Judge Rules School Finance System Unconstitutional, Case Heads to Texas Supreme Court

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Travis County District Judge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Judge John Dietz rules from on high Monday in Travis County's 250th District Court

Just before breaking for lunch today, Travis County District Judge John Dietz joked that it was appropriate the last day of the school finance trial fell so close to Groundhog Day. Like him, many of the lawyers making their closing arguments today had been through this before in at least one of the six previous school finance cases against the state since 1984.

This afternoon, Dietz issued his ruling—again, a repeat of many school finance rulings issued from the Travis County Courthouse—that Texas’ system for funding its schools is inadequate, unfair and creates a de facto statewide property tax. As a broad coalition of school districts spent 44 days arguing in court, each of those means the finance system violates the Texas Constitution.

And now, just as in those six previous cases—known colloquially and at really wild parties as Edgewood I-IV and West Orange-Cove I and II—it’s up to the Texas Supreme Court to make the final call. If the Supreme Court agrees with Dietz, it’ll be up to the Legislature to “fix” the system to their satisfaction, a whole ‘nother messy procedure that could mean special legislative sessions and new trials to see if the new system passes muster with the courts. (Hence the previous cases’ Rocky-esque names.)

The latest case, likely to be remembered as Fort Bend ISD v. Texas Education Agency (or, God forbid, Fort Bend I), brought together more than 600 districts representing three-quarters of the students in the state—the largest school finance case Texas has ever seen.

This case isn’t just the biggest one Texas has ever seen, but the most complex as well, thanks to a pair of groups that joined the case with arguments that hadn’t been raised in school finance trials before. The Texas Charter School Association and TREE (Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, if you’re long-winded about it) argued for more charter schools, more money for charter schools, and a guarantee that schools spend their money wisely. Today Dietz ruled against both groups, saying the issues they raised are best left to the Legislature.

Dietz was more sympathetic to the central argument raised by school districts in varying forms: that lawmakers had raised standards for Texas schools—specifically by rolling out the new, tougher STAAR test—just when they were cutting funding from public education.

“We either want increased standards, and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t,” Dietz said today.

His ruling came after a long day in the crowded third-floor courtroom, as six lawyers took turns with their closing remarks.

Rick Gray, a lawyer with the Equity Center—which, on its own, represents 40 percent of the state’s school districts—kicked off the proceedings with a dramatic recap of his case, recalling the “appalling” test scores produced by students whose schools get thousands less per year than other, wealthier schools.

“Texas should be ashamed,” Gray said. “The gaps are marked, they are extreme, and they’re simply wrong and unconstitutional.” The last school finance ruling included a requirement that districts have the flexibility to pay for student enrichment, on top of a basic education. Gray called that notion a “cruel, cruel joke” on districts given the funding levels today.

“For reasons that I have never understood, the state, each and every time when forced to look at the equity and constitutional conformity of the system, have chosen to put a Band-Aid on what continues to be a gushing wound.”

David Thompson, a veteran school finance lawyer whose group represents some of the state’s largest districts, also focused on what the Texas Supreme Court called “meaningful discretion”—that districts must be free to supplement basic learning.

He also noted a pair of trends in school spending: first, that the districts with more economically disadvantaged students get less per student than those without—even though students from poor families require more expensive school programs. Second, he said, districts with more money got better scores on last year’s STAAR tests. “It is a straight line relationship,” he said.