Interview

Rich Schools, Poor Schools

Recently San Antonio attorney Al Kauffman, who for most of the past 25 years has pushed and prodded the state to provide equal finding for public schools, announced his decision to step down as regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Instead of full-time lawyering, his plans include teaching and lobbying. Kauffman was the lead counsel in Edgewood v. Kirby, the historic statewide challenge to the Texas School Finance System that resulted in the so called “Robin Hood” decision. Earlier this month TO contributor Belle Zars met with Kauffman in the MALDEF office in San Antonio.

Texas Observer: What was your favorite case? The one where you had the most fun?

Al Kauffman: Probably Edgewood. It was fun because I got to work with a lot of people in the schools, not just the superintendent. I got to go to school board meetings and see lots of kids and then also do a lot of politics, fun politics. I thought all that was just very enjoyable.

TO: How would you describe the Robin Hood model to a non-Texan?

AK: From my perspective, it’s not a Robin Hood model. The school finance plan does two major things: First it makes the state send a bigger proportion of its money to the poor districts. One of the great inequities in the system was that they wouldn’t send nearly enough additional money to the poor districts and they would keep sending money to wealthy districts that didn’t need it. Now a district with more low income kids, more bilingual education kids, more special-ed kids, will get more money than one with fewer of those kids. That’s the first part. The second part, and the one that has gotten much more of its share of the publicity in terms of its importance, is the recapture provision. This requires the very wealthy districts to share some of their property wealth with other districts in the state. The recapture provision makes these wealthy districts give about 600 to 700 million dollars a year into the school finance system to help the poor districts.

TO: If we had an effective tax system, then you wouldn’t need recapture?

AK: That’s right. If you have income tax instead of property tax, that would be a fair system. The new proposal for a statewide property tax–instead of having each district taxing its property– that would be a fair system.

TO: Is Texas unusual in the way it funds school districts?

AK: No. I think it is similar to a lot of state systems where you use local property taxes. What made that system so bad in Texas was that there was such a range of wealth, greater than in most other states; it made it harder for the state to compensate for the differences.

And there are so many districts. Florida has 67 districts one for each county. Texas has 1,040 districts; some counties have 13! When you have so many districts and such a tremendous variety of wealth, that’s what creates the inequity.

We’re trying to give every district the same resources for its kids. There still are inequities because funding is still based on the tax effort–on the willingness to tax.

TO: Recapture money that is shifted from the wealthy districts to the poorer districts–how big of a difference did that make?

AK: It’s not a major thing but it would be hard to replace 600 to 700 million dollars a year. The total amount spent for K-12 in public education is in the 20-billion-dollar range.

TO: What is your sense of the political will? What do Texans want?

AK: What Texans want is a much better educational system, but they don’t want to pay anything for it. They don’t want an income tax. They’re tired of property taxes going up but they want an improved education system.

TO: For their kids?

AK: I don’t think it is just for their kids. Over the past 15 years there has been an increased understanding that the whole state has to do better. I give some credit to Ross Perot. He was involved in this back in ’83-84. His commission was one of the first to focus on an up-to-date notion of school finance; he tried to convince people that we are not going to compete internationally unless you have a good education system. We’ve been saying this for years, but we are just poor folks, and minority advocates and poor district advocates. The legislature has put more money into the system over the years–because the number of kids is increasing and that increases the cost. Texas has had a 2 percent annual growth rate in school population. That adds 60-70,000 kids a year. When we started doing this case there were three million kids and now there are four million. That’s a LOT! And costs have gone up too.

TO: Was the state ever in a receivership or under court monitoring?

AK: No, it was close. There was a recommendation that a master be put over the school finance system, but it never happened. They did put pressure on the state by saying funding would be cut off. The state’s first solution, in 1990, was to put in a lot more money, but not make a big change in terms of equity. That wasn’t a bad thing, it just didn’t solve the equity question. It would have moved everyone up a notch, but still left too big a gap between rich and poor districts.

TO: How quickly can changes in school financing translate into im-provement in the quality of schools?

AK: It still takes a long time to overcome not having the better teachers, not having the curriculum and all that stuff even if you equalize funding. If they haven’t had the money, two things happen: They built cheap buildings to begin with, then they didn’t do the maintenance. Of course, districts made choices. In San Antonio, the choice was very much toward salaries, which I don’t argue with, but they would never spend anything on buildings. Their buildings were just decrepit.

TO: What pieces will have to be in place before there is genuine equity?

AK: Just because you give two districts exactly the same money, that’s not going to do it; you still have a pent up deficit. When you’ve had fewer benefits and fewer buildings, its harder to compete for the better teachers.That applies to administrators as well. There is also the infrastructure–desks, computers, curriculum materials, books, libraries, all of those things. Having an equal amount of money helps tremendously, but you can’t turn it around in one year. If you gave these districts exactly the same funds, it’s going to take 20 years to make up for the deficits.

Of course, that’s not even talking about the buildings. My kids go to a school that the district should tear down. They have four different structures–one is an old school building, one is an add-on, one is an activity center, and then they’ve got Quonset huts–”portables.” There is no room for the kids to play and it’s very crowded. My youngest, my 9-year old boy, eats lunch at 10:45. He’s through with lunch by 11, because the cafeteria is so small. By 3:00 he wants to eat your arm. That’s terrible for kids. But, hey, they do have a cafeteria. I represented some schools that didn’t have cafeterias, where they used to have to take all their kids to another school to eat lunch!

TO: If Edgewood is your favorite, what’s the worst case? Are there any you are still sore about?

AK: One of them was higher education. We won a district court judgment in Brownsville that declared the higher-ed system unconstitutional for discriminating against Mexican-Ameri-cans because the universities in the border area were not as well funded. We won in district court. We pulled a big group of people together and planned for the whole border area, got a lot through the legislature. Then the Texas Supreme Court went against us 9-0; that was a real shocker. And that just took the air out of the sails of the people who truly wanted to improve the border’s higher education. But UTSA here got extra buildings, extra programs. They got the beginnings of their doctoral programs. The downtown campus is here because of the lawsuit. A brand new campus is in Laredo because of the lawsuit. Pan Am, Edinburg, and Brownsville got additional funds because of the lawsuit.

TO: Why do you think the court ruled against you?

AK: There were several things going on. Basically the state blamed the institutions; they hadn’t been effective lobbyists and they hadn’t been effective within the higher education system in seeking programs. The Court agreed that it was OK for Texas to have this system with two flagships in College Station and UT-Austin. They had just been through the Edgewood case–and I think they were quite reluctant to get into dealing with the higher education finance system. Nobody has ever told me that, that’s never been written, that’s just reading between the lines.

The second is this testing case, the TAAS case in 2000. I just felt very bad about losing that one. I don’t think the tests accurately reflect minority kids’ knowledge and abilities. Even if they did, there’s too much weight on the test scores. My third grader has spent all week working on the TAAS. We almost got legislation passed on this last session. We got it through the House, but the chair of the Senate education committee did not like it so he never set a hearing on it. Now next session may be different because next session there will be some results. We project that something like 20-25 percent of third graders will fail the tests and then will fail the third grade.

TO: What you lost in the court you may be able to get in the Legislature?

AK: I think so. To some extent, I think the courts have moved away from being very active in a lot of these areas. It’s not like it was 20-25 years ago. The Legislature is probably the place where you can get more done. You don’t always get what you want; you don’t get that in the court either.

TO: Where does your anger come from? What “fuels” you?

AK: I don’t know. I don’t know how much of that fuel is left. Maybe that’s some of the reason I’m leaving. I think my anger came from growing up in the ’60s, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, watching the people get beat up on the bridge in Selma, civil rights people killed. Growing up in Galveston, which was obviously a pretty racist, old-time, southern city.

TO: Did you go to an integrated high school?

AK: No, no, no. There was perfect segregation. My high school, Ball High School, was eight blocks away from Central High School, which was all black. It was the last year–I graduated in ’65–the last year there was segregation.

TO: Did you expect to get into school reform?

AK: I didn’t. I had done some education work in bilingual education, some voting work, some employment work. I didn’t expect to really get into it and then I got into the Edgewood case.

TO: It’s a good place to find an underdog.

AK: Oh yeah, you bet. I worked with a lot of experts who taught me about these things. My friends at IDRA (Intercultural Development Research Associates) and faculty people I have worked with through the years.

People say, “Well you haven’t done anything to change the districts.” And they’re right. There is only so much you can do. If you have a bad superintendent and a bad school board, there’s not much I can do. TEA and state leaders can do more in terms of being sure board members are educated on their roles and know about education policy, making sure that the teachers are qualified and certified. The most important stuff is to have small classes and good teachers. I have my kids in public schools. I’m not sure I should, but I do. The schools are a lot better than they used to be. I went to public school in Texas from ’54 through ’65. By the time I was in sixth grade we had tracking, and in the top classes you got a pretty decent education. The bottom classes didn’t; the dropout rates were terrible. The dropout rates are still bad. That’s one of the real tragedies. There are a lot of missing kids. The TEA has been so terrible about covering that up.

TO: The Obfuscation Society?

AK: You bet. In the TAAS case, one of the state’s experts was Uri Treisman from the Dana Center at UT-Austin. They get millions from TEA and he is their big defender of the testing system. Even he said that he could not defend their dropout numbers. TEA changes its definition of a dropout almost almost every year. It’s a tragedy.

TO: If you could change something in Texas, what would you change?

AK: Testing is something I’d really like to change. The way the tests are being used is having a lot of negative effects throughout the system, especially for minority education. We overcame some of these other barriers — bilingual education, desegregation, school finance — those things are slowly being dealt with in Texas. We were getting closer and closer to good education and then the testing came in. It’s a big business model. They want to be able to sit at their computers and pull up test results and tell you how every school in the state is doing.

The third grade teachers in my son’s school looked at the results and said the kids are not doing well on objective 11 through 15. And my boy actually knows that third graders in his school are not doing well on objectives 11 through 15 of the TAAS. So now they are drilling on objectives 11 through 15. People talk about progress in Texas education, and I do think there has been progress, but there would have been more without the tests.

Belle Zars is a writer living in San Antonio.

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