Civil rights leader David G. Hinojosa, regional counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s San Antonio office, who helped represent poor districts in the ongoing lawsuit to press for equitable funding of public schools, spoke recently to the educational advocacy group Texas Kids Can’t Wait at the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In an interview beforehand with the Trib, Hinojosa spoke about the case against the state of Texas over public school funding (which passed muster with state District Judge John Dietz but continues in the legal labyrinth on appeal); why legislators can never get school finance right; the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court this year; and why Hispanics, despite their growing demographic muscle in Texas, still don’t turn out to vote. An air traffic controller in the Air Force, Hinojosa received his bachelor’s degree from New Mexico State University and earned his J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law in 2000.

Q    Texas Kids Can’t Wait was formed to help fight for equity in public school funding. Obviously, this is an issue that impacts a lot of poor school districts across Texas, including students who are white, black and Hispanic. Why has the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund been so deeply involved in all this?

A    We’ve been involved in these equity disputes from the very beginning, since the 1980s, fighting for equality of educational opportunity for all children, no matter what walk of life they might come from. We want to ensure they have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We can’t ever guarantee results through court action, but we can attempt to guarantee opportunity, and that’s the reason we’re here. I know Waco itself is representative of the demographic changes that have taken place in Texas. I think a majority of students in the Waco Independent School District now are Latino and it’s also heavily low-income. But you can still see achievement gaps between whites and Latinos and even Latinos and African Americans. A lot of that stems from inequities in opportunities because when school districts are forced to try and divvy up the pie and it’s only a small pie, unfortunately some kids are going to be left without a slice.

Q    I understand you actually attended Edgewood ISD, a poor school district in San Antonio at the root of famous school finance litigation that in 1989 compelled the Texas Legislature to seek more adequate funding for public education. [The case was Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, and the Texas Supreme Court was unanimous in its decision that the state had violated the Texas Constitution in how it funded public schools.] So how bad was Edgewood when you were a student there?

A    It was very difficult. We didn’t have air conditioning, there were rodents and flying cockroaches around the cafeteria, and some of our teachers weren’t the best. Some of them were waiting for retirement and just collecting a check till then. Others were just disgruntled and didn’t want to be there, but they had been thrown out of other schools. We also had some very well-meaning teachers who helped inspire us and helped those of us who survived make it to the finish line.

Q    I read somewhere how you chose some of your classes during your senior year in Edgewood ISD.

A    I chose three of my classes because they had air-conditioning units on the windows. You have to remember that not all the windows opened in our school. I was just talking about all this with some of my classmates at our 25th reunion this past weekend. There were some things even I didn’t know were going on about open drug use in classrooms.

Q    Obviously you got some sort of education there. You’re one of the counsels in a school finance case involving a lot of different school districts that is winging its way to the Texas Supreme Court.

A    I think I’m an exception. But I’m not exceptional, and that’s the problem. When you are speaking of exceptions, you’re not speaking of systematic opportunities. It wasn’t easy for me going to the military first and then finding my way back to college, eventually to become a lawyer. If I’d gone to Alamo Heights on the other side of the tracks from Edgewood, I’m sure I’d have some 20 years of lawyer experience instead of 13 because I took that non-traditional path.

Q    The 1989 ruling that compelled the Legislature to revamp school finance — it seems this happens every 10 or 15 years. The court says our system of school finance is unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution, the Texas Legislature fixes it — and in the process it screws up something else in the system. Why are we always going back to this and what can we do next time to fix it?

A    Politics rules educational policy in Texas. And politics is controlled by those with power who don’t necessarily care what children on the other side of the tracks have access to. So while we can debate about exactly how much of an impact money might have, those with the money don’t ever want to give it up. Because politics plays such a significant role in establishing educational policy, we find ourselves in this recurring problem. It’s not that we want to go back to court. You know, we at MALDEF have enough on our dockets with immigration and voting (suppression) cases. But we are here in Texas. It is the poster child for why we needed a Voting Rights Act, but it’s also a poster child for why we need to continue to fight for equal opportunity in our schools. It’s just not right that a student’s zip code should define the quality of education that child receives.

Q    Yes, but MALDEF has been involved in this school finance struggle for a while. Again, what’s one thing the next Legislature just has to do when they revamp school finance?

A    They have got to look at the actual student needs in the classrooms, compare those to what children have access to, and when they look at the needs they need to look also at what the research says about what’s successful, what can be successful for students in the classroom, and then attempt to cost-out the expenditure and equalize the revenue. Some people criticize (the) Robin Hood (school finance system) because it’s robbing the hood of some but not of others. I would say it’s definitely not doing a good enough job because the haves continue to have as much as some $1,400 per student more than the have-nots.

Q    I’ve been watching this struggle over school finance for as long as I’ve been in this business — more than 35 years. I’m really not sure it can be fixed. I’m not sure you’re ever going to get equity in funding, no matter how one reads the Constitution.

A    School finance is not so complex — it’s actually quite easy — it’s the politics that play a role. And I’m talking about the governor, I’m talking about the lieutenant governor, I’m talking about the speaker of the House — all control this, all the way down to committee chairmen. I’ve testified before the Legislature where we’ve talked about 100 percent equity and they’ll say, “Oh, well, wait a second — no court has ever said we have to provide 100 percent equity.” Well, who cares what the courts have said? What is right for kids? We’re going to continue to fight this fight because it’s well worth it. We know what the precedent says, but what we can fight for in the courts and what we can fight for in the Legislature sometimes are two different things. I do think, idealistically, that one day we will have 100 percent equity in our Texas public school systems, but it’s going to take a really strong push.

Q    Your hair will be gray by that time.

A    It’s graying now.

Q    Obviously District Judge John Dietz ruled for your side earlier this year in terms of equity, especially given increased academic standards that children must meet. Why should we have to wait for this thing to go through the appeals process? Why doesn’t the Legislature jump on this now? The leadership knows they’re going to have to fix it eventually.

A    Well, I will say the Texas Legislature did try to fix some things. Now, did they use research-based educational needs? Of course not. But what the Legislature did this time — and it was the first time in the history of school finance — it did not wait for a final Supreme Court decision in order to try to remedy some constitutional violations. They put $3.9 billion back in schools. Of course, they cut $5.4 billion in 2011 so we’re obviously not caught up yet. They made a few changes to the testing requirements, going from 15 end-of-course exams to five end-of-course exams. So they did make some changes. Now I’m not sure those changes are quite as significant as the state might lead you to believe, but I will say that this was a huge effort. There were a lot of legislators involved and there was a public outcry that pushed these legislative leaders into doing something positive.

Q    Some months ago we interviewed former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a big advocate for school reform, and he said that in the Texas Legislature in 1993 the funding gap between the wealthiest school districts and poor school districts varied no more than $500, and at the time John Cornyn, who was on the Texas Supreme Court, wrote in a decision that $500 was constitutional variance but just barely. Would that be acceptable to MALDEF and some of its clients today?

A    Absolutely not. I mean, not from a policy perspective. Now, if the gap was $500, would we be suing in court? Probably not. Would we be fighting in the Legislature? Absolutely. I mean, $500 per pupil — you multiply times a classroom of 20 students, you’re talking about $10,000 for that classroom. You multiply that $500 times a school of 1,000, you’re talking about a $500,000 advantage for those children, wholly unrelated to (more individual) educational needs. Now if it’s related to specific educational needs to cover a gifted and talented program or a bilingual program or before-and-after school tutoring or pre-K, then one can understand differences in some funding. That’s not what we mean in terms in inequity.

Q    I know MALDEF is involved in a lot of other issues, such as voter ID and redistricting that some people believe undercut the Hispanic surge in population growth and thus its representation in the Texas Legislature and Congress. How much did the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of Section 4 and essentially Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act this summer hurt Hispanics and minorities in this state?

A    We can’t deny it was a big blow to organizations like MALDEF and the Latino community and the African-American community because it did provide that remedy or procedure to stop things like Texas voter ID. But we are very resilient. We’re not stopping in redistricting, we’re not stopping in voter ID and we’re going to continue to challenge the state of Texas.

Q    I run across two recurring perceptions about Hispanics and voting. The first is that Hispanics don’t vote, even though they increasingly have the demographics on their side. The second is illegal immigrants are desperately trying to vote everywhere. There’s no significant statistical evidence for the latter, but what about the first scenario? Is it true that many Hispanics simply don’t vote?

A    I think Latinos, particularly in Texas, are disenchanted with the voting process. When they do go to the polls and they do vote, they don’t see much change. We’re still not a majority of the voters in Texas so we can’t expect to elect our candidate of choice in the state of Texas.

Q    But aren’t Hispanics significant enough in population that they could now swing some elections?

A    Oh, absolutely, if we turned out. But voter turnout across all the races in Texas is pitiful. Yes, it’s even more pitiful for some segments of the Latino community. You do have some very strong Latino voting blocs in Texas — people who vote year after year — but by and large across the state it’s suffering. But then look at the history of Texas. Look back to segregated Mexican schools or school policies where Latinos — well, my own parents’ mouths were washed out with soap for speaking Spanish in school, and they lived in the border cities of Brownsville and Laredo. And then you see voter suppression efforts ranging from poll taxes all the way to voter ID today. You see these inequalities in education — and education has a powerful effect on people’s decision to vote. When you look at all this, then you better understand why Latinos are so disenchanted with voting in Texas.

Q    Do you find many people misunderstand the real problem behind voter ID? I mean, most people say, “Oh, I have no trouble about showing my ID at the polls.”

A    There is no evidence that non-citizens are voting. I mean, there are sometimes cases where felons vote when they didn’t know they were not supposed to vote. But, I mean, those sorts of things are so minute that they’re not changing the outcome of any election. (Voter ID) is really an effort to disenfranchise minority voters and disenfranchise elderly voters. And we’re going to see the effects of voter ID on rural populations in Texas that don’t have access to a nearby Department of Public Safety station (where one can secure a voter ID with proper documentation).

Q    I guess that could also hit old white people who don’t drive.

A    Absolutely. And maybe then people will start paying attention.

Q    What’s your bet on immigration legislation passing in Congress this year?

A    We still remain optimistic. But the bartering going on behind closed doors is becoming more difficult because at the end of the day what’s left in the bill might not be much at all.

Q    Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business and a big advocate of immigration reform, told me time is running out for Congress to do something and that a so-so bill — at least for the moment — might be better than no bill at all.

A    It all depends on what is in that bill. MALDEF has in the past supported the Dream Act (benefitting immigrant children who grow up in America) standing alone, but we did also stress that this is a down payment on immigration reform and that we expect more.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.

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