A civil suit begun in October came to an end on February 4 in Texas, when District Judge John Dietz ruled in favor of plaintiffs. At stake was the question of whether Texas’s school funding system meets constitutional requirements for providing “general diffusion of knowledge” without an income tax. In the Houston Chronicle, Will Weissert explains that the decision, if it stands, will force the legislature to redesign school funding from the ground up.
More than 600 school districts had joined in the suit, which was prompted by state budget cuts. While most of the plaintiff districts were impoverished, not all of them were. All agreed that there were fundamental problems with the existing “Robin Hood” system. In this scheme, all districts collect local property taxes, but districts that collect more are forced to share their revenues with poorer towns. While this results in help for poor districts, it makes voters in the wealthier districts reluctant to approve tax increases. By not voting to increase their own taxes, they restrict revenue for other places. Additionally, some charter schools joined in the suit, complaining that the state had capped licenses for charter schools and was not funding them equally.
The trial spanned several months, taking up 240 court hours and making use of over 10,000 exhibits. It originated in spending cuts imposed in 2011 at the same time that the state raised expectations:
The districts noted that the cuts came as the state requires schools to prepare students for standardized tests that are getting more difficult and amid a statewide boom in the number of low-income students and those who need extra instruction to learn English, both of whom are more costly to educate.
The state argued that districts were not spending their money wisely. State Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg said that the system is constitutional, even if it cannot deliver the best education possible.But in closing arguments, the plaintiffs argued that the system was too broken to deliver what the Texas constitution promises:
Rick Gray, a lawyer representing districts mostly in poorer areas of the state, said during closing arguments that the funding system was “woefully inadequate and hopelessly broken.” He said Texas must begin producing better educated college graduates, or it would see its tax base shrink and needs for social services swell due to a workforce not properly prepared for the jobs of the future.
Judge Dietz agreed with the districts’ argument in his ruling, made minutes after closing arguments ended.
He declared that funding was inadequate and that there were wide discrepancies in state support received by school districts in wealthy parts of Texas versus those in poorer areas. He also said the system is tantamount to an income tax, which is forbidden by the state constitution.
In the ruling, he denied the charter schools’ complaint, saying that it was not unconstitutional. The judge promised that he would issue more detailed injunctions about funding in about a month. Meanwhile, the state will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. If the ruling stands, the legislature will need to redesign a system to meet the new judicial instructions. The legislative season ends in May, so it is unlikely that anything will be done before next year.