By the way she wears her colors and slings her political clichés, you’d be excused if you took her for Opal Gardner-Cortland. So when I walk into the courtroom and see her sitting in the witness stand, I think I might have fallen into the set of All My Children. But the witness in the wooden box is Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley, and–for a little while at least–she is having a fine time performing her self-proclaimed role as “cheerleader for Texas education.”
When Neeley ascended the political ladder earlier this year, stepping up to state commissioner from her post as a well-respected superintendent from Galena Park (in the Houston area), she took her turn as the third commissioner in a row, following Jim Nelson and Felipe Alanis, as chief defendant in the latest school funding lawsuit to hit Texas. So her motivation, on a recent Tuesday in court, was to project an image of a state schooling system using every means necessary to provide a constitutionally-guaranteed education to each of its 4-million-plus, school-age kids. It was a deeply comic routine, perfectly suited to an Opal-like persona. (After all, this is the commissioner who once bopped the Governor over the head with a bag of popcorn!)
At first, when answering questions posed by the state’s attorney, commissioner Neeley was a model of team spirit. When asked, for instance, what it takes to recruit and keep good teachers, she replied as if punching out a well rehearsed cheer: “Teachers want support from the administration, the principal, the superintendent, and the board; they want to feel valued and appreciated and acknowledged for a job well done; they want to feel a part of the community, not like what they are doing is just a job, but a part of life; and they want to make a difference in the lives of their students.”
“And what about salary?” asked Jeff Rose, Chief of General Litigation for the Texas Attorney General and a heavy-hitting lineman for the defense. “Teachers want to be paid fairly and adequately,” sang Neeley in reply, then resumed her cheerleader stance: “but if you talk to teachers, they say they want support, being valued and appreciated.” As Rose tried his best to establish for the record, commissioner Neeley was a poster-perfect, former school superintendent, who had cheered her district into laudable acts of education. When “push comes to shove,” as she explained, she could “tighten the belts” while “exercising community standards,” making “the tough choices” that “keep the main thing the main thing,” and so on.
Indeed the Galena Park school district–one of 56 districts in the Houston area–had done well during her “cheerleading” years as superintendent, from 1997-2003. Nor was it an elite district. In the 1999-2000 school year, for instance, the Texas Education Agency reports that Galena Park had below-average property wealth and that 62 percent of its students were “economically disadvantaged.” So the example of Neeley’s personal experience was meant to prove that if she could do so well as the superintendent of Galena Park, then other superintendents could follow suit. If others failed to keep up, it would not be the state’s fault. Rather, the state’s attorneys have suggested over and over again, during the first five weeks of trial, that poor facilities and poor performances are to be blamed mainly on poor choices in poorly managed districts.
Although Galena Park falls roughly into the middle third of Texas school districts when it comes to the value of its property wealth, there were, according to the TEA website, at least 506 districts in 1999-2000 that had even less property wealth to work with. So if the state’s lineman-lawyer Rose was going to get this example within scoring range of relevance, he had to try to wring from the play a little more sweat than had already gone into it. So Rose pushed the question further: “Would you have been able to meet state standards using less than your allowable tax rate?” asked Rose. And suddenly his cheerleader said something that wasn’t too cheery. “Only if we wanted to freeze salaries or staff.” Which, of course, she had not done, and would probably never do, as plaintiff’s lawyers would soon point out during cross examination. Opal Gardner-Cortland is often a funny lady, but she is not a fool. When it came time for Neeley to win the game for Galena Park, the cheerleader-in-chief for Texas education had put actual dollars into actual salary increases for teachers, year after year.
Turning to the question of dropouts, Rose tried again to open a path for Neeley to run a zig-zag pattern around the facts. Only this time, he drew a whistle from the judge. “You characterized the Texas standards as fairer and the federal standards as unfairer?” asked Texas District Judge John Dietz incredulously, interrupting Neeley’s testimony with his own play on words. If the federal standard-which tends to show more dropouts than the state wants to admit–was in fact the “unfairer” standard, Dietz queried, then why was Texas planning to adopt it? Although Neeley attempted to cheer the Judge back into the game, he apparently lacked the proper spirit. “My dissonance,” he warned more than once, “is not resolved.” (At one point I was sure that if Dietz had thrown Neeley a rope, she would have climbed right out of the witness box, so vulnerable had she become.)
The amiable, methodical, and deadly attorney for the property-rich districts, J. David Thompson III, on cross examination, pointed out to commissioner Neeley that her success at Galena Park had included steady tax increases to cover “high ticket” reforms such as block scheduling, lower class size, and team teaching at the middle schools. Hint, hint, said Thompson in a very leading question: “so your tax increases were tied to specific expenditures?” And weren’t those expenditures, in turn, tied to promises for improved academic performance?
Neeley’s chant under Thompson’s cross-examination sounded quite different from the “more support, less money” cheer written by the state’s attorneys. In fact, the Texas cheerleader for education had led her district into annual tax increases with unanimous board support and bond issues that passed at the ballot box. Clearly for the former superintendent of Galena Park, the name of the game had been resources, and more of them each year. While no teacher would want to dispute what commissioner Neeley first said about the importance of teacher support, her actions as superintendent proved that salaries are where teacher support begins.
In the end, commissioner Neeley has little to lose as an educator if her performance as an Opal-Gardner-Cortland-cheerleading-witness falls flat. If the judge sees through her forced pose, he can issue an order demanding that the legislature to do for her what her board and voters used to do when she was superintendent. That is, Judge Dietz could order the legislature to give her more money next year. And if that were the end of the issue, it would also be the end of this story.
But there’s more….
For predominantly wealthier districts who began this lawsuit three commissioners ago, a simple finding of “inadequate” might be quite pleasing. Such a finding would surely force more funding out of the state, but it might also support a constitutional challenge to the so-called “Robin Hood” laws that now require wealthier districts to share their property taxes with less fortunate districts. And this, the wealthier districts wouldn’t mind. But poorer districts, represented in part by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) argue that ultimate justice in this case depends upon extending, if not strengthening, the equalization formulas that now treat property wealth as a public good for all its children.
And this is why Clinton-era civil-rights prodigy Norma Cantu turned her cross examination of Neeley to questions of crucial comparison. “You have never taught in districts where more than 90 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, such as Brownsville or Edgewood, have you commissioner?” Neeley dodged the question by pointing out that her teaching experience had included districts where majorities of students were “economically disadvantaged,” which is a fair consideration to keep in mind. As a teacher, she knows something about working with “economically disadvantaged” populations. But as a state commissioner on the witness stand, Neeley’s reflexive denial of meaningful differences between her own life story the stories of teachers at Brownsville or Edgewood was a serious lapse of judgment under pressure. Having earned a Master’s Degree at the historically segregated campus of Prairie View University and a Doctorate at the University of Houston, one of the more diverse major universities in the state, Neeley should have been better prepared to admit the limits of her own personal experience.
A 2002 “snapshot” of school districts, provided by the Texas Education Agency, shows that Galena Park has property values equal to $162,856 per student. For Brownsville, the comparable number is $67,201. And for Edgewood, it is $38,150. The current state funding formulas recognize that each child in Texas is entitled to $305,000 in property value as a tax base for education. If that number suggests that the students of Galena Park are missing nearly half of what they need to fund their own education, what does it say about Brownsville or Edgewood? In the face of facts that have been collected and posted by her own agency, the commissioner of education continued to testify from the witness stand that Galena Park had good facilities because, “we took good care of what we had.” Although the inference suggested by her testimony was consistent with the state’s line of defense-blaming poor school conditions on low community standards-it was also insulting to property poor districts and a woeful demonstration of the value of graduate education.
There is a touch of exasperation in Cantu’s voice as she continues the cross. “You are aware, are you not commissioner, of the gaps that exist in performance between varieties of subgroups in the state?” Cantu is speaking of well-documented performance gaps between rich and poor, Anglo and Hispanic, Anglo and African-America, English speaking and Spanish speaking students. “Commissioner,” asks Cantu, “when will those gaps close?” To which Neeley begins to reply by saying, “I can’t tell you the year….”
As Cantu continues her cross examination, establishing for the record that the commissioner has not yet compared crucial education practices in Texas to model programs in other states–a basic requirement for any “scientific validation” of the state’s curriculum–I imagine how this testimony would have looked if Texas Governor Rick Perry had reappointed the state’s first Hispanic commissioner of education, Felipe Alanis. In the Spring of 2002, Perry announced that Alanis would finish out the remaining eight months of a term left behind by departing commissioner Jim Nelson. But when the year came to an end, the Republican Governor did nothing to renew the relationship. Finally, after the Republican legislature cut the state’s school budgets, Alanis resigned “abruptly” in the summer of 2003. The state’s first Hispanic education commissioner had lasted only fifteen months. According to Scripps-Howard Austin Bureau Chief Ty Meighan, some of the state’s influential politicians were “irritated” by Alanis when he testified before the legislature, “that Texas’ public schools may not have enough money to achieve basic standards.” Then, apparently enough, they went and got a commissioner who would testify the way they wanted.
As this trial moves toward conclusion, big wheels are grinding here in the limestone courthouse on Guadalupe Street. As Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine. Far enough from the noisy chambers of the Texas legislature, and one block away from the Governor’s mansion, it looks like the truth of Texas education is coming out here, despite the best efforts of the state’s attorneys. At stake is not only the need to give Texas students the educations they constitutionally deserve, today, while they are best able to benefit, but also the need to preserve and extend principles that treat property wealth as public goods that should be shared and shared alike. As I daydream through the courthouse windows, down to Guadalupe Street, the arrows on the traffic signs send back their clear reply: there is only one way to go.