Texas school funding still unconstitutional

Published on Thursday, 28 August 2014 19:09 - Written by Staff and Wire Reports

AUSTIN — A judge declared Texas’ school finance system unconstitutional for a second time Thursday, finding that even though the Legislature pumped an extra $3 billion-plus into classrooms last summer, the state still fails to provide adequate funding or distribute it fairly among wealthy and poor areas.

State District Judge John Dietz's written ruling reaffirms a verbal decision he issued in February 2013. He found then that the state's so-called “Robin Hood” funding formula fails to meet the Texas Constitution's requirements for a fair and efficient system that provides a “general diffusion of knowledge.”

Dietz's final, 21-page opinion took the extra step of blocking Texas from using portions of its current system to pay for schools — but also put that order on hold until next July. That gives the Legislature, which reconvenes in January, an opportunity to “cure the constitutional deficiencies,” the ruling says.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office, which had argued that the system was flawed but nonetheless constitutional, said Thursday that the state “will appeal and will defend this law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature when they are challenged in court.” That means the case is likely headed to the Texas Supreme Court.

If the high court upholds the Dietz decision, it will be up to state lawmakers to design a new funding method. Still, all appeals may not conclude until well after the 2015 legislative session is over.

In the meantime, Dietz wrote that the Legislature “has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools” because the funding system is “structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren.”

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, called the ruling by Dietz “no surprise.” Eltife said he had not seen details of the ruling but expects the state to appeal.

Eltife doesn’t expect legislators will address how the state funds public education until the Texas Supreme Court makes a final ruling.

“There’s just not a lot of talk about an overhaul right now,” he said. “I think everyone is waiting to see what happens in the higher court.”

The case grew out of the Legislature's cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students to sue.

They claimed they no longer had sufficient resources to educate students. The lawsuit cited Texas’ school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students per year due to a booming population and the Legislature's increased demands for standardized testing and lofty curriculum requirements to graduate high school.

Schools in rich and poor areas were on the same side in the case because the Robin Hood system requires districts with high property values to turn over part of what they collect in property taxes to poorer districts. Poor districts said that wasn't enough, while schools in wealthy areas argued that voters often refuse to approve local tax increases they might otherwise support since much of the money would go elsewhere.

Dietz's initial verbal ruling came after 44 days of testimony, but he held off compiling a written ruling that would start the appeals process. Four months later, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion to classrooms and slashed the number of standardized tests required for high school graduation from 15 to five.

Dietz then reopened the case in January, but the new evidence wasn't enough to change his mind.

Rick Gray, an attorney who represented a coalition of 443 suing school districts said he hoped the Legislature will now “once and for all permanently fix the school finance system.”

Abbott is running for governor and didn't argue the case, but his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, has made it a campaign issue.

Davis called the ruling a victory for schools, saying in a statement that, “The reality is clear and indefensible: insiders like Greg Abbott haven't been working for our schools.”

Though Abbott's office is appealing, the attorney general himself said Thursday that Texas should “improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated” funding formula “constructed decades ago.” That highlights the difference between Abbott's candidacy and the duties of his job as attorney general.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said the ruling won’t settle the matter.

“The inequities of school funding need to be resolved by elections and policy decisions, not lawsuits and courtrooms,” he said. “In any case, this debate is an issue as old as our state itself. It’s that important.”

Tyler ISD was one of the school districts that brought the lawsuit. Referring to the ruling, District Superintendent Dr. Marty L. Crawford said it looks like the district’s efforts paid off.

“I think (the ruling) is good news for a lot of the school districts across the state,” Crawford said. “Knowing the history of the Texas public school finance system, it’s always going to be criticized and we’re probably never going to be happy with it. But at the same time today’s ruling does go a step further in trying to interject some equity in the system for all children in the state.”

Crawford added, “We are pleased but we are cautiously optimistic about the ruling. We know there is still a long way to go to get any type of legislative action and you’ve got any type of appeal that might occur with the Texas Supreme Court as well.”

Jacksonville ISD Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell said the issue isn’t through in the court system, but Thursday’s ruling was a step in the right direction.

“Just the fact that they ruled in that way is very good, and is the right kind of thing, ultimately, for all school children and all of Texas,” he said.

Winona ISD Superintendent Denise Shetter said the ruling was good because it established the current funding model is unconstitutional, but she said the solution might not be any better.

“It’s real easy to say something is wrong, but it’s really hard to come up with something that is right,” she said.

The issues aren't new. Dietz also found the state school finance system unconstitutional after a lengthy trial in 2004, and similar legal battles have raged for decades.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams said the ruling will have no immediate effect on the way schools statewide are funded, calling it “just a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation in Texas.”