The Star-Telegram reports that a Texas state court has ruled that the state’s school financial system is inequitable and unconstitutional. The decision could ultimately force the state legislature, which is now in session, to make fundamental changes in the state’s school finance system, but several experts said there may be little impact until after a final decision by the Texas Supreme Court.
More than 600 schools districts, including Fort Worth and several other North Texas school systems, filed a total of six lawsuits after the 2011 Legislature cut $5.5 billion in state education assistance, forcing many districts to lay off teachers and cut services. Attorneys for the districts argued that the system is essentially broken.
The court agreed with the schools’ arguments that the funding system violates multiple provisions in the Texas Constitution that require equitable and efficient funding that would give all students an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of a school district’s tax wealth. It also found that the school system has generated an illegal state property tax by imposing a growing tax burden on local districts.
State Senator Wendy Davis, who has repeatedly assailed Governor Rick Perry and Republican leaders in the Legislature for the education cuts two years ago, said the Legislature now has a “constitutional obligation” to restore the cuts. The court’s ruling, she said, should “serve as a wakeup call” to Perry and Republican legislative leaders. The court’s ruling “that our schools are not adequately funded is an indictment of the current leadership’s failure to safeguard our children’s education and Texas’ economic future,” Davis said. “Judge Dietz’s decision echoes concerns that I have heard from parents and teachers in my district and across the state.”
A group of intervenors in the suit, including the Texas Association of Business, also expressed disappointment with the ruling, saying the decision focuses on “adequacy and equity for schools instead of adequacy and equity for students.” Attorney Christopher Diamond of Houston said the group, which also includes parents and education advocates pushing for efficiency in public schools, will “immediately move forward” to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams called the bench ruling “simply one step on this litigation’s path.” “All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court,” he said. After announcing his findings point-by-point from the bench, Judge Dietz said he would release an omnibus opinion with more details within four to six weeks.
Source: Star-Telegram, 2/4/13, By Dave Montgomery and Jessamy Brown; Sandra Englelland and Melissa Winn, contributors
[Editor's Note: In July 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Statesman.com, which reported that Texas charter school advocates opened up a new front in the school finance battle with a lawsuit that claimed that disparities in funding and a cap on the number of new charter schools violated the state constitution. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County, was separate from the public school finance litigation brought by hundreds of traditional school districts as well as some charter school supporters.]