The Texas Supreme Court just doesn't want to get involved in how the state pays for its public schools. That was the signal the nine justices sent Friday when they unanimously ruled the state school funding system, which historically has been one of the country's most controversial, constitutional.
But that wasn't before they called the system undeniably imperfect and said the 5 million Texas schoolchildren deserve better. But, "Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing reform diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers' policy wisdom with our own," Justice Don Willett wrote in the 100-page opinion.
So the 600 school districts — that's two-thirds of the districts in Texas — that sued the state may be on their own to figure out how to move forward. They're struggling after more than $5 billion in cuts and a system that relies heavily on property taxes. Some of those cuts have been restored, while other parts of the funding system haven't been updated in three decades.
"When I read this opinion, the first thought that comes into my head is that the Texas Supreme Court has abandoned its role to protect Texas children," says Marisa Bono, attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"This opinion represents a full-on retreat from holding the state accountable to its constitutional obligation," she adds.
The ruling has left many wondering, will Texas lawmakers now be the ones to change how the state pays for its public schools? Justices said the system needs to be revamped for the 21st century, but didn't specifically mandate lawmakers to make the changes.
In the past, major reform has always started with the justices, points out Philip Fraissinet, an attorney who represented 84 districts in the case. "So now it's left to citizens, parents, families, elected officials, businesses to hold the state accountable if the court won't do it," he says.
Since the mid-2000s, justices have started pulling back on school finance, and now there's no sign of reversing course. To Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, that's a victory: "The Supreme Court's decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the State's school finance system," he said in a statement.
With this hands-off approach, the Texas Supreme Court — whose members are all elected and right now all Republican — took a page from the U.S. Supreme Court, and a historic ruling in a different class-action case from Texas.
In 1973, in the landmark San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court found that there was no federal guarantee to equity in school funding. They told plaintiffs, led by parents from a poor, Hispanic district near San Antonio, that the system was imperfect but that it was up to the state to fix it.
In this new ruling, the Texas justices echoed that, saying, "Our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy."
Patty Rodriguez, the daughter of the original plaintiff in the historic federal case, said that she's almost relieved her late father, Demetrio Rodriguez, is not alive to see the outcome. She said she didn't understand how the court could decide the minimum standard is good enough, while, as a veteran teacher, she constantly pushes students to reach beyond the minimum.
"It's just kind of saddening to see that nobody, nobody in the state, nobody in the Legislature, nobody in the judicial system sees it for what it is and is willing to step in."