Texas schools face an $8 billion dilemma
Expert warns campuses need more money
AUSTIN – Texas faces a public education crisis because state lawmakers are not providing the money needed to help students meet new and more rigorous academic standards, a school funding expert testified Monday.
Lynn Moak told state District Judge John Dietz that it will take more than $8 billion a year in additional money to get students on target to graduate and to meet new college and career readiness standards. About 150,000 9th-grade students, or 47 percent of last year’s freshman high school class, are not on track to graduate, according to the state’s more rigorous academic standards, Moak told the court.
“We are in a current crisis. The crisis gets worse in the future,” Moak said during a break in the hearing. “The crisis is sufficient now to demand action.”
Moak’s testimony in a lawsuit brought by some 600 public school districts against the state of Texas will continue Tuesday. Lawyers for the Texas Attorney General’s office, who are defending the state, have not yet had the opportunity to challenge Moak’s testimony.
Moak is a key witnesses in the trial because of his long experience with school finance issues, beginning in 1966 when he served as a research assistant for a special public education-related committee appointed by Gov. John Connally. Moak, a partner in the Moak-Casey education consulting firm, testified for all four school district groups involved in the lawsuit.
Moak told Dietz it will take about $6 billion in additional money per year to adequately educate Texas students, on top of restoring $2.65 billion per year in education cuts that lawmakers made last year to help balance the budget.
“If we don’t see improvement, you will see even larger numbers of students at risk of not being able to graduate,” Moak told the judge, who said he planned to grill policy experts on both sides.
“In order for us to be competitive in the 21st century, don’t we have to know more and don’t we have to do a better job in communicating?” Dietz asked rhetorically. “But there is no free lunch and everything comes at a cost. And what is the projected cost?”
The new accountability standards are hitting low-income students the hardest. Only 40 percent of them have passed all of the 9th grade tests, which are required for high school graduation.
The number of low-income students increases each year and now makes up more than 60 percent of Texas’ 5 million K-12 public school enrollment. Low-income students generally cost more to educate because many arrive in kindergarten or first grade with less-developed vocabularies and other skills than children from middle- and upper-income families.
Republican legislators last year cut $4 billion from public education formulas and another $1.3 billion in special grants, such as full-day Pre K programs for low-income children and student success initiatives for tutoring and summer school programs to help struggling students.
Moak said he could not assess the impact on schools and students.
“I do not know of any significant legislative review to determine if these programs were not needed or were not producing good results,” he said.
Spending per student in Texas peaked at $7,415 in 2009, and has dropped to $6,293 in 2013, Moak said.
‘An option for survival’
Texas began ramping up public education standards in the 1990s, and state lawmakers also increased spending for public schools, Moak said.
“I saw a substantial financial response by the state at the same time they incorporated higher academic standards,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Everman ISD Superintendent Jeri Pfeifer testified about the hardship facing property-poor school districts that have reached their tax rate limit of $1.17 per $100 of assessed value for school operations, as her district near Fort Worth has.
The Everman district taxpayers approved a tax ratification election last year to generate an additional $2.3 million, but the district lost nearly all of it from legislative budget cuts. The tax rate increase was promoted as necessary to provide academic enrichment for schools, but Pfeifer said, “We had to use them as an option for survival.”
Dietz asked Pfeifer whether the district has meaningful discretion.
“We’re working harder every year with fewer resources and systematically losing ground,” Pfeifer said.