September 16, 2004
Robin Hood overturned

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.

Even without Mike Toomey's resignation, I don't think there'd be another special session at this point, not with an election 47 days away. The state will certainly appeal, and even before Wallace Jefferson's appointment as Chief Justice, I'd give decent odds of a reversal. One way or another, though, the current situation will have to be changed.

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

I've got a bit from Quorum Report on this, regarding Steve Murdock's economic and social projections if nothing changes.

Posted by: hope on September 16, 2004 9:28 AM


Of what relevance is J. Jefferson's appointment as CJ?

Posted by: TP on September 16, 2004 10:56 AM

Hey Charles, thought you might like this piece on Strama:

Go Strama!

Posted by: jesselee on September 16, 2004 10:59 AM

TP - I'm just recalling Rick Perry's earlier boast that the TX Supremes would shoot the lawsuit down. I have no specific connection in mind otherwise.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on September 16, 2004 6:11 PM

The ruling may indeed not stand, as I noted in my own post on the subject (no link, no blogwhoring, right?), but if it doesn't, the situation on the ground is still not sustainable.

With the state (according to the Chron) contributing only 38 percent these days, and with NCLB effectively a no-show, where's the money coming from? Even my liberal friends who are homeowners say that they are feeling the pinch, and a lot of very strapped districts are constrained by the $1.50 cap. What else would account for districts that are net beneficiaries of Robin Hood joining in this suit to bring it down? Hey, I don't know the right answer to this one, either. But if this ruling goes down, the hypothetical 2040 breakdown someone was chattering about may come a lot sooner than 2040.

Posted by: Steve Bates on September 17, 2004 11:51 PM