AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texas will need to spend at least an additional $8 billion per year to ensure its students meet the tough new academic standards imposed by state lawmakers, a top school finance expert testified Monday.
Lynn Moak, a leading education analyst in Texas for nearly 5 decades, told state District Judge John Dietz that nearly half of Texas' ninth-graders — about 150,000 — aren't on track to graduate because they failed at least one of the state's new, more rigorous standardized tests, known as STAAR, last school year.
Moak said paying for programs to help students catch up and ensure others pass — thus meeting the state's existing college and career-readiness goals — would require restoring the two-year, $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools and grant programs passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011. But it would also mean state funding for public education should increase overall by about another $6 billion annually.
That's a staggering $8.7 billion per year in additional funding, though it wasn't clear if Moak was including restoring all cuts to grant programs in his estimates. In 2010-11, Moak said that total spending on school operations in Texas was $43 billion.
When asked about the figure after the hearing, Moak told reporters, "I contend we can't do it without more money."
"We are in a current crisis," he added. "The crisis gets worse in the future but it is significantly bad now."
After last year's budget cuts, six lawsuits were filed on behalf of more than 600 school districts, which educate about three-quarters of Texas' more than 5 million students. All contended that the way Texas funds its public schools is inefficient and unfair and violates the state Constitution's promise to provide "a general diffusion of knowledge."
Moak will remain on the stand Tuesday and face cross-examination. The state argues that while there are some flaws in the school finance system, it doesn't mean the whole thing is broken.
Legal battles over school finance are nothing new in Texas: Moak's testimony Monday marked his sixth such appearance in a major school funding case.
Dietz will rule on the case, but it will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court. If the plaintiffs prevail, it will be up to the Legislature to overhaul Texas' school finance system — but that may not happen during next year's session and could require a special session in 2014.
Moak also testified that the 2011 cuts forced districts to cut about 11,500 teaching positions statewide and eliminate 15,000 other staff members.
He said Legislature-imposed structural changes to the school-funding formulas have meant sharp decreases in the amount the state spends per student over time.
But he also noted that, in 2009, Texas used federal stimulus money to bolster funding to schools and soften the blow of state public education cuts. That year, per student funding including state, federal and local funds was $7,415. Last year's cuts came when the stimulus money had run out — and saw per-student funding fall about $1,120 to $6,293 for 2013.
Still, Moak said, giving schools more money is only part of the solution.
When asked which has greater impact, reduced state funding or stricter academic standards, Moak replied, "the changes on the academic side are the most significant changes in a substantially large amount of time."
He said that of current ninth-graders, only 53 percent are on track to graduate. That means 47 percent have failed one or more of the new standardized tests. Among low-income students, nearly 60 percent now aren't on track to graduate, Moak said.
Texas' booming population has translated to a growth in enrollment by an average of 80,000 students per year — the majority of which are from low-income families.
"As standards increase over time," Moak told the court, "you're going to see — without major increases in performance — many more students not on track for graduation."
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