Like CA, Texan schools go to court over inequality’ of school funding

Facing unprecedented funding cuts in recent years, California schools have aggressively used the court system in hopes of stemming the tide. Now, school administrators in Texas - whose fiscal crisis might be considered a year or two behind the Golden State - are using the same tactic after suffering a $5.4 billion cut in a budget agreement reached last summer.

California school officials have launched two major assaults on the Legislature over fundamental themes in school funding during the last year - one rejected at the trial court level with an appeal pending, a second still in trial court proceedings.

Earlier this fall, a group of nearly 400 districts in Texas filed a similar challenge questioning how the state's system could provide a thousand dollars more to spend per student in one district than in a neighboring district when residents of both pay the same property tax rate.

Since then, more districts have joined in two other suits - the latest coming earlier this month led by one of the nation's most forceful civil rights organizations, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Expectations are that the suits will be combined and go to trail sometime next year.

Like California, Texan school officials have become increasingly frustrated with a complex and politically misshaped system for funding their public schools. The courts have frequently been asked to weigh in - which has added yet another layer of uncertainty.

A pending challenge in the California court system argues that the Legislature has failed to provide schools adequate funds to cover the extensive educational standards that all students are expected to reach. The focus of the case is not on distribution of funding, but on providing a finance system that is capable of supporting the standards-based educational program required to be taught in all schools.

The theme in Texas is more directly about the distribution of funding, although issues of adequacy are raised as well. The primary claim is based on a prior court opinion that found that the state constitution requires all children - regardless of family income- must be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds."

The Texas system relies on local property taxes to provide about half of its near-$50 billion school budget with 40 percent coming from other state revenues and federal money making up the remainder.

The root of the current fight comes from failings in the current "revenue-sharing" requirement that shifts some property tax revenues from wealthy districts to their lower-income neighbors that are willing to tax at the same or greater tax rate. Although arguably designed to promote equity, this system that has been battered by politics and the courts for a number of years.

The stark inequities of the process became increasingly clear following the difficult budget battle last summer.

School attorneys have pointed, for instance, to Mesquite and Rockwell districts - both outside Dallas. Residents in both districts pay the same property tax rate of $1.04 per $100 of property valuation - which does not include school bond debt service.

But funding in Rockwell will be $6,374 to spend per student this year; in Mesquite it will be $5,335, according to an analysis from the Dallas Morning News. That difference of $29,000 per typical classroom and as much as $870,000 per campus.

The MALDF suit further contends that the system is inequitable to low-income and English-learning students.

They argue that with the onset of the recession, the Texas Legislature has reduced support for low-income schools to create a funding gap of more than $1,000 per student.

School attorneys say the existing system doesn't meet the state's constitutional guarantee that all students - regardless of family income - must be afforded substantially equal opportunity to education.

The Texas public school system, second to California in size nationally, serves 4.8 million students that attend class in 1,237 school districts.

A majority of students in Texas - 49 percent - are Latino and more than half are economically disadvantaged while 17 percent are categorized as limited English proficient.