Houston Students File Brief In Texas Supreme Court School Finance Case

What’s at stake? Public school financing for 5 million students across Texas.

By Laura IsenseeSeptember 28, 2015 9:05 am| , , ,

This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.

On a recent afternoon, senior Amy Fan read a new legal brief at the library at Bellaire High School.

“By the time we graduate, we will have spent approximately 16,000 hours inside the classroom,” Fan read. “We have witnessed the highs and lows, the ins and outs of a Texas education.”

This isn’t from the army of attorneys involved in the latest school finance battle. It’s from Fan and other students.

They wrote it themselves and submitted it to the Texas Supreme Court as an amicus brief in the ongoing case. An amicus brief is filed by a group or individual with an interest in the outcome.

“We urge the court to consider our voices. The stakes are simply too high,” Fan read.

What’s at stake is the future of school funding for 5 million Texas students. And these teenagers from the HISD Student Congress sided with the majority of school districts. They argue the current funding system is outdated and shortchanges students, especially ones with high needs.

The justices heard oral arguments in September, with state attorneys asking them to drop the case and nearly two-thirds of districts arguing they rule the current funding system unconstitutional.

“We felt like all the other briefs filed in the case were written by administrators, superintendents, kind of lawyers – people who’ve never sat in a classroom for any extended period of time before they wrote these briefs,” said Fan, who is the current speaker for the grassroots student group.

Of course, they’re all adults. Fan and other students wanted to tell their experience.

Zaakir Tameez, who graduated from Carnegie Vanguard High in 2015, said they wanted the justices to remember that students are more than numbers.

“We’ve been through the door,” he said.

They got the idea for the brief after a lobbying trip last spring to Austin, where they saw an effort at school finance reform fail in the Texas legislature.

So, about 10 Student Congress members spent the summer researching and writing. And for research, they not only read legal documents, they also went back to campus.

Juliana Dunn, who also graduated from Carnegie Vanguard, visited Lee High School in Southwest Houston.

“It’s a place where a lot of immigrants come to Houston and a lot of English language learners end up here at Lee,” she said.

In fact, 60 percent of students at Lee have been learning English for five years or less. With that in mind, Dunn and another student team member tried to answer two questions for the brief.

“What is it like to educate English language learner students?” she said. “And the second is what would Lee do with more funding?”

The school’s principal Jonathan Trinh shared how hard that is.

“I have a kid that cannot read or write in his own language that I have to get ready to graduate high school in America four years from now,” Trinh said. “And then somehow make that one dollar fit that one child.”

Texas hasn’t updated the funding for English language learners in decades.

“It’s not fair. It’s not – no matter how you sit back and say, ‘Well, you know, you get the same money; the other kid doesn’t get any more.’ It’s not the same problem,” Trinh said.

He has to schedule two or three language arts classes in a row so that students get enough intensive English training. Many are immigrants from Central America, Syria and other places.

Trinh relates to their situation because he was a refugee. He came to the United States from Vietnam when he was 12 years old. If he had more funding for his students, he’d make classes smaller.

“If I can get the class size down to about 20, 21, ideally that’s perfect to learn,” he explained.

Personal anecdotes like Trinh’s at Lee High School color the brief. They wanted to stay away from legal jargon and use the power of their personal experiences.

In trying to answer how schools could use more money, the student authors found four major takeaways:

  1. Decrease class size
  2. Improve teacher quality
  3. Expand enrichment programs
  4. Provide more college and preparatory resources

“Courts come up with the exact same things that these kids are saying,” said Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center. It’s worked on school finance cases in New York, New Jersey and Nevada. It also filed its own brief in the Texas case.

Lecker said that in all her experience she’s “never, never” seen an amicus brief written and submitted by students before.

“I think it was very powerful not only because they’re high school students that did this great job, but they are really giving us a window into what really goes on in schools,” she said.

Other attorneys in Texas complimented the students’ work.

“Some of the other briefs filed on behalf of these policy-wonks and in support of the intervenors – I would definitely say that this brief even exceeds those briefs that have been authored by some lawyers,” said David Hinojosa, who is national policy director at the Intercultural Development Research Association and former senior attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.

David Thompson, who is representing the Houston Independent School District and other school districts, said that he hopes the justices give the students’ 35-page brief a good read.

What the student authors want to know, though, is: What do the Supreme Court justices think? And how will they rule?