It’s not a surprise – and it’s far from over – but Thursday’s ruling in the Texas school finance lawsuit does push the state one step closer to a possible resolution of its longest-running political drama.
How should we fund public education?
State District Judge John Dietz of Austin issued his long, and long-awaited, ruling Thursday afternoon. The 400-page document says the state’s school finance system unconstitutional on several grounds. Included is an exhaustive set of findings of fact and conclusions of law giving the reasons for the ruling.
Judge Dietz had announced in February of 2013 that the system had evolved into an unconstitutional statewide property tax that fails to fund Texas schools at the level required to provide a constitutionally adequate education.
Several Wise County school superintendents, who have followed the proceedings closely, agree.
“I think it’s a win for public education – however, I don’t think the battle is over,” Decatur ISD Superintendent Rod Townsend said. “I think people are beginning to wake up and realize that the state is not pulling their fair share of the weight, but putting more of the cost on local taxpayers while demanding more at the same time.”
Bridgeport’s Eddie Bland said the ruling is exactly what he expected.
“If you can make yourself look at the school finance system objectively, and not from a political agenda perspective, there’s no doubt it’s broken,” he said.
“I have always said the distribution mechanism is relatively equitable when it’s fully funded,” he added. “But they haven’t fully funded it, so they created the inequities with the target revenues and the tweaks they tried to do to it. I believe we are underfunded and inequitable.”
The ruling sets the stage for a likely appeal directly to the Texas Supreme Court.
As part of the judgment, Judge Dietz issued an injunction against the school finance system, but delayed that until July 1, 2015, to give the legislature, which reconvenes in January, an opportunity to address the constitutional shortcomings of the system.
LOCAL TAX DOLLARS TO AUSTIN
With the budget process just wrapping up, several Wise County school districts continue to send local tax dollars to Austin under the state’s finance plan – deemed “Robin Hood” because it captures money from property-rich districts and redistributes it to property-poor districts.
Most of Wise County’s wealth comes from oil and gas. Under the state’s finance system, mineral wealth provides little help to a school district, since the state cuts funding and requires “recapture” of that local tax revenue for statewide redistribution.
Decatur will return about $4.4 million to the state this year. Bridgeport is sending back $174,000, Alvord around $110,000 and Boyd about $83,000. Statewide, that “recapture” has totaled more than $16 billion since 1993 and now accounts for about $1 billion annually.
Boyd Superintendent Ted West said state funding has become a fairly small part of his district’s budget.
“We anticipate bringing in $10.7 million dollars for this year’s budget, and $9.3 million of that is from local taxes,” he said. “We only get about $84,000 from the state this year, and we have to send $83,000 of that back. It’s kind of a shell game how the whole thing works.”
LESS MONEY, HIGHER STANDARDS
Mark Trachtenberg, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said the judge’s ruling makes it clear that the state is failing to provide schools with the resources they need to ensure all students have a meaningful opportunity to achieve state standards.
“Judge Dietz correctly reasoned that the legislature cannot substantially increase academic standards with one hand, and then cut billions out of the public education system with the other,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011. In 2013, with the state’s financial picture much brighter, legislators restored about $3.4 billion of that – but Judge Dietz said the underlying problems still exist.
Alvord Superintendent Bill Branum, reporting to his board Thursday night, was pleased with the ruling.
“He found the system to be inequitable, unsuitable and inadequate, in violation of Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution,” he said. “He also found districts do not have meaningful discretion to adopt tax rates above the statutory maximum, creating a de facto state income tax, in violation of Article 8 of the Texas Constitution.”
“I sincerely hope the legislators will do the right thing this time, and fix – in a fair and equitable way – the public school finance system for the kids of Texas,” he added. “If we get that done, it’ll be a milestone that will pay huge dividends.”
Boyd’s West said the debate over school finance has been “a constant” in Texas education for more than 20 years.
“If you just look at it in one way, it’s optimistic that the system is seen as broken, because it definitely is,” he said. “But there’s nobody out there who has a definitive answer on what we’re going to do next or how we’re going to fix it.”
Townsend said he’s convinced there are too many parties “wanting to get their hands in the cookie jar, not thinking about what’s best for kids.”
“The pendulum needs to swing back the other direction,” he said. “They need to start making decisions based on what’s best for kids, how to meet their educational needs.”
Branum remained upbeat.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, money doesn’t get it done,’ and I would agree with that, to a point,” he said. “But you do have to have enough money to get it done.
“I’m very optimistic that this first step – and that’s what I’d call it – may result in real good things for Texas public school kids.”
“At least the ball is now rolling in a positive direction.”