Column: For better or worse, schools mostly alike

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

I got an e-mail the other day from a man named Ted. Ted lives in suburban Cincinnati, and his bosses want to transfer him to the Dallas area in a few months. He’s got a first-grader and a fifth-grader and wants to know what the good schools are in North Texas.

E-mails like Ted’s show up in my inbox all the time. (It’s the price you pay for being first on the alphabetical list of columnists on’s education page.)

He got my standard reply: Find a house you like, and chances are awfully good the schools will be fine.

That’s not an answer I’d give everywhere. I used to work in Ted’s current state of Ohio, for instance, and school quality there varies wildly from town to town, depending mostly on their tax bases and the orneriness of local voters. In Chicago, some suburbs spend twice as much on their schools as the central city can afford.

But in Texas, because of a series of decisions by people in Austin, most schools are an awful lot like one another. They all get (roughly) the same amount of money. They all teach (roughly) the same curriculum out of the same state-approved textbooks. And they all give the same tests every spring.

Whether this is a good thing is up for debate. But with the Legislature about to trundle back to Austin for another exciting round of Let’s Fix School Finance, it’s a debate worth having.

Start with money. Robin Hood – the state’s take-from-the-rich, give-to-the-poor funding system – ranks only a hair ahead of Slobodan Milosevic to many folks in Collin County. But it does allow Texas to avoid the yawning spending gaps many northern states have.

It’s still good to be rich, of course. Robin Hood “givers” (such as Plano, Carroll, Highland Park and Lewisville) still generally have more money to spend per pupil than “takers” (such as Cedar Hill, Duncanville, DeSoto and Arlington). But the financial playing field is much flatter here than in most states.

(An aside: That’s one thing that got lost in the hubbub earlier this month when Dallas ISD crossed the mythical boundary into being a Robin Hood giver. District talking heads treated it as a tragedy that Dallas’ property wealth has increased to the point that it will have to give some of the taxes off that wealth back to the state. But Dallas still makes more money as a Robin Hood giver than it would if its property values were lower.)

The spending sameness stretches past Robin Hood. Because of the state’s tax cap, nearly every local school district has the same property tax rate, plus or minus a couple of pennies. The starting salaries they offer teachers are usually within about a $1,000 range, too.

But it’s more than money. The state says that schools are going to be judged on their performance on the TAKS test each spring, so schools align everything they do to that test. A decade ago, some schools still stuck to doing things their own way, because the old TAAS test wasn’t that hard. But that’s mostly been beaten out of them.

I’m not saying this sameness is a bad thing. If you like the TAKS, then pushing schools to teach to it isn’t horrible. And if you think poor kids should have access to the same resources as rich kids, funding equity is a great idea.

And it certainly makes buying a house easier if you know you can get roughly the same product at a dozen different addresses.

When legislators return to their desks on April 17, there will be a variety of efforts to change all that uniformity – to let some districts play under different rules.

Representatives from wealthy areas like Highland Park and Plano will try to give their districts an escape hatch out of the funding equity system – to let their districts raise and spend substantially more money than others do.

You may also see revived attempts to exempt schools that score well on TAKS – which are largely those with the richest kids – from a host of state regulations.

Legislators will no doubt sing the glories of “local control” – even though meaningful local control in Texas schools is as past-tense as Sam Houston.

Maybe allowing some difference and innovation – like letting some districts spend more money or try a new curriculum – would be healthy. But if that freedom is available only to the wealthy, Texas risks swapping out a uniform school system for one with first-class up front and coach in the back.