AUSTIN -- The Texas attorney general's office began presenting its case Thursday for why pouring more funding into the state's public schools is unnecessary, with an expert testifying that schools here rank above average nationally -- especially when it comes to educating poor and minority students.
Grover Whitehurst, an education policy expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, took the stand during a trial centered on lawsuits challenging how the state finances its schools. He said Texas ranks slightly above the national average according to students' scores on a national achievement test.
While the state's overall rank was 29th, Texas is among the nation's leaders in student achievement for black and Hispanic students, and is 11th in achievement among students from economically disadvantaged families, he said.
"Texas is doing pretty good," said Whitehurst, who also served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush. He added that when breaking national rankings down by different student populations, the state is "doing better than average in every measure I look at."
Texas was sued by more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's more than 5 million students, claiming that the way schools are funded is so inadequate and unfair that it violates state constitutional guarantees.
With no statewide income or property tax, Texas relies on local property taxes and other state revenue to fund schools.
The case has hinged on the fact that Texas has seen a major spike in the number of minority and poor students in the past decade. Districts say such students cost more to educate, but the state Legislature voted in 2011 to reduce funding to public schools by $5.4 billion.
Those cuts prompted the lawsuits, with districts arguing that they have been especially devastating amid Texas' implementation of new student accountability measures built on a more-difficult standardized test.
The trial, which encompasses all the lawsuits, is being heard by state District Judge John Dietz.
After weeks of testimony from school-district witnesses, including several superintendents, Whitehurst was the first witness called by the state.
"We have heard a lot of testimony, almost seven weeks, about policy of the state. Many of their experts, and superintendents to a degree, disagreed with those policy choices," Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg told Dietz, referring to witnesses called by school districts.
She said the state will now "show, not only how the Legislature's policy decisions are rational and not arbitrary, but also look at how well Texas is performing nationally."
Whitehurst testified that federal data for on-time, high school graduation rates released last week showed that Texas was tied for the third-highest rate nationally -- though its rank had more to do with a change in how the data is reported across the country than any dramatic gains in the state.
Whitehurst also refuted conclusions by school-district witnesses that Texas schools are underfunded by billions of dollars per year. He said that, in general, the study of education and educational outcome has lagged far behind research in other areas and is something of a "backwater."
As a result, Whitehurst said he could not agree with some academic conclusions that "if more money is spent, students would suddenly perform better."
He added that research in the field "can't demonstrate" a relationship between "dollars and outcomes." As an example, Whitehurst pointed to pre-kindergarten programs, which he said are proven to have a positive effect on low-income and minority students -- but not on all students.
"In the real world of budget constraints, you're likely to spread your money thin," he said of funding pre-kindergarten for all students. Instead, Whitehurst advocated for "targeted pre-K programs for those who need it, rather than a universal program."
Texas does not offer a universal pre-kindergarten program, and many districts actually dropped pre-K because of the state budget cuts.
Still, Whitehurst maintained that previous experts testifying in the case "ignored low-cost solutions in favor of programs that were more-expensive."
"I guess I'm just cheap by nature," he said, "but I would look at ways to improve schools that don't have a major cost impact, instead of jumping immediately to the most-costly option."