Any hour now, Texas is expecting to read detailed “findings of fact” from the trial judge who just (and justly) ruled two weeks ago that the state’s school funding system is flatly unconstitutional. Make no mistake, the facts are plain. And the future of civil rights is on the line.
In a 2002 statistical review of school equity in Texas, for example, Amanda Bright Brownson predicted exactly the court rulings that were issued in mid-September after a six-week trial. Fully two years before the judge ruled that state funding for education was neither adequate nor equitable, Brownson wrote that, “Issues of both equity and adequacy must still be addressed as we try to further raise our expectations for schools and students.”
And, with the school funding lawsuit already on the docket (as she was defending her study before a dissertation committee at the University of Texas at Austin) Brownson even hinted that a state-mandated .50 cap on local property taxes might pose “capacity” problems. The judge, in striking down the cap, agreed that the cap had reached capacity.
Furthermore, warned Brownson, “the Legislature will have to proceed with caution if it is not going to lose ground gained with respect to equity, as it attempts to address capacity.” And on this point, too, Brownson predicted the structure of the three-point court ruling that now will be taken to higher courts in Texas for review. While the judge agreed with West Orange Cove plaintiffs that the school system is under-funded, and that the tax cap should be lifted, he also agreed with intervening districts led by Edgewood and Alvarado, that the state’s allocation of money is inefficient (the court’s codewords for inequitable).
Considering Brownson’s impressive run of predictions, an observer of the school funding trial might stand vindicated for having felt that the state’s defense looked rather desperate. We’ll get another look at the state’s logic when a formal appeal is filed.
But returning to the Brownson study; even though it presents effective findings, there are two features of its methodology that worry me in the longer run First, Brownson’s analysis does not address the problem of school equity as a civil rights problem. Edgewood interveners, of course, were more clear on this point, because Edgewood leadership has been working on the problem at least since 1968, when the first “Edgewood” case, Rodriguez vs. San Antonio, was filed in federal court. Although the US Supreme Court denied the claims of Rodriguez, an eloquent dissenting opinion written by civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall ended with a footnote in 1973, that suggested a legal appeal to the Texas constitution. A decade later, the Edgewood cases were resumed, putting Marshall’s advice to good effect.
Brownson’s study was class-based, with focus on lingering gaps between “all students” and students who are “economically disadvantaged.” Edgewood interveners, led by attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) also presented statistical gaps between “Anglo” and “Hispanic” students; between “English speaking” students and those with “Limited English Proficiency” (LEP)--terms of struggle that speak more plainly to the civil rights legacy of the school funding struggle in Texas.
At first glance, the example of the Edgewood interveners might suggest that Brownson’s methodologies can be easily adapted to civil rights applications. Brownson, for instance, showed that equity gaps increase when expenses per student include costs of educating specific populations, such as the “economically disadvantaged.” Using the same kind of model, Edgewood interveners argued that gaps also increase if one accounts for the cost of bringing mostly Spanish speaking students into a system of English proficiency. In one of the more thrilling dramas of the courtroom, trial judge John Dietz took the state’s own bilingual expert, and in three minutes’ time, got her to admit that Texas should triple its funding formula for bilingual education.
And, just as Brownson used test scores from state-sponsored exams to demonstrate lingering performance gaps for impoverished children, the Edgewood interveners plugged in test scores to show gaps that separate ethnicities and language groups. So the uses made of the Brownson models might seem to be extended easily to civil rights demographics. As long as the state keeps pumping out standardized test scores, then inequities in education will continue to be measurable for civil rights purposes. But this is where I think the model will break down in the longer run.
Tests are convenient measurements of “output” for anyone who needs to place numbers on a scale. For students, teachers, parents, principals, and policy makers alike, test numbers have become common currency. In the Texas courtroom, test numbers collected by the state posed invaluable evidence against the state. Not only were overall passing rates on state exams introduced as evidence of “inadequacy,” but gaps between student “subgroups” were tagged as exhibits to show inequity.
I have an amateurish hunch that the currency of “test scores” is pretty closely aligned with the rise of the U.S. dollar (read capitalist ideology), and my suspicion is somewhat validated by Brownson’s gloss on the history of “production functions” in education. Today’s educational administrator is addicted to the kinds of fixes that “production functions” make possible.
What is both interesting and tragic, however, is that “production functions” were imported from industry (capitalists) to education (capitalists in waiting) in order to satisfy a civil rights mandate. It was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that called for a major study of educational equity in the United States and it was the resulting Coleman Report of 1966 that used “production functions” to demonstrate that schools were less to blame for student performance than, say, “family and peer group characteristics.” So it was a capital intensive statistical tool that was used to prove how academic achievement was more or less “inherently” attributable to social conditions rather than schooling. And all this was done in the name of civil rights.
Of course, if the plain logic of the Coleman report’s findings were to be followed out, we would have to conclude that social revolution rather than school reform would be a wiser mechanism for expanding the intelligence of a people. And there is a deeper civil rights truth to this line of thought, a truth that cost many civil rights activists their lives during the sixties and seventies. But in the muddled world of everyday politics in America, there is an oh-so-patient assumption that social reform, if not revolution, might be nurtured through school reform. And when you get to thinking about all the things that would be needed for any semi-coherent social revolution, or when you consider the way that status quo defenders in America simply execute civil rights leaders outright, school reform doesn’t look like such a bad place to both work and live.
At any rate, the marriage of civil rights to test scores is a tragic match in at least one respect over the longer term. The more that test scores are standardized, the more the curriculum must follow standardized tests, and, consequently, the less freedom teachers will have over time to innovate the very social changes that will be needed to stop re-inscribing the “inherent” structure of social intelligence as we find it. As Carter G. Woodson argued in the Miseducation of the Negro (1933), standardized education for white students is going to wind up being a repressive education for black students. Which means to me that attempts to bring “subgroups up to standards” through “standardized methods” is a logical prescription for intensified “miseducation,” precisely along anti-civil-rights lines.
Texas state demographer Steve Murdoch is getting a lot of credit for spurring the Texas court in the direction of its rulings. Murdoch argued that trends in poverty and “diversity” (more of both coming soon) demand vigorous educational reform. But if I’m not terribly mistaken in my memory, it was a similar nationwide demographic report from the Hudson Institute (Workforce 2000, published in 1987) that coincided with the state’s development of “standards” in the first place. Something at that time looked a little too slick to me, when “scare demographics” were answered with “standards.” I didn’t believe then that “standards” represented a sudden eruption of “good faith” among educational leaders of Texas, and I still don’t believe it.
Consider a recent out-of-class experience. On a recent Monday morning, a guy starts yelling at a cashier: “well if you understood English I could tell you!” The guy storms out of the snack bar, and I feel obliged to buy something from the cashier right away. She hides herself, however, behind a tall stack of product and equipment, avoiding eye contact as she attempts to regain her self-respect. Her co-worker steps up to take the next pitch. According to Texas standards, we had just witnessed a so-called “English-proficient speaker” attempting to communicate with a person of “Limited English Proficiency” otherwise known as an LEP.
I think it was clear to everyone in the room who had the real problem with intelligent communication that day, but in the jargon of Texas education policy, there are lots of LEPs, like that cashier, whose relationship to English is just this shaming, abusive accusation that “standard English” makes speakers so much smarter and better than all the other people around. Of course, there is no educational justification for this attitude whatsoever, which makes it all the more shameful that the confrontation that I witnessed was played out on a campus of higher education.
The Edgewood interveners are not only property poor, they are predominantly Hispanic. The students, therefore, are facing not only a class struggle, economically, but their ethnicity also presents them to the Texas educational establishment as a “special challenge.” And Brownson’s reliance on standardized test scores, a habit picked up by MALDEF attorneys, begins to solidify (or “legitimate” if you will) a regime of standardized instruction.
It was profoundly ironic that on Sept. 15 the trial judge in Texas referenced the Texas Revolution against Mexico in his prepared remarks after closing arguments. He said that even Texas rebels wanted better education for their kids. The judge was arguing that educational commitments could not be severed from the cultural history of Texas law. Yet, the very next day, Diez y seis de Septiembre, or Sept. 16, would be a lively day of celebration among many Texans of Mexican descent, in commemoration of a quite different revolution—the one that freed Mexico from Spain. Between the judge’s Sept. 15 reference to the Texas Revolution and widespread celebrations in of the Mexican Revolution on Sept. 16 lies a borderland of cultural histories that Texas people share.
After all, Gloria Anzaldua didn’t live for nothing, you know. Her Chicana, mestiza, frontera sin fronteras sensibilities were Texas-born and Texas-bred, and we are not going to bury anything she stood for. I remember a job interview once by telephone: “What do you teach?” Well I’m teaching Gloria Anzaldua’s new book at the moment. “Hmm, I think our committee would be looking for something a little more standard than that.” Precisely. What would be the point of teaching borderland consciousness if your students are busy preparing for standardized Graduate Record Exams?
So Brownson did a brilliant job by anticipating the model of judgment that the judge would eventually adopt. And the judge has wisely folded claims from Edgewood and Alvarado into the claims of West Orange Cove. As a consequence, Texas school funding is heading in a helpful direction, toward better and more equitable funding. So I don’t mean to shout “stop the train!” (as if the conductor would be listening to me anyway). But I do want to suggest that some major “challenges” of Texas education will require much more from this state than “adequate and efficient funding” or standardized regimes of tests. If Texas is going to grow, it will also have to grow up. And this will mean revisiting widespread assumptions about regimes of standardized instruction, the better to keep “test scores” and “English Proficiency” from killing the spirit of civil rights.
(1) Amanda Bright Brownson: School Finance Reform in Post Edgewood Texas: An Examination of Revenue Equity and Implications for Student Performance. Dissertation (Univ. of Texas-Austin: December 2002). Posted in pdf format by Permission of the Author at the Texas Civil Rights Review: http://texascivilrightsreview.org/phpnuke/downloadz/brownson.pdf
(2) And that cashier I referenced in the incident above? She was not Hispanic. She was Asian.
Greg Moses is Editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.