AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The judge in Texas' sweeping school finance trial wondered Tuesday if "maybe we as a state have been satisfied with mediocrity" — adding that tougher academic standards may simply reflect a new global reality.
State District Judge John Dietz made the comment while hearing testimony from Nabor Cortez, superintendent of La Feria Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley. Cortez said schools with large concentrations of low income-students struggle to meet Texas' rising performance standards.
Last year, the state began implementing a new, more difficult standardized test known as STAAR. Cortez said at least 83 percent of La Feria's 3,700 students come from low-income families and that none of the district's 266 English language-learners — students that need additional instruction — passed the STAAR English Reading 1 test.
He said 90 percent of La Feria's low-income students didn't pass the English Language 1 test and that virtually none of the district's students are on track to pass the higher STAAR standards that will be phased in through 2016.
Dietz interjected, suggesting Texas previously had been content with mediocre student performance.
"Maybe through our testing and accountability, we have been kind of pushing people through the education factory," Dietz said. "Maybe this — with the increased rigor — is an attempt to reach reality."
The judge also noted that students are not only competing against others in the United States, but also against their counterparts from "South Korea, France, Holland, Germany, from Russia, Latvia, trying to be bigger, better, faster, stronger, smarter than anybody else."
Cortez responded: "We don't have a problem getting kids to that level. We just need the resources to be able to do it."
Cortez, who said he came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 10, said schools "can do it. But right now, with the limited funds, with the limited staff development ... we are not able to train them so they can climb that high." He also said that without adequate resources, doing so was "unrealistic."
The Republican-led Texas Legislature cut funding for 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 school districts.
Several districts have sued the state over the funding cuts and other policies they say hinder public education. The suits have been rolled into a single case that is expected to last in January.
The Texas Constitution guarantees "a general diffusion of knowledge," which the districts say is now impossible. They argue that reduced funding has come as Texas increases its academic standards thanks to STAAR.
Dietz, who heard the last major round of school finance litigation in 2004, will rule on the single case — but his decision is likely to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Cortez said Tuesday that his district lost about 8 percent of its budget in the 2011 cuts. La Feria ISD spends about $1,000 more per child than it gets for bilingual instruction, he said, or three times more than it gets from the state.
Dietz asked Cortez: "How much do you need?"
The superintendent figured that it would take about $15,000 more per child.
"I can tell you that $15,000 will not happen," Dietz responded. "So what do you really need?"
After a short pause, Cortez said, "We need to meet at least half way."