Today marks Day 11 of the school finance trial. 

Last week, school finance expert Lynn Moak’s testimony spanned a wide array of topics, which defined the GDK, explored changes since the West Orange-Cove ruling, examined state assessment and accountability (including the new standards and results), explained the school finance formulas, estimated the cost of an adequate education, and looked at funding capacity afforded by the property tax structure. 

Moak testified that he could not recall any time in the state’s history when there has been such a significant increase in either graduation, curriculum requirements or testing requirements at the same time.  At the conclusion of his direct examination, Moak stated, “I do not believe the current revenue system can support the current standards in place or under development.”  When Judge Dietz asked about capacity in the system, Moak reported that we have less capacity in the system today than when the courts ruled on West Orange-Cove.

Four individual taxpayers who are named plaintiffs with the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition offered their testimony last week as well.  Each of the four citizens, three of whom also serve on the board of trustees in their districts, claimed to be discriminated against based on property wealth.  They compared the taxes paid on their homes to the taxes paid on homes of comparable values in neighboring Chapter 41 districts, stating that their district isn’t able to generate the same per-WADA funding yield as the comparable district. 

Alief ISD Superintendent Dr. H.D. Chambers became the fifth superintendent to testify in the trial.  Dr. Chambers, who testified on behalf of the Texas Taxpayers and Student Fairness Plaintiffs, spoke to Alief’s performance on STAAR, which after two testing administrations only resulted in 43 percent of 9th grade students being on track to be college and career ready. 

Dr. Chambers stated that he does not begrudge wealthier districts, as he has no reason to believe those districts don’t need the money they have.  He was simply making the case that his district needs more revenue.  He stated that current state resources do not match expectations.

Equity Center Executive Director Wayne Pierce testified on Thursday, November 1, with his cross examination on Monday.  The theme was the same throughout Dr. Pierce’s testimony and analysis: districts with higher wealth tax at lower rates and generate higher yields per penny of that tax effort. Dr. Pierce analyzed the list of districts in a variety of ways, including per WADA, according to M&O tax rates, I&S tax rates, total tax rates, and maximum tax rate (assuming every district were taxing at $1.17 and $0.50 respectively). Regardless of the methodology of the analysis, Pierce maintained that “the story remains the same,” and property wealthy districts receive a higher yield for a lower rate.  During multiple instances throughout his testimony, Pierce stated that target revenue was primarily to blame for the inequities in the system. 

Pierce testified that when you combine the per student differences at the elementary level for a class of 22 students, you arrive at a difference of $65,000 per class.  He did note, however, that he has no reason to think property wealthy districts are over-funded, simply that lower funded districts are at a disadvantage.

Micah Skidmore questioned Pierce on behalf of the Calhoun County ISD plaintiffs. Mr. Skidmore first reestablished a point from Pierce’s previous testimony and confirmed that Pierce believes the primary basis of inequity in the current system is target revenue.

Pierce has not done any analysis that takes ASATR, or a portion of ASATR out of the funding amounts for districts, though he agreed with Skidmore that in most instances, once you remove ASATR, the difference in funding is substantially less.  Pierce also admitted that the number of districts on target revenue has declined.

Monday afternoon concluded with testimony from Dan Casey of Moak, Casey & Associates, who addressed the issues of statutorily required studies about the cost of education which have been ignored as well as state funding for facilities, particularly for fast-growth districts.

Calhoun County ISD plaintiff attorney John Turner provided an overview of the testimony received in deposition regarding the transition from TAKS to STAAR.  He provided an overview of the timeline, standard setting process, and overall differences in design and level of cognitive complexity in the two assessments.  Turner’s concluding statement was that the STAAR test is not just a harder test, but a more accurate measure of the general diffusion of knowledge.

Fort Bend ISD Chief Financial Officer Tracy Hoke testified and focused on the financial impact to the district of adding 10,000 students in ten years.  She addressed the reductions in state facility funding and the limited capacity her district still has to address facility needs for a growing and changing population.

National expert Dr. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University testified on Tuesday afternoon regarding the benefits of early childhood education.  He discussed the cost-benefit for such programs and stated that Texas will pay 10 times the amount to avoid adequately funding pre-kindergarten than the state would pay to properly fund a quality program.

Calhoun County ISD Superintendent Dr. Billy Wiggins testified today.  His district, which serves 1,030 square miles, is what he described as “rooftop poor and industry rich.”  Though his district pays recapture, 63.8% of students are economically disadvantaged.  He spoke about some of the unique costs his district faces, due to their location on the coast, such as windstorm insurance and the cost to maintain buses in a salty climate.  Dr. Wiggins explained that since his district is at their maximum tax rate without an election, they are for all intents and purposes at their maximum level now, since he is certain voters in his community will not adopt a higher tax rate that would cause them to send additional money to the state. 

 Even though Calhoun County ISD’s performance on STAAR exceeded the average performance from the State, Dr. Wiggins expressed that he is extremely concerned about the scores, and his district’s ability to meet expectations with all students.  His response to the State’s attorney’s emphasis that his scores exceeded the state was to point out that there is a lot of work to be done statewide to meet expectations.

 Judge Dietz was very interested in the details of the steps undertaken by Calhoun County ISD to prepare for the new state assessment.  Dr. Wiggins explained the curriculum alignment, staff training, and regular assessments of progress to change the way classroom instruction occurs in his district in order to prepare for STAAR.  He also described that additional resources that are needed in order for his district to successfully meet expectations with all students.

 Wednesday afternoon, the Court heard from another national expert.  Dr. William Duncombe of Syracuse University answered hours of questions regarding his cost function analysis study, which sought to determine the cost of meeting performance standards in Texas schools.

Tomorrow, another national expert will take the stand, Dr. Diane Schanzenbach, associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.  Dr. Schanzenbach is a renowned expert on class size and teacher quality.

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