Texas public education finance case back in court

The system used in Texas to finance public education was deemed unconstitutional nearly a year ago, and now a state judge is going to hear new testimony to determine if more money and fewer standardized tests have helped balance students in rich and poor areas. Testimony is expected to last three weeks, and Judge John Dietz has to decide whether the actions the Texas legislature took during the summer will change his February 2013 decision.

Lawmakers increased funding for schools by $3.4 billion, a rate far lower than the increase Dietz had suggested, while cutting the number of standardized tests students must pass to graduate high school from a nation-leading 15 to five.

The case stemmed from cuts legislatures made to classroom funding in 2011 that amounted to $5.4 billion. More than 600 school districts sued, claiming that the reductions in funding violated the Texas constitution's guarantee to an acceptable education. Representatives of school districts also said the cuts, combined with public school enrollment growth, left them with inadequate funds to prepare the students for higher graduation standards. They also claimed that school district funds were distributed unfairly because schools in wealthy areas had to share their property tax revenue with poorer schools; they deemed this a "Robin Hood" practice. Dietz originally ruled with school representatives but has not yet submitted a written opinion. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot is arguing for the state and is expected to appeal Dietz' decision to the Supreme Court.

Attorney David Thompson, who is representing their school districts, said the additional funding and less strenuous curriculum standards were not enough. "Putting some of the money back, we appreciate that, but it didn't correct underlying problems," Thompson said. "Nothing changed that changes the structural problems that the judge noted in his original decision."

The additional funding means school districts get about $5,810 per pupil this school year — about 2 percent above 2010-2011 school year funding levels. In his verbal ruling, Dietz suggested that truly fixing the system would require an additional $2,000 per pupil — or between $10 billion and $11 billion extra in every two-year state budget.

The legislature made no changes to the "Robin Hood" practice, so those who live in disadvantaged areas claim they are underfunded, and those in affluent areas refuse to support property tax increases, saying they are "starved of funding."

Meanwhile, the legislature made no changes to "Robin Hood," which districts in rich and poor parts of the state are united in opposing. Those in economically disadvantaged areas say it still leaves them underfunded, while wealthy area districts argue thqt they too are starved of funding since local voters who would otherwise support property tax increases for their schools refuse to do so, knowing much of the money will go elsewhere.

This is not the state's first time having a school finance legal battle; it is the state's sixth since 1984.

01 22, 2014
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