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Schools Applaud Ruling That Texas Education Funding System Is Unconstitutional

Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Texas Tribune
State Judge John Dietz in February 2013 found the state school funding system unconstitutional and issued a written order declaring the same on Thursday.

School districts throughout the state are applauding a court ruling that may eventually lead to an overhaul of the way Texas pays for schools.

On Thursday State District Judge John Dietz again declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional.

Last year Judge Dietz verbally told lawmakers the school funding system violated state law after they cut $5.4 billion in 2011 from the education budget.

When lawmakers restored about $3 billion of the funding, Dietz agreed to consider additional testimony.  But in the end he said the same thing- that the state has set high achievement standards but not provided districts enough money for all children to meet those standards.

Finding: Not Enough Funding To Meet Higher Standards

“We’ve implemented a new assessment regime, much more rigorous testing requirements and raised academic standards for our curriculums.  The problem is at the same time we’ve done that we’ve cut funding for Texas public education,” said attorney Mark Trachtenberg who represents some of the more than 600 plus school districts suing the state.

David Thompson, another attorney representing schools, said the judge agreed the state was not meeting a constitutional obligation to provide the extra resources needed for many low-income students and those with limited English skills to succeed.

“What you see is a pattern of kids who start behind tend to stay behind and in many cases fall further behind.  And districts simply do not have the resources to address their needs. It becomes a matter of triage,” said Thompson.

Finding: System Creates Unlawful State Property Tax

In his 404-page ruling, Judge Dietz also found the current school financing system imposes the equivalent of an illegal state property tax, because local school districts have to increase their tax rates to make up for the lack of state dollars.

Schools across the state applauded the ruling. 

School Districts Call Ruling Step Toward Solution

Fort Worth ISD Board of Education President Norman Robbins said the ruling was a “logical conclusion” to a warning lawmakers received from the Texas Supreme Court in 2006.

“Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges,” said Robbins.  

Highland Park Superintendent Dawson Orr said the judge recognized the heavy tax burden the state has placed on local schools while cutting state support. 

“We certainly have seen pretty significant reductions of approximately of over $500 per child (in state funding) over the last two legislative sessions. With the law that it is on the books would continue to see even further reductions,” said Orr.

Richardson superintendent Kay Waggoner said current funding formulas have also hurt her district.

“We had to freeze teacher salaries, we had a significant number of classroom waivers, and we had programs that we couldn’t support to the degree that we needed to support,” she said.

The judge has delayed implementation of his ruling until next July, giving state lawmakers a chance to reform the way Texas pays for education.

State Will Appeal

Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office says it will appeal Judge Dietz’ decision.  Lawyers representing the state argued the 2013 legislature responded to school district concerns by giving them more flexibility in the curriculum and by reducing the number of standardized tests.

Attorneys say it may take another year or two before the Texas Supreme Court provides a final ruling. 

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.