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Texas school finance case focuses on demographics

WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
Tuesday, 23 Oct 2012 | 2:38 PM ET

AUSTIN, Texas -- A boom in Texas' Hispanic population, coupled with starkly higher poverty rates for minorities statewide, could so hurt future household income that it would cost the Lone Star State $11.4 billion annually in lost tax revenue by 2050, a demographics expert testified Tuesday at a school finance trial.

Steve Murdock, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and ex-state demographer of Texas, said studies are nearly unanimous in concluding that improved education is the key to bolstering earning power _ and thus could reverse the trend.

Murdock's testimony came in a case involving six lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of about two-thirds of Texas school districts, which educate about 75 percent of the state's more than 5 million students. At issue is the Texas Legislature's approval in 2011 of $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and grant programs. The case opened Monday before state District Judge John Dietz in Austin.

The average household income in Texas in 2010 was around $66,000, according to Murdock. If current trends continue, that average could decline by more than $7,700 by 2050. That would mean $300 per household less in taxable income, he said.

However, Murdock also said that closing earnings gaps between whites and minorities could increase average household income by $16,000 a year by 2050. "How well minority populations do in Texas is how well Texas will do," he said.

The school districts are pressing for more funding, saying the recent cuts forced teacher layoffs and larger class sizes while running so deep that they violated the Texas Constitution's promises to provide efficient, free public schools. They say the system is now unfair because the cuts came even as school enrollments are increasing by 80,000 students per year on average and teachers are expected to prepare students for new standardized tests that are more difficult.

The state attorney general's office argues that because Texas places great emphasis on local control of its school districts, shortcomings are the fault of individual districts, not the system as a whole. Its attorneys have also noted that Texas funded schools beyond the rate of inflation and enrollment growth between 2006 and 2010, meaning the cuts of 2011 may not have been so deeply felt.

Murdock testified that between 2000 and 2010, the state's population grew by nearly 4.3 million and Hispanic growth was responsible for about 2.8 million, or 65 percent of that. In all, the Hispanic population increased from 32 percent of Texas residents to 37.6 percent.

He said it's a trend that is nearly universal across the state and has continued even though immigration from Mexico and other countries dropped sharply after the U.S. economy faltered in 2008. That's important for future household earnings, Murdock said, because Hispanics _ as well as African-Americans _ are roughly three times as likely as whites to live in poverty.

Texas can also expect an increase of 4.8 million school-age children in 2010 to nearly 9.3 million in 2050, Murdock said. By then, 15.5 percent of Texas public schools students would be white, compared with 8.5 percent African-American and 64 percent Hispanic.

School districts say students from low-income families are already generally more expensive to educate, with many requiring participation in costly remedial programs outside the classroom or extra instruction to boost their English skills.

Assistant Attorney General Nichole Bunker-Henderson tried to press Murdock on the idea that second- and third-generation immigrants could succeed more economically than those recently arriving in the United States.

Murdock insisted that was true only if the children receive adequate education.

"Education is important and cumulative," Murdock said. "It increases and magnifies over generations."

Also Tuesday, Guy Sconzo, superintendent of Humble Independent School District in suburban Houston, testified about how the cuts have forced his district to eliminate 171 teaching positions. The district also scrapped 40 bus routes, had janitors clean buildings every-other-day and ended pre-kindergarten classes for 3-year-olds, Sconzo said.

He said much of Murdock's testimony rang true in Humble, where the district has grown from 24,000 students 12 years ago to more than 37,000 students today. Thirty-five percent are low-income students.

Sconzo said that before the cuts, the district found that additional instruction greatly aided students whose families live in poverty.

Sconzo also testified about new, more-difficult standardized test introduced in Texas last year. He said 42 percent of students in his district failed at least one 2011-2012 exam they'll eventually need to pass to graduate.

If students continue to fail the tests at similar rates, he said, Humble would have 3,000 students annually who would have to take remedial classes in programs such as summer school.

"It's honestly very alarming to me," Sconzo said.