Updated to include statements from the governor, attorney general: The Texas Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling upholding the state’s public school funding system as constitutional, while asserting it could be better.
“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote in the court’s 100-page opinion, which asserted that the court’s “lenient standard of review in this policy-laden area counsels modesty.”
“The judicial role is not to second-guess whether our system is optimal, but whether it is constitutional,” the ruling said.
It is the first time the state has won a school finance case. Justices Eva Guzman and Jeff Boyd delivered concurring opinions.
Two-thirds of Texas school districts sued the state after the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget in 2011.
Their lawyers argued the state's method of funding public schools was unconstitutional on a variety of grounds — that the Legislature had failed to provide districts with sufficient funding to ensure students meet the state's increasingly difficult academic standards; that big disparities had emerged between property-wealthy and property-poor school districts; and that many school districts were having to tax at the maximum rate just to provide a basic education, meaning they lacked "meaningful discretion" to set rates. That amounts to a violation of a constitutional ban on a statewide property tax.
In a 2014 ruling, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz — a Democrat — upheld all of those claims, siding with the more than 600 plaintiff school districts.
He ruled against two other parties in the lawsuit that did not represent traditional school districts.
In early 2012, a group representing parents, school choice advocates and the business community filed a suit alleging that the current school finance system is inefficient and over-regulated. The Texas Charter Schools Association also sued the state, arguing that a cap on charter school contracts and charters' lack of access to facilities funding was unconstitutional.
Then-Gov. Greg Abbott appealed Dietz's ruling directly to the state Supreme Court.
During oral arguments Sept. 1, state lawyers asked the court to dismiss or remand the case to a lower court so it may consider changes lawmakers recently have enacted to the state's school finance system. Last year, the Legislature increased public education funding by $1.5 billion and authorized another $118 million for a high quality pre-kindergarten grant program that Abbott championed.
Before issuing his ruling, Dietz reopened evidence for a four-week period so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature, which restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements.
Reactions across the state
Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria is decrying the state Supreme Court's decision declaring Texas' school finance system constitutional.
He called it "sad day" that the court decided "doing the least the state can do to educate our children is enough."
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick says the state Supreme Court's ruling on the school finance system shows it has "flaws ... but it is constitutional."
The Republican oversees the state Senate and is a former chairman of the chamber's powerful education committee.
Governor Greg Abbott issued the following statement:
"Today's ruling is a victory for Texas taxpayers and the Texas Constitution. The Supreme Court's decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the State's school finance system. I am grateful for the excellent work of the State's lawyers at the Attorney General's Office, without whom this landmark ruling could not have been achieved."
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed the governor’s sentiments in his own statement:
“This is a historic ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, and a major victory for the people of Texas, who have faced an endless parade of lawsuits following any attempt to finance schools in the state. We have said all along that school financing must be debated and shaped by the Texas Legislature, not through decades’ worth of ongoing litigation in the court system, and I’m pleased the court unanimously agrees. I’m also grateful for the hard work of my legal team, whose dedication, knowledge and talent helped earn Texas this much-needed victory.”