Texas official admits school finance report errors

Print
Email
|

Associated Press

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 7:02 AM

Updated Thursday, Jan 10 at 7:02 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A state educational official testifying for the Texas Attorney General's office acknowledged Wednesday that she made calculation errors when compiling a report presented during the school finance trial.

The mistakes came in database findings offered by Lisa Dawn-Fisher, the Texas Education Agency's associate commissioner for school finance. They were discovered during her cross examination and were widespread enough that state District Judge John Dietz ordered the state to fix them and compile a new version of the report by next week.

Dietz noted that the case will eventually be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which will review the record of the court proceedings.

"We want to present the Supreme Court with the most accurate database the parties can produce," Dietz said.

Dawn-Fisher's original report showed that gaps in the amount of state funding received by school districts in wealthy parts of Texas and those in poorer areas fell between 2006 and 2012. But Rick Gray, an attorney representing a coalition of school districts suing the state, found several problems with her calculations.

"You know some of these numbers are showing incorrect data," Gray told the witness. "There is a glitch in your database."

After several questions about miscalculations, Dawn-Fisher acknowledged that she made mistakes. One large one was she counted twice the amount of state funding redistributed among poorer districts under Texas' so-called "Robin Hood" system.

Gray did not assert the mistakes were intentional.

More than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-fourths of Texas' roughly 5 million public school students claim funding levels for schools are inadequate since the state Legislature voted in 2011 to cut $5.4 billion from public education and grant programs for things like pre-kindergarten programs.

The cuts came as Texas' booming population has seen public school enrollment increase by an average of 80,000 students annually, and amid a sharp increase in students from low-income families and among those who require additional English-language instruction. Both groups cost more to educate, districts argue.

The calculations mistakes uncovered Wednesday were not the first to come out during the case.

Syracuse University Professor William Duncombe had previously testified on behalf of the school districts that Texas needs to spend an additional $7 billion annually to adequately fund public schools. But the state found errors in the data Duncombe used to reach that conclusion, and Dietz ruled in November that districts could not submit a corrected version of his work into evidence.

Districts both in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side of the case. Texas' funding system relies heavily on property taxes and a "Robin Hood" system where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money they raise to poorer districts.

Many "property wealthy" districts say that while they are in better shape than their poorer counterparts, the system still starves them of funding since local voters who would otherwise support property tax increases to bolster funding for their schools refuse to do so, knowing that most of the money would be sent somewhere else.

The state counters that funding is adequate for all districts.

Gray noted Wednesday that if the calculations in the report had been done accurately, they would have shown "property-poor" districts levying higher property taxes but yielding less money to spend on students.

He noted that in Dallas County, Irving Independent School District has a slightly higher tax rate than Highland Park Independent School District. But Highland Park has $1,615 more per student to spend. "Is there any reason that kind of difference can be justified?," Gray asked.

Dawn-Fisher largely refused to answer such queries, but eventually said: "I believe all children are equally important."

Print
Email
|