Houston Public Media

After Decades of Texas School Finance Battles, Some Say Little Has Changed

This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

Patty Rodriguez and her brother, Alex, hold a photo of their late father Demetrio Rodriguez on Sunday, March 1, 2015 in San Antonio.

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a massive school finance case that was brought by some 600 districts in the state.

In 2014, District Court Judge John Dietz ruled that Texas’ school-funding system is unconstitutional and fails disadvantaged students, especially those learning English or living in poverty.

“We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education,” Dietz told a crowd of teachers in 2015.

This fight is nothing new to Texas.

It began more than 40 years ago, with a father named Demetrio Rodriguez. He was the first parent to sign a class action lawsuit demanding equal school funding for his children. The case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rodriguez lived on the west side of San Antonio, where students were largely poor and Mexican-American. His sons studied in a crumbling building. Their school lacked some basics, including books, and many teachers were uncertified.

Across town, Rodriguez saw that the wealthy district of Alamo Heights didn’t just have nicer buildings and more qualified instructors. It also had a lower tax rate.

His attorney, Arthur Gochman, argued that education was a fundamental right.

“Are we going to have two classes of citizens? Minimum-opportunity citizens and first-class citizens?” Gochman asked during oral arguments.

The attorney for Texas, Charles Alan Wright, countered that any mandate on the quality of education would put a “constitutional straight-jacket” on schools in every state. Wright admitted, the Texas system wasn’t perfect, but he insisted it was important to keep control of schools in the hands of local leaders.

“It ensures a basic education to every school child in the state and then lets districts, if they have money and want to spend money, go beyond that,” Wright said.

Ultimately, in a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that there was no federal right to equal school funding.

“Nothing changed,” says Patty Rodriguez more than 40 years after her father lost that case.

 Today, she teaches in the same school district, Edgewood, where her late father filed suit. More than 90 percent of the 11,000 students there are poor and Hispanic.

At Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School, Rodriguez coaches small groups of dyslexic students on their letter sounds. They squeeze together in a windowless classroom the size of a large closet.

Because so many of her students come from poverty and struggle with learning challenges, Rodriguez says she wishes her school could afford more social workers and teacher aides. But it can’t.

Researchers at Education Week found that per-student spending in Edgewood (after being adjusted for regional cost differences) is roughly $9,400. That’s $2,400 below the national average.

What’s more, when EdWeek looked at how expensive it is to educate students in Edgewood, taking into account how many receive special education services or live in poverty, the funding looks even smaller – roughly $8,000 per student.

Rodriguez admits that the inequities in Edgewood aren’t as pronounced as when her father lost his case. The problem now, she says, is that funding is simply too low.

She’s watching the current Texas lawsuit with a mix of hope and lifelong frustration.

“Oh, here we go again, one more time,” she says. “Ten years from now, we’re going to be back in court. It’s frustrating, and, after a while it’s just kind of, you ask yourself, ‘Is it ever really going to change?’ ”

Edgewood and its schools have been at the center of several funding lawsuits since 1973. If one thing has changed, it’s that more and more districts have joined them. Some 600 districts have signed onto the current suit. Rich and poor schools alike complain the system doesn’t work.

State senator Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, says the state believes districts have the money they need to teach their students.

“In the last legislative session, they put billions of dollars of more money into the system above what’s needed to handle student growth over the next biennium — $2.5 billion to be precise,” Bettencourt says.

On top of that, one of the attorneys defending Texas before the state Supreme Court, Rance Craft, argued that more money doesn’t guarantee better student results: “You know, money is not pixie dust.”

But Patty Rodriguez insists, the quality of your education shouldn’t depend on the property wealth of your neighborhood. The result is unfair to the children of Edgewood.  

“You can’t deny education to a person. It’s discrimination. I would think that not one group of people would have a better education than another,” she says.

She hopes that the current case against the state will settle the question of fair funding in Texas, once and for all.