Plaintiffs rest in phase 2 of school finance trial

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The 600-plus school districts suing Texas over how it funds public education rested their case in the trial’s second phase Tuesday — exactly a year after the judge originally ruled the funding system violates the state constitution.

“Anybody here a year ago this date think we’d be here again today?” Texas District Judge John Dietz joked.

On Feb. 4, 2013, Dietz declared that $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools imposed by the state Legislature in 2011 violated the Texas Constitution’s guarantees of an adequate education for the state’s young people. He also ruled that the “Robin Hood” system, where districts in wealthy parts of the state share a portion of the local property taxes they collect with those in poorer areas, meant funding was unfairly distributed.

But Dietz made his declaration only verbally and held off issuing a final, written ruling. Last summer, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion in classroom funding and cut the number of standardized tests high students must pass from 15 to five — dialing back tough graduation standards that school districts argued they no longer had the resources to prepare students to meet.

On Jan. 21, Dietz convened a second installment of the trial to hear evidence on how the funding increase and testing cuts would affect his final ruling. Attorneys for the school districts have argued that while the extra money has helped, it isn’t enough, and that flaws with the Robin Hood system remain unaddressed.

One expert has testified that school districts statewide need at least $1,000 more per student to meet minimum standards. Another said the additional funding hasn’t closed the nearly $1,300 gap in per-student funding between school districts in areas where property values are high versus those in economically disadvantaged areas.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has maintained that the system is constitutional. It plans to present about a day and a half of testimony, with closing arguments set for Friday.

The districts that filed suit are responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students.

Joining their legal challenges are charter school operators, who say their campuses should receive additional state support to cover facilities costs. They also want state caps on the number of charter school licenses to be eliminated. Last year, the Legislature increased the cap on charter school licenses from 215 to 305 over the next six years.

Testifying Tuesday was David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association.

“Certainly we appreciate that the Legislature provided for more charters,” Dunn said. “But it didn’t do anything to change the nut of our claim, that that 215 number was arbitrary.”

He said about 100,000 students statewide are on waiting lists to get into charter schools and that the number “has stayed consistent” this school year, despite the addition of 50 new campuses and about 30,000 new students attending them. Operators can open multiple campuses under a single charter, meaning new campuses don’t always count toward the license cap.

Overall charter school enrollment statewide is about 178,000 students, Dunn said.

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