A coalition of property wealthy school districts jumped into the school funding fray Friday, filing a separate lawsuit claiming the current system has created another illegal statewide property tax and does not provide children with adequate funding.
It’s the second school finance lawsuit filed this fall, with two additional suits expected next week. All are aimed at a Texas public education system that critics contend is unequal and inadequate to meet the growing needs of a student enrollment increasing by at least 80,000 children per year.
While the trend line shows that school funding is dropping, the state’s school accountability system is getting tougher, said Mark Trachtenberg, a Houston-based lawyer for Haynes and Boone, the law firm representing 60 property wealthy school districts joining the Texas School Coalition suit. More are expected to join in the coming months, Trachtenberg said, noting the coalition includes 120 school districts.
Other lawsuits, including one led by the Texas Equity Center, will focus on vast inequities in the school funding system. Per student funding in Texas now ranges from less than $5,000 per child in some school districts to more than $10,000 in others, according to the Equity Center’s suit, which involves 362 school districts. Texas school districts have lost previous court claims that school funding was inadequate to meet their needs. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the state’s public school funding system had not yet become inadequate — but warned: “It remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”
[The plaintiffs] contend the current system violates the state constitution in two ways: Legislators have effectively imposed a statewide property tax because districts do not have “meaningful discretion” over local tax rates; and the state provides inadequate funding for schools to prepare students while requiring them to meet higher academic standards.
The suit does not, however, argue that the system is inequitable, which is a central argument of the first school finance lawsuit filed this fall. That group of plaintiffs represents districts from the lower end of the spectrum in terms of per-student funding and now has 362 school districts and about 1.2 million students.
Trachtenberg said his districts wanted to avoid that claim because they are concerned that the potential remedy could hurt the districts without actually improving the situation overall by forcing the state to put more money into public education.
Eanes Superintendent Nola Wellman said the district supports equity in public education but not at the expense of property-wealthy districts.
“We believe that equity must be addressed by ‘leveling up’ the funding from the state rather than taking funds from one district to give to another,” she said.
The second claim, about the state mandating standards then not providing sufficient funds for districts to meet those standards is central to the not-yet-filed Thompson lawsuit, to which HISD is a party. The ideal outcome here is that the state is forced to put more money into public education and that it is forced to come up with a way of ensuring that funding keeps up with growth and need. These plaintiffs are hoping that by doing so, there will no longer be a need for recapture. If you’re thinking that this will require a massive overhaul of the state’s tax structure, you’re on the same page as I am. We’ll see how it goes.