Texas school finance law is notoriously inscrutable to the outside observer. State district judge John Dietz seemed to agree with this sentiment Monday morning as he heard closing arguments in the consolidated school finance lawsuit. “There are 26 million Texans, but I doubt there are 26 people in this state that understand the school finance system,” Dietz told his Travis County courtroom, which was packed with educators, lawyers, and wonks, many of whom probably counted themselves as one of those experts.
Few of those observers likely were surprised by the case’s outcome Monday. Unswayed by the state’s hour-long closing arguments, Dietz waited mere minutes before ruling that the state’s school finance system was “inadequate and inequitable” and, therefore, unconstitutional. He also agreed with the argument that the state’s unbalanced school finance system creates a de facto statewide property tax in violation of Texas’s Constitution.
More than 600 of the state’s 1,000 school districts were involved in the litigation. Six separate lawsuits, filed after the Legislature slashed $5.4 billion from public education funding in the 2011 session, were combined into this one case. (For a rundown of the legal arguments made in each lawsuit, the Texas Tribune‘s Morgan Smith has this handy cheat sheet.) Dietz pointed out that in constant dollars, the state’s school system received only slightly more in 2012-2013 than in 2003-2004, despite having some 630,000 new students in the system. (Put differently, the amount per pupil schools received in 2003-2004 was $7,100, versus $6,293 today).
This school finance case, when it is inevitably argued in front of the Texas Supreme Court, will be the tenth one to reach that level. (And, it is worth noting, the plaintiffs prevailed in all but one of those earlier cases, the first of which was filed in 1984, forcing the Legislature to go back to the drawing board.)
“There is no free lunch. We either want to increase standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t,” Dietz said. The cost of inaction is a loss of competitiveness on the world stage, he maintained. “For our students to successfully compete in the future we must have tougher, higher standards right now,” Dietz said. “We as a state and a nation are wrestling with these priorities.”
Dietz, however, disagreed with the argument put forth by two groups, the Texas Charter Schools Association and Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, that the state’s cap on charter schools was unconstitutional. Dietz declined to rule on TREEE’s argument that the state’s current school system did not meet constitutional requirements because it was inefficient, instead suggesting this was a topic “that should bear the legislature’s scrutiny.” (This is the first time charter schools have been part of public school finance litigation, Robert Schulman, a lawyer for the Texas Charter Schools Association, noted during his closing arguments.)
John Turner, a lawyer representing Calhoun County ISD and the Texas School Coalition, a group of 60 wealthy districts, cheered the suit’s outcome. “Judge Dietz’s ruling on adequacy confirms what school districts have known all along. State funding has dramatically declined at the same time that academic expectations have dramatically increased,” Turner said in a statement.
But Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams was not ready to concede. “All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.
Regardless of how the Texas Supreme Court rules this time around, the problem of school finance will likely remain a perennial one. In March 2012, as the current round of lawsuits were being filed, Paul Burka dubbed school finance “the most intractable problem in state government.”
“It never goes away, and it defeats nearly everyone who attempts to puzzle it out,” Burka wrote.
Who should be blame for this mess? Ourselves, Burka opined:
We elected the people who designed the system—the members of the Texas Legislature over the past quarter century. And we stand by while they fail to fix the problem. The constitution and the case law speak clearly about what is required, but in session after session, our lawmakers dig in their heels and refuse to respond.