|McALLEN, June 2 - Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott should stop his legal fight with McAllen ISD and other South Texas school districts over funding levels, says his gubernatorial opponent.
Wendy Davis focused on education issues in interviews with reporters at her campaign office in McAllen last week. She said it was her top campaign issue.
“School districts across the state have sued the state for not appropriately providing them with the resources that they need, Davis said.
In addition to McAllen ISD, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is representing San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria and Edgewood school districts in its lawsuit against the State of Texas. Davis said funding cuts imposed by the Legislature were very damaging.
“Many programs have had to be cut. Pre-K programs, programs that were helping kids that were falling through the cracks in high school, programs to create science labs, thousands of teachers lost their jobs and our kids were put into overcrowded classrooms,” Davis said.
Asked how Attorney General Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, became embroiled in the issue, Davis said: “Greg Abbott has been in court, fighting to defend that (the funding cuts). I, on the other hand, at the end of the legislative session, when those funding cuts were made, I fought, I filibustered the funding cut and I am committed to making sure our schools have the resources they need.”
Davis said she expects a decision on the MALDEF lawsuit to come down favorably on the side of the school districts. In other words, it will be good news for McAllen ISD and other so-called property-poor school districts.
“We expect that soon we will hear from the judge what his decision is in that case. I believe in my heart that he (the judge) is going to find that the state has not followed its constitutional obligation to make sure our children receive the support that they need and that they are given the kind of path to success that every child should have.”
Davis said the judge’s ruling is expected before the November general election. Asked if a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs will help her campaign, Davis said: “Most importantly, it will be a boost for our children. When we go back into legislative session in 2015, we need a governor who is going to support the legislature in providing resources to school districts that are in need. We need a governor who is not going to be one of the old insiders any more, like Greg Abbott is, favoring big, corporate, tax loopholes over our children. We need a governor who will say enough of that and will put the resources toward the education that our children deserve.”
Asked to respond to the argument that Abbott is simply doing his job as attorney general in defending the state, Davis said: “It most certainly isn’t his job to defend what is indefensible. Our constitution requires that we adequately support public education and he knows that. Attorney generals around this country disagree with their legislatures from time to time and they stand up against what their legislatures have done. Greg Abbott has had two chances to do that. The case was first heard before we went back into legislative session in 2013. He could have and should have come to the legislature and said what you are doing is unconstitutional, you need to restore the resources that school districts need, you need to make the investment in schools the constitution requires. That’s his job as our attorney, to advise us on what we ought to be doing under the constitutional obligations that we owe the citizens of this state. That is not something that he has done.”
David Hinojosa is the lead attorney for MALDEF in the lawsuit against the state of Texas. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, he explained what the lawsuit is about.
“Our lawsuit is about ensuring students have access to the educational opportunities they need to fulfill their potential and meet the State’s standards. First, there is the ‘equity claim’ which charges the State with failing to ensure that property poor districts, like those we represent, receive similar revenue at similar tax effort,” Hinojosa said.
“Our expert’s analysis shows that on average, the bottom ten percent of property poor districts receive almost $1,000 less than the top ten wealthiest districts—despite taxing ten cents higher than the wealthy districts. So they have fewer resources, which means fewer educational opportunities to meet the State’s rising standards.”
The second important point about the lawsuit, Hinojosa said, is his clients’ “adequacy” claims. He said the State of Texas has failed to ensure that English Language Learning (ELL) and low income students have access to the resources they need to achieve their full potential and the State’s standards.
“The weights, or cost adjustments, for ELL and low income students were arbitrarily set low in 1984 and they have not changed since. Yet the demands on these school children continue to rise. The dismal performance of ELL and low income students on all performance standards (from STAAR test results to college-ready criteria) demonstrate that these students are not accessing the opportunities they need to succeed, such as lower class sizes, high quality and full-day pre-K, high quality teachers, etc.,” Hinojosa said.
The third important point about the MALDEF lawsuit, Hinojosa said, revolves around the claim that the plaintiffs do not have meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates.
“Four of our five districts are maxing out their maintenance and operations tax at $1.17 and Harlingen is stuck at $1.04 and unable to raise its taxes because of high facility taxes, known as interest and sinking fund taxes to pay off their debt,” Hinojosa said.
Asked where the lawsuit is right now in the courts, Hinojosa said: “We won the case in February 2013 following a three-month trial. The legislature made some changes and over our clients’ objection, the court reopened the case to consider the impact of those changes. We had a three-week hearing in January/February 2014. The Court has not yet ruled and is currently finalizing its findings of fact and conclusions of law. Hopefully we will have a decision by late June or July.”
Sen. Davis has made education her top campaign issue. Asked if there was anything else she wanted to say on the issue, Davis said: “I want to stress that I believe we have to provide full-day, quality, Pre-K for every four year old in this state. It is not only important for those four year olds to get a good start at an education so that they can succeed, it is important to a lot of working moms who need that full-day support with a quality educational environment for their child so that they can go to work and provide for them.”
Davis also spoke about students finding a good career path. “When our kids are going through high school, they need all the support they can get to get on a good career path, whether that is going through career and technical training or whether it is getting early college credits while they are in high school, so they can afford college more easily. And, we have got to decrease the emphasis on standardized tests and start allowing our children and our teachers an opportunity to get back to a creative learning environment that works better for them.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part story on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ visit to the Rio Grande Valley last week. The first story, on jobs and trade with Mexico, can be found here. The Guardian will interview GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott on his next visit to the Valley.