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Expert shows school district funding disparities

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The Texas Legislature's decision to cut $1.4 billion in grants to public schools disproportionately hurt poor districts, costing them $253 per student a year compared with $21 a year for rich districts, an expert testified Monday.

Albert Cortez, policy director at the Intercultural Development Research Association, also said that Texas' poorest school districts charge higher local property taxes yet collect about a fourth less in revenue per student than the state's wealthiest districts.

He said the poorest 10 percent of districts statewide levy an average of 11 cents more per $100 valuation in local property taxes compared with the wealthiest 10 percent of districts. However, that translates to about $1,430 less in funding per student — a 25 percent difference between the two groups.

The Republican-led Legislature cut funding for Texas public schools by $5.4 billion last year, leading to larger class sizes, teacher layoffs and the elimination of full-day pre-kindergarten in most schools districts.

A report compiled by Cortez for the trial found that "limited state efforts to improve school funding over the last few years have allowed major disparities in funding among Texas districts of varying wealth to persist over time."

Legal fights over school financing are nothing new in Texas. The lawsuits at the center of the current trial are the sixth of their kind since 1984 — and Cortez has testified in all those trials. His San Antonio-based nonprofit works to strengthen public schools for all children.

Several groups of schools districts, responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's more than 5 million students, have sued Texas over the funding cuts and other policies that they say hinder public education.

Texas does not have a statewide income or property tax, so it relies on local property taxes and other state revenue to fund schools.

As part of his report, Cortez examined tax efforts necessary to generate certain levels of revenue. He found that the poorest 10 percent of school districts statewide had to tax at $1.38 to generate $7,000 per student, while the wealthiest can bring in the same amount at just 94 cents.

The state caps tax rates at $1.17, and Cortez said many of the poorest districts now cannot get to $7,000 in funding per student without exceeding that limit.

Districts in rich and poor parts of Texas are largely on the same side of the case. The state's funding system relies heavily on a "Robin Hood" recapture scheme where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money they raise for distribution to poorer districts.

Many "property wealthy" districts say that while they are in better shape than their poorer counterparts, the system still starves them of funding since local voters who might otherwise support property tax increases to bolster funding for their schools refuse to do so — knowing that most of the money would be sent somewhere else.

Cortez also studied funding differences between those districts that turn money back over to the state as part of the Robin Hood system, and those that receive money as part of it. He found an $875 average per-student funding difference, and a 6-cent difference in tax effort.

District Judge John Dietz noted that difference was smaller than funding discrepancies during the 1984 lawsuit, but Cortez said that in a classroom of 20 students, the gap still amounted to $18,000.

Cortez also said that while the gap is smaller than in the past, student demographics have changed substantially since the early 1980s while academic accountability standards have also increased.