Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Texas Schools May Face a Wilderness of Funding ; with 'Robin Hood' in Court, Poor Schools Squirm, in a Microcosm of a National Battle

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Texas Schools May Face a Wilderness of Funding ; with 'Robin Hood' in Court, Poor Schools Squirm, in a Microcosm of a National Battle

Article excerpt

Just beyond the Houston ship channel, among the petrochemical stacks, sits one of Texas's poorest school districts. More than 80 percent of students are minorities. Many don't speak English as a first language. Their parents don't drive Lexuses.

Yet the Galena Park Independent School District is also the state's largest "exemplary" district - the highest rating given out for performance. The reason, say educators: Robin Hood.

That's the name of the state's current school-funding system, under which wealthy districts are forced to share property-tax revenues with poor ones. For Galena Park, one result is innovative programs for struggling students. But in wealthier districts, revolt has long been simmering. And as education budgets tighten across the state, suburban parents are saying, in effect, "We want our money to stay right here."

The clash over education funding is surfacing with greater intensity nationwide. In Vermont, where a similar law seeks to spread the wealth, one town seceded from the public-school system. Dozens more have raised millions for their own schools, through private funds that bypass the state. And in New Hampshire, the supreme court ruled in favor of a coalition of towns with scant property wealth, who claimed the state put unfair pressure on local communities to raise funds.

School funding, long one of the states' most perplexing issues, often gets legislative attention only under court order. Currently, 20 states are being challenged in court for failing to provide adequate funding to all schools.

The rich-school-poor-school gap has always been a sore point. But in an era of slashed budgets and new demands on school performance, districts are showing fresh desperation, and dismay.

Pressing case, tight budget

Now, the Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case aimed at dismantling the current funding system. Arguments are scheduled for March 27, and a quick decision may force the Texas legislature to deal with it this year.

Although many lawmakers agree that the system is broken, they've been reluctant to fix it - even in years when they haven't been preoccupied with a $10-billion budget shortfall.

"It has all the makings for a perfect storm," says Steve Smith, who studies education finance for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, Colo. "In the middle of a difficult budget time nationwide, No Child Left Behind requires that all children perform at a proficient level by 2014." Since only one-third of US children currently perform at the mandated level, he says, "that's a 200 percent increase in productivity without a significant increase in funding."

Since the 1970s, some states have improved funding for poor school districts by shifting from reliance on local property taxes - which give richer districts a huge advantage - to greater reliance on state taxes for school revenue. …

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