Latest school finance ruling is familiar

08/28/2014 5:43 PM

08/28/2014 5:44 PM

Wednesday’s ruling from Austin state District Judge John Dietz about the way Texas funds its public schools was but one step in the legal process, but it’s an important one.

Dietz declared the school finance system “constitutionally inadequate, unsuitable, and financially inefficient.”

Texas has a long history of court rulings against various school finance plans, dating back to 1987 in a case filed three years earlier by the Edgewood school district in San Antonio.

Six times, those cases have gone to the state Supreme Court for a final decision. Each time, the state’s highest civil court finally found the school funding system unconstitutional, and the Legislature had to fix it.

There’s little reason to expect that this time will be different, but a Supreme Court decision in the latest case surely is months away.

Dietz issued an injunction barring the state from further use of the current financing system, but as has been typical of previous cases he stayed that injunction until July 1, 2015, giving the Legislature and the Supreme Court plenty of time to respond.

A new legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 13.

About two-thirds of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts, plus a group representing charter schools and another group including the Texas Association of Business, joined in the suit.

The case first went to trial in 2012, the year after the Legislature had stripped schools of $5.4 billion in funding. After a 45-day trial, Dietz issued an oral ruling declaring the financing system unconstitutional.

The Legislature restored much of the funding last year. Dietz reopened the case for a 10-day hearing earlier this year. He ruled along much the same lines as in previous cases:

• Local districts do not have adequate control over their tax rates or use of local tax money to meet state-mandated goals, so Texas effectively has an unconstitutional state property tax.
• The state does not suitably “structure, operate and fund” its public school system.
• The state has not provided an adequate school financing system to achieve a constitutionally required “general diffusion of knowledge.”
• Districts across the state do not have “substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds.”

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