Commentary

Texas Ruling Paves Way for Education Reform

This article appeared on Foxnews.com, December 23, 2005.
Anyone who has tracked the outbreak of lawsuits challenging states’ education funding over the last several years knows about the Texas miracle: A few weeks ago, the Texas Supreme Court declared that educational “adequacy” is not synonymous with “more money.”

Need proof of divine intervention? First, states across the country have been losing adequacy suits like the one in Texas for years; just last February, New York’s Supreme Court ordered the state to increase education funding by a whopping $23.3 billion over four years.

Next, while people who realize that better schools don’t simply rise out of ever-bigger mountains of cash are accustomed to having their views relegated to dissenting opinions, they are never in the majority’s opinions — until now. Indeed, educational sanity could be found in both the Texas court’s minority and majority opinions.

According to the majority, “While the end-product of public education is related to the resources available for its use … more money does not guarantee better schools or more educated students.” The Court also accurately says that, “structural changes, and not merely increased funding, are needed in the public education system.”

Yet despite the wisdom of the majority, it was still the minority — lone dissenting justice Scott A. Brister — who cut to the chase. Brister noted that all the plaintiffs in the case were school districts, not parents, thus disqualifying the suit because the state constitution’s “education guarantee is a right that belongs to school children rather than school districts.”

The point was especially important because special interest groups entrenched in districts — administrators, teacher unions, etc. — are too often concerned with their desires, and block what Brister believes is essential to make education work: competition. “Even formerly communist countries recognize how efficiency is produced,” he observed, “not by higher taxes, and not be state control, but by freedom for competition.”

Having dodged a bullet, and with the Court’s opinion in hand, political leaders in Texas have begun formulating ways to fix the schools. Their suggestions include both good and bad ideas that are worth pondering by lawmakers of other states.

First the good. Rep. Kent Grusendorf, an Arlington Republican who chairs the House education committee, said his committee will look at a number of reforms, including school choice, merit pay for teachers, and curbing school district lobbying.

All these should please both the Court and Texans who truly care about quality education. A choice plan that gives money to parents rather than districts would require schools to compete for pupils, forcing them to improve their product or go out of business. Merit pay would encourage teachers to excel because they would finally be paid accordingly. Finally, forbidding districts to use taxpayer dollars to lobby for yet more public money would at last provide relief for beleaguered taxpayers.

Unfortunately, Grusendorf is also contemplating one move that could cancel out all his good plans: district consolidation. On the grounds that having over 1,000 school districts makes Texas education financially inefficient, Grusendorf and others want to collapse small districts into bigger entities.

They should be warned: Historically, district consolidation has produced little overall benefit, even if it has created some economies of scale. Indeed, nationwide the number of school districts shrank from over 40,000 in 1960 to fewer than 14,600 today. Has national academic performance improved or money been saved? Hardly. Scores have stagnated while funding per pupil has skyrocketed.

The biggest problem with consolidation is that it produces more and more mega-districts like the Houston Independent School District (HISD), exactly the kind of monster that exists more to perpetuate itself than to serve students. As Terry Abbott, an HISD spokesman, unwittingly illustrated in a Nov. 30 Houston Chronicle article: “We are the largest employer in Houston, with 30,000 employees. We have one of the largest transportation operations in the state, with 1,015 school buses that travel 20 million miles a year. We are a very large, complex organization and it is essential that we have a strong presence in Austin to make sure that the needs of our children, our teachers and our taxpayers are met.”

With 30,000 employees relying on the district to make their living, transportation companies running over 1,000 buses, and countless other contractors clamoring for more projects and more money, who should we believe lobbyists really represent? If it is the children it would be yet another, much bigger, miracle.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.