Texas Ed. Funding Trial Kicks Off This Fall

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 18, 2012 3 min read
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A case pitting Texas school districts against the state over cuts in education funding now has an official place on the judicial calendar, with a Texas district court judge having set a trial date for Oct. 22.

The litigation was spurred by the Texas Legislature’s decision last year to cut $5.4 billion in state funding for K-12 education for its next two-year budget. It pits the state against four groups of school districts that will in various ways argue that the latest cuts have created a school funding system that is “inequitable, inadequate, and unconstitutional,” to use the words of Education Justice, a nonprofit group that offers support services to education advocates in school funding cases. In total, over 500 Texas districts filed legal cases after the $5.4 billion cut was finalized.

As the Dallas Morning News story notes, the state’s legislative leaders have said the cuts were necessary and proper, given the $23 billion overall revenue hole Texas lawmakers had to pull the state out of.

The most recent case, as well as past ones, centers on language in the education article of the Texas Constitution stating that the legislature must “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

In 1989, the Texas Supreme Court found that the state’s school districts must have “substantially equal access to similar revenues per pupil at similar levels of tax effort,” and that the state was not meeting this standard. This case, Edgewood Independent School District vs. Kirby, spawned three subsequent Edgewood cases in which a proposed redistribution of tax revenue to support schools was struck down and a bill allowing more local funding discretion was upheld.

Then in 2005, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Neeley vs. West Orange-Cove Consolidated ISD that the state education funding system was not inadequate or inequitable under the state constitution, but that local school districts had been deprived of the ability to set their own local tax rates for school funding. Interestingly, in that case, the court noted that the funding system showed a “drift toward constitutional inadequacy” unless checked by the state legislature, but that no constitutional violation was present at the time.

The state legislature changed the school funding system in 2006 to provide more money to schools.

As supporting evidence for the latest plaintiffs, the Austin School District has $100 million more to spend than Fort Worth, despite similar tax rates and enrollment figures, Education Justice notes.

In 2011, my compatriot Michele McNeil at Politics K-12 wrote up a nice overview of Texas public schools after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took a punch at what he deemed Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s lousy record on education. (Duncan threw his left hook about 10 days after Perry announced his bid for the presidency). The conclusion in that blog post was that while funding and college and career readiness were problems in the Lone Star State, state schools did well when it came to accountability and standards. In the Quality Counts rankings for Education Week this year, Texas came in 12th among all states, doing relatively poorly on K-12 achievement but acing the standards section.

Last month in California, the San Francisco Superior Court rejected a lawsuit brought by the California School Boards Association and others that state lawmakers illegally cut school funding for 2011-12 by $2.1 billion. The school boards association argued the state improperly excluded sales tax revenues from a state requirement under Proposition 98, which requires the state to spend at least 40 percent of the state general fund on the public school system.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.