Editorial: Texas’ public education funding is constitutional, immoral

The Texas Supreme Court's recent ruling on the public school funding system fails the state's children. (Photo: "Rotunda Dome, Texas State Capitol" by Ed Uthman / CC BY 3.0 via Flickr)

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The Texas Supreme Court has ruled the state’s public school funding system is constitutional. Too bad the justices failed to judge its morality.

knox newMarv Knox“Our Byzantine school-funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote in the court’s opinion, which drew no dissent.

Apparently, the court’s constitutional bar is so low, the justices do not take into account vast inequality, not to mention what often amounts to abject failure. Apparently, the Texas Constitution does not consider all citizens to be created equal and worthy of equivalent opportunity. Apparently, Lady Justice in Texas not only is blind, but also deaf, dumb and shred of a scintilla of moral compassion. The latest victims of her insensitivity are the state’s 5.3 million schoolchildren.

Even the densest Texan knows our children do not receive equal opportunity. Our funding framework enables some of our school systems to provide unparalleled education. They produce herds of National Merit Scholars and send their students on to the nation’s finest universities. But it also forces other systems to push children—disproportionately poor, often from homes where parents speak little or no English—through a pipeline that spews them out unprepared for even the most basic jobs, spawning a slew of related social challenges.

According to the Supreme Court, that’s the Texas Legislature’s problem, and an optional one at that. The justices’ decision urged lawmakers to draw up “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

That would be a laugh line, if it didn’t produce so many tears.

Neither guts nor glory

As various sources—as well as anybody who reads or watches news and has a memory—have noted (both here and here), the Texas Legislature only gathers the gumption to do something about education funding when the court puts a judicial gun to its head. So, expect neither guts nor glory from the Legislature in the next session.

For all its bravado about possessing a can-do economy set in a land of opportunity, Texas wears a dunce cap and sits in the corner when it comes to education funding. According to Governing.com and the National Education Association, Texas ranked 45th out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in spending per student.

The raw reality is even worse. Factor in the high-dollar expenditures in the wealthiest, most pro-education school districts, and the state’s bands and pockets of poverty fare much, much worse.

Texas is a small-government state. Millions of Texans are proud of our corporate frugality. Many project that principle onto public education, an arm of government. They worry about waste—although they may vote for a bond election to build a new high school football stadium—and demand our schools squeeze every penny until President Lincoln’s nose bleeds.

Short-sighted, ignorant, destructive

But even if you set aside funding equity (take another look at the headline; that’s immoral), failure to correct our public education finance system and fund our schools adequately is short-sighted, ignorant and downright destructive.

A community or state must build and maintain solid infrastructure. It cannot thrive without a good transportation system, robust banks, fast and flawless communication, excellent healthcare and, even though we take it for granted, a fail-safe electric grid. Those all are important, but none is more vital to the state’s future than its public education system. And even though the wealthy school districts may keep on sending their kids to the Ivy League and the state’s elite universities, they, too, will suffer if their less-affluent peers do not receive a solid education.

Texas, the backwater?

In a world increasingly dependent upon technology, we will doom Texas of the future to backwater status if we don’t fix education.

Merely hoping the Legislature will do something about it is fantasy. Many lawmakers go to Austin intending to do and spend as little as possible. Since the Supreme Court declined to put pressure on them, our best hope is the state’s pastors.

That’s right. Pastors for Texas Children, a nondenominational, nonpartisan organization of ministers, is the state’s best hope for education reform. Its mission includes a crucial goal: “to advocate for children by supporting our free public education system, to promote social justice for children, and to advance legislation that enriches Texas children, families and communities.”

Pastors for Texas Children has worked alongside educators—superintendents, principals, faculties and school boards—to strengthen our state’s public schools and to do right by our students.

“It is sinful for a society as rich as Texas—an economic ‘miracle,’ as a recent governor put it—to make our children eat the crumbs that fall from our state’s table of bounty,” PTC Executive Director Charles Foster Johnson said after the Supreme Court handed down its decision.

“We recommit ourselves to holding our governor, lieutenant governor, 31 state senators and 150 state representatives accountable for the ‘suitable provision of free public schools,’ as our own Texas state Constitution mandates, as the American civil tradition establishes and, most importantly, as the biblical call to justice unambiguously announces.”

Pastors for Texas Children will need to be out in full force leading up to the next session of the Legislature. Make sure your pastor is a member/participant, and make sure your church provides financial support.

In fact, Pastors for Texas Children should spin off a parallel organization, Laity for Texas Children. We all need to be involved in restoring morality to Texas’ school funding system.

The future of Texas’ children depends upon it. The state depends upon it.

And, besides, it’s the biblical, moral, faithful thing to do.

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If we achieved our goal—or didn’t—we’d love to hear from you. Send an email to Eric Black, our editor. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.

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