Six hundred school districts around Texas have filed a lawsuit claiming that the funding formula used by the state government to allocate money to public schools is so flawed that it puts the government in violation of the Texas Constitution. The attorneys representing the plaintiffs argued earlier this week that legal intervention is needed to fix the “hopelessly broken” system. In response, the defendant admitted that the funding system was in trouble, but it wasn’t in crisis quite yet.
The lawsuits were brought after the Legislature cut education funding to schools by nearly $4 billion and the grant programs by a further $1.4 billion in 2011. This was despite the fact that the student population in the state is growing rapidly, with the growth mostly concentrated among low-income and foreign-born families.
Students from low-income families generally cost more to educate because many require instruction to learn English or participate in costly remedial programs outside the classroom. Meanwhile, Texas has imposed increasingly more-difficult standardized tests that high school students must pass to graduate. The districts claim that funding cuts have forced them to layoff teachers, increase class sizes and cut back on education programs — all steps that ultimately leave their students less prepared for tougher exams.
The lawsuit is an amalgam of six separate cases brought by roughly two-thirds of the state’s district which, together, educate nearly 75% of Texas students. The plaintiffs will be now presenting their case in front of Texas District Judge John Dietz in Austin.
The outcome of the trial is likely to hinge on the ability of the districts to prove that they are currently operating in a crisis mode, constrained by the lack of funding from offering the kind of education guaranteed by the state Constitution. Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg, who is arguing on the behalf of the state, says that the issue is not money but the way districts are choosing to spend it.
“Superintendents’ wish lists” include items like iPads for students, and districts offer programs, such as sports and extracurricular activities, that aren’t required by the state, she said. Dahlberg also noted that districts pay teachers based on seniority, not student performance.
In light of that, and taking into account that the state-mandated standardized exam regime is not scheduled to be fully rolled out until 2015, Dahlberg believes that the districts will not be able to meet the burden of proof to show that the state is now in an education funding crisis.
In 1993, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that it took $3,500 per student for schools to meet state standards, a figure which Gray said now equals around $6,600 when adjusted for inflation. But he said only 233 of Texas’ 1,024 school districts can raise that amount because of state-imposed caps on how much they can collect in property taxes.