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Dropout Issue Could Be Major Factor in School Funding Case

Excerpt: Mr. Wood called the dropout problem "the dirty little secret" of education in Texas and said it is a contributing factor to the improved test scores reported by the state in recent years. "As kids drop out, it drives up test scores". . . .

AUSTIN As the beleaguered Texas school finance system went on trial Monday, the presiding judge in the case signaled that the state's student dropout problem would figure prominently in his final decision.

State District Judge John Dietz told attorneys in the case that he did some simple math to determine the extent of the dropout problem, comparing the ninth-grade enrollment from the 1999-2000 school year to the senior class the Class of 2003 when 243,000 seniors finished high school.

"Somewhere in that intervening four years, we lost 120,000 students," he said. "Could that be right? Am I reading that right?"

Austin lawyer Buck Wood, representing 260 of the school districts suing the state, told the judge that his numbers were on target and illustrated one of the most perplexing problems facing Texas schools.

"Not only could that number be right, it is a very conservative estimate," Mr. Wood said during his opening statement in the trial.

Mr. Wood called the dropout problem "the dirty little secret" of education in Texas and said it is a contributing factor to the improved test scores reported by the state in recent years.

"As kids drop out, it drives up test scores," he said. Mr. Wood said the real dropout rate is about 30 percent, which would put Texas in the bottom five among U.S. states.

The most recent dropout statistics from the Texas Education Agency based on the Class of 2002 indicated that about 5 percent of high school students quit between the ninth grade and their senior year. Critics have sharply questioned that number, and state education officials have indicated they will provide more accurate readings of the dropout rate in the future.

While the plaintiffs hammered away at the Legislature for not providing enough funding for schools, attorneys for the state pointed to the results this spring on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Rose said students through all grade levels exceeded expectations on the tough, new exam, demonstrating that the state and school districts are spending adequately on instruction.

"These are strong results," Mr. Rose told the judge. He also cited the "outstanding record of performance" on national achievement tests comparing Texas students with their counterparts in other states.

"All the court can do is look at how students are performing now," he said.

Judge Dietz listened to opening statements in the case Monday, with testimony scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Attorneys for more than 300 districts, including Dallas and Houston, argued that the finance system is unconstitutional and doesn't provide enough money for schools to properly educate their students.

Specifically, the districts said that state lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional duty to adequately fund all schools so they can comply with state education standards. In addition, they attacked the current school tax rate limit of $1.50 per $100 valuation as a state property tax prohibited by the Texas Constitution.

Nearly 700 districts are at or within 5 cents of the limit.

Attorneys for low- and medium-wealth districts raised a third objection, that funding gaps between high- and lower-wealth districts have increased to unacceptable levels. Some districts say the average gap is more than $1,000 a year per student.

A centerpiece of the state's defense will be a study from a Texas A&M University research team that disputes the plaintiffs' arguments about adequate revenue. The study indicated that districts are being funded at an annual level around $6,200 that is $200 to $300 per student more than needed to meet minimum standards.

— Terrence Stutz
Dallas Morning News





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