"If you look at the data, it doesn't support the argument that spending more money will improve student achievement," University of Missouri economist Michael Podgursky, an expert on education spending, told state District Judge John Dietz.
More than 600 school districts have sued the state after the Legislature voted in 2011 to cut $5.4 billion from public schools and educational grants. They claim the way Texas funds schools is now so inadequate that it violates state constitutional guarantees. They also say funding is unfairly distributed because districts in wealthy areas tend to get more per-pupil than those in poor parts of the state.
Attorney General Greg Abbott's office counters that funding levels are adequate and that school districts don't always spend their resources wisely. The trial began in October, and Podgursky was called by the state to dispute some claims made by experts and superintendents who testified earlier about problems caused by funding cuts.
Testimony in the case is expected to last into February, after which Dietz will rule. Whatever he decides, however, is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Podgursky said most of the variations in Texas student achievement is within districts rather than between them.
Asked what would happen if funding differences between districts are eliminated Podgursky said, "I don't agree with the belief that if you spend a certain amount of money, you can predict that there will be a certain level of improvement in student achievement."
"There is no evidence of a positive relationship between student performance and spending by a school district," he said.
Texas school districts have argued that the cuts have been especially costly because they have come as the state's booming population has seen public school enrollment in Texas increase by about 80,000 students annually. The overwhelming majority of new students come from low-income families or require additional instruction in English-language skills, which the districts say makes them more expensive to educate.
But Podgursky said his analysis of spending by Texas districts shows that schools with a higher concentration of low-income students generally spend more than districts with fewer such students. He also said there is a wide dispersion of spending across elementary schools, and that in districts such as Dallas, many high-poverty schools have considerably lower student-teacher ratios than other schools within the district.
"You can't assume you will see equal spending in schools within districts," Podgursky said.
Witnesses for the plaintiffs had said that spending more on schools leads to increases in standardized-test performance. But Podgursky said that if you adjust some of the previous studies properly, they actually show the "lack of a positive relationship between spending and student achievement."
Under cross-examination, though, Podgursky agreed that low-income students require more money to educate.
The witness was also asked about a study he did on school funding that he presented earlier this year in a trial over the school finance system in Kansas -- which compared that state's spending per pupil to totals in other states.
As an expert for the state of Kansas, Podgursky took a national study on school spending and made some adjustments he said were necessary. They improved Kansas' ranking but lowered Texas from 42nd to 48th in per-pupil spending.
That prompted Podgursky to acknowledge to Dietz that by his own pervious measure, Texas ranked 48th in per-pupil spending.
Podgursky also cited a five-year-old survey by the U.S. Department of Education indicating that teacher salaries in Texas are in the middle among states, contradicting earlier testimony that teaching salaries statewide are low.
Podgursky also said Texas averaged 14.6 students per class, lower than the national average of 15.4. He said increasing class sizes here -- and therefore presumably cutting large amounts of teaching positions -- could help Texas increase teacher salaries.