Demetrio Rodriguez and Edgewood allies in 1984 ALAN POGUE distributed to others within their CED. According to its fundraising brochure, Alamo Heights lost about $5.5 million in property taxes to its CED and received about $1.1 million from the state, for a net loss of about $4.4 million. Fifty wealthy school districts, including Alamo Heights, immediately challenged the new law. Ironically, they won partly because of the very provisions intended to placate them. If the new CED tax structure had simply replaced the old school districts, it probably would have survived legal challenge. But by superimposing CEDs on existing school districts, the Legislature created something that resembled a state property tax, which is explicitly prohibited by the state constitution. On Jan. 22, 1992, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the new law unconstitutional. Concerned about delayed progress towards equalization, as well as the disruption of school finances, it also ruled that the new system should remain in place until the Legislature could come up with a better plan. Those who had struggled for months to satisfy the court’s earlier demands were furious at this new, seemingly contradictory ruling. But the Supreme Court can’t be blamed for the underlying political stalemate. Representatives of poor districts generally want equalization. Representatives of rich districts generally don’t. Representatives of middle districts want equality but are afraid it will cost too much. Something has to give. The new deadline is June 1993. All of Demetrio Rodriguez’s children have graduated from high school. Two of his grandchildren now attend elementary school in the Edgewood district. “The only thing we did wrong, stayed in the wilderness a day too long” The legal maneuvering and legislative suspense surrounding the Edgewood case have distracted attention from its larger meaning. The political atmosphere of the 1980s made people like Demetrio Rodriguez seem like relics of the past rather than harbingers of the future. But the Edgewood case poses a challenge to the country as a whole. Equal rights to education costs more than other kinds of equal rights. Are the bettereducated willing to help pay for these, or not? Racial, ethnic and economic segregation in residential neighborhoods has actually increased in the United States since 1970. The lines of most school districts were drawn long before overt segregation was outlawed. Families were willing to tax themselves more heavily if they were certain the benefits would be enjoyed by their own children and those of their friends. They drew district lines that excluded groups they considered undesirable and within those boundaries established good schools. Property values within their districts increased, because many people wanted to buy homes there to take advantage of good schools. As property values went up, a lower tax rate was adequate to raise the same amount of revenue, further enhancing the attractiveness of the neighborhood. Exactly the opposite process took place in communities whose residents were barred from good neighborhoods and excluded from political power. Because they didn’t have much wealth, they had to set high tax rates in order to fund good schools. But if they set high tax rates, they discouraged businesses and prospective home owners from locating in their community. Their collective property wealth remained low, and therefore their educational spending remained low. The Alamo Heights Foundation Brochure highlights this circular relationship between the tax base and the schools. Local real estate agent Kathleen Kuper explains the threat that school funding equalization poses even to those residents who don’t have children: “Property values are directly related to the excellence of education in the Alamo Heights School District. To maintain that excellence the foundation needs the support of our community now more than ever.” The taxable value of property in Alamo Heights today, per pupil, is $461,884; in Edgewood, $35,288. My father, a man whose immense patience has survived 40 years of argument with his pointy-headed daughter, says, “Well let those Rodriguezes work hard and save until they can move into Alamo Heights. There’s nothing stopping them from doing that now.” In fact, the demographics of the Alamo Heights school district have changed a great deal since I went to school there. Today, about 25 percent of all students are Latino and about 2 percent are black. About 22 percent of all students come from low-income families. But it’s still not easy to find affordable housing in Alamo Heights, or to live there if your job is on the west side of town. At Edgewood, 96 percent of all students are Latino, and 89 percent come from low-income families. Instructional spending per student there averaged about 75 percent of that at Alamo Heights throughout the 1980s, and test scores were significantly lower \(comparing Latino, as well as The economic obstacles to equal opportunity are still too high. Not enough poor people are well educated enough to earn enough money to live in a district where their children can get well educated. The economy today isn’t like it was 50 years ago it’s hard to find good jobs unless you have a college degree. My father still shakes his head, but I still shake my finger. Several Alamo Heightsters I talked to said “equalization is a good idea, but not if it involves taking money away from rich districts and giving it to poor ones.” But there’s no other way to accomplish equalization. Even a state income tax, if used primarily to aid poor districts, redistributes income. If you want equal opportunity and what it represents fair play and genuine competition you have to pay for it. One problem is, a lot of people think they can’t afford it. Declines in average, inflationadjusted family income over the past 20 years have created new apprehensions. Forget the Republican slogan of the 1980s, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The ship has been sinking, and people are fighting over lifeboats. White middle-class families are afraid of losing their advantage. Average real weekly earnings are now about 19 percent lower than they were in 1973. This decline has been unevenly distributed. Workers without high school diplomas have experienced the greatest losses, but even those with high school degrees have suffered. Only college graduates have held even. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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