Texas-sized school funding fight nearing end

Texas-sized school funding fight nearing end

(Texas) The end of a decades-long legal battle over the Lone Star state’s school funding program may finally be in view, but while the court battle has forced acknowledgement that the system is broken, few agree on the best way to fix it.

“Over the years, there have been so many non-cost-based items added to the system outside the formula that inefficiencies in the system are rampant,” said Ray Freeman, executive director of the student and taxpayer advocacy group Equity Center. “Texas can no longer afford to be inefficient in the use of its resources for educating children.”

Today the issue is pending in two places that could serve as the final say – the state Legislature and the state’s Supreme Court.

Although there is a longer history of struggle over school funding in Texas, the latest fight started in 2011. In the wake of a weak economy, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion in education funding and drew a lawsuit from 600 districts claiming that the school finance system distributes funds unfairly, creating a gap of nearly $2,500 dollars in per-student spending between poorer districts and more wealthy communities.

State District Judge John Dietz agreed, finding that the system is inequitable in funding, inadequate in distribution, and had created an illegal statewide de-facto property tax.

Following Dietz’s original ruling, the state legislature restored $3.4 billion from what had been cut two years prior. Dietz reopened the case to hear new evidence, but affirmed his original decision in August, 2014, calling the state’s current funding system - which many liken to the popular medieval folk figure Robin Hood, who was said to steal from the rich to give to the poor – unconstitutional.

Under the program, the state takes a portion of wealthy districts’ property tax revenue and redistributes it to poorer districts. Because Texas doesn't have a state income tax to help fund public education, property taxes in wealthy areas are heavily relied upon.

“There is an undue burden placed on local property tax payers in certain districts playing ‘Robin Hood’ to the state that is unfairly distributed because of the state’s failure to update the system,” said Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, which represents the state’s wealthier school districts.

One potential solution to reworking the state’s complex school finance system was introduced in the Legislature last month by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen.

Aycock’s proposal would merge the state’s 1,026 school districts into 30 large school finance districts for tax purposes only; the goal being to bring per student spending to within $300 of the statewide average in all schools.

“We appreciate that he wants to begin a conversation, but it’s not a direction we think is in the best interest of our state,” Rome said. “We would like to see the system itself reflect the true cost of educating students. If we had a system that truly reflected costs, then we could really talk about equity and distribution of resources.”

Freeman disagreed, however, and said the bill would “dramatically improve the overall equity of the system and is a new and effective way of examining and addressing many of the issues defined in the District Court ruling.”

It is unlikely that HB 654 will gain much momentum though, as Aycock has said the bill was simply intended as a conversation starter on the topic and that he probably won’t pursue it further.

The Texas Supreme Court announced late last month that it would hear the state's appeal on Judge Dietz’s decision. However, due to the amount of time being given to both sides to file paperwork and the lack of a set date for oral arguments, the court’s decision will most likely come after the current legislative session ends June 1.

If the previous ruling is upheld and the school finance system struck down, it is likely that a special session would be called to create a new one.

The state has been defending itself since 1984 against lawsuits from districts arguing that it is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide an equitable system of public education. So, although a final ruling still appears to be a ways off, the state Supreme Court’s decision will actually be more than 30 years in the making.