The state should settle a school finance lawsuit brought by 600-plus districts and convene a special legislative session to find a permanent solution to funding public education, state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, said Monday.
Davis said her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, has the power and an obligation to end the multimillion-dollar litigation because state District Judge John Dietz declared Texas’ school funding system unconstitutional last February.
“He needs to stop defending the indefensible,” Davis said at a news conference. “A settlement recommendation to the Legislature should be to reconvene, to look at these issues and to determine what we’re going to do to fulfill our responsibility to the school children of Texas.”
Abbott has the authority to settle the suit, but he would need the Legislature to implement any deal he reaches with the school districts. The Legislature does not meet again until January, and the power to call a special session rests with Gov. Rick Perry.
Abbott’s campaign did not answer questions about Davis’ call for a settlement, instead promising only that, if elected, he would promote local efforts to improve Texas schools. In the past, he has said that his job requires him to defend laws passed by the Legislature and that he has no intention to settle.
Courts have debated for 30 years over how Texas finances public schools, with the Legislature acting only when under court order. Once Dietz issues his written decision, Abbott could accept the ruling, but he’s expected to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. That would take the issue out of the 2014 election, since the court is unlikely to issue a decision before November.
Davis said Texas has more than enough revenue to boost per-student spending. She pointed to her history as a Fort Worth state senator filibustering school budget cuts in 2011 and then trying to pass fundamental school finance reform in 2013.
Since Texas does not have a state income tax like most states, schools are funded with property taxes, which creates inequalities between poor and wealthy school districts. To solve this, Texas uses what is called the Robin Hood system, taking some tax money from rich districts and giving it to poor ones.
Facing a $27 billion budget shortfall in 2011, state lawmakers rewrote the school funding formula to cut $5.4 billion in education funding. Lawmakers restored $3.4 billion in 2013, but district lawyers told Dietz in arguments last week that the system still underfunds schools and creates a higher tax burden for residents of poor communities.
Davis said that Texas has the revenue to fund schools and that lawmakers need to prioritize it by using oil and gas revenue and the state’s rainy-day fund.
“We left $6 billion in the rainy-day fund when we made these cuts, and at the same time we had a comptroller who misestimated what our revenue would be,” Davis said.
Abbott said he would concentrate on giving more authority to parents, teachers and districts at the local level and offer better technology in classrooms to improve schools.