Reschooling Texas BY JENNIFER WONG Austin IT IS ABOUT 2 p.m. on January 29, one week after the Texas Supreme Court delivered its second unanimous decision in favor of the Edgewood plaintiffs. A crowd of lawyers, superintendents, schoolteachers, and reporters has filled all available seats in room 106 of the Reagan House Office Building, and latecomers stand in the back or sit in the aisles. As the witnesses come forward one by one to testify before the House Public Education Committee, more than one has professed to be “an expert in unconstitutional systems.” At one point, Representative Ernestine Glossbrenner, chairwoman of the House Public Education Committee, leans toward her microphone to announce that the University of Texas Lady Longhorns are playing a volleyball game at 7 p.m., and adds that the chair would like to attend. She then calls the next witness. A little later, Houston Representative Paul Colbert interrupts the hearing to say the Legislature has suffered a SCUD attack. That is, SCUD standing for a Supreme Court Unanimous Decision. Everyone groans. Madame Chair, like a teacher indulging a precocious pupil, warns Mr. Colbert that she can have him removed from the proceeding. In an arena dominated by trial attorneys, it’s comforting to remember that the House Public Education Committee Chairwoman is a retired schoolteacher from Alice who demands that witnesses speak English, not legalese. It will take this schoolteacher’s leadership to bring order from the chaos. Representative Glossbrenner has sponsored House Bill 3, paralleled by a similar proposal by Port Arthur Senator Carl Parker \(the education poses to consolidate the state’s 1,055 school districts into 20 taxing regions and shift hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes from wealthy to poor schools. While it may be changed significantly within the next month, this proposal represents the first nucleus of consensus in what is expected to be a long and arduous chapter in legislative history. In the end, the committee and the Legislature will most likely pass a bill. But, as Representative Glossbrenner warns, “It’s not going to be a pretty child.” If the point wasn’t clear after the Supreme Court’s first Edgewood decision in 1989, it’s painfully obvious now. Last month, the Texas Jennifer Wong covers the Legislature for the Observer. Supreme Court, in another unanimous decision, upheld District Judge F. Scott McCown’s ruling that the public education finance system still violates the state constitution. Again, the House and Senate education committees have shifted into high gear in an attempt to produce a law that will somehow accommodate the compromises of the politicians and the scrutiny of the judges. If the legislators can’t pull it all off by April 1, the court has threatened to take matters into its own hands, and may shut down the Texas public schools in the process. The latest Supreme Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, has understandably thrown the Legislature into a tizzy. With four opinions to work with two from the Supreme Court, one from former District Judge Harley Clark, one from McCown few-lawyers have been able to agree to any one interpretation. One attorney representing the Equity Center, an advocacy group whose membership includes many of the state’s property-poor school districts, has publicly argued a position contrary to his clients’s. Bills are in a constant state of flux, undergoing major revisions in the few days between filing and public committee hearings. It’s deja vu, but should come as no surprise. After three frustrating special sessions, all the 71st Legislature had to show for its troubles was Senate Bill 1, an education finance plan so utterly compromised that Governor Bill “No New Taxes” Clements had no choice but to sign it. The Edgewood plaintiffs, accordingly, had plenty of good reasons to appeal their case and they did so successfully. As Chief Justice Phillips wrote in the most recent Supreme Court opinion, “Senate Bill 1 leaves essentially intact the same funding system with the same deficiencies we reviewed in Edgewood I.” SB 1 guaranteed 90 percent of the school districts access to funds equal to 95 percent of the funding available to the district at the 95th percentile, and thus excluded 132 of the wealthiest school districts that were defendants in the original suit. Not only was this omission unfair, the court ruled, it was also inefficient, since those 132 districts included 15 percent of the property wealth in a state which includes 1,055 school districts. In addition, SB 1 “makes no attempt to equalize access to funds among all school districts,” resulting in a 450-to-1 ratio of property wealth between the students from the richest and poorest district. Because school districts were allowed to spend as much on local enrichment as they chose, the court held that disadvantaged districts like San Antonio Edgewood would forever be trying and failing to catch up with the property-wealthy districts, such as San Antonio’s Alamo Heights ISD. This, the court ruled, is not equity. The most critical task now at hand is defining equity. Judge McCown advocated testing the constitutionality of a system by analyzing whether it provided each school district “substantially equal access to similar revenues per pupil and similar levels of tax effort.” Mark Yudof, dean of the University of Texas Law School, addressed this issue while speaking to the Senate Finance Committee: “What does it mean to have a ‘substantially equal’ system, now that we know won’t suffice?” Answering this question almost requires second-guessing 10 judges. If access to 95 percent of funding isn’t sufficient, would the Equity Center plan of 97 percent work? Other groups wonder if it is safer to assume as Representative Paul Colbert contends, that “All means all.” Edgewood II seems to have instilled the fear of appeal into the minds of government officials, who now seem inclined to take a more radical position than even some of the plaintiffs. Toni Hunter, lead counsel for the state, says that compared with past opinions, the scope of the court’s decision has “considerably narrowed. I think ‘all’ is the word to hang our hats on.” While most people realize that now isn’t the time for stalling, plenty of school administrators even under the threat of a courtrun education system lobby for the status quo behind a mask of reform-oriented verbiage. John Walsh, a school superintendent described by Republican Representative Harvey Hilderbran as an “innovative architect” proposed a Penny Pool Plan a system of distribution similar to the current inequitable system, where “you don’t necessarily give anybody any more money, you just install equal yield for equal effort.” Representatives from the Texas Association of School Administrators found it expedient to complain about the loss of local control until Governor Ann Richards, in her February 6 address, called the argument a “hoax.” Calling for a return to genuine community autonomy, Governor Richards charged that “Local control is a myth when Austin bureaucrats draft 10 rules for every action a teacher takes. It’s not surprising you get all those rules when you’ve got a thousand employees at TEA [Texas Education Agency] whose only job is to generate them.” 16 FEBRUARY 22, 1991
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