The Texas Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear the state’s appeal of the gargantuan school finance ruling and set a timetable that ensures there won’t be a decision until after the legislative session ends in June.
State District Judge John Dietz, who is based in Austin, ruled last year and in 2013 that the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional, saying funding levels are inadequate and are unfairly distributed around the state.
The state attorney general’s office appealed to Texas’ highest civil court of appeals.
The court gave attorneys for the state 80 days to file briefs, and then gave attorneys for the 600-plus school districts suing the state another 80 days for their own briefs. Both sides then have 40 days to reply to the other side.
No date was set for oral arguments. But that paperwork schedule means the case will continue for a minimum of six more months. The legislative session that began last week ends June 1.
If the Supreme Court eventually upholds the previous rulings and strikes down the school finance system, new Gov. Greg Abbott will likely have to call lawmakers into a special session to devise a new one.
Abbott was Texas’ attorney general before running for governor. Abbott did not argue the case personally, but his office has maintained that, while far from perfect, Texas’ school finance system is constitutional.
New Attorney General Ken Paxton will now continue the appeal.
In the meantime, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will attempt to overhaul the school finance system during the current session since any changes they make may have to be redone based on the Supreme Court decision. That may doom an ambitious bill filled by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.
Texas doesn’t have a state income tax, meaning public education funding relies heavily on property taxes, which vary widely throughout the state. Though he knew the ongoing case could hurt his bill’s chances, Aycock proposed consolidating for tax purposes the state’s 1,200 school districts – thus making it easier for districts to share property tax collections.
The case grew out of $5.4 billion cut by the Legislature in 2011, prompting the school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students to sue, claiming they could no longer afford to properly educate students.
The districts also argued that the current system, which mandates that schools in wealthy areas share portions of their property tax revenue with schools in poorer areas, was unfair to both.
In 2013, state lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in school funding. That prompted Dietz to briefly reopen the case to hear new evidence, but he affirmed his original 2013 ruling with a lengthy, written decision last August.