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Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal

We near the end of the road. This road, anyway.

BagOfMoney

Shut out by lawmakers in their efforts to overhaul the state’s troubled education funding system, more than 600 school districts are now pinning their hopes for relief on the Texas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear arguments on the volatile issue of school finance Tuesday, once again taking up the question of whether the current funding system is unfair and inadequate.

It will be the seventh time in the last quarter-century that the court has been called on to settle a legal challenge over the way Texas funds the education of millions of children.

Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue last week, filing a brief that urges the justices to reverse the decision of now-retired state District Judge John Dietz of Travis County, who ruled for the districts last year. The governor argued that judges should not second-guess the Legislature’s decisions on education.

“Both as a matter of constitutional law and as a matter of responsible policymaking, the courts are not the appropriate forum for making decisions about statewide education policy,” Abbott said. “It’s time to stop fighting about school finance and start fixing our schools.”

The Republican governor argued that the Legislature “substantially increased” funding for public schools earlier this year. The plaintiff school districts note that the actual increases amount to about 1 percent a year for the past five years — less than the rate of inflation.

And those small hikes came after lawmakers enacted record funding cuts in 2011 to help offset a massive shortfall in state revenue without raising taxes.

Yeah, about that

Three years later, as the state prepares to argue an appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, a Texas Tribune analysis shows that schools still are grappling with the fallout from the lean budget times even as the Legislature has restored a majority of the cuts.

An examination by the Tribune found:

  • Public school staffing remains lower than it was before the cuts, with at least 3,700 fewer teachers in regular, non-charter districts last school year, according to state data. That’s as student enrollment in those schools grew by more than 220,000.
  • The state still is approving far more waivers allowing elementary schools to exceed a 22-student class size limit established in 1984. Last year, the total number of campuses requesting waivers exceeded 2,100, according to state data; In the five school years leading up to the 2011 budget cuts, it never topped 1,375.
  • Scores on the high-stakes STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam remain flat — with success rates hovering in the 70th percentile — even though students have now had several years to get used to the more difficult testing regime, implemented in early 2012.
  • Per-student state funding has recovered to pre-2011 levels for some districts, but many still are behind. Under the two-year budget state lawmakers passed this year, lawmakers have restored more than 90 percent of what they cut four years ago, yet nearly 30 percent of school districts will receive less per-student funding from the state than they did before the reductions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.

And all that is happening as enrollment continues to grow, largely with kids who are economically disadvantaged, and standards continue to be raised by the Legislature. (Both of those links contain a lot more, so go read them in full.) The state’s response to the lawsuit is basically “hey, money isn’t everything, they should, like, work smarter or something”. Which unfortunately may be good enough for the Supreme Court, but we’ll see. We should have a decision in early 2016, thus allowing any special session (if one is needed) to take place after the primaries. The Rivard Report and Better Texas Blog have more.

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