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HISD Student Congress Critique of Supreme Court School Finance Ruling

excellent amicus brief smallFour years ago, 600 school districts sued the State of Texas for inadequately funding public schools. We wrote an amicus brief to give the student perspective on this case full of dry legal facts and numbers. We hoped to sway the nine justices of the Texas Supreme Court with the names and faces of real students who dealt daily with the problems of school inadequacy. Unfortunately, while the justices acknowledged our “excellent amicus brief” in a lengthy footnote on page 24, they held steadfast to legal technicalities over the interests of five million public schoolchildren.

So while it is too late to change their decision, we are writing this article to critique the legal technicalities of the court. Our aim is just to demonstrate the court’s unfortunate use of legalese to sidestep doing the right thing for Texas’ kids. In doing so, we’ll break down the complicated 100-page opinion into a digestible form.

We will focus on the technicalities relating most to the classroom. They are encompassed by the adequacy clause of the Texas constitution. The Texas constitution guarantees:

“Article VII, section 1 states: A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools” (pg. 17).

The Adequacy clause is the first part, that “the school system is constitutionally adequate if it achieves a general diffusion of knowledge”  (pg. 30).

The Texas Supreme Court argued that schools satisfy minimum constitutional requirements of adequacy. The supreme court did this primarily by writing rebuttals to three points made by Judge John Dietz in the trial court that ruled in favor of the 600 school districts. Here are Judge Dietz’ three arguments (Dietz), the rebuttals by the supreme court (SCOTX), and our subsequent point-by-point critique of the supreme court’s unfortunate legalism (Our critique). As a caution, point 3 is lengthy:

1) Dietz: “The system was unconstitutional because spending was below the adequacy estimates” determined by three education experts: Allan Odden, Lynn Moak, and Bruce Baker. Each of these nationally-renowned experts determined a minimum amount of funding necessary for an adequate education in Texas and arrived at numbers from $6,176 to $$6,576. per pupil. All three of these estimates are dramatically higher than the State’s average of $5,662 per pupil (pg. 34).

SCOTX: “Adequacy determination should not depend on inputs such as funding per student; instead, the determination is plainly result-oriented, looking to the results of the educational process measured in student achievement.” (pg. 34). Additionally, there is “uncertainty as to the correlation between more money and better education”(pg. 35).

Our critique: While increased funding (an input) does not necessarily lead to better performance in education (an output) in every situation, better performance in education will and always will require some kind of funding. This is commonsense. As such, it is legitimate to consider the absolute minimum amount necessary for an adequate education. The Texas Supreme Court conveniently defined adequacy as results-oriented to dismiss a fundamental, intuitive point of the Dietz ruling.

2) Dietz: “Due to inadequate funding, the school finance system was constitutionally inadequate and unsuitable as to ELL and economically disadvantaged students” (pg. 46).

SCOTX: One cannot constitutionally argue for disproportionate funds for ELL and economically disadvantaged students “as necessary to improve the system as a whole unless they can show that the achievement gains to the allegedly underfunded subgroup will more than offset the losses that other students will sustain if they receive less funding.” (pg. 51)

Our critique: The supreme court’s use of legalese masks the truth of what they are saying: that educational benefits of increased funding for ELL and economically disadvantaged students must be more than the educational drawbacks of decreased funding for English-speaking and economically privileged students in order for this to be relevant to adequacy’s requirement of a general diffusion of knowledge. The Texas Supreme Court interprets adequacy to mean the sum total of general knowledge in society as opposed to a diffusion of knowledge among all of society’s members, including the disadvantaged. This privileged mindset of the Texas Supreme Court conveniently dismisses another fundamental, intuitive point of the Dietz ruling.

3) Dietz: “[All] performance measures considered at trial, including STAAR tests, EOC exams, SATs, the ACTs, performance gaps, graduation rates, and dropout rates among others, demonstrated that Texas public schools are not accomplishing a general diffusion of knowledge due to inadequate funding” (pg. 55-56)

SCOTX: Passing Rates of STAAR Tests / EOC Exams are superb (pg 62):Passing RatesOur critique: As the supreme court alludes to in their footnote to this graphic, these rates are “phase-in rates, not the final Level II standard” rate (pg 62). The Fort Bend ISD Plaintiffs, one of the main appellees in the case, explains in their brief that “The percentage of high school students achieving the Level II final/college-ready standard is still below 65% on every subject” (pg 153). “Level II… is associated with a 60% probability of achieving a “C” or better in college courses in the same subject area” (pg 26). So less than 65% of Texan students have a 60% probability of achieving a “C” or better in a college course in their high school subject. This is a far stretch from what the graphic implies. The Level II scores can be seen on the TEA’s official website. The Texas Supreme Court conveniently depicts passing rates that are technically correct, but deliberately misleading, to dismiss a key body of evidence from the Dietz ruling.

SCOTX: “The NAEP tests… show mixed results… In 2011, Texas ranked 29th in overall scores (reading and math for grades 4 and 8). The State points out that when the numbers are broken out by subgroup, Texas in 2011 ranked fourth in the nation for African-American students, seventh for Hispanic students, and eleventh for economically disadvantaged students” (pg 63).

Our critique: The Fort Bend ISD brief addresses this as well. “The NAEP scores are based on sampling, and states and school districts can exclude students from the sample if they have learning disabilities or are ELL—but there is no uniform standard for deciding which students to exclude, and Texas’s exclusion rate is among the highest in the nation” (pg 154). Once again, The Texas Supreme Court conveniently depicts NAEP scores that are technically correct, but deliberately misleading, to dismiss a key body of evidence from the Dietz ruling.

SCOTX: “According to evidence in the record, Texas had a graduation rate of 86% in 2011, tying for fourth in the nation…  Fort Bend [ISD Plaintiffs] points to other data that the Texas graduation rate was 75.4% and ranked 28th among the States. However, this data is from 2009 and the expert presenting it testified that “[t]he calculation method that the U.S. Department of Education is presently using . . . is the superior way to calculate graduation rates.”” (pg 63)

Our critique: While the supreme court mentioned the testimony of the Fort Bend ISD expert, they did not mention the testimony of the State’s expert. The Fort Bend ISD brief writes that “According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in four Texas students fails to graduate from high school. …the State cites a higher statistic issued by a different division of the U.S. Department of Education, which suggests that Texas’s graduation rate is higher than most states.  Their expert who presented that statistic at trial…candidly acknowledged to the Court, “I’m not sure which numbers to believe.” He further testified that both measures have “obvious flaws” and “I think we need to know more before we place large scale bets on particular graduation rates ….” (pg. 155). Clearly, no one graduation rate is completely defensible. The difference between 86% and 75.4%, or 4th in the nation and 28th in the nation, is too significant for the supreme court to throw aside.  For a third time, the Texas Supreme Court conveniently depicts graduation rates that are technically correct, but deliberately misleading, to dismiss a key body of evidence from the Dietz ruling.

We could go on and on about the shaky grounds that this supreme court ruling stands upon. While their opinion is well-written and well-researched, it lacks substance behind the veil of its statistics and legal jargon. We hope this article helps to breakdown a specific portion of the opinion regarding claims of constitutional adequacy. We can only imagine what the rest of the opinion is like for suitability, financial efficiency, and qualitative efficiency. Their lack of judicial integrity is tragic for the five million public schoolchildren of Texas.

This article was put together by Founding Speaker Zaakir Tameez with help from Chief of Staff Kate Ham and Graduated Member Tony Zhang.

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2016 by and tagged .

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