Am I the only one who thinks that a lot of this sounds like wishful thinking?
The Texas Supreme Court may punt in a far-reaching school finance case, asking a lower court to assess the Legislature’s latest efforts on public schools. If it does, a new law may reduce the influence of trial judges elected in liberal Austin.
The Republican-backed law, passed largely along party lines, would deny Travis County’s Democratic judges their usual first crack at deciding multibillion-dollar lawsuits over school finance and politically fraught battles over redrawing congressional and legislative districts.
If it’s invoked in the school finance case, Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, would ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, also a Republican, to name a three-judge panel. Two of the three would be judges who sit — and are elected — some distance from Austin.
Rick Gray, who represents hundreds of low- and medium-wealth school districts in the lawsuit, predicts that adding geographically dispersed judges to review the Legislature’s work won’t change the final decisions.
In recent years, lawmakers have underfunded schools even as they set higher academic requirements for students, he said. About 650 of the state’s 1,023 school districts joined the current suit, he noted.
“These cases are really not about politics,” Gray said. “If you’ve got more than 60 percent of your school districts saying, ‘We can’t do it,’ that screams at you that you’ve got a problem.”
In oral arguments before the high court in September, aides to Paxton argued that the justices should throw out the case or send it back to district court for a review of budgetary and school-related actions of the 2015 Legislature.
Gov. Greg Abbott, in a friend of the court brief filed in late August, made the same plea. The Republican governor said in this year’s session, lawmakers passed “important reforms,” such as $118 million in grants to enrich the quality of prekindergarten programs. Over the past two sessions, the state has boosted overall school spending by 17 percent, Abbott said.
Lawyers for the plaintiff school districts, such as Gray, said they doubt the Supreme Court will toss their suit or require further study.
They noted that Travis County District Judge John Dietz already reviewed the Legislature’s 2013 move to increase school funding by $3.4 billion, after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion to offset a severe shortage of state revenue two years earlier.
House Public Education Committee Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said he discussed the case in October with Abbott, a former attorney general and Supreme Court justice.
“His prediction when I spoke with him was that there’s a 50 percent probability of a remand, a 25 percent probability of reversal and a 25 percent probability that there’d be substantial upholding of Dietz’s ruling — which leaves a 75 percent chance that the school districts will be unhappy,” Aycock said.
I’m not sure where Abbott came up with those numbers, but I’d guess it’s based on faith that we may finally have a Supreme Court that’s too conservative to care about school finance. I suppose the Supreme Court could remand the case back to a district court, but if so it will do so with instructions about how to revisit the case and what guidelines it should use to do so; it may also be that only part of the case is remanded. The point I’m making is that how they do so and what they tell the lower court to reconsider is of great importance. That said, it’s hard to escape the perception that underlying this is a hope that by doing so, and by getting (presumably) two Republican judges involved in the review, they can finally be free of this nonsense. That sure would be easier than actually dealing with it.