Monday, February 14, 2005

Full court press

I was going to write about Margaret Spellings' interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education (which was more interesting for what didn't get asked), or the story about Spellings' newfound flexibility on NCLB, but then I saw this article.

I've been following the school finance debate in Texas very closely recently. Texas, like a dozen or so other states, has been ordered by the courts to fix school finance so that schools are reasonably equitable. As the very capable Jenny LaCoste-Caputo of the San Antonio Express News points out, they aren't anywhere near equitable now:

Shabby portable buildings sit nearly end-to-end on the blacktop parking lot.

Construction paper and faded curtains cover the windows, blocking out glare when the sun shines and drafts on chilly days. When it rains, mud piles up and water flows like a tiny river between the wooden buildings.

The narrow, dimly lit rooms are crammed to capacity with desks and chairs. In some classes, there aren't enough places for students to sit.

Here at Porter High School in Brownsville, most of the 2,100 students spend at least part of their day in decaying, temporary classrooms. The school district — one of the poorest in Texas — can't afford to keep pace with growing enrollment.

"If you had facilities like this in a district like Northside (in San Antonio) there's no way parents would put up with it," Porter Principal Alonzo Barbosa said. "But these kids don't know how bad they've got it. They've never seen anything different."

... "Our kids have to pass the same exams and face the same challenges as every other student in the state," said Daniel King, superintendent for Hidalgo School District, about 70 miles west of Brownsville near the Mexican border. "The state has the same expectations of my kids so the access to funding needs to be relatively equal."

On average, property-rich districts have $500 more to spend per student than property-poor districts — a $450,000-a-year difference at a typical elementary campus, according to the Equity Center.

This is unconscionable. And the solution is clear. School funding has to be divorced from local property values which provide hundreds of thousands more for districts in property-wealthy areas and leave property poor districts struggling to get by. All the high minded talk associated with No Child Left Behind and state accountability standards means nothing if poor schools don't have enough to be adequate. You can't have excellence if you can't even reach adequacy.

The courts are right to assert themselves in this arena and they should continue to do so. Vigorously. State legislatures have generally proven inept at devising fair funding formulae. Perhaps a little pressure from the court -- March madness is right around the corner... full court press, anyone? -- is just what's needed.


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