Commentary | Education

Lessons—Juggling 3 School Goals, Texas Trips

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 30, 2002 ]

Juggling 3 school goals, Texas trips

By  Richard Rothstein

PLANO, Tex. — Most Americans want low taxes, good schools and equal access to public education for the rich and the poor. Texas has pushed this combination farther than any other state, but the three elements are contradictory. The Texas system is about to implode, with lessons for other states (like New York) that will later face similar crises.

Texas has one of the most egalitarian school finance systems in the nation: Average spending varies between rich and poor districts by only about $600 per student. This has been accomplished by limiting the property tax rate to no more than $1.50 for every $100 of assessed valuation in rich and poor districts alike, and by forcing rich districts to transfer some of their revenue to poor districts.

Texans call their school finance legislation, adopted in 1993, the Robin Hood law.

Communities with more than about $300,000 of assessed value for each enrolled student must turn over any taxes they collect on value above this amount to the state for redistribution. Or they can donate the excess directly to poorer districts. Because wealthy districts cannot make up for this loss by raising taxes above the $1.50 limit, they have no choice but to reduce the quality of education as costs rise.

That is what is now taking place in Plano, a wealthy suburb of Dallas. This town of affluent professionals and corporate headquarters turns over one out of every four property tax dollars it collects to poorer districts. Plano East High School is now slashing the elite programs that prepare its youth for competitive colleges and professional careers.

Before the Robin Hood law, high school English teachers in Plano could critique a lot of written work because they taught only 80 students in four classes. Now the student load is 140. Advanced placement class sizes have grown to over 30 students from under 20. Before Robin Hood, if a few students wanted to study Russian or Japanese, Plano hired teachers for them. No longer. Small classes to explore careers in psychology or law have been eliminated.

Mary Lou Buntyn, chairwoman of the Plano East history department, said she used to teach seminar-style, with chairs arranged in a semicircle and students challenging each other’s interpretations. Now, with as many as 35 in a class, students sit in rows and are more passive.

Last year, Plano and other wealthy districts sued the state, claiming the Robin Hood system prevented them from providing the “general diffusion of knowledge” to which children are entitled. The suit was dismissed. The appeals court said the Texas constitution only entitles children to attend an accredited public school, not get all the benefits of schooling at Plano East. A tax rate of $1.50 is certainly enough to support a minimally accredited school.

The trial judge quipped, “Football is not protected by the Constitution.”

Opposing Plano and the other wealthy-district plaintiffs were the property-poor districts whose spending has gone up from receipt of the excess payments of the rich districts. Leaders of the poor districts say they do not oppose letting places like Plano spend more money, provided all schools can spend more, and equalization is maintained.

Anger about erosion of a privileged status is spreading in wealthy (and politically influential) districts. Hyperbolic language grows. Some parents in Plano say they want to secede from the state. The superintendent of another district said there would be “blood in the streets” if she continued to cut programs.

But nobody seems to know where to find the money to let places like Plano keep high standards while preserving equality for poorer districts. The Texas Constitution prohibits an income tax unless voters approve, and even then requires that most of the new revenue be used for property tax reduction, not education or other services. The sales tax in urban areas is already 8 ¼ percent and cannot go much higher.

Texas school leaders say they need more money but are afraid to advocate new taxes. Corporate executives support better schools but have little appetite for paying to achieve them. Escaping the state’s business tax by reorganizing with a Delaware address is one gambit.

A court ruling in New York has also said that state’s Constitution mandates only a minimal education, not a good one. Advocates for urban districts that spend less than the suburbs are now negotiating with the governor for new financing that will bring needy schools more dollars. But nobody has broached reaching the full equality that would allow New York City to have the kind of education found in Scarsdale.

In Texas, it has become ever more clear that low taxes, great schools and equality are incompatible. Sooner, rather than later, Texans will have to choose which they plan to forgo. Then, so will the rest of us.

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