Judge on Texas’ School Funding: Yep, Still Not Enough

Juge John Dietz
Patrick Michels
Juge John Dietz

Fifteen legislatures and a million years ago (give or take), school districts, parents and their lawyers—oh, the lawyers!—embarked upon an epic quest to wring more money for public education from state lawmakers: to devise an equitable formula for funding Texas’ schools and to provide sustainable support for students in our fast-growing state.

Today, state District Judge John Dietz ruled on Texas’ most recent school finance case—the seventh in 30 years—finding, once again, that our funding system runs afoul of the Texas Constitution.

In the grand scheme of this Texas epic, today’s ruling is a small victory for school districts—the equivalent of the end of a minor battle somewhere in the middle of one of the Lord of the Rings sequels.

It can be hard to cut through all the noise and political spin around school finance. The suit was a complicated one from the start, with a huge cast of players and competing interests. And it’s far from over. From here, the case goes to the Texas Supreme Court—barring a possible stop at an appeals court—but probably not until early next year. If the high court agrees the system needs a fix, it’ll be the Texas Legislature’s job to draft a plan that satisfies the courts.

The stakes are high. Reworking the entire funding system will have a major impact on Texas’ five million students. Since the first Edgewood ISD case in the ’80s, the Legislature has been happy to let the courts force its hand on school finance, so for anyone hoping schools get more resources or smarter funding for the future, this lawsuit is the only hope.

In his initial ruling in February 2013—which he delivered in brief remarks from the bench after months of testimony and detailed statistics—Dietz offered a poetic consideration of the “miracle of education,” and the “civic, altruistic and economic” rationale behind offering every child a free public education.

Lawyers for more than two-thirds of Texas’ school districts argued that the state had cut funding in recent years, even as it required more from them and as enrollment ballooned. Poorer districts, they said, have been forced to max out their local property taxes, and even then couldn’t keep up with property-rich districts.

Of all the testimony he heard, Dietz said, one chart conveyed the problem best: a graph that showed Texas’ spending (adjusted for inflation) remained basically flat while its enrollment grew by 1 million students:

LBB chart

The schools’ lawyers noted that the state’s estimates of what a good education costs—or how to adjust those costs for different students’ needs or different parts of the state—are decades old. As the situation grows more dire, Dietz said in his ruling today, “the state has buried its head in the sand.” It’s time, he said, for elected leaders to decide what kind of education we want and are willing to pay for.

Dietz reopened the case after lawmakers put $3.4 billion back into public education last year (only partially undoing a $5.4 billion cut in 2011), but his decision today is the same as his ruling last year.

Though today’s ruling is just a step in the case’s long journey, it’s been enough to warrant a new round of political posturing. Attorney General Greg Abbott already tried to get Dietz tossed from the case by claiming he’d shown favor to the schools during the trial. Abbott was unsuccessful, but the ordeal supported an impression that Dietz was an activist who’d rule against the state no matter what. Today, his office said it would appeal, while his campaign avoided commenting directly on the case. “Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago,” Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott’s rival in the governor’s race, Wendy Davis, called the ruling “a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans.” She repeated her long-standing call for Abbott to drop the state’s defense and get busy fixing the system.

The issue isn’t strictly partisan. State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) recently complained to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that while the rural districts in his districts get less than $5,000 per student, “You’ve got schools all over the state that are getting in excess of $10,000. It is not right.”

When lawmakers return to the Capitol next year, they’ll be in basically the same position they were in last session: forced to draft another two-year budget knowing there’s a lower court ruling against them, but with no guidance from the Supreme Court.

You can read Dietz’s final judgment here, and his (much longer) fact-finding conclusions here. I’ll update our coverage soon with more detail from Dietz’s ruling.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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Published at 5:34 pm CST