August 09, 2004
Gentlemen, start your arguments

And the latest school finance lawsuit is set to begin today.

The trial before state District Judge John Dietz of Austin, expected to last six to seven weeks, could put more pressure on lawmakers to increase spending on education or settle on sources other than local property taxes to fund it.

At issue in the trial is a lawsuit originally filed by four wealthy school districts but that now includes more than 330 rich and poor districts. It questions whether the current system, adopted to ensure more equitable funding, has leaned so much on property taxes that it amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property levy.

It also asks whether Texas has fallen short of its constitutional duty to fund schools sufficiently as educational expectations rise.


In 1984, the Edgewood, Harlandale and South San Antonio districts joined other low-wealth districts seeking equitable funding. The state lawsuit emerged after the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a federal lawsuit filed by Edgewood parents in 1968.

The Texas Supreme Court found the old system unconstitutionally inefficient in 1989. Lawmakers adopted the Robin Hood approach four years later.

In the latest lawsuit, poor districts say the gap between what they can raise from taxes and what wealthier districts can raise has widened since 1994.

Court filings suggest the districts will point to spending gaps in construction and in educating economically disadvantaged students or those who do not speak English.

Districts leading the lawsuit, including Alamo Heights, Northside, North East and Marble Falls, aren't likely to disagree, but they hope to prove other weaknesses.

Districts say a law capping local maintenance and operation taxes at $1.50 per $100 valuation has developed into a statewide property tax, which is barred by the Texas Constitution.

In 2003-04, 495 of the state's 1,050 districts reached the cap with many more expected to do so soon.

Lobbyist Bill Ratliff, who sponsored the Robin Hood plan as a senator, might testify in favor of its overhaul.

Ratliff said that because many districts are taxing at $1.46 or more per $100 valuation, it is "increasingly hard for me to argue that" the system doesn't amount to a statewide property tax.

Ratliff also questions research presented to lawmakers suggesting that current spending is adequate to ensure that 55 percent of students pass the state's mandatory exam, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

"Surely that's not what we're striving for," Ratliff said.

Depends on what you think we're paying for, I guess. It seems safe to say now that no legislative action will occur before the suit is decided. A little more background is here. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Lasso has some good linkage.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 09, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack