Texas K-12 Funding Fight Seen Headed to State's High Court
A Texas judge's ruling this month that the state's school financing system is inadequate, unfair, and unconstitutional, is expected to end up before the state's supreme court, even as school funding advocates celebrate the lower court decision in a case in which more than 600 school districts took part.
State District Court Judge John Dietz, in Austin, said the plaintiffs—roughly two-thirds of all school districts in Texas—were correct in asserting that the state government's system of funding K-12 schools did not meet the constitutional standard for providing an adequate and equitable public education for all students in the state.
The lawsuit was triggered by $5.4 billion in state funding cuts for public schools made by state lawmakers in 2011.
Districts argued that the cuts hurt their ability to meet new standards and testing requirements, such as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and end-of-course tests, at the same time that their enrollments were increasing. The Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association with 68,000 members, says that since the budget cuts, 11,000 teachers have lost their jobs.
"There is no free lunch," stated Judge Dietz in announcing his Feb. 4 ruling. "We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't."
The poorest districts in the state, despite charging more on average in local taxes, said they received roughly $43,000 less per classroom than the state's wealthiest districts. Richer districts, meanwhile, said they still received far less funding than they should, since voters are reluctant to raise funds through higher property taxes that they believe ultimately won't reach their local schools. Attorneys for the state government have argued, however, that the cuts were necessary in light of a $27 billion budget deficit lawmakers faced at the start of the 2011 legislative session. (The Texas legislature meets every two years.) They also said that while public schools are adequately funded in general, individual districts don't always spend their money well.
Charter schools were also a party to the suit, asking Judge Dietz to strike down a cap on the number of charters, which the state limits to 215. They also sought state funding for their facilities. But Judge Dietz sided with the state, ruling against the charters on both counts.
In a statement after the ruling, Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams said, "All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court."
In his remarks, Mr. Williams also said that Attorney General Gregory Phillips' office had made a "strong case" on behalf of state government, but did not refer to the districts' arguments. Mr. Williams was appointed last year by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, who approved the $5.4 billion in cuts to K-12 funding.
Although lawmakers in the GOP-controlled state legislature may wait until a state supreme court ruling to make big changes to school funding, there are some who believe that lawmakers should not sit on their hands and wait until the ruling to make significant changes to school funding.
On Feb. 11, for example, Democrats in the Texas House tried to force an opening for bills on school funding, but Republicans quashed the move, saying the time is not right for such action because of the next stage of the legal fight.
"I think the tide is turning, at least for right now, towards getting some relief this session," argued Allen Weeks, the director of Austin-based Save Texas Schools, a group that supports greater K-12 funding. "That's going to be a tough fight."
Since 1984, courts in Texas have dealt with six such cases about the constitutionality of school funding. In 2005, Judge Dietz also ruled against the state concerning the constitutionality of K-12 finance at the time, and directed Texas lawmakers to craft a new funding system for public schools.
Vol. 32, Issue 21, Page 25