AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The sweeping case challenging how Texas public schools are funded entered a new phase Tuesday, now focusing on efficiency with testimony from a suburban Fort Worth mother who home-schooled her fifth-grader for a year because there was no space at a local charter school.
The case before state District Judge John Dietz focuses on $5.4 billion lawmakers voted to cut from public schools and educational grant programs in 2011.
In the final weeks of the case brought by more than 600 school districts against the state, attorneys are trying to define what qualifies as the most efficient way for Texas to spend money on public schools. They'd like to see more charter schools and reforms that would allow for more competition to prevent public schools from holding what they call a monopoly.
Their opening witness Tuesday was 11-year-old Bo Smedshammer, a sixth-grader at Classics Academy in Arlington, a charter school. Last year, he was homeschooled by his mother, Andrea, while two of his siblings attended the Classics Academy.
"I was put on a waiting list and there was no spots open for fifth grade," he explained.
Smedshammer said he wanted to go to the Classics Academy "because of all the fun things that my brother and sister got to do."
"I was just watching them and felt left out," he said, adding that he is much happier studying at the school "because I get to interact with other kids and be more social instead of staying at home."
The family lives in Mansfield outside Fort Worth, and the children would have attended school in the Mansfield Independent School District. Andrea Smedshammer was up next and said, "I had several friends personally who pulled their kids out of that school because of the drug activity and gangs."
Asked why she didn't simply put Bo in a private school, Smedshammer replied, "We just didn't have the financial means to do that."
The trial began in October and, until now, most of it has been districts trying to show that lawmakers were not giving them enough money from a broken tax system. However, a group of conservative activists argue that Texas should be getting more bang out of the bucks it is pouring into schools. They are asking Dietz to rule on the efficiency of the system in hopes of overhauling it.
One aspect they want to change is removing a current statewide cap that limits the number of charter school licenses issued across Texas at 215 — though operators can run multiple campuses using a single charter license.
Asked why she got involved in the case, Andrea Smedeshammer said: "I just want to be a voice for the families that had to go through what we went through. It was a really hard year."
Later Tuesday, Paul Hill, founder and now senior staff member at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, testified. He focused on how public schools operate under mandates, which he said "limits their flexibility in problem solving."
Hill said state class-size limits, requirements for teacher certification and salary schedules are not necessarily problematic on their own but combine to restrict public schools' abilities to make the changes that are necessary to improve.
"In almost any other enterprise ... the management has the ability to make human resources changes to become more effective," Hill said. He said that if he were a principal and couldn't make staffing changes, "then the thing that matters most in my school is already decided by someone else."