For advocates of public education in Texas, Friday the 13th brought both sorrow and hope.
Sorrow came in the morning when the Texas Supreme Court released its 100-page unanimous opinion declaring that the state’s public school funding system, however dysfunctional, met the “minimum constitutional requirements.”
I have been unable in the space of one day to locate the spectrum of constitutional requirements to better understand the range of minimum to maximum and exactly where Texas falls on that spectrum. My brain looks at systems and evaluates on a pass-fail basis, and Texas public schools, especially those districts that serve the urban working-class and poor, lack the resources and funding to compete. Too many of their students, most of whom are children of color, are failed.
It was a crushing ruling for all who held out hope that the state’s highest court would hold the Texas Legislature accountable and demand that elected officials meet their constitutional obligations. Instead, the justices pleaded a lack of authority to intervene, it was an odd and unconvincing legal argument. When the executive or legislative branches fail to uphold their duties, where else can citizens go for redress other than the courts?
What kind of country and society would we be today if the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education had issued an opinion lamenting the existence of racially segregated schools, while concluding that public schools fell under the purview of state legislative bodies, thus leaving the high court helpless to act?
I read the Texas Supreme Court opinion as an abjectly political ruling, and thus an act of moral cowardice.
Hope came in the evening at the 15th annual H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards as 800 people filled a ballroom at the La Cantera Resort for what has grown to be the annual Academy Awards for the state’s finest public school teachers, administrators, districts and school boards.
The atmosphere was electric with anticipation as finalists and hundreds of other educators there to support them awaited the awards presentations and the announcement of the winners. This was a gathering of the state’s best and brightest, singled out not by the Texas Legislature or the Texas Education Agency, but by the most civic-minded private company and employer in Texas.
(You can read education reporter Bekah McNeel’s coverage here: Neil deGrasse Tyson, H-E-B Celebrate Texas Educators.)
Winners brought many to tears with their heartfelt acceptance speeches and accounts of overcoming tremendous personal and social challenges to inspire students to learn. One other message common to all the winners, even those who had been teaching for decades: they had never received such uplifting recognition.
There are teachers, principals and school board trustees in some of the state’s most economically challenged districts who refuse to fail, who refuse to allow the inequitable funding of public schools to stop them from transforming lives through education.
That’s why Leander ISD in the fast-growing affluent suburbs north of Austin can win a Large School District Award, but so can the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in the San Antonio ISD, whose principal, Delia McLerran, won the Secondary Principal Award.
Unfortunately, all the vision, commitment and perseverance in the world cannot help the poorer school districts close the gap with the wealthier districts. No one can run uphill as fast as they can on a level playing field. The H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards represent one of the most important public education recognitions in the country, but no single company, no matter how generous, can make up for elected officials in the Legislature and on the bench from shrinking their legal obligations and moral duty.
Listening to keynote speaker Neil deGrasse Tyson engage the audience on the subject of inspiring young children to achieve their potential, I couldn’t help thinking how illuminating it would be for the nine Texas Supreme Court justices to be in attendance. They would have experienced public education and its limitless potential in a way that cannot be found in 200,000 pages of trial testimony, legal briefs and lower court rulings.
They would have heard and seen what could be possible for all of the state’s five million public school children instead of those fortunate to be born in the right zip codes. H-E-B rotates the awards dinner through several Texas cities, and when it is next in Austin I hope the audience includes the justices and the leadership of the Texas Senate and House.
Most of those in the Republican leadership, it’s been repeatedly demonstrated, send their children to private schools. They are unfamiliar personally with public schools, which are seen abstractly as districts, not as crucibles where good teachers shape the lives and futures of boys and girls.
Much of the opinion’s wording, and that found in two concurring opinions (here and here), would have served nicely in an opinion declaring the system unconstitutional. And while the justices lamented the endless cycle of litigation that reached back to the 1970s, it seems obvious that lawsuits will continue to end in lower court rulings of unconstitutionality until a broken system is fixed.
More than half of the state’s 1,000 school districts joined to file the lawsuit whose lower court victory was overturned Friday, and no one believes those school leaders will stop pushing for reform. Statements like the one made by Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus Friday suggest there is some hope of a bipartisan effort to do more for the state’s school children.
We can hold out hope, but the pragmatist tells me that relief will not come, that legislative leaders will use a tight budget cycle to justify the status quo. If that happens, it will take another lawsuit, more years of court battles, and eventually, an independent judiciary to do the right thing.
That is on a very distant horizon now. Until we get there, no one I saw or spoke with Friday night is giving up.
Top image: Bilingual pre-k students Justin and Selvin work with tablets for reading and language exercise at Stewart Elementary. Photo by Scott Ball.