Texas Politics

Texas school finance ruling praised by GOP, ripped by local education officials

FILE: In this Feb. 23, 2013 file photo, teachers, students, parents and school administrators march up Congress Avenue to the state Capitol, in Austin, Texas to a rally for Texas public schools. The Texas Supreme Court has declared the state's school finance system constitutional - a surprise defeat for 600-plus school districts that sued. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE: In this Feb. 23, 2013 file photo, teachers, students, parents and school administrators march up Congress Avenue to the state Capitol, in Austin, Texas to a rally for Texas public schools. The Texas Supreme Court has declared the state's school finance system constitutional - a surprise defeat for 600-plus school districts that sued. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) AP

In a surprise blockbuster ruling likely to impact local school districts and Texas taxpayers for years, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday that the school finance system is flawed but constitutional.

Numerous North Texas school districts were among the 600-plus school districts involved in the case that resulted in more than four years of costly legal battles, hoping judges would force the Republican-controlled Legislature to fork over more funding.

The all-Republican court reversed a lower court judge’s decision that had sided with schools and found that state lawmakers’ $5.4 billion in classroom cuts in 2011 were unconstitutional and unfairly distributed among the wealthy and poor districts.

The 9-0 decision ends a case that was the largest of its kind in Texas history. Major legal battles over classroom funding have raged six times since 1984, but the latest ruling marks just the second time that justices have failed to find the system unconstitutional.

It also means that the Texas Legislature won’t have to devise a new funding system.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” the court found in its ruling. “Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority.”

The court also said “there doubtless exist innovative reform measures to make Texas schools more accountable and efficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively” but it added that “our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy.”

The school funding mechanism is a “Robin Hood” formula in which wealthy school districts share local property tax revenue with districts in poorer areas. Districts rely heavily on property taxes because Texas has no state income tax.

Local reaction

Keller Superintendent Randy Reid called the ruling “extremely disappointing.”

Reid said that districts don’t have any other recourse now to try to get solutions to a funding system that is “broken and inequitable.”

Added Reid: “What is really worrisome is for the future of our schools.”

District officials would like to plan multiple years in advance but have no way of knowing if they will get even the same amount in the future.

“The public tells us they want bigger and better things for students and the legislature wants bigger and better outputs, but it’s hard to make plans for where our public and legislature wants us to be,” stated Reid, adding that it will now be up to unhappy parents, voters and school officials to urge legislators to fix the system.

Southlake Carroll Superintendent David Faltys said he also was “extremely disappointed” in the court’s ruling.

“I fully believed that we would win our case, and we would prevail for the good of all public school students in Texas,” Faltys said. “It’s a tough loss to swallow given the fact that we are educating students today with less state funding per student than we received a decade ago.”

School districts in all parts of Texas were on the same side in the case. While those in economically challenged areas said funding was inadequate, districts in well-to-do locales argued that voters often refuse to approve local tax increases because much of the money would go elsewhere.

Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said in a statement: “It is a sad day when the state’s highest court decides that doing the least the state can do to educate our children is enough.”

Lawyers representing 88 of the 600-plus Texas school districts that sued over the school finance system are calling the state Supreme Court ruling against them “a dark day” for schoolchildren.

GOPers: ‘We’re right’

Despite that disappointment, local Republican lawmakers celebrated the ruling.

“It’s great to finally receive the court ruling on our school finance system, which states the current funding is constitutional,” said state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville. “This particular statement from the opinion is worth noting: ‘Judicial review, however, does not license second guessing the political branches’ policy choices, or substituting the wisdom of nine judges for that of 181 lawmakers.’”

“Our Texas Supreme Court has shown proper judicial restraint and I applaud the court for this. We can only hope that our federal Supreme Court would learn from Texas.”

Other Republicans agreed.

“As a former teacher, I want schools to have the resources they need to prepare our students to succeed,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, whose district includes part of Tarrant County. “I agree with the court’s decision because funding levels should be set by the people’s elected representatives — not the courts.”

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, had this reaction: “Glad it’s over. Time to move on.”

State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said lawmakers still must work to make the school finance system better.

“The Supreme Court ruling reminded us all that while the system is ‘technically constitutional,’ we are by no means at a point where we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done,” Goldman said. “There is still plenty of work at the state and local level to improve the entire system.”

Gov. Greg Abbott hailed the ruling as “a victory for Texas taxpayers and the Texas Constitution.”

The Republican said Friday’s 9-0 ruling “ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage” Texas schools.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the leader of the Texas Senate and former head of its powerful education committee, admitted that “Robin Hood’ doesn’t work well” and that lawmakers would continue making improvements to school funding.

But with the court fight over, the pressure is off.

“The school funding issue, for now, has been resolved,” Patrick said at the Texas Republican Convention in Dallas. “The Supreme Court said we’re right.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, strongly disagreed.

“As a result of today’s Supreme Court ruling, 5.2 million Texas schoolchildren will be left further behind, unless the Legislature is willing to take it upon itself to act,” he said.

State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, said he hopes the Legislature doesn’t give up on doing something to improve public education funding because of this ruling.

“Although the ruling was the school finance system is constitutional, it is unquestionably inadequate, especially for the subgroups of ELL and economically disadvantaged children, many of whom live in my district,” he said.

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, agreed, saying, “I am disappointed but resolve to continue to fight for our school children and ensure that they have the resources necessary to succeed on the world stage.”

At issue were the massive cuts to public education and related classroom grant programs that the Legislature approved in 2011, when the state’s economy was still reeling from the Great Recession. That prompted more than 600 rich and poor school districts — which educate three-quarters of the state’s public school students — to sue, arguing they could no longer properly function amid Texas’ public school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students annually.

Exacerbating the problems, the districts argued, was the Legislature’s increased demand for student and teacher accountability as measured by standardized testing scores and tough curriculum standards.

Staff writers Anna M. Tinsley, Sandra Engelland and John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.