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School Districts Consider Legal Challenges to Cuts

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By Ben Philpott, KUT News

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Austin, TX – School districts across the state have passed budgets that tighten belts, increase efficiency and lay off staff. All because of cuts expected from the Texas Legislature. But some are also gearing up for legal challenges. For KUT News Ben Philpott reports.

There are three potential challenge areas says the Center For Public Policy Priorities' Scott McCown.

McCown: "Equity, adequacy or a state-wide property tax."

Let's start with the last one. Current school finance laws gave each district 17-pennies of property tax to levy or not...based on the district's needs and voter approval. But most districts have already spent that money. And if everyone is paying the same property tax rate...

McCown: "It's no longer supplemental. It's no longer discretionary. And you have created a de facto state property tax."

That argument brought changes to the school finance system in 2006. But The argument that every district needs the same amount of money per student --- Equity --- has been an easier argument for school districts to make over the years. Because it tends to be easier to show that one district has vastly greater resources than another. But a counter is also easy to make: if lawmakers cut between 4 and 8 billion dollars from public schools, and create a new funding system to deliver what's left...money and cuts will be spread out more evenly.

Lauren Cook is with the Equity Center - a school finance think tank.

Cook: "And although it would be devastating to districts - as far as an equity issue in the courts --- there wouldn't really be much to argue."

That leaves adequacy. Cook says cutting as much as 8-billion from public schools would appear to give districts a good case that no one is getting adequate funding....

Cook: "Legally it's still a hard argument to make because the courts in the past have refrained from trying to define what is an adequate education."

Cook says the school districts that work with the Equity Center have already been talking about what -- if any -- legal action they can take. And depending on how the final school finance bill looks in June - those conversations will continue.