Acting in response to a Texas district court decision which had declared the state’s education finance system unconstitutional Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness v Williams, the Texas Legislature voted on May 27th to return nearly $4 billion to Texas schools and reduce the number of required tests needed to graduate. After hearing twelve weeks of testimony, Judge John Dietz had found that the state had failed to provide adequate funding to local school 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.
The legislature’s decision to cut $5.4 billion from education funds in 2011 led six different plaintiff groups to file 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 testimony during the trial, superintendents and school finance experts stressed the dire situation facing schools statewide, which resulted in increases in class sizes beyond state limits and cut valuable programs and services. In his decision Judge Dietz responded 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.
The Texas Legislature has now voted to restore $3.4 billion to schools, concentrating funds in lower and middle-income districts. This means that some districts which are not considered property poor but have significant numbers of low-income families will not receive substantial increases. For example, Austin, in which 64% of the student body comes from low-income families, will only receive an additional $11 million per year for the following two years. This amount represents 23% of the funds lost in 2011, leaving a continuing $30 million gap. The legislature also voted to decrease the required number of tests for graduation from high school from fifteen to five, which will reduce the amount districts need to spend on testing.
In light of the legislative developments, Judge Dietz has decided to re-open the case, and he set a trial date for early January, 2014.The reaction to the court’s re-considering the case was varied. Shelly Dahlberg, representing the state, together with the two largest groups of school districts in the case, supported the reopening. Some of the plaintiffs, and especially districts containing many ESL students argued against further hearings and further delay, stating that it would be impossible to evaluate the effects of the legislative rulings in the near term because many of the changes will not go into effect immediately, and delay will allow current inequities to continue to harm large numbers of students throughout the state. David Hinojosa, an attorney representing the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, noted that “Reopening this trial in January will only delay the justice our kids deserve.”
July 10, 2013