Some state lawmakers wanted a court ruling before they got to work on school finance reform. They have one now.
A state district judge declared the school funding system unconstitutional Wednesday, saying Texas faces a bleak future if it fails to spend more on public education.
"Are we prepared for a future in Texas that is dismally poor, needy and ignorant?" asked Judge John Dietz of Travis County. "The answer is, 'I think not.' "
In a landmark decision that could result in sweeping changes to Texas' tax structure, Dietz ruled that the school funding law violates the Texas Constitution's requirements that the state provide sufficient and equitable funding for public schools.
The judge gave lawmakers until October 2005 to come up with a new system. If they fail to come up with a plan, he said he would halt state funding.
[T]he system does not provide enough money for schools charged with meeting higher state and federal standards, Dietz said. He also said lower test scores among low-income students indicate a widening gap in educational achievement between rich and poor districts.
"The solution seems obvious. Texas needs to close the education gap," Dietz said. "But the rub is that it costs money to close the educational achievement gap. It doesn't come free."
Many of the districts that sued the state have been forced to tax at the statutory cap of $1.50 for school maintenance and operations. They argued that amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax, and Dietz agreed.
"These districts have lost all meaningful discretion for setting the tax rate for their districts," said Dietz.
Dietz also declared that the $30 billion system does not meet the constitutional requirement of being efficient because of a "significant gap of more than 10 points in educational achievement" between economically disadvantaged students and those who are not economically disadvantaged.
"Half of our students in Texas are significantly behind in achievement compared to the other half," said Dietz.
Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick all said they will work to find a legislative solution on school finance. The three were unable to agree on how to raise taxes to provide additional funding for schools during a special session called by Perry last spring.
"I will continue to work with legislators to find common ground on property taxes and school finance regardless of how the courts ultimately rule," said Perry.
Dewhurst said he's discussed with Perry declaring school finance an emergency measure in the next regular session. Such a designation would allow lawmakers to avoid legislative rules that can delay passage of bills.
Judge Dietz gave these remarks before his ruling. It's pretty clear from them where his thinking was coming from.
UPDATE: More from Hope.Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 16, 2004 to Budget ballyhoo | TrackBack