School Aid System Back in Court
Some things haven’t changed much in the two-plus decades since Texas began arguing the case that led to the state finance system that is currently on trial there.
The state district courthouse in Austin is the same. The judge, John Dietz, is different, but the court bailiff is the same.
"The air conditioning and sound system are better, but the wooden benches are still just as hard," said Lynn Moak, a veteran finance expert and a witness for the plaintiffs.
But some of the legal arguments in one of Texas’ longest-running public-policy dramas are different.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the plaintiffs in Edgewood v. Kirby successfully argued that the state’s school aid formula had created funding inequities between property-rich and property-poor school systems.
The latest court wrangling, which began Aug. 9 and involves a 2001 lawsuit, revolves around adequacy—or the amount that it costs to educate a student to the state’s academic standards.
The current lawsuit, West Orange-Cove v. Alanis, also challenges the 1993 school aid system that grew out of Edgewood. At the heart of that system is a formula that redistributes property-tax dollars from wealthy to needy districts with the aim of creating equity. Plaintiffs in the West Orange suit argue that the local property tax is amounts to a state property tax, which is prohibited by the state constitution.
More than 300 of Texas’ 1,042 school districts have signed on as plaintiffs, including the Austin, Dallas, and Houston districts. The plaintiffs include districts that share tax revenue under the current system, and others that receive it. Some of the districts will also argue that school funding is even less equitable than when the original Edgewood case was heard, while others will argue that the current aid system discriminates against Latinos.
Mike Moses, the outgoing Dallas schools’ chief and a former Texas education commissioner, testified Aug. 11 that "school districts have their backs against the wall."
Lawyers for the state argue that districts already have enough money, and could trim more from budgets.
Judge Dietz has scheduled closing arguments for Sept. 17. He has said he will issue an oral decision then.
Mr. Moak predicts that any decision will be appealed to the state supreme court. He also doubts that the legislature would act before a high court decision. His bottom-line for a new school finance law? "It’s not inconceivable that the 2007 [legislative] session is where this is addressed," he said.
Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 25Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Texas Trial