School finance system ruled unconstitutional again

A little light reading for your holiday weekend.


Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state’s school finance system, a Travis County district judge has ruled in their favor.

In an almost 400-page opinion released Thursday, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin said that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax. It is certain to be appealed by the state to the Texas Supreme Court.

Though Dietz made no public remarks on Thursday, his decision is a reprise of an earlier oral ruling in February 2013. From the bench at the time, Dietz discussed what he called the “civic, altruistic and economic” reasons for supporting public education.

“We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others,” he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.

Here are the final judgment, findings of fact, and Judge Dietz’s remarks. Like I said, your reading assignment for the weekend. The Chron has a couple of reactions.

The Texas Democratic Party was quick to release a statement tying Dietz’s decision to Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, as well as GOP lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and Glenn Hagar, the GOP candidate for Texas comptroller.

“Republicans like Sens. Dan Patrick and Glenn Hegar have touted their education cuts as a victory, and Attorney General Greg Abbott defended those cuts in court,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “The decision today is clear: these cuts were bad for Texas students and our state. Classes have started this school year, and our students should not have to wait for another lengthy court appeal to force Republican politicians in Austin to do the right thing. There should be no compromise on the quality of our students’ education and securing a strong, educated workforce for Texas’ future.”

David Hinojosa, Southwest Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said the ruling was especially important for Texas’ Spanish speaking students.

“This is a resounding victory for Texas public schools and schoolchildren, especially for the state’s most at- risk and vulnerable children like economically disadvantaged and English language learner students,” said Hinojosa, whose group represents five school districts representing low-income students. “Although low income students constitute the majority of public school students, clearly they constitute the minority when it comes to a political interest. And this judgment holds the states feet to the fire.”

Given Wendy Davis’ education policy releases this week, I’d say this was both fortuitous timing for her, and a solid defense against the usual complaints about she’s proposing things that will have to be paid for (heaven forfend). Pending the outcome of the inevitable Supreme Court appeal, the status quo is no longer operable. We have a good idea what Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte would do the make the state compliant. Greg Abbott, who spent the past couple of years defending the original $5.4 billion in cuts and the subsequent patch job, and his ideological buddy Dan Patrick have no credibility on this. Who do you want to solve a problem, someone who wants to solve it as well, or someone who resents being told there is a problem to solve? Seems pretty clear to me. EoW, Stace, Texas Leftist, BOR, John Coby, the Observer, the AusChron, and the SA Current have more.

UPDATE: Two more Chron stories worth noting. First, plaintiff reactions:

Dietz’s 404-page ruling and findings of fact represent the latest development in nearly three years of litigation over the issue. It’s a decisive victory for four plaintiff groups representing more than 600 school districts, including Houston ISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.

But teachers, parents and students won’t see any tangible change this year, since the judge postponed any effects until after the upcoming legislative session.

“Judge Dietz’s ruling is stayed (until July 1), and therefore will have no immediate impact during this school year,” said Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney representing property-rich school districts including Alamo Heights in Bexar County. “We of course hope the Legislature, when it meets again in January 2015, will take steps to address the constitutional infirmities in the system.”


David Thompson, who represented 84 school districts including Houston and Cy-Fair in the case, applauded the ruling and said it put the onus on lawmakers.

“Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges,” said Thompson. “We respectfully believe that now is the time to begin to address the fundamental question over the resources that are needed to meet our state’s high standards.”

Leaders of Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, and Cy-Fair ISD both said they were pleased with the ruling.

“Education must be a statewide commitment,” said Houston ISD spokeswoman Sheleah Reed. “While HISD and the property owners of Houston have stepped up to the plate, it is time for our state to join us in ensuring that Texas schools have the resources needed to meet the high expectations we have for our students’ education.”

Cy-Fair Superintendent Mark Henry agreed: “We are pleased with the ruling and look forward to working with the Legislature to find a way to adequately fund all Texas public schools.”

The ruling wasn’t a victory for all the plaintiffs, however. Dietz denied relief for a group of charter schools that joined the suit, as well as a sixth group pushing school vouchers and reforms to teacher tenure laws.

And from the Missing The Point department:

It may not be that easy for Democrats to score political points off of the ruling, however.

Several political experts said education is an issue that often resonates more with mainstream liberals than the independent and moderate conservatives that Democrats will need to persuade to have a chance at victory.

Bryan Gervais, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, predicted the ruling may fire up the Democratic base in the short term, but is unlikely to be on the forefront of the minds of those who enter the voting booth.

“In November, is anybody going to be thinking about this case, really?” Gervais said.

Dude. Firing up the base is exactly what Democratic candidates need to do. I’ve said it repeatedly, it doesn’t matter how many “swing” voters Davis and/or Van de Putte can persuade to cross over if the Democratic base vote isn’t considerably higher than it’s been in the past three off-year elections. We need Presidential year voters to come out, just like the Republican benefited from in 2010. Do you not get that?

Gervais and [UT Politics Project director Jim] Henson said past battles repeatedly have taken center stage in the Legislature, but have not played the same starring role in political campaigns.

Democrats said this time could be different because of the $5.4 billion in cuts and how Republicans expressed pride in cutting spending afterward.

“The difference now is that back then, lawmakers never, ever cut $5 billion from public education and then bragged about it during a time of enrollment growth,” said Harold Cook, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Cook and other Democrats added they will benefit from being able to directly tie the ruling to several of the candidates, especially Abbott, because of his role defending the state.

The Davis campaign has been attacking Abbott for months on education and for defending the state against the lawsuit.

Yes, this time it really is different. That may not be enough, and maybe we really will look back and say it made little to no difference in turnout. But this campaign has always been about changing the turnout pattern, and the cuts to education have always been a part of that message. You could at least acknowledge that.

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