Texas Judge Rules School Finance System Unconstitutional… Again

For the second time, State District Judge John Dietz has declared that Texas’ school finance system is unconstitutional, finding that even though the Legislature had given more than $3 billion to schools last summer, the state is still not providing adequate funding — nor is it sharing money correctly among wealthy and low-income areas.

Will Weissert of Associated Press says that the judge found that the so-called “Robin Hood” funding formula does not meet the “Texas Constitution’s requirements for a fair and efficient system that provides a general diffusion of knowledge”.  The judge added that he was blocking Texas from using parts of the current formula to pay for schools and he put the order on hold until July, 2016.  The judge said that would give the Legislature, when it reconvenes in January, time to “cure the constitutional deficiencies“.

Because Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office released a statement saying it will appeal and defend the law, the case is probably headed to the Texas Supreme Court. If the high court upholds Dietz’s decision, Texas lawmakers will have to design a new funding method.

The case grew out of a $5.4 billion cut to public education in 2011.  As a result of the cut, 600 school districts sued the state claiming that they did not have enough resources to educate their students.  Their major points of grievance included that Texas school enrollment rising to 80,000 students per year, the Legislature is demanding more standardized testing and schools were dealing with more rigorous curriculum requirements for graduation.

The Robin Hood system required districts with high property values to turn over part of the property taxes assessed to poorer districts.  But, poor districts said that what they got was not enough, and wealthier districts knew that voters often refuse to approve local tax increases if the money was to be given to other districts.

After Dietz’s verbal ruling in 2013, the Legislature handed over more than $3.4 billion to classrooms and cut back on the number of standardized tests necessary for high school graduation.When the case was reopened in January, the new evidence did not sway his opinion.

Abbott is running for governor and did not argue the case.  His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D.-Ft. Worth), is making it a campaign topic.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said it should be state legislators who are making education policy, not “a single judge”.

“Today’s decision is just a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation in Texas. Regardless of the ruling at the district court level, all sides have known this is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court,” Williams said.

Chuck Lindell, reporting for the Austin American-Statesman, says that Dietz was involved in a similar case a decade ago when he heard more than two months of testimony.  It was in that case in 2004 that he declared that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional.

Lauren McGaughy of the Houston Chronicle writes that the state’s school finance system has been challenged in court six times since the mid-1980s.  David Thompson, attorney for 84 school districts, said that the ruling forces policymakers to come up with a new way for the state to fund public education.

“Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges,” said Thompson. We respectfully believe that now is the time to begin to address the fundamental question over the resources that are needed to meet our state’s high standards.”