August 28, 2014

Judge again finds state school financing unconstitutional

State District Judge John Dietz said that the school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax.

Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts sued the state challenging the school finance system, a Travis County judge has ruled in their favor.

In an almost 400-page opinion released Thursday, state District Judge John Dietz said that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, which had argued that the system was flawed but nonetheless constitutional, said Thursday that the state “will appeal and will defend this law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature when they are challenged in court.”

That means the suit, filed after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011, will now continue to the Texas Supreme Court.

Though Dietz made no public remarks on Thursday, his decision is a reprise of an oral ruling in February 2013. From the bench at the time, Dietz discussed what he called the “civic, altruistic and economic” reasons for supporting public education.

“We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others,” he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.

Dietz ruled against the two parties in the lawsuit that did not represent traditional school districts. He held that the issues raised by Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education — a group representing parents, school choice advocates and the business community who argued that the current system was inefficient and overregulated — were better solved by the Legislature. He also ruled against the Texas Charter School Association, which argued that the state cap on charter school contracts and charters’ lack of access to facilities funding was unconstitutional.

Dietz reopened evidence in the trial for four weeks earlier this year so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature, which restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements.

In the trial’s second round, lawyers for school districts argued that the funding boost was short-term and that other changes like implementing complex high school curriculum requirements had imposed additional expenses on schools.

On Thursday, Dietz agreed.

The issues in the suit aren’t new. In 1984, the Edgewood school district in San Antonio took the state to court over financing. Edgewood was a plaintiff again in the current suit. In a different round of suits, Dietz found the school finance system unconstitutional after a lengthy trial in 2004.

Political reactions

The updated ruling generated swift reaction from policymakers and stakeholders across the political spectrum.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams issued a statement saying that state leaders, “not a single judge” should be determining school finance policy.

“Any revisions to our school finance system must be made by members of the Texas Legislature,” said Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011.

“The Texas Education Agency will continue carrying out its responsibilities in providing funding for our public schools based on the current system and ultimately the legislative decisions made at the end of this legal process.”

Thursday’s ruling will also likely fuel continued sparring over the issue in the state’s gubernatorial contest between Republican Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis. As the Texas attorney general, Abbott is responsible for the state’s defense. Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, filibustered the 2011 budget bill that enacted the $5.4 billion in cuts that led to the litigation.

Abbott attempted to remove Dietz from the case in June, when he filed a recusal motion that questioned Dietz’s impartiality based on a series of emails sent to school district lawyers. The visiting court judge appointed to decide the motion dismissed it a few weeks later, saying the evidence did not justify Dietz’s recusal. The emails were not made public.

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