Texas school finance lawsuit

On Monday, Oct. 22, Judge Dietz of the 250th District Civil Court in Austin will hear opening statements from the attorneys of six different groups that have filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas. Because there are six groups identified with this lawsuit there are six different levels of interests involved.

Four of those groups represent two-thirds of the state’s school districts and three-fourths of the public school students in the state and are focused on adequate and equitable school funding; the other two groups have different interests in mind such as providing charter schools with building funds and defining school efficiency through low spending.

A school finance lawsuit is not a new concept. The state has been sued seven times since 1973 and lost six of those times. Even though the courts have ruled in favor of school districts most of the time, the legislature continues to avoid the real issue of funding schools adequately. The last case was argued before the Supreme Court in 2005. The justices, found the system unconstitutional because the legislature, by imposing caps on local property tax rate, had effectively enacted a statewide property tax, which the constitution prohibits.

The legislature’s remedy for that lawsuit, however, made the situation worse for districts on the low-end, as is stated in the current lawsuit.

In a 2006 special legislative session, lawmakers reduced local school property tax rates by onethird and dedicated more state money to the schools to replace the local money. Legislators temporarily froze districts at the amount of per-student funding they were spending at the time and planned to implement a longterm solution the next year. The next year came, but the freeze was never lifted.

For some districts, the freeze came at a bad time. Rockdale ISD was in the middle of a small growth spurt and a shift in demographics, and had yet to invest in the programs needed to serve the districts increasing population of low-income students. Yet the district was locked at a low level of funding just prior to losing Alcoa its largest employer.

Also, just like Rockdale, the state has undergone major changes in demographics. We are a fast growth state for students and now educate 10 percent of the nation’s public school children. The average classroom of 30 students has eight in poverty; three in extreme poverty; 12 non-white; 10 different languages; five not raised by a parent; one homeless; six mobile; and seven abused (some of the 30 fall into multiple categories).

Texas is 45th in the nation for per pupil spending, but first in student enrollment growth; 41st in 18-24 year olds enrolled in Higher Education and last in the percent of over 25 years of age adults completing high school. The question that is at the bottom of this case “Is there enough money in the system to educate Texas students at the level of accountability that is expected and is that money equitably distributed?”

The next several months will be interesting as this case is expected to end at the District Court level in mid January; about the time the legislators arrive in Austin for the 83rd session. Of course if history continues to repeat itself the case will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and there will not be a final or even a temporary answer to the school finance dilemma for another year or so.

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