LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Texas public school system is in crisis. School districts across the state say they're running out of money. Three hundred districts have sued the state in a case now before the Texas Supreme Court. The governor has called the state Legislature into a special session to do something, and the politicians are arguing that the courts should stay out of it. But as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, many school district superintendents have given up hope that the Legislature will provide meaningful relief.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
If you want to see just how low a priority public education is in Texas, there are dozens of poor districts where you could go. If shoddy physical plants, outdated textbooks and underpaid teachers are your game, the choices here are practically endless. But public education has reached such a crisis that you don't have to go to poor school districts to find this story: It's now come to the richest districts in Texas.
Unidentified Man #1: This is a beautiful campus. We have English and social studies and business in the main campus, and then we have a science building and math building and a fine arts building.
Unidentified Man #2: That's it. There you go. You're good! Ready, Christian? Catch it, catch it, catch it! Get around that cone. Go, go, go, go, go! Around the cone, around the cone...
GOODWYN: Plano West Senior High is in a suburb just north of Dallas: 2,000 11- and 12th-graders and state-of-the-art buildings, acres of achingly green tennis courts, not to mention the large indoor AstroTurf field for all to use when it's too hot or rainy outside.
Unidentified Man #2: Go, go, go!
GOODWYN: In the past, when wealthy districts like Plano needed money, they raised property tax rates a bit, and along with the growing property values they had what they needed. Texas has no state income tax so sales and property taxes must make up the difference. But the state Legislature then capped the amount that each school district could levy: $1.50 for every $100 of property value. Most of the districts in Texas are now up against that cap, including Plano, where Doug Otto is the superintendent.
Superintendent DOUG OTTO (Plano School District): What we have is almost all districts now are at the tax cap and they can't access additional dollars, and so that's the big argument: How are we going to meet these standards without significantly accessing more dollars?
Unidentified Man #3: O, O.
Unidentified Man #4: How's that?
Unidentified Student: Mr. Coriano(ph), I got some major spinach!
GOODWYN: So while Plano West summer school students were solving physics problems in their lab, there's no math that's going to solve their superintendent's budget shortfall. The school district is property rich, but it can't get at it anymore. And that's a problem because the public school system in Texas is growing at the rate of 80,000 children a year. Eighty thousand is the size of the state's biggest school districts, a new one each year. And while the state Legislature has not been generous financially, it has felt free to add new accountability measures the schools have to meet. The result? Otto says that even in Plano they have begun firing teachers.
Supt. OTTO: Plano ISD just reduced its budget by almost $17 million, and that was about 150 teaching positions and another 60 or 70 district positions, so well over 200 positions were eliminated.
GOODWYN: Even after the cuts, Plano was still $11 million short. More teachers are going to have to go. Class sizes are growing every year. Doug Otto is worried that there won't be any more fine art to do in Plano West's nice fine arts building. No more elementary school foreign language, either. In fact, every class and program that is not state-tested could be in jeopardy down the road if the state doesn't come up with billions of new dollars.
Supt. OTTO: Nobody wants to cut those. I mean, I--that would be a very unpopular decision. None of us want to that, but what else can we do?
Unidentified Man #5: The chair recognizes Senator Ogden on a motion to suspend the Senate's regular order of business to take up and consider a committee substitute to Senate Bill 6.
GOODWYN: For Texas politicians, no issue is bigger than school finance. Newspaper editorial boards have begun demanding that Governor Rick Perry and the Legislature find the money for the schools, saying their ability to govern the state will be judged on the outcome. But GOP leaders are not backing down. Tom Craddick is speaker of the House.
Representative TOM CRADDICK (Republican; Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives): The school community wants more money, and where we are putting roughly $2 billion into the system for the next two years, they want $6 billion to $8 billion per year, not over a two-year period like we're doing. And they're--the money's not there, and we have a lot of push on the House floor at least, members that think we need to go in and reform the schools and get a better bang for our buck.
GOODWYN: The governor is running statewide radio spots to shore up support for Tom Craddick and the Republican position that property tax relief should be the priority.
(Soundbite from radio announcement)
Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): The Texas Legislature is considering important bills to improve public school funding and provide real property tax relief. This is Governor Rick Perry. You've heard me talk about results, resources and reform, the three R's Texas schools need.
GOODWYN: Firing back, a Democratic representative from Houston has his own radio spots.
Representative GARNET COLEMAN (Democrat, Texas House of Representatives): I'm state Representative Garnet Coleman. As a father of two public school children, I value our neighborhood schools. Democrats put our values into a plan to improve our schools, but Republicans said no, and then voted to make us pay the highest sales tax in the nation--pay it when we fix our cars, even pay it for water to drink. And not a penny for our schools, not a nickel for teachers, not a dime for health care, because all our tax dollars would go to cut taxes for the wealthy and big business.
GOODWYN: But it's Republicans, not Democrats, who have control. So in frustration, 300 of the 1,000 Texas school districts, poor and rich together, have turned away from the Legislature.
Mr. BUCK WOOD (Attorney Representing Texas School Districts Suing the State): They think they know how to manage school districts better than school administrators do. And, of course, few of them have ever spent a day in a classroom since they've got out of high school. But that's still the mind-set of most legislators, that they know how to do this.
GOODWYN: Buck Wood is one of the lead lawyers representing the school districts that are suing the state of Texas. They allege that school funding is inadequate, inequitable, and that they're out of capacity to boot. Last year, state District Judge John Dietz agreed, calling the state education system unconstitutional. Dietz ruled that half of Texas' students were significantly behind the other half and that the funding formulas were inadequate for all. The state has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing the current funding is enough, and that the court should keep its nose out of it. While the Legislature churns away in yet another special session, the court has retired to watch and wait and see what the Legislature comes up with. Texas school superintendents say they are waiting for the court to rule sometime this fall.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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