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INTERVIEW Rich Schools, Poor Schools And Testing All Around: The Education of Al Kauffman BY BELLE ZARS Ra ecently San Antonio attorney Al Kaufman, who for most of the past 25 years has pushed and prodded the state to provide equal finding for public schools, nnounced his decision to step down as regional counsel for the MexicanAmerican Legal Defense and Educational 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 taxinstead 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 efforton the willingness to tax. TO: Recapture money that is shifted from the wealthy districts to the poorer districtshow big of a difference did that make? 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 20billion-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 yearsbecause 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 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4126102