School finance ruling crosses into new territory

09/04/2014 5:33 PM

09/04/2014 5:35 PM

Last week’s ruling from an Austin judge on the state’s public school finance system should bring Texans to red alert.

It’s but the latest in a long line of court rulings on this issue dating back at least 27 years and will surely be reviewed extensively by the state Supreme Court. But the findings from state District Judge John Dietz cross lines never crossed before.

For the first time in this long legal history, Dietz would direct the state to put more money into education.

The current system, adopted by the Legislature in 2006, has structural flaws, Dietz says, and lawmakers have failed to provide schools the funding they need to meet state-set goals.

Supreme Court rulings since the late 1980s have ordered the state to revise school finance plans, at first because the systems in place did not put property-poor school districts on substantially equal footing with property-wealthy districts.

In 2005, the court required changes because, as conditions evolved, the system effectively imposed an unconstitutional state property tax.

Dietz says the state’s system today fails on both of those constitutional requirements.

But now, he says, “persuasive evidence” shows that Texas cannot provide the level of education to all students required by the state constitution “without a substantial investment of additional resources.”

The Supreme Court came very close to saying that in 2005 when it addressed what courts refer to as the constitution’s requirement for “adequate” funding.

The court backed away, but it noted that state funding was perilously close to inadequate, what it called an “impending constitutional violation.”

The 2005 ruling added that “it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”

Dietz says the legislative reaction fell significantly short, both in its structural changes to the finance system and in the money it provided to school districts.

“[T]o its credit,” the judge wrote, “Texas has substantially raised the level of academic expectations for students and school districts, incorporating college [and career] readiness standards into the state curriculum, increasing graduation requirements, and transitioning to a much more rigorous testing regime.”

He pointed to part of the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that said it would be unconstitutional for the Legislature to set a high bar for students “and then to provide insufficient means for achieving those goals.”

In fact, Dietz wrote, failure rates in the more rigorous testing regime, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests, show “a current crisis in the education system.”

In 2013, the second year of STAAR testing, 64 percent of economically disadvantaged 9th- and 10th-graders and 51 percent of all students in those grades failed to pass at least one required high school end-of-course exam.

It’s clear that disappointing STAAR results have continued. Saying “significant adjustments in instruction” are necessary, Education Commissioner Michael Williams last month postponed planned increases in STAAR passing requirements and said the new standards will be phased in gradually through the 2021-22 school year.

Dietz said neither the Legislature nor the Texas Education Agency has made any effort to determine the costs of meeting educational standards, despite wording in state law for the past 15 years requiring such a determination.

Texas has seen sharp increases in numbers of low-income students and those with limited English proficiency, all more expensive to bring up to required standards. At the same time, inflation-adjusted per-student operating revenue for education actually declined from $7,128 in 2003-04 to $6,816 in 2014-15.

The Supreme Court is not shackled to Dietz’s views. Still, his 400-page ruling is thorough and well-supported — enough so that the Legislature must consider whether to make fixes before the Supreme Court rules.

About Mike Norman

Mike Norman

@mnorman9

Take an issue that's full of sometimes-complicated details like Texas public school finance, throw in an element of urgency like the need for better transportation solutions in Dallas-Fort Worth, add a healthy helping of local interest spiced with some controversy and you have the perfect assignment for Mike Norman to examine in depth. Mike is the newspaper's editorial director.

Email Mike at mnorman@star-telegram.com.

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