Government
5:49 pm
Thu August 28, 2014

Judge Declares Texas School Finance System Unconstitutional

A judge has again declared Texas' school finance system unconstitutional, reaffirming his 2013 decision despite $3.4 billion in extra classroom funding approved by the Legislature last summer. 

UPDATE, 5:46 p.m.: The attorney general's office has released a statement on the ruling. Spokeswoman Lauren Bean said “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.”  

UPDATE, 4:17 p.m.: Attorney David Thompson, who represented the school districts that sued the state, told KERA the state has set high achievement standards but has not provided enough funding for all students to reach those standards.

 "The real problem is that we don’t have a system that starts by matching up what we want to accomplish with the means to accomplish it and ensuring all the districts have access to the money and other resources to get all our kids to the highest goals," Thompson said.  

Highland Park superintendent Dawson Orr hopes to see the ruling encourage state elected officials to take action. 

"I would like to see them create a system that doesn’t atrophy," said Orr. "The state tends to come in and do a one-time fix to get out of a court decision and then they don’t keep the system dynamic. They need to recognize that Texas is growing by 80-90,000 students every school year."

Richardson ISD was one of many school districts that testified in the lawsuit. Superintendent Kay Waggoner told KERA that she expects that the ruling will be appealed.

"We are going to look forward to and be hopeful that districts across the state will receive additional funding," said Waggoner.

UPDATE, 3:31 p.m.: Texas Education Agency commissioner Michael Williams says the school finance issue will be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court and the state legislature. "It should be our state leaders making those decisions [concerning solutions on school finance]," he said in a statement. "The Texas Education Agency will continue carrying out its responsibilities in providing funding for our public schools based on the current system and ultimately the legislative decisions made at the end of this legal process.”

 UPDATE 2:55 p.m.: Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor, has issued a statement on the ruling: 

"Today is a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans. The reality is clear and indefensible: insiders like Greg Abbott haven’t been working for our schools; they’ve been actively working against them. Abbott has been in court for years, defending overcrowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and public-school closings, and today, Judge John Dietz ruled against him. This ruling underscores the crucial need to invest in education and reminds us of just how much our schools, teachers and students have had to sacrifice over the past three years just to get by."

  UPDATE 2:27 p.m.: State District Judge John Dietz's written opinion Thursday followed his verbal ruling last year that public school funding was inadequate. He also said the "Robin Hood" system doesn't share funding fairly between school districts in wealthy and poor areas. The Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts statewide to sue.   Dietz's initial ruling followed a 3-plus month trial. But he reopened the case in January and heard new evidence, after lawmakers restored $3.4 billion to schools in 2013.   The written ruling can now be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Here's the 21-page summary the 20th Judicial District has issued:

Texas School Finance Final Judgment

The Texas Tribune has more details: 

Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state's school finance system, a Travis County district judge has ruled in their favor. 

In an almost 400-page opinion, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin said that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de-facto state property tax. 

Thursday’s decision, a reprise of an earlier oral ruling Dietz made from the bench in February 2013, is certain to be appealed by the state to the Texas Supreme Court.

The lawsuit arose after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system. 

Dietz decided to hear evidence again in the trial for a four-week period this year so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature. Lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements. 

In the trial's second round, lawyers for school districts argued that the funding boost was short-term and that other changes like implementing complex high school curriculum requirements had imposed additional expenses on schools. On Thursday, Dietz agreed. 

The ruling is likely to fuel continued sparring over the issue in the state’s gubernatorial contest between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis. As the Texas attorney general, Abbott is responsible for the state’s defense. Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, filibustered the 2011 budget bill that enacted the $5.4 billion in cuts that led to the litigation that arose two summers ago.

Abbott attempted to remove Dietz from the case in June, when he filed a recusal motion that questioned Dietz’s impartiality based on a series of emails sent to school district lawyers. The visiting court judge appointed to decide the motion did not agree, saying the evidence did not justify Dietz's recusal. The emails were not made public. 

ORIGINAL POST at 10:34 a.m.:

The ongoing dispute over how Texas finances public education is about to reach a milestone. State District Judge John Dietz's staff says an order of more than 400 pages should be filed in the case Thursday. Last year, Dietz ruled verbally that how Texas pays for public education is unconstitutional. He said funding was inadequate and unfairly distributed among schools in wealthy and poor areas. The case isn't resolved until his written ruling is filed, though. It arose from the Legislature cutting $5.4 billion from classroom funding in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts to sue. Lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in 2013. Dietz's final decision will eventually be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. If it upholds Dietz, the Legislature will have to devise a new funding scheme. 

A Brief History of Texas’ School Finance Debate:

1984: Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio files a legal challenge arguing Texas' school finance system is inequitable

1989: The Texas Supreme Court throws out the state's school funding law after finding "glaring disparities" between rich and poor school districts.

1993: Days before a court-imposed deadline threatened to close Texas schools, the state Legislature forces school districts in areas with high property values to share their tax collections with poorer districts as a way to fund schools.

1995: The Texas Supreme Court upholds the share-the-wealth system, nicknamed "Robin Hood."

2003: Attorneys for property wealthy school districts argue before the Texas Supreme Court that school funding plan is inefficient and has created an illegal statewide property tax after many districts pushed collections to the legal limit. Nearly 300 other districts eventually join the case and expand its claims against the state to include that the funding system is inequitable and fails to provide sufficient resources.

2004: After a trial involving more than 300 districts, state District Judge John Dietz rules the education funding system unconstitutional and inefficient, and orders the state to halt school spending in October 2005 if problems aren't fixed.

2005: The Texas Supreme Court rules that local property taxes for school funding amount to an unconstitutional statewide tax.

2006: The state Legislature cuts local school property taxes by one-third while allocating more state funding. To ensure no district loses money, lawmakers place minimum funding requirements to districts based on a temporary freeze in the amount of money districts spent per student that year. The temporary freeze is never lifted, however. The Legislature also caps tax rates at $1.17 per $100 of property valuation and lets district choose how much to levy in taxes, giving them "meaningful discretion" over tax rates.

Oct. 11, 2011: More than 360 school districts organized by the Equity Center sue the state, alleging that the school finance system is inequitable because property wealthy school districts often receive more revenue than poorer districts despite levying lower property tax rates. They also allege that school funding is inadequate to meet the state's accountability system.

Dec. 9, 2011: The Texas School Coalition, representing more than 60 property wealthy school districts, files suit charging that state funding is inadequate and that the $1.17 cap on tax rates constitutes an illegal state property tax.

Dec. 13, 2011: The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sues, claiming state funding is unfair to districts with a large number of students requiring instruction to learn the English language, and that the system itself is inadequate and inequitable and that the tax rate cap is an illegal state property tax.

Dec. 22, 2011: Sixty-three school districts, including many of the state's largest, file suit claiming state funding is inadequate and the tax rate cap is an illegal state property tax.

Feb. 24, 2012: Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education sues on behalf of five families, asking the courts to address inefficiencies in how state education funding is spent. The influential Texas Association of Business subsequently joins the suit.

June 26, 2012: The Texas Charter Schools Association and six parents file suit, claiming charter schools should have access to public money for facilities and that there should be no limit on the number of charter schools statewide.

Oct. 22, 2012: School finance trial begins in Austin before Judge Dietz.

Feb. 4, 2013: Dietz rules that the school finance system is unconstitutional, finding that it doesn't provide adequate funding and that state funding is not distributed in an equitable way.

Jan. 21, 2014: Dietz convenes second school finance trial to determine whether more money and fewer standardized tests have adequately improved the balance for students in rich and poor areas.

Aug. 28, 2014: Dietz reaffirms school finance system is unconstitutional despite restored funds by the Legislature.