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MALDEF Stands Ground in Texas School Funding Trial

by Greg Moses Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004 at 4:26 PM

Lawyers for richer and poorer districts alike are fighting over the future of equitable funding for the education of Texas children. Here is a "half time" update.

On a recent Friday, when Texas judge John Dietz summons attorneys “to the bench” in his Austin courtroom, thirteen well-suited lawyers come forward. There are lawyers for the state, who argue that the school funding system adopted by the legislature in 1993 is working as best it can. There are lawyers for wealthier school districts, such as West Orange Cove or Highland Park, who want the 1993 system shut down. And there are lawyers for the state’s impoverished school districts, such as Edgewood or Alvarado, who at first tried to stop this fight altogether, but who are now looking for ways to preserve, enforce, and extend the constitutional framework that the 1993 laws represent.

The public file for this school funding case (soon to be known as Edgewood Five?) is approaching the two foot mark. But on a day when parts go missing, the district clerk’s office is equipped with something called DMS, or document management system, into which all the public documents for this case have been scanned. And I am told there are, in addition, at least ten cd’s that the various attorneys have made with all their exhibits in pdf, excel, powerpoint, and whatnot formats, that they can export from their Dell laptops to bright-screen displays in court.

With all the lawyers, paperwork, and documentary intrigue, the spectacle surrounding the school funding trial is Texas-sized and more to my wire-rimmed taste than the Sandra Bullock mansion dispute going on somewhere in the vicinity. Not that I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie star, or treating her to some sympathy about what it feels like to have your life occupied by (alleged) runaway contractors, but I’m more interested in how her vacant mansion works as a metaphor these days for where the whole story of Texas school funding begins.

School history in Texas begins during the bad old days of statutory segregation, followed by the rising hopes of civil rights, fading now into ever-so-nuanced cycles of postmodernized vestiges, in which glaring inequalities between rich and poor neighborhoods become sites of administrative analysis, consulting contracts, and formulas for funding so arcane that in order to compute them, dude, you gotta get a Dell.

The first three Edgewood rulings by the Texas Supreme Court (in 1989, 1991, and 1992) said that Texas had not yet come up with a constitutional method of funding education—a method that should be at once “adequate, suitable, and efficient.” The fourth Edgewood opinion by the Texas Supreme Court in 1995 said, finally, okay, the Texas Legislature in 1993 had finally passed a constitutional plan.

Which brings us to the fifth Edgewood suit, more properly styled West Orange Cove v. Nelson, named for a school district and a commissioner of education. The school district is first among a list of almost fifty districts (hereafter referred to as richer districts) who claim that the state has so poorly assisted public education in Texas that local property taxes are doing all the state’s work and, therefore, that local property taxes have become state property taxes. Since state property taxes are unconstitutional in Texas, the richer districts want the very laws abolished that it took four Edgewood opinions to produce.

The 1993 laws, known as Chapters 41 and 42 of the Texas Education Code, make it somewhat possible for school districts to take money raised from a mansion in one district and spend that money for education in another. Nearly fifty of these richer districts, in the precious language of legalese, pray to the court, to prevent the state from enforcing Chapters 41 and 42. If these districts succeed in shutting down the statewide system of re-allocation, they can go back to taxing and spending as they please, keeping their mansion taxes closer to home.

I would be surprised and disappointed if this so-called “recapture” of mansion taxes bothered a wealthy Hollywood star, but it bothers enough other people in Texas, especially those who feel that children are born where they deserve to be born, whether in mansions or manufactured homes. For such people it is difficult to break the habit of thinking that neighborhood schools should rightfully mirror the ability of neighborhoods to pay. And when they see taxes raised in one place being “recaptured” and sent to another, they tend to think, like the Sheriff of Nottingham, that something has been stolen.

On Friday morning, lead attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, David Hinojosa, was so tired he could barely read his own questions from a page of prepared notes. He was speaking to the superintendent of the Edgewood school district, Richard Bocanegra. In the tableau of the closing hours of week three, as Judge Dietz mercifully called a five minute break, the MALDEF attorney and Edgewood superintendent were trying to hold onto a tenuous legal framework that had been more than 30 years in the making. Of course it was neither this MALDEF attorney nor this Edgewood superintendent who began the struggle way back then, but it is the MALDEF-Edgewood alliance that has tenaciously over the years moved Texas education through the series of Edgewood lawsuits into the equalizing practices of Chapters 41 and 42.

Neither crisply nor with brightening eyes, Hinojosa and Bocanegra review their powerpoint slides, one by one. Here is a photograph of windows painted over, to keep the sunlight out and the cooling costs down. There is a parking lot splotched with standing water. Here is a portable classroom at Burleson Elementary. There is a photo of broken sills and mold at Cenizo Park. Cinderblock walls of a 50-year-old gymnasium are shown split open by shifting foundations. Here’s another photo of Coronado Elementary School’s gymnasium. Here are window air conditioning units spaced motel-style at Edgewood Middle School. There is a sump pump in the slab at Memorial High, because the school was built upon a landfill. Truman Middle School, Wrenn Middle School, deteriorating blacktop, ceiling tiles stained and broken from roof leaks, garbage cans catching water…

“Mr. Bocanegra?” Hinojosa is circling toward a question that I hope he finishes before he falls out. “Given the insufficiencies of the resources, the challenging demographics of the students, and the inequities of funding, what prospects do you hold for the parents of your children and the children themselves?”

After Bocanegra finishes his answer, I notice that the benches on the state side of the room look pretty empty. Gone are some of the heavyweight lawyers I’m used to seeing there. They have assigned this cross examination to what looks like the youngest lawyer on staff. She treads lightly with bouncing inflections. This is way different from some of the barracuda attacks that I’ve seen. When the witness is given back to Hinojosa, he mops up the day’s testimony by asking Bocanegra to explain what it’s like to take his prospective teachers on a campus tour.

In the summer of 2001, MALDEF helped to convince Judge Dietz’s predecessor Scott McCown, to dismiss the West Orange Cove lawsuit. In a sparkling opinion, McCown guarded the gates to the state funding system, emphasizing the overwhelming practical value of the “recapture provisions” for the history of Texas education. In a concluding flourish, McCown declared that, “history is truth—Until equity was required, the State shamefully treated and woefully underfunded the property poor districts.” He did not see that the richer districts were as yet so stressed out by the funding system that they had lost their ability to exercise local discretion over their tax policies. And he seemed worried that the logic of the plaintiff’s attack might undercut completely the hard won framework that the Edgewood era has produced for Texas (a state which Friday morning’s papers declared was now officially no longer mostly white.)

An appeals court also dismissed the West Orange suit. But the Texas Supreme Court on May 29, 2003 remanded the case back to trial and demanded a thorough inventory of facts and issues. Furthermore, the court seemed to suggest that, if only one district can show that its funding has become so bound up by state priorities as to deprive that district of “meaningful discretion” in its tax policy, then school funding may well have turned into an unconstitutional state property tax.

This time around, MALDEF is agreeing somewhat with the richer districts. Texas does not provide sufficient funds or meaningful discretion, especially to impoverished school districts. But unlike the richer districts, MALDEF pleads with the courts to find some way of preserving the hard-won Edgewood principles of equalization. In fact, MALDEF is asking the courts to place pressure on the state to increase its formulas for “special needs” and to make equalization an even more robust practice, especially when it comes to paying for facilities. When it comes to paying for buildings—as the slides from the Edgewood district were trying to show—there are still glaring disparities.

There is some evidence that the Texas Supreme Court is not happy with the bad faith practices of state policy makers who have retreated from Edgewood more than they have built upon it. In its ruling of May 2003, the court quoted passages from its own majority opinion of 1995, written by Republican John Cornyn, who is now a US Senator: “Surely Texas can and must do better.” And then the court added, “Little change has been made.” Even Republican judges, it seems, can be ashamed at this level of injustice.

What’s not so clear is how the Court is leaning with respect to the richer districts. In the early years of Edgewood the court had to strike down three funding regimes in three years’ time in order to impress upon lawmakers the importance of equalization and improvement in education policy. Now that they are facing the third challenge in a row from richer school districts trying to evade equalization, the court may want to draw a big, bright line for them, too. The court may be in a mood to say both to the state and to richer districts, look, we gave you some very clear principles, now get busy trying to build on them. But, somehow this scenario seems too good to be true.

In plainer language, the court may find a way to say, why not try helping MALDEF and Edgewood in school instead of wearing them out in court? At any rate, it would be a perverse turn in history to punish the state by turning back the equity clock. Politically, such a ruling would signal to state policy makers that any time they want to break down the court-ordered enforcement of equity, they simply need to starve the total system of funds. Just because the state has adopted a passive-aggressive posture, doesn’t mean it can’t be klanlike.

On the crucial issues of equalization and progress, MALDEF has found an ally in another set of players known as the Alvarado Intervenors, who claim that their commitment to “maintaining Edgewood mandates is intense and undisputed.” Like MALDEF also, the Alvarado Intervenors argue that the legislature has retreated from equalizing facility funds. As a result, impoverished districts find themselves “trapped in the vice” where the state demands more performance on one side and delivers insufficient resources on the other.

On Tuesday the Alvarado Intervenors argued in a “bench brief” that the State’s bad faith could be proved in the difference between the standards it sets for students, on the one hand, and the standards it sets for districts on the other. While the state hands out tests that students must pass, it accepts from districts very low passing rates. And why does the state do this? Because policy makers know very well that if they demand higher passing rates, they will have to spend more money for teachers, materials, facilities, and support. It is time, argued the Alvarado Intervenors, that standards set the pace for state budgets rather than state budgets starving the appetite for standards. “What the constitution requires of the legislature with respect to education is to place it in a different and higher position than other budget items.”

During a Friday morning recess, Alvarado attorney Randall B. Wood picks up his copy of the day’s Dallas Morning News, carefully folded into a tight rectangle. “Look at this,” he says, exasperated, pointing to a story about a South Dallas school district that keeps behaving scandalously and keeps getting away with it. “There is no accountability here. The state keeps doing nothing.” Faced with a state that says things are good enough today and with a coalition of richer districts who say it would be okay even to turn back the clock on equity, the Alvarado and Edgewood attorneys will return next week to try once again to keep the Texas courts moving in a forward direction.

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