On February 4, Judge John Dietz of the 250th Judicial Civil Court ruled that the current school finance system in Texas is unconstitutional and does not adequately fund Texas public schools. The decision comes after nearly five months of deliberations, arguments and presentations from the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, the Texas School Coalition, the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund (MALDEF) who were representing more than 600 Texas school districts. Two other groups, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education (TREE) and the Texas Charter School Association also joined the case to argue for spending efficiency and charter school funding. However, Judge Dietz declined to rule on these complaints, instead suggesting legislative scrutiny to the issues.
The main plaintiffs of the case argued the state of Texas has not provided equitable and appropriate funding for Texas school districts to meet the needs of our growing student population in addition to the increased standards and rigors from state standardized testing. They argued that the state has not upheld its constitutional responsibility to fund Texas schools at an adequate and equitable level to meet these demands.
Judge Dietz agreed with the school districts, citing that funding levels since 2004 have only increased slightly despite population growth. He indicated the state has not provided the resources school districts need to meet the requirements set forth by the legislature. Dietz said, “There is no free lunch. We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t.”
There will inevitably be an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court by the attorneys representing the state of Texas. This is the exact trajectory the last school finance lawsuit took in 2005. (In fact, four of the Supreme Court justices that ruled in favor of school districts in the 7-1 ruling in 2005 remain on the court today.) Back then, the all-Republican court found the state’s school funding mechanism to be unconstitutional, but they reversed the lower court’s ruling indicating the school funding system wasn’t inadequate … yet. The court suggested “an impending constitutional violation” in funding adequacy, but indicated the state hadn’t quite crossed the line yet. The court ruling said “…it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”
Eight years later, the calls have not been answered by the legislature to address the funding mechanism inequalities, and the only “widespread change” was to further cut funding in 2011. It will be interesting to see the Supreme Court’s ruling this go-around.
Can the Legislature Do Something Now?
Sure they can – they’re in session. Largely ignoring pleas from parent-teacher organizations, teacher professional organizations, and other groups supporting Texas public schools, the legislature and new Commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, Michael Williams, have purposefully dodged the school funding issue. While it’s unlikely that the legislature will tackle a re-write of the school finance system in the midst of litigation, they can show good faith by restoring $5.4 billion cut from the state’s inadequately funded schools. The decision to make those cuts was made on general revenue projections that were underestimated by the state comptroller. The fact is, the state had the revenue to fund schools in 2011 but didn’t based on this faulty data. To continue to allow this mistake to stand while basking in the reality of healthy revenue receipts is unconscionable.
Unfortunately, for a variety of political and ideological reasons, there is a contingent of legislators that don’t want to restore funding. They will continue to uphold their no-taxation pledges and lean government principles by attempting to maintain the needless funding cuts. They’ve also offered other proposals for this legislative session designed to pull even more funds from Texas public schools by transferring money to private schools in the form of taxpayer-funded “scholarships” (another poorly masked voucher scheme). Further there are some lawmakers that just don’t have the political courage or will to suggest finding new revenues to fund public education when fiscal responsibility and cost cutting seem to be en vogue among their primary voting base.
Regardless of the motivation behind their reluctance to restore funding, lawmakers must understand that waiting for the Supreme Court to act before restoring the unnecessary funding cuts is cowardly and leaves Texas students in unfunded schools until 2015. It’s particularly egregious considering the revenue is there.
What Can You Do?
Contact your state senator and representative and demand that they restore school funding now. After Judge Dietz’s ruling was announced, the Center for Public Policy Priorities Executive Director, F. Scott McCown, Senators Wendy Davis, Rodney Ellis, José Rodríguez, Carlos Uresti, and Judith Zaffirini, Representative Eric Johnson, and Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa each issued statements calling for restoration of the cuts immediately and relieving Texas public schools of the financial constraints that the legislature has created. Contact your representatives to let them know that the unnecessary funding cuts of 2011 should be restored while awaiting the Supreme Court decision. You can find your representative HERE.
What Happens if the State Loses (again)?
Arguably, the state legislature didn’t take positive action following the last Supreme Court ruling. With the introduction of STAAR’s increased rigor and growing student populations, they may have crossed the unconstitutional line they were warned about in 2005. Assuming the Supreme Court rules that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional, a massive re-write of the state’s funding mechanisms will be in order.
This will be critical. The legislature will be presented with the opportunity to develop a school funding system that will once and for all resolve the issues that bring it back to court every five years. Or will the legislature choose to slap yet another bandage on the notoriously broken funding system, essentially setting up another court rendezvous down the road? The bandage approach has not served Texans well, resulting in school finance lawsuits dating back to the 1970s. Instead, it’s time for the legislature to find the leadership, courage, and bench strength understanding of school finance to develop a system that will stand the test of time and jurisprudence. Legislators, you have until the anticipated 2014 special session – the clock is ticking.