The money The Lege put back into public education is unlikely to end the legal case, Analysis: Lawmakers not out of the woods on school finance.
But will a $3.4 billion increase in funding and a sharp reduction in high-stakes testing be enough to sway Dietz and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court?
Closing the chasm between districts may help with the issue of equity. The second issue, adequacy, is hotly contested, as education groups and others note that funding is, at best, where it was four years ago. And lawmakers did little to address the third major component of the case, the ruling that districts are locked into what is essentially an illegal statewide property tax.
Legislative leaders are nonetheless optimistic, while the plaintiff school districts see only a small impact.
“This should influence the final decision that Judge Dietz is going to write,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “With the combination of the reduction in STAAR testing and this infusion of cash into our schools, I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue. At the least, it could mean that the state may want to ask to reopen the case.”
In addition to the extra $3.4 billion in the coming two years — which erased a good chunk of the $5.4 billion funding reduction over the past two years — lawmakers also slashed the number of high school end-of-course tests required for graduation.
While some money was put back there are still huge problems with public educaiton in Texas.
The judge’s point was driven home in the National Education Association’s annual comparison of school spending this spring, which showed that Texas had slipped to 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in spending per pupil.
Patrick played down Dietz’s funding estimate as “a number he pulled out of the sky.” He also noted that the state Supreme Court will ultimately decide, factoring in what lawmakers did this year.
Thompson, who has been an attorney in the last two school finance cases and is a former general counsel for the Texas Education Agency, compared the new arguments of the state to someone deciding how to salvage an ailing vehicle.
“What they did was like fixing a 20-year-old car. They spent a significant amount of money on the repairs, but they’ve still got a 20-year-old car,” he said.
“They made no changes in the structure of the funding system,” he added. “All they did was put money into an outdated system that is not designed to help our neediest kids, the ones who are struggling and who are now the majority of students in our schools.”
As the Morgan Smith points out we’re still waiting on the judge’s final decision, Whatever Became of That School Finance Ruling?
When John Dietz issued an oral ruling declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional in February, the state district court judge said he would release a more detailed, written decision by mid-March.
It’s now June, and there is still no final decision in the sweeping lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that arose after the Legislature eliminated roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011.
Dietz, who did not return a call for comment, has not formally communicated any reason for the delay to the parties in the lawsuit, according to David Thompson, an attorney involved in the litigation.
Many believed, before the legislative session began, that there would be a special session on public education once the courts were finished, in the Spring of 2014. It’s still looks likely that public education will need to be addressed before the next regular session in 2015.
Here’s what the issues are in the court case (from DMN article linked above):
The three major issues on which the state lost its school finance case:
EFFICIENCY: Districts argued that the finance system distributes money to school districts inequitably, giving some districts thousands of dollars more per student than other districts despite having similar property tax rates.
Ruling: The inequities violate the state constitutional requirement that the system be efficient. Said state District Judge John Dietz: “The Texas Constitution states a shared truth that education of all is necessary to preserve our rights and liberties.”
ADEQUACY: School districts complained that they were not receiving enough money to pay for programs required to meet higher state standards for students.
Ruling: Dietz agreed, saying that the constitution’s requirement for adequacy of funding was violated in part because the state was demanding more without a boost in funds.
STATE PROPERTY TAX: School districts lack discretion to raise enough funds because they’ve maxed out what they can tax property owners under state law.
Ruling: Many poor districts have hit the cap of $1.17 per $100 valuation “merely to fulfill state mandates and no longer have meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates,” Dietz wrote. That is in effect a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional, he ruled.