- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A big boost in state money hasn’t closed the nearly $1,300 gap in per-student funding between Texas school districts in rich and poor areas, an expert said Monday at the state’s sweeping school finance trial.

Albert Cortez, director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, testified that “even with the new revenue numbers available, the system remains largely inequitable.”

State District Judge John Dietz ruled in February that the way Texas funds its public schools was inadequate and unfairly distributed. This summer, the Texas Legislature increased classroom funding by at least $3.4 billion.

Texas’ poorest school districts are now spending $5,803 per student, Cortez said, an increase of $186, but still $1,288 less than what the state’s wealthiest districts spend.

Public schools in Texas rely heavily on local property taxes for their funding. Cortez’s analysis looked at how high tax rates in economically disadvantaged communities must be set compared with their wealthier peers to raise the same amount of revenue.

The 2013 legislative changes narrowed the tax effort gap by about 3- to 4 cents per $100 valuation, but the poorest group of school districts still must tax far more to generate the same amount of revenue, Cortez found.

To generate $5,000 per student, the poorest districts must tax 20 cents more than the school districts at the top, he said, and the property-poor districts would not be able to get to $7,000 under current law because the required tax rate would exceed the $1.17 maximum, Cortez said.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Halpern, representing the state, pointed out some mathematical errors in Cortez’s analysis. She identified differences between his calculations of districts’ property tax yield against those done by the Texas Education Agency - showing that some were as high as $1,600 per student.

“I don’t know how extensive, but there is a problem,” Cortez said, acknowledging the discrepancies. But he also questioned whether Texas’ official figures were derived from the dataset he used.

The original case was built on the Legislature’s 2011 cuts of $5.4 billion in classroom funding and educational grant programs. That prompted more than 600 school districts to sue, claiming the funding reductions violated the Texas Constitution’s guarantees to an adequate education, especially given the tough high school graduation standards set by the Legislature.

They also argued that Texas’ “Robin Hood” finance system - where school districts in wealthy areas share their local property-tax revenue with those in poorer parts - meant funding was distributed unfairly.

In addition to upping funding, lawmakers cut the number of standardized tests students are required to pass in order to graduate high school from 15 to five. They did little to change the fundamental funding system, however.

Dietz sided with the school districts in his ruling nearly a year ago, but has yet to issue a formal written ruling. He is now hearing several weeks of testimony on how the Legislature’s actions could affect his initial decision.

Dietz noted that, so far in the case, approximately 20,000 exhibits have already been introduced.