AUSTIN, Texas — Students from low-income families who live in Texas' largest cities get outscored every year on standardized tests by their more affluent suburban neighbors, and 2013 was no different.
In Austin, 55 percent of test-takers passed a challenging ninth-grade writing exam, for example, while in the suburbs of Leander 74 percent passed.
That disparity points to what some say is a fundamental problem with the way Texas funds education: The state's efforts to get more funding to low-income students are outdated and ineffective.
It's also one of the core issues raised in an ongoing, hard-fought lawsuit over school funding.
"The data is telling us that our system is not working to get all of our kids, particularly low-income students, to the standards the state has set for all students," said David Thompson, a lawyer representing a group of school districts — among them Austin, Dallas and Houston — suing the state over public education funding.
Statewide, just 41 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed the English I writing test, compared with a 55-percent passing rate for all students.
After taking three stabs at the 2012 State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, end-of-course exams that students must pass to graduate from high school, 47 percent of the state's low-income students in the Class of 2015 are still failing at least one test and are off-track for graduation. Thirty percent of the low-income students have failed two or more of the tests.
This year's results are like déjà vu, Thompson said.
"If we're actually going to be guided by data, the kids who are off track are our low-income kids," Thompson told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/14sL5ir). "There's no other way to interpret the data."
Texas has made adjustments over the years to address the gap between students from low-income families — who are 60 percent of the state's student body — and their peers.
The state applies "weights" to its funding calculations, essentially giving more money to districts with students who are low-income, need special education or are English-language learners, for example. But those weights haven't been examined in decades, and they're no longer effective, Thompson said.
Earlier this year, state District Judge John Dietz agreed with Thompson and many of the state's school districts, ruling that by raising academic standards and cutting school funding at the same time, Texas lawmakers have rendered the state's method of financing public schools unconstitutional.
Dietz also found that a rift has emerged between funding for school districts that are considered property poor and districts with higher land values. And he said the Legislature has effectively imposed a statewide property tax in violation of the Texas Constitution because districts have limited taxing capacity left, effectively eliminating local discretion.
Since then, legislators voted to put back $3.4 billion of the $4 billion they cut from public education funding in 2011. They also put the additional money into a funding formula that most benefits districts that are considered property poor — a factor based only on the value of property in the district, which might not reflect the income of families with students attending those schools. Prompted by the changes, Dietz said last week that he will reopen the case.
While calling it a "significant" step in the right direction, those pushing for reform argue that it's not enough, because it doesn't fully restore funding or address the weights.
Some urban districts, such as Austin, Dallas and Houston, will benefit little from the new funds, as they're classified as property wealthy despite having high concentrations of low-income students. Austin, where 64 percent of the student body come from low-income families, will see an increase of only about $11 million a year over the next two years — just 23 percent of what was cut in 2011 — and will continue to face an annual funding gap of $30 million. Elsewhere, in property-poor urban districts — like San Antonio, which will see its funding restored and then some — the weights assigned to their high concentration of low-income students aren't enough to get them ahead, some argue.
"You get what you pay for, you definitely don't get what you don't pay for," University of Texas education professor Julian Heilig Vasquez said. "The teacher labor market is like any other market — the districts that pay more . get the best teachers. They have rookie teachers, uncertified teachers, in low-performing schools."
Others, however, argue that additional funding won't fix the problem. Providing more options for parents to boost competition in the school system is a better way to address failures in the system, said James Golsan, an education policy analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Golsan argued that the state regularly increased the number of raw dollars spent on education leading up to the 2011 cuts, but saw little improvement in student performance. Other factors were at play during that time, however, such as enrollment growth and inflation, that dampened the funding boost.
"We need to start looking at something other than money," Golsan said. "One of the best ways that comes to mind is injecting more competition into our public school system."
Golsan said the state needs to explore options such as vouchers to help middle- and lower-income families afford to send their students to private schools, if they want to do so.
Students from low-income families again struggled on this year's round of the STAAR end-of-course exams. And they struggled on the easier parts of the tests, too.
More Texas students passed the end-of-course exam in biology than any other subject, with 88 percent passing. But its passing rate for low-income students was 5 percentage points lower, with 83 percent passing.
Urban school districts, where most of the low-income students are concentrated, saw similarly low results. In the Dallas school district, where 86 percent of the student body comes from low-income families, only 42 percent passed the writing exam.
In the more affluent Frisco school district, north of Dallas, where just 12 percent of students are from low-income families, 85 percent passed.
Students in the Austin school district performed about on par with the state average. But students in the suburban Leander and Round Rock school districts passed many of the end-of-course exams required to graduate high school at a much higher rate.
In Austin, more than 55 percent passed the writing test, while 74 percent of Leander students who took the test passed, and 69 percent of Round Rock students who took the test passed.
The Austin school district outperformed other urban districts, as it usually does, in part because the appeal of living in Austin helps recruit and retain quality teachers, said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, a labor group that represents district employees. But the district can't count on that to last forever, he said.
"Long term, that's not enough," Zarifis said. "As we see people moving to other districts in Central Texas, we're going to have to find a way to attract people. That's going to be a hurdle that will continue to challenge AISD until we can find a way to pay our teachers."