For the seventh time since 1989, the Texas Supreme Court is set to convene today for oral arguments on claims from school districts that state education funding fails to meet constitutional standards.
Each prior case has resulted in significant restructuring of the way Texas funds its public schools, and despite arguments from state attorneys and Gov. Greg Abbott, there is little reason to believe this one will end differently.
After a 45-day trial in Austin that began in late 2012 and ended in February 2013, state District Judge John Dietz ruled from the bench on behalf of the more than 600 plaintiff school districts in the current case.
The Legislature was in session, and Dietz delayed issuing a written ruling. He reopened the trial in January 2014, allowing three weeks of evidence about changes lawmakers had made to the funding system.
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But a year ago, on Aug. 28, 2014, Dietz delivered a brutal judgment, describing Texas school finance as inadequate to meet state-set goals; unfairly distributed among large and small, rich and poor school districts across the state; and built on a tax system that has become an unconstitutional statewide property tax.
When it went to trial in 2012, the current case was stoked white-hot by the Legislature’s $5.4 billion in cuts to public school funding in a 2011 budget crisis.
In 2013, after learning that revenue estimates had been seriously flawed in the prior session, lawmakers restored $3.4 billion of the lost school funding.
And earlier this year, they added another $1.5 billion and also agreed to fund districts’ enrollment growth.
Is that not enough to fix the damage from 2011? That will be a key question before the Supreme Court.
Expect one of the arguments from the state to be that the case should be sent back to the district court.
“At the very least,” Abbott said in a brief filed last week, “this Court should allow the reforms enacted by the Legislature to be tested in the real world before passing judgment.…”
State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, told the Texas Tribune that changes made this year were significant.
Yet in March, Aycock had urged his legislative colleagues to take more significant steps to revise funding formulas that distort the state system.
In fact, that system is fundamentally flawed.
Money is no magic bullet in education, but Texas neither gives school districts enough nor allows them to raise enough to meet goals the state itself says must be met.
The Supreme Court should recognize that.