do enough to convince Judge John Dietz to reverse his ruling when he reviews the school finance issue in January?  

Neither Patrick, the governor, lieutenant governor nor the attorney general would defend the system or venture a prediction when contacted last week.

KERA’s analysis of state numbers shows districts this year will receive an average of four percent more money.  Irving and some of the lowest funded districts will receive a slightly bigger increase, but the gap between the lowest and highest funded districts has closed only slightly. 

In Dallas County, for example, Richardson with $5,526 per student has replaced Irving as the district receiving the lowest pupil funding. 

According to the Texas Legislative Budget Board, Richardson is receiving an estimated $979 less per child than the $6,505 for Highland Park, which will receive the most. 

That means a classroom in Highland Park with 22 students will have about $21,538 additional dollars for its kids.  The gap between districts statewide is even bigger.

Gray says legislators have only put a Band Aid on the unequal school funding problem when major surgery is what’s needed.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.