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April 4, 2012

For over 40 years, parents and school districts, occasionally joined by non-profit organizations, have filed lawsuits in state courts seeking better educational opportunities for students in under-resourced schools. In trials across the country, they have provided convincing evidence of:

  • inadequate "inputs," including overcrowded and crumbling school buildings, uncertified teachers, and the absence of art and music programs and books and computers;
  • troubling "outcomes," including low graduation rates in under-resourced districts and the lack of strong skills needed to be capable citizens and workers.

The information amassed during these trials also shows that state funding systems violate their state constitutions and relegate many low-wealth communities to higher taxes but lower spending in their schools. As a result, these schools cannot afford the most important educational resources, such as experienced, well-prepared teachers.

Parent and school district plaintiffs generally ask the courts to order states to enact fairer funding systems so their children have a legitimate Opportunity to Learn and can ultimately become productive members of society.

In Texas, two such cases resulted in court orders to bring the State's school funding system into compliance with the Texas constitution. The State did so in 1994 and again---after major backsliding---in 2005.

In 2011, Texas cut funding for its K-12 schools by $5.4 billion. As a result, coalitions including over 500 school districts have filed court claims against the State. They are asking the court to declare the current funding system unconstitutional and order the State to remedy this violation. The Equity Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and others are leading this effort.

"School Reform"

An education reform group named TREE (Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education) is now intervening in this litigation.

TREE was founded by a Texas entrepreneur, who says he was inspired by Waiting for Superman, a movie that misstates the real issues in K-12 education while it portrays public schools as failures, bashes teachers and unions, and offers charters as a panacea. TREE is represented by a former Texas Supreme Court justice and a Houston law firm. The founder of TREE's public relations firm is a former deputy chief of staff for Governor Rick Perry.

Self-declared poorly-informed education reformers typically want to lower teacher qualifications, pay, and benefits. They usually advocate for more novices and fewer well-prepared and experienced teachers and principals, and they want to make it easier to fire teachers, sometimes for any reason or no reason at all. Reformers often also want to close local schools and privatize them, turning them over to for-profit management companies and usurping the role of locally elected school boards. They offer vouchers or charter schools as silver bullets for the challenges of providing quality K-12 education in high poverty communities.

In Texas, the TREE "reformers" want the court to find that the state's cap on the number of charter schools violates the constitution because it "breeds inefficiency." They argue that the State should repeal many provisions in its education laws, pointing to those that: require educators to be trained and certified; establish certain parameters for compensation; and, allow teachers and other school personnel to request a hearing if they are being fired. TREE argues that these state laws make schooling "inefficient and therefore are unconstitutional." In fact, these provisions are basic supports for retaining qualified, experienced professional staff and sustaining high quality educational programs.

TREE's requests to the court are bigger and broader than the plaintiffs' requests because TREE wants the court to declare the "entire system of public ... schools" unconstitutional.

In other ways, TREE's petition is similar to the plaintiffs' court papers, agreeing with some of the identified problems and challenges in Texas K-12 education, such as the need to improve graduation rates and update the Cost of Education Index (CEI). TREE also acknowledges one of the issues plaintiffs raise regarding the state's education finance system. However, TREE wants a very expansive court-ordered remedy that could undermine both democratic oversight and constitutional guarantees of access to adequate public education.

In recent years, education "reform" has come to dominate media coverage of K-12 education. It will be interesting and important to see whether the courts hearing these Texas cases are persuaded to endorse the "reform" agenda or not. Will the courts order adequate state funding equitably distributed, as the plaintiff school districts and parents request, or will they order unlimited charters and lower requirements for teaching?

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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