Texas school funding still unconstitutional

AUSTIN (AP) — A judge declared Texas’ school finance system unconstitutional for a second time Thursday, finding that even though the Legislature pumped an extra $3 billion-plus into classrooms last summer, the state still fails to provide adequate funding or distribute it fairly among wealthy and poor areas.

State District Judge John Dietz’s written ruling reaffirms a verbal decision he issued in February 2013. He found then that the state’s so-called “Robin Hood” funding formula fails to meet the Texas Constitution’s requirements for a fair and efficient system that provides a “general diffusion of knowledge.”

Dietz’s final, 21-page opinion took the extra step of blocking Texas from using portions of its current system to pay for schools — but also put that order on hold until next July. That gives the Legislature, which reconvenes in January, an opportunity to “cure the constitutional deficiencies,” the ruling says.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which had argued that the system was flawed but nonetheless constitutional, said Thursday that the state “will appeal and will defend this law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature when they are challenged in court.” That means the case is likely headed to the Texas Supreme Court.

If the high court upholds the Dietz decision, it will be up to state lawmakers to design a new funding method. Still, all appeals may not conclude until well after the 2015 legislative session is over.

In the meantime, Dietz wrote that the Legislature “has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools” because the funding system is “structured, operated and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren.”

The case grew out of the Legislature’s cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students to sue.

They claimed they no longer had sufficient resources to educate students. The lawsuit cited Texas’ school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students per year due to a booming population and the Legislature’s increased demands for standardized testing and lofty curriculum requirements to graduate high school.

“Increased standards and an emphasis on post-secondary readiness for all students are the right goals for Austin ISD schools,” said Paul Cruz, interim duperintendent of Austin ISD. “We must have additional resources if we are to provide the interventions and individualized attention our struggling students need in order to succeed.”

Schools in rich and poor areas were on the same side in the case because the Robin Hood system requires districts with high property values to turn over part of what they collect in property taxes to poorer districts. Poor districts said that wasn’t enough, while schools in wealthy areas argued that voters often refuse to approve local tax increases they might otherwise support since much of the money would go elsewhere.

“AISD and the State of Texas cannot forget that while AISD is considered a property wealthy district, simultaneously 62 percent or 53,000 of our student enrollment is on free and reduced price lunch,” the district said in a statement. “The state must recognize this disparity and provide the appropriate funding to address this unique challenge. For the FY2015 budget, AISD taxpayers will have $175 million captured by the state.”

Dietz’s initial verbal ruling came after 44 days of testimony, but he held off compiling a written ruling that would start the appeals process. Four months later, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion to classrooms and slashed the number of standardized tests required for high school graduation from 15 to five.

Dietz then reopened the case in January, but the new evidence wasn’t enough to change his mind.

Rick Gray, an attorney who represented a coalition of 443 suing school districts said he hoped the Legislature will now “once and for all permanently fix the school finance system.”

Abbott is running for governor and didn’t argue the case, but his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, has made it a campaign issue.

Davis called the ruling a victory for schools, saying in a statement that, “The reality is clear and indefensible: insiders like Greg Abbott haven’t been working for our schools.”

Though Abbott’s office is appealing, the attorney general himself said Thursday that Texas should “improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated” funding formula “constructed decades ago.” That highlights the difference between Abbott’s candidacy and the duties of his job as attorney general.

The issues aren’t new. Dietz also found the state school finance system unconstitutional after a lengthy trial in 2004, and similar legal battles have raged for decades.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams said the ruling will have no immediate effect on the way schools statewide are funded, calling it “just a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation in Texas.”

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