Three days before Christmas, attorneys representing a coalition of 63 school districts delivered an unwelcome present to state officials: legal documents that would trigger the latest in a series of lawsuits over the way Texas finances—or more accurately, fails to finance—its public schools. The delivery was unwanted, but it was not unexpected. The ongoing battle between the state and its financially strapped school districts has become a story with a theme but no ending, dating back to the first successful school finance lawsuit, in 1984, Edgewood Independent School District et al. v. Kirby et al. (William Kirby was the commissioner of education at the time). Since then, Edgewood v. Kirby has been contested more times than the estate of J. Howard Marshall. David Thompson, the lead attorney for one of four groups of school districts that are suing the state, likens the long series of lawsuits to the Harry Potter novels: each one starts where the last one leaves off, and in the end, they fit together. Unfortunately, in school finance there is no philosopher’s stone that can turn bad policy into good.
It is, alas, all too easy to get lost in the intricacies of school finance and to lose sight of what is at stake, so let’s be clear at the outset: the argument is over nothing less than the future of Texas. When schools are underfunded, as they have been since at least 2005, students don’t learn. When students don’t learn, they emerge from high school unprepared for college. When they aren’t ready for college, they risk joining the 75 percent of adults in Texas who don’t have a college degree (the national average is 72 percent). When they lack a college degree, their chances of finding a secure place in the state’s workforce diminish accordingly.
And yet the process of financing public education remains the most intractable problem in state government. It never goes away, and it defeats nearly everyone who attempts to puzzle it out. Governors on both sides of the aisle have called some of the state’s most prominent citizens into service to work on the issue—John Connally brought in Houston lawyer (and soon-to-be Watergate special prosecutor) Leon Jaworski; Mark White turned to billionaire H. Ross Perot; Rick Perry relied on a longtime friend, former state comptroller John Sharp—but the basic problem has so