The Equity Myth

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

September 2005By Comments

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 seen some students smart enough to go to Harvard wind up flipping hamburgers,” Vasquez said. Political instability, too often a hallmark of poor school districts, has plagued the district. Voters want better schools but not at the price of change, especially when it is advocated by outsiders. Since 1992, the school board has hired three outsiders as superintendents; two had short tenures. In 2003 the board that Nava now heads capitulated to the prevailing suspicion of newcomers and chose Richard Bocanegra, a 30-year veteran of Edgewood, to lead the district. “We needed stability,” Nava explained.

In retrospect, it was naive to believe that a district as poor as Edgewood, with its long-standing underdog mentality, would be able to handle the spoils of equity without ferocious political infighting. It started with the first wave of increased state funding, some $57.5 million, in 1991 and 1992. Voters approved a $27 million bond package, backed by the pledge of state funds, to improve school facilities that were among the worst in the state. But according to newspaper reports, critics accused board members of awarding contracts to friends. Projects took years to get started. The Houston Chronicle reported that between 1993 and 1997, Edgewood ISD increased its budget for nonclassroom salaries by $1 million, adding twenty nonteaching jobs while reducing the number of teachers. Teacher morale plummeted.

The fate of the district’s namesake high school seems to sum up Edgewood’s problems. In 1996, faced with declining enrollment at Edgewood High, the school board voted to close the school and convert it to an academy  for communications and fine arts, at a cost of $13.6 million. Leaky ceilings and sweltering classrooms were replaced with an air-conditioned building that included a modern television and radio studio; classrooms for music, dance, and art; fully equipped computer labs; and an auditorium for live performances. The ambitious idea was that the school would become such a jewel that Edgewood would open it to other students in San Antonio.

The new school touched off a turf war. Parents at Edgewood’s two other high schools—John F. Kennedy and Memorial—complained that the best students were being recruited to the academy. Residents who were loyal to Edgewood High didn’t like the idea of opening it to outsiders (students from Edgewood’s two other high schools will be able to take classes at the academy for the first time this fall). Besides, the new school didn’t have a football team, and longtime residents missed the Red Raiders.

Academically, the Edgewood Fine Arts Academy was a success. The valedictorian of the first graduating class, Juan Quijano, got a full scholarship to MIT last spring. The Texas Education Agency gave the academy three gold performance awards for advanced placement,  attendance, and writing, for which at least 20 percent of its students achieved “commended performance” scoring. But the school, which started out with grades seven through twelve, has been unable to attract a large constituency. The entire enrollment is now around 420, a little more than half the capacity of the old high school, and the first graduating class consisted of only 19 students.

One of the graduates, Armando Cruz, took me on a tour of the school. He was most proud of the robotics lab. Cruz and his team (some of whom were from Edgewood’s other two high schools) had won first place at a regional contest in Houston for the robot they’d built. “I got a lot of attention here at the academy that I wouldn’t have gotten at any other school,” he said. In many ways, Cruz’s story is representative of the larger Edgewood story. Although he graduated with eighteen hours of college credit, he has decided to stay in San Antonio, where he will attend Palo Alto College, a two-year institution. As much as he liked the academy, he has four sisters who graduated from the old Edgewood High School and still regrets the loss of that school. “To tell you the truth, I always wanted to be a Red Raider myself,” he said. Not surprisingly, the future of the academy is in doubt. It’s difficult for the board to justify so large an expenditure for so few students and such little community support.

In the past four years, after Nava and two other trustees in their thirties were elected to the board, a reform-minded majority has attempted to upgrade the management of the district. Administrative jobs have been cut (Edgewood’s instructional expenditures now represent 65.8 percent of its budget, higher than Alamo Heights’ 63.5 percent), and starting teachers’ salaries have been increased. A beginning teacher in Edgewood this fall is scheduled to make $37,500, compared with $36,100 for a beginning teacher at Alamo Heights in 2004—2005.

Faced with dwindling enrollment and decrepit facilities at Edgewood’s elementary schools, the board made the decision last December to close four of them. Angry parents petitioned board members to reconsider. But the board held firm and is building two new schools—the first since the early seventies—to replace the old ones. “Slowly, the parents are starting to understand that this is what we have to do to make the schools better,” said Nava.

Raising test scores is also part of the solution. Ten years ago, barely one third of Edgewood’s tenth-graders passed the math portion of the required standardized test, and a little more than half of the third-graders passed both the reading and math portions. Last year, 41 percent of the tenth-graders passed the math portion of a more difficult test, and 71 percent of the third-graders passed both the reading and math portions. But Edgewood is still far behind: The statewide passing rate for tenth-grade math students was 64 percent, and for third-graders in reading and math, it was 86 percent. College remains a long shot for most Edgewood graduates. The average SAT score for the class of 2003 was 791, compared with the state average of 989.

So great are Edgewood’s problems that the only way to fix them may be to consolidate with another district, such as the San Antonio ISD. But Edgewood’s identity as the underdog that fought for educational civil rights is too ingrained. It goes back to the original school finance lawsuit, Rodriguez v. Texas State Board of Education et al., in 1968. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5—4 decision in 1973 that the school finance system did not violate the U.S. Constitution and that school finance was the responsibility of the state. Demetrio Rodriguez, the plaintiff in that case, still lives in Edgewood, and the walls of his living room are lined with plaques for his achievements in civil rights. “This is one of those fights you never get finished with,” Rodriguez told me. “We made some progress, but the state doesn’t really want to give every child in Texas an equal share of the state’s wealth. Edgewood will always have to fight. It’s our destiny.”

Why keep fighting? I asked Rodriguez. Could he see a day when Edgewood would merge with a neighboring district, as Wilmer-Hutchins did recently with Dallas?

“No way,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “Who on earth would want us?”

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