Texas Court Declares School Funding System Unconstitutional

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK

A Texas district court held the state’s education finance system unconstitutional in a ruling issued on February 4, 2013. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness v Williams. After hearing twelve weeks of testimony, Judge John Dietz found that the state failed to provide adequate funding to districts, failed to distribute the funding fairly, and denied low wealth school districts meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates because the lack of state funds forced them to tax at or near the maximum rate.

After the legislature cut $5.4 billion from education funds in 2011, six different plaintiff groups filed lawsuits against the state, which the court ultimately consolidated into one case representing roughly 650 or two-thirds of the school districts in Texas. The plaintiffs charged the state with violating its constitutional obligations to provide an “efficient system of public schools,” and to make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of the system. In their court testimony, superintendents and school finance experts stressed the dire situation facing schools statewide, which have had to raise class sizes beyond state limits and cut valuable programs and services.

Judge Dietz responded to each of the plaintiffs’ claims in his decision. He states that the school finance system “fails to provide substantially equal access to revenues necessary to provide a general diffusion of knowledge,” and also that the system is “not adequately funded and therefore fails to make suitable provision for the support and maintenance” of a school system.

Texas has a thirty-year history of school funding litigations, and Judge Dietz issued a similar ruling nine years earlier in which he determined the funding system at the time was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to devise a new one. West Orange-Cove Consolidated ISD v. Neeley. In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court upheld his decision in part, declaring the system unconstitutional because of the state constitution’s prohibition of a statewide property tax, but pointed to improvements in standardized test scores as evidence that the state was meeting its obligation to provide a basic education.

Among the plaintiffs in the current case was a group of charter schools who alleged that the cap on the number of charter schools is unconstitutional. Another plaintiff group, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, argued that state policies on teacher retention and minimum salaries render the system inefficient. On both of these claims, the court held that the issues are “within the sound discretion of the Legislature,” and thus are policy decisions rather than constitutional violations.

In his remarks delivered from the bench, Judge Dietz pointed out the flawed logic in demanding schools meet higher standards while refusing to provide districts with the funds to hire new teachers, increase teacher training, upgrade technology, and provide more tutoring and remediation for struggling students; since the state rolled out its new testing program in 2011, the failure rate has been high, and threatens to prevent many students from graduating. Judge Dietz explained that “there is no free lunch”: “There is a cost to acting, namely the tax increase, and there is a cost to not acting, namely loss of competitive position.” Remarks by Judge John K. Dietz, Feb. 4, 2013.

The state is expected to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

February 11, 2013

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