The Equity Myth

How a $900 million increase in funding couldn’t save the state’s most famous poor school district.

RAMIRO NAVA HAS NO MEMORY OF THE FIRST TIME he participated in the battle for the great ideal—equity in school finance—that has long defined the Edgewood Independent School District. He was, after all, still in his mother’s womb. The year was 1973, and Nava’s parents had joined several hundred other Edgewood families for a demonstration at the Capitol over the lack of state funding for poor school districts. But Nava, who at 31 is now president of the board of trustees of the Edgewood ISD, on San Antonio’s West Side, clearly remembers the moment in 1987 when Edgewood got the news that it hoped would change the impoverished district for the better. He was in the sixth grade at Las Palmas Elementary School when the principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker. An Austin trial judge had just ruled that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional, and his opinion in the landmark case of Edgewood v. Kirby required the Legislature to reduce the disparity between rich and poor school districts. The room exploded with whoops and whistles.

Two years later the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Edgewood. But it wasn’t until Nava was a senior in high school that he began to understand the issue that had made his community famous in legal and political circles and continues to define his work as school board president. His government teacher held up a rickety old chair with broken legs, then a new, shiny chrome chair with sturdy legs, a comfortable cushion seat, and adjustable arms. “This is the basic difference between equality and equity,” said the teacher. “They’re both chairs—they serve the same function—but one of them is utterly useless, and the other is reliable and can be tailored to fit individual needs. Edgewood is fighting for the new chair.”

Educational equity—the legal requirement that every school district and every student should have substantially equal access to educational funding—continues to be Edgewood’s holy grail. Although the district won the lawsuit, the quest has been a story of hopes and heartbreaks, some of the latter of Edgewood’s own making. “I’ve lived this story,” said Nava, a social studies teacher in the San Antonio Independent School District and the father of four children who attend Edgewood schools. It is the story of Texas politics then and now, because school finance and the issues that surround it—equity, high property taxes, the importance of educating minority children, and the limits of what money can accomplish in troubled schools—continue to define Texas politics today.

Almost five years would pass between the time when the state Supreme Court first ruled in favor of Edgewood and the Legislature’s adoption in 1993 of a new school finance formula under which districts would receive state funding based not solely on their property wealth but also on their willingness to raise their local property tax rates: The higher the rate, the more state funding they’d receive. Thanks to equity, Edgewood has since received more than $900 million in additional funds. The district has invested in computers, raised teachers’ salaries, added accelerated programs for math and science, and created a sparkling new academy for the performing arts and a new girls’ athletic field. Equity is no longer just a concept; it’s a reality. For the 2003—2004 school year, Edgewood’s revenue per pupil was $8,670, compared with the state average of $7,784, and higher even than its wealthier counterparts: Alamo Heights, in San Antonio, had $8,201, and Highland Park, in Dallas, had $8,638.

Yet despite the decade-long infusion of money, the quality of education in Edgewood has not kept pace. Student enrollment has declined 15 percent since 1993 (in part due to a local foundation’s voucher program), and test scores, while improved, still lag far behind state averages. The dropout rate in Edgewood’s high schools is nearly double the statewide figure. Maintenance projects routinely run years behind schedule. These problems reveal the limitations of equity and form the basis of the issues that the district grapples with now. Simply put: Can Edgewood be turned around?

The fundamental problem is poverty. Based on property values per student, Edgewood is one of the twenty poorest school districts in Texas, a sixteen-square-mile enclave of frame houses and narrow streets lined with taco stands, flower shops, and tire stores that is 97 percent Hispanic. Luxurious bougainvillea crowds tiny yards. Edgewood looks, and often operates, like a small village in Mexico, a place of few secrets and long-lasting loyalties. Spanish is the predominant language here. Most residents who could afford to live in better neighborhoods left long ago and have been replaced by immigrants. So many of Edgewood’s 12,591 students qualify for the federal free lunch program that the remainder also eat at no cost, under a state agricultural program.

“Our kids don’t start at the starting gate—they are way behind—and yet the state expects us to finish ahead of the pack,” said Nava. “We’re going to get there, but it will take time for us to catch up.” There’s no question that it takes more money to educate poor kids who speak little English and have no familiarity with technology than it does to educate affluent kids. But Edgewood’s demons are not all demographic. The community’s the-world-is-against-us psychology, sad to say, has contributed to its own failure.

Jimmy Vasquez, who was superintendent when the equity lawsuit began and is now a regional educational administrator in El Paso, becomes infuriated when detractors criticize Edgewood’s lack of progress. “Everyone wants a quick fix, but there is no miracle for Edgewood,” he said. “Historically, Edgewood was a neighborhood created for the purpose of keeping Mexican immigrants out of the Anglo areas of San Antonio. You can’t erase generations of poverty, oppression, and racism in a single decade.”

Yet Vasquez, who spent 31 years in Edgewood, knows how Edgewood bears some responsibility for its own problems. Year after year, Edgewood’s top graduates are offered scholarships to Ivy League schools, only to have their parents discourage them from leaving home. “I’ve

Tags: POLITICS

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