Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Texas is searching for a remedy to its school finance problem

Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, with his hand on a family Bible, took the oath of office with other House members on Tuesday.
Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, with his hand on a family Bible, took the oath of office with other House members on Tuesday. AP

The 140-day session of the 84th Texas Legislature is off and running, and each of its 181 members has ambitious policy goals.

But while the session at this point is full of hope, there’s still a big question mark over public school finance, the state’s largest category of general revenue spending.

Public schools got almost $50.8 billion in the $95 billion general revenue budget lawmakers adopted two years ago. Spending from other revenue sources brought the total budget to about $200 billion, but education was still the largest slice of the pie.

The problem is that the latest round in three decades of court battles over how that money is raised and distributed is still being litigated.

And it will be until well after the legislative session ends on June 1.

The best hope for a decision from the Texas Supreme Court — the Legislature typically waits for a Supreme Court order before enacting major revisions in the school finance plan — isn’t until November at the earliest.

Austin State District Judge John Dietz ruled in August that the current finance plan is unconstitutional because it neither delivers enough money to school districts nor distributes it fairly across the state.

The attorney general’s office appealed that decision in September. Because the case turns on matters of constitutional interpretation, the appeal can go straight to the Supreme Court.

The AG’s office and some of the other parties to the case filed additional briefs last week. As of Thursday, the court has not yet ordered the case to move forward.

The parties have asked that they be given 200 more days to file briefs and answers to briefs, meaning until August if the court gives the go-ahead soon.

Some attorneys in the case — the briefs list 43 lawyers working on it, so opinions no doubt vary — say oral arguments before the court could come as early as September.

In one of its briefs, the AG’s office says the court probably won’t be in a position to issue an opinion until November “at the earliest.”

At least one key House leader, Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, wants to go ahead and talk about how to fix the system.

Aycock filed a bill on Monday that describes a school finance system that he called, in a letter to House members, “as close to a complete change as I can conceive.”

His proposal addresses what has always been the basic problem of school finance in Texas: a funding system grounded on property taxes in individual school districts whose property wealth varies greatly.

In a lawsuit filed in 1984 and finally decided in 1989, the Supreme Court held that it’s unconstitutional when wealthy school districts can afford to give students a better public education at lower tax rates than poor districts.

Aycock’s bill would require wealthy districts to consolidate with poor districts for school finance purposes. Each district would continue to make its own operational decisions, but existing debts would be consolidated and tax rates would be set within a narrow range set by the state.

There would be no fewer than 30 of these “school finance districts.”

The bill, Aycock said in his letter, “is intended to be a conversation starter. I am not even confident that I like this concept.”

His lack of confidence is well-placed.

After three decades of lawsuits, it’s hard to find a school finance approach that the state hasn’t tried before.

This one is very close to one that failed Supreme Court scrutiny in 1992.

The Legislature passed a bill in 1991 blanketing the state with 188 new taxing districts drawn mostly along county lines. It called them County Education Districts.

The CED concept consolidated wealthy and poor districts for tax purposes.

The state determined the property tax rates. The Supreme Court rejected the plan because the state constitution says there can’t be a statewide property tax, and that’s effectively what this was.

The key difference with Aycock’s plan is that it doesn’t have state-set tax rates, but only allowing rates within a narrow band might be close enough for the Supreme Court to kill it.

Give Aycock an A for effort, but a better solution must be out there.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9