“Money isn’t pixie dust” when it comes to improving public schools, lawyers for the state of Texas told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, arguing an appeal in what has been described as the most far-reaching school finance case in state history. They urged the high court to either dismiss or remand the lawsuit brought by nearly two-thirds of the state's school districts.
Lawyers for those 600-plus districts — which sued the state four years ago — argued the state had not given them enough money to achieve higher goals state lawmakers have set for the state’s more than 5 million public school students, imposing them without knowing the true cost by relying on decades-old cost estimates that do not account for the growing population of disadvantaged students who are more expensive to educate.
Districts sued the state in 2011 after state lawmakers slashed $5.4 billion from public education to help balance a post-recession budget shortfall. During the long-running lawsuit, they have argued that the Legislature is violating its constitutional duty to provide an adequate and efficient public school system, enacting large cuts even as rigorous new testing and accountability systems raised the bar on expectations.
Since making those cutbacks, however, lawmakers have added back more than 90 percent of what they took away — albeit unevenly — while also enacting policy measures aimed at reducing some expectations of student performance.
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During a nearly three-hour hearing Tuesday that saw the court shower each side with tough questions, Texas Assistant Solicitor General Rance Craft urged the nine justices to either dismiss or remand the lawsuit because of the kinds of changes made this year. He also said that more money is not the answer.
“Funding is no guarantee of better student outcomes,” Craft said.
But lawyer Richard Gray III, representing a group of 443 districts that was the first to sue, told the court that “the output screams at you that this system is not doing what it's designed to do.”
He noted stagnant scores on the state’s high-stakes standardized exam known as STAAR, implemented in early 2012 just after the budget cuts took effect.
The school finance case was the first heard by the state’s highest civil court during its new term. Justices did not indicate Tuesday when they might rule, although some insiders and experts have speculated a decision could come shortly after the primary election next spring.
Special session ahead?
If the court rules well before the 2017 legislative session and at all favors the districts — or two other parties suing the state, including charter schools — it could force Gov. Greg Abbot to call a special legislative session.
As attorney general, Abbott — elected governor last year — appealed a lower court ruling against the state directly to the state Supreme Court, on which he used to serve.
After considering the changes lawmakers enacted in 2013, including a $3.4 billion funding boost to public education, state District Judge John Dietz struck down the state’s system of funding schools as unconstitutional last August. He cited inadequate funding and flaws in the way the state distributes money to the state's more than 1,000 regular school districts, and found that the system imposes a de facto state property tax.
Dietz also ruled against two groups that did not represent traditional school districts — Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education and the Texas Charter School Association — whose lawyers also argued before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (Dietz concluded that the Legislature was the more appropriate entity to address the issues they raised at trial).
On Tuesday, lawyers for school districts asked the justices to uphold Dietz’s ruling, pointing to STAAR scores and difficulty in having students ready for college or careers when they graduate from high school.
“We are not preparing students for the 21st century,” said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who is representing schools in the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the state, meanwhile, pointed to high graduation rates and slightly improving test scores as evidence that school districts are slowly but surely reaching the benchmarks the Legislature has set for them.
The public education system is “currently working toward its goals and is thus constitutionally adequate,” Craft said.
This is at least the sixth time since 1984 that a case challenging the state’s school finance system has reached the state’s high court.
Stakes are high for Tarrant districts
Districts across Tarrant County are keeping a close watch on the hearings in front of the state's highest court. A number of districts, including Fort Worth, are part of the lawsuit against the state.
"We have a high level of interest in the final outcome,'' said Mark Thomas, spokesman for the Birdville school district, which is not involved in the suit but is keeping track of it anyway.
“We'll be watching it and getting updates from our professional organizations," Thomas said.
Fort Worth has been advocating for increased state funding for years.
This year, a state increase in the district’s basic allottment from $5,040 per child to $5,140 added millions of additional dollars to the district’s bottom line, school officials have said. The district operates a $700 million budget.
— Yamil Berard