Page 14


First grade bilingual class in Austin Austin WHEN STATE DISTRICT Judge Harley Clark wrote a big red “F” across the Texas system of public school finance, and sent it back to lawmakers for revision and correction, he did so on behalf of three million citizens who could not even vote. He did it for the public school children of Texas. “Many are only beginning to learn to read and write. They are still wet and stand upon wobbly legs. They know not the way, so we must lead them,” wrote the judge. The judge is trying to lead them into a world where the amount of taxable wealth in a school district no longer determines the amount of money which can be spent toward learning. If the decision is upheld it will touch off an educational revolution in Texas and a lot of Texas plainly isn’t ready. Lawyers on both sides of Edgewood v. Kirby say the Clark decision represents the most sweeping interpretation ever made of the equal protection clause in Article 1, Section 3 of the state constitution. It is also the first time a Texas state court has found that Article 7, section 1 establishes education as a fundamental right. Like bleach and ammonia in a kitchen cupboard, those two constitutional clauses sat around harmlessly for years. But when the judge put them together, shook them up and tossed them in the direction of the state capitol, they blew up all over a legislature still reeling from budget shock. “I think the decision’s Communist and it sucks no, don’t quote me,” said one prominent state official, echoing the sentiments of many lawmakers who thought they had taken care of the school finance problems with the 1984 reform law. That bill, HB 72, was passed partly in response to the filing of Edgewood v. Kirby. But in the opinion of the judge, it did not go far enough. It may have steered millions of dollars of state money from rich districts to poor ones. But there are still some school districts Mary Lenz is a frequent Observer contributor. She lives in Austin. spending $2,000 per year, per child, while others spend up to $12,000. In invalidating Texas’ $11 billion public school finance system, the judge found that poor districts are taxing at heavier rates than rich ones to raise far less money. Based on 1985-86 data, the judge found that the average tax rate in the state’s 100 poorest districts is 74 cents per $100 valuation compared with 47 cents in the 100 wealthiest districts. The judge found that the “wide variation in taxable wealth per pupil” in the state’s 1,063 school districts has “consistently worked against children” in low wealth districts because those districts have far less power to raise money from local sources. Forty-two percent of the money spent in public schools here comes from the state and 49 percent from local taxes. The rest comes from the federal government and other sources. The judge found that under a system where the 300,000 students in the highest-wealth districts have 25 percent of the state’s total property wealth , to draw on, and their opposite numbers go to school in districts containing less than three percent of that wealth, equal access to education is a myth. Some have argued that the Clark decision will penalize wealthy districts which choose to make a bigger commitment to education and spend more per pupil than others. But, in fact, “the low-wealth districts have higher tax rates than the high wealth districts. They are already trying harder,” said All Kauffman, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and lead lawyer for the 67 poor school districts in the suit. “Eventually, I think it will be much fairer for taxpayers. Taxpayers will get what they pay for. The situation right now is that some taxpayers are paying more and getting less” and vice versa, Kauffman said. Under the Clark ruling, the state is required to come up with a finance system that “gives each school district the same ability as every other district to obtain, by state legislative appropriation or by local taxation or both” the dollars that will provide an equal education. “Equality of access to funds is the key and is one of the requirements of this fundamental right,” said the judge. Nobody over at the pink granite palace was happy about the decision grave disappointment was expressed all around. Speaker Gib Lewis said the decision could be “disastrous.” Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby referred to it as a “typical, ill-advised judicial result” which would appear “to penalize the State of Texas for events it could not control, like the worldwide collapse of oil and gas prices.” In other words, Judge Clark need not expect to be invited over soon for barbecue, unless he plans to show up with an apple in his mouth. State officials are likening the Edgewood case to the landmark Ruiz lawsuit against the state prison system. But the costs, both political and financial, if the Clark decision is upheld, could be more sweeping, affecting virtually every family in Texas. Equality in Education Upheld By Mary Lenz THE TEXAS OBSERVER