The extensive trial regarding the constitutionality of Texas’ education finance system has now concluded. Judge John Dietz indicated that he will issue a decision this month, and his decision is expected to be appealed promptly to the Texas Supreme Court by whichever party does not prevail.
The case commenced in 2011 after the legislature cut the state’s education budget by $5.4 billion. Four separate litigations, involving over 500 Texas school districts, ensued. After the cases were consolidated and a trial was held, the district court declared in 2013 that the state’s education finance system was unconstitutional. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness v Williams. Judge John Dietz found at that time that the state had 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 paucity of state funds forced them to tax at or near the maximum rate. Following the trial, the state Legislature voted to restore $3.4 billion of the budget cuts, concentrating funds in lower and middle-income districts. In light of the legislative developments, Judge Dietz decided to re-open the case.
In the recent trial, both the defendants and plaintiffs focused on the restored $3.4 billion.The Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg commented, “Despite receiving much of what they asked for, the plaintiff ISDs still claim that those changes don’t matter.” Richard Gray, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said, “all the Legislature did was appropriate money into the system and, unfortunately, it did not even appropriate as much money as it stripped.” Plaintiffs argued that the amount of money restored is insufficient especially as the population continues to grow. Plaintiffs also claim that student achievement rates are at a historical low point and that to increase student success will require greater funding.
The state argued that funding disparities between affluent and poor districts have decreased since 2006, while plaintiffs maintained that many lower income students have higher needs and, therefore, need more resources. Gray also claimed that the disparity between higher and lower neighborhoods is still vast. The top 10 percent of school districts have a $30,000-per-classroom advantage over the lower 25 percent of districts, even though property-poor districts are taxing 9 cents per $100 of assessed value higher than property-wealthy districts.