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Judge Says There's "No Free Lunch," State Must Improve School Funding

Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Texas Tribune

School districts and their lawyers hope a state judge’s ruling will force Texas to spend more money on public education.

On Monday, in Austin, Judge John Dietz ruled the state school finance system unconstitutional.

Attorney David Thompson, who represented the Dallas, Fort Worth and numerous other districts, called it a good day for public school children.

“We are pleased. I would say relieved, excited, gratified, all of those words,” said Thompson.

During a trial that lasted more than three months Thompson and other school district attorneys successfully argued that the student population has exploded, the requirements for getting a diploma have increased, but the state has not provided enough money to keep pace and help all students succeed.

Thompson said the most glaring need is for economically disadvantaged kids.

“We have the same expectations, hopes, aspirations for those children as for any other children in this state,” Thompson said.

Judge Dietz agreed saying if Texas wants to set high achievement standards it has to spend enough so children can reach them.

“As the economist put it, there’s no free lunch,” said Dietz. “We either want increased standards and we’re willing to pay the price, or we don’t.”

The judge also ruled that school districts must now rely so heavily on local property taxes that the state has essentially created a statewide property tax and that violates the Texas Constitution.

Attorney John Turner who argued on behalf of Plano, Highland Park and so-called property-wealthy districts says he hopes the decision will finally lead to financial support for the most essential resource in education.

“It’s important to have great teachers in the classroom,” said Turner. “It’s important to have teachers who have manageable class sizes, who have enough time to devote to every student even students that struggle from time to time. We think that’s the kind of thing these resources are intended to provide,” he said.

This is the second time Judge Dietz has ordered the state to overhaul the way it pays for schools. The Texas Supreme Court upheld his last decision in 2005, but Dietz says the legislature didn’t fix the problems.

Attorneys for the state left the courtroom without commenting on the decision though the state is expected to appeal this ruling, too. State lawyers argued student test scores and graduation rates have gone up and that’s proof the current system is working.

Thanks to Courtroom View Network (CVN) for providing KERA with access to the live, online court proceeding.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.