Racism of Low Expectations?

On page 45 of the Texas Supreme Court decision on school funding, we
find ambivalence on how to measure Texas education through a
standardized national exam. In the first half of the paragraph, the
court buys into the argument made by a State witness that scores should
be adjusted for "socioeconomic and family characteristics" meaning that
poor and non-white students should be compared not to rich white
students but to other poor and non-white students. Since half of Texas
students live in poverty, the choice of comparison makes a big
difference.

In the second half of the paragraph, the court admits that if the
purpose of a public school system is to get students ready for college,
then unadjusted scores in Texas indicate some worrisome failure:

Academic success is also measured by the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) achievement test, as witnesses for all
parties at trial acknowledged. In 2000, controlling for socioeconomic
and family characteristics, Texas was first out of 47 states overall,
first for white students, fifth for African-American students, ninth
for Hispanic students, first for fourth- and eighth-graders in math,
and second in rate of improvement. In 2003, Texas ranked first in the
nation in closing the gap between African-American and white
fourth-graders in math, and second in the nation in closing the gap
between Hispanic and white fourth-graders in math and reading. But
unadjusted NAEP data, which may more accurately reflect college
preparation, showed Texas sinking to 37th among the states in
fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading, although it had risen to 22nd in
fourth-grade math and remained 34th in eighth-grade math.

The issue is crucial to deciding on the adequacy and
worthiness of education in Texas. Does the Constitution allow the
Supreme Court to consider education of poor students in Texas ‘good
enough’ so long as it’s no worse than the education of poor students
elsewhere? Or does it flatly mandate widespread college-level prep? Of
course one answer IS more expensive than the other. In choosing the
cheaper path, the Supreme Court seems to rely on rankings of
‘improvement’–a criterion that sounds something like ‘all deliberate
speed’. The court goes on to note that:

In 2003, Texas ranked last among the states in the
percentage of high school graduates at least 25 years old in the
population. Texas also has a severe dropout problem: more than half of
the Hispanic ninth-graders and approximately 46% of the
African-American ninth-graders leave the system before they reach the
twelfth grade. The gaps between white students on the one hand and
African-American and Hispanic students on the other are especially
troublesome since the African-Americans and Hispanics are projected to
be about two-thirds of Texas’ population in 2040. According to the
plaintiffs’ expert, if these gaps are not reduced, Texas will ‘have a
population that not only will be poorer, less well-educated, and more
in need of numerous forms of state services than its present
population, but also less able to support such services . . . [and]
less competitive in the increasingly international labor and other
markets.’

Yet with all these existing challenges the court finds that because
Texas is improving steadily with respect to other states, the education
system is not ‘arbitrary’ and thus cannot be ruled inadequate by
constitutional standards.

Having carefully reviewed the evidence and the district
court’s findings, we cannot conclude that the Legislature has acted
arbitrarily in structuring and funding the public education system so
that school districts are not reasonably able to afford all students
the access to education and the educational opportunity to accomplish a
general diffusion of knowledge.

"We recognize," said the court, "that the standard of arbitrariness
we have applied is very deferential to the Legislature, but as we have
explained, we believe that standard is what the Constitution requires.
Nevertheless, the standard can be violated." The court rejected
all the state’s arguments that would keep the court from staying
involved if facts of Texas education do not continue to improve.

–gm

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