July 06, 2005
Texas Supremes Get Some Oral

Arguments, that is. Today's the day the Texas Supreme Court will hear from both sides of the school finance case.

The latest Supreme Court case began in 2001, when a group of property-wealthy districts known as the West Orange-Cove plaintiffs, named for a school district in Southeast Texas, sued the state. They claimed that they had little choice but to set their tax rate for school operations at the maximum allowed under state law and that the maximum rate had become a statewide property tax, which the constitution forbids. The Supreme Court said their claim should be heard by a trial court, which is how the case landed before Dietz last year.

Two groups of property-poor school districts later joined the West Orange-Cove plaintiffs. Although the three groups are not in sync on each claim, their key arguments are that the system violates the constitutional prohibition of a statewide property tax, that the system does not allow schools to raise the money that they need and that schools do not have equal access to education dollars.

Dietz agreed that the property tax has become a statewide levy, that there is not enough money in the system and that there is not constitutionally equal access to money to build new school facilities. But he also ruled that the disparity in daily operating budgets does not violate the constitution. Some of the plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court to revisit that part of his ruling.

The lawmakers who unsuccessfully drove efforts to reform school finance during the 140-day legislative session earlier this year appeared to ignore much of Dietz's decision. State leaders set out to change the school finance system without raising taxes overall, a goal that seemed incompatible with the kind of overhaul that Dietz said was necessary.

The state's position is that the state Constitution gives the Lege all the authority on education policy and that the court should stay out of it.

"Deciding matters of education policy is not the appropriate role for the judiciary," said Ted Cruz, the state's solicitor general, who will argue Abbott's case. "The text of the Texas Constitution expressly assigns that responsibility to the Texas Legislature."

Abbott's argument against judicial action reflects a political sentiment that is particularly strong in conservative states such as Texas, said Maurice Dyson, a professor at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. He said state lawyers around the country have argued that courts should have no role in determining education policy, but most courts have disagreed.

"The courts are the ultimate arbiter and interpreter of constitutional rights," Dyson said. "To not interpret the constitution would be an abdication of their duty."

Abbott thinks the courts should butt out and let the Lege carry out its Constitutional responsibility? Sure, if it is, in fact, doing so according to the Constitution. And there appears to be some disagreement on that one, Mister AG. However, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Supremes end up siding with the state.

The justices, all of whom ran as Republicans or were appointed by a Republican governor, could be more sympathetic to the state's arguments than Dietz, a Democratic judge from Austin.

A news report last year claimed that Perry, a Republican, told a group near Dallas that he did not think the state would ultimately lose the school finance lawsuit. He reportedly pointed out that he had appointed or helped elect most of the justices on the court. Perry later said he had not talked to the justices about the lawsuit but made the remarks because he knew their philosophy, according to published reports.

If the court simply throws it to the Lege, Texans who want a good education for their children should be prepared to do one of two things: move into a property-rich school district or find a good private school.

Posted by Hope Morrison on July 06, 2005 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack