Weatherford Democrat

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November 21, 2012

School litigation trial

Judge: Tough standards may reflect new reality

WEATHERFORD — The judge hearing Texas’ sweeping school finance trial has suggested “maybe we as a state have been satisfied with mediocrity.”

State District Judge John Dietz heard testimony Tuesday from Nabor Cortez, superintendent of La Feria Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley.

Cortez said students from low-income families have struggled to meet new, more-difficult state standardized tests.

Dietz suggested that, in the past, Texas may have “been kind of pushing people through the education factory.”

He said tougher standards might help the state’s students compete with their counterparts from other countries.

Cortez responded that kids can improve test scores, but only if school districts have proper funding.

The testimony comes after the judge on Monday denied a motion to allow districts to resubmit evidence after attorneys for the state uncovered errors during cross examination.

Dietz said he would not allow the schools suing the state to recalculate a study that found Texas needs to spend an additional $7 billion a year to adequately fund public schools. Dietz is now unlikely to use the study when determining his final judgment.

“You have to keep things in perspective,” Bobby Rigues, president of the Aledo ISD board and creator of the Make Education A Priority campaign, said of Monday’s events. “The models and figures are just one aspect, one portion of this trial.”

Later Monday, another expert who produced a separate study using a different methodology testified that Texas should be spending $7.7 billion more a year to meet the requirement under the Texas Constitution to provide for an adequate and efficient system for educating the state’s children.

“It’s hard to say what impact, if any, Dietz’ decision could have on the case,” Rigues said. “There are a number of models that attorneys for the districts will be using.”

Attorneys for the state uncovered the errors in the study by William Duncombe during cross examination.

Philip Fraissinet, an attorney for the schools, asked for permission to correct the errors and resubmit the complex model Duncombe used to calculate the estimate, but Assistant Attorney General Lisa Halpern objected.

The Republican-led Legislature cut funding for Texas public schools by $5.4 billion last year, leading to larger class sizes, teacher layoffs and the elimination of full-day pre-kindergarten in most schools districts. Several groups of schools districts have sued the state over the funding cuts and other policies they say hinder public education.

Texas does not have a statewide income or property tax and relies on local property taxes and other state revenue to fund schools.

After the ruling on the Duncombe study, Allan Odden of the University Wisconsin presented his own study of Texas schools that was based on public school data. Odden explained to Dietz that no single model can accurately state how much spending is required, but by looking at several different methodologies he should get an idea of what is required.

Odden estimated the state needs to spend an average of $2,000 a year more per student to provide an adequate education. Texas currently spends $8,908 per student, compared with the national average of $11,463.

He testified that in order to adequately fund public schools Texas would need to spend $46.8 billion, which includes adjustments for transportation, food service and other costs. That total is $3.7 billion more than 2010-11 spending, which was what was spent before the latest round of cuts last year.

“It suggests that Texas is underfunding its schools,” Odden said.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Halpern challenged Odden on whether his model, which assumes 600-student high schools, does not account for the savings to be had from the economies-of-scale with larger schools. She noted that only 3.7 percent of Texas high schools fit Odden’s prototype, adding that a 1,800-student high school wouldn’t need three times as many principals, head football coaches and orchestra teachers.

Odden and Halpern also quibbled about class size studies and whether lasting student gains in educational outcomes can be attributed to small classes since Odden’s model is based on an average 15 students in kindergarten through third grade, and 25 students in grades four to 12.

Halpern concluded by suggesting that Odden was providing plaintiffs “a number they can ask for without regard to whether it is used to improve the education of Texas school children.”

The trial is expected to last into January and area administrators have said the trial’s outcome won’t likely have an impact until after the next Texas Legislative Session.

“My biggest fear today is that everyone will be focused on this lawsuit, which will probably not be concluded until after the legislature meets,” Rigues said.

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Staff writer Sally Sexton contributed to this report.

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