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Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal in September

Mark your calendars.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Sept. 1 in the long-running case challenging the state’s school-finance system.

“We are very pleased that the court is moving so expeditiously,” attorney David Thompson, representing the Houston Independent School District, Fort Bend ISD and dozens of others, said Friday. “We think it’s a recognition of how important this issue is to every community in the state.”

More than two-thirds of Texas districts sued the state in 2011 after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education amid a budget crunch while raising academic standards. In the suit, hundreds of school districts argued that, despite warnings from the Texas Supreme Court over the years about school funding, “the State has fallen back on temporary fixes that ultimately fail to support the increasing expectations Texas has set for a student population that is rapidly growing and disadvantaged.”

In response, the suit argued, districts have had to respond “in what amounts to an unconstitutional state property tax.”

In addition, the suit also claimed the current system was inefficient and inadequate to fund districts at a constitutional and equitable level.

[…]

Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, appealed the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in January.

“After nearly four years of successful litigation, the inequities in the current system remain critically excessive,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, which provided research and testimony for the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition representing the school districts in the suit.

He said the system has long been broken, with many districts underfunded while taxpayers are burdened with property taxes.

“It is not unusual at all for the poorest districts to receive 50, 60,000 dollars less per typical elementary classroom than what the state system routinely makes available in the wealthier districts,” added Pierce.

Just as a reminder, the original trial was held in 2012 with the first of the six suits being filed in October of 2011; the final verdict was rendered last August after a rehearing in June of 2013 to consider the effect of that year’s legislative session. Abbott appealed the latest ruling last September, and here we are. Depending on how things go, we could have a special session sometime next year, or the Lege could try to address any needed changes in the regular 2017 session. If Judge Dietz’s ruling is upheld and the Lege is going to have to pony up a few more billion dollars to the schools, it will make for a very interesting session, that’s for sure.

School finance bill dies

Alas.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A months-long effort to reform the state’s problem-plagued school finance system before the Texas Supreme Court weighs in came to an end on Thursday.

Facing a slew of amendments and attempts to kill his bill on procedural grounds, House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock withdrew his measure from consideration less than an hour into a scheduled debate on proposed fixes to the way the state funds public schools.

“We could go all day with this bill,” said Aycock, a Killeen Republican. “I don’t think it’s fair to leave this bill pending with everything else that’s up when we know already the Senate is already almost certainly not even considering the measure.”

[…]

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said in March that House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

But lawmakers in the state Senate, where Aycock struggled to find a sponsor for his legislation, did not share the same appetite to tackle reform this session.

In an interview at the Capitol two days before he decided to pull his measure down, Aycock said it had “become abundantly clear” the Senate did not intend to move his bill even if it made it to that chamber.

“It’s one of the largest issues before the state, and I hope we get to talk about it,” Aycock said.”I think a lot of the membership on the House side — and apparently on the Senate side — don’t seem to realize some of the problems we are facing and how big those problems are.”

See here and here for the background. My initial pessimism turned out to be correct, though in this case I’d have been happy to be wrong. Clearly, the only way this will be addressed is at the sharp point of a court order. Thanks for trying, Rep. Aycock, we do appreciate the effort. Maybe we can use some of your work when that special session comes around. PDiddie has more.

Mostly positive reviews for the Aycock school finance plan

So far, so good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A plan from a top House lawmaker to overhaul the state’s public education funding system received largely favorable reviews from school districts during a marathon legislative hearing that ended late Tuesday night.

“While this bill, some consider it not to be perfect, for us fortunately it is a significant step in the right direction,” Houston Independent School District Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones said during a meeting of the House Committee on Public Education.

Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has argued since the legislative session began that lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the outcome of a school finance lawsuit to consider changes to the school finance system.

[…]

Aycock’s proposal removes multiple provisions in the current school finance system.

It drops the number of districts that must send money back to the state under “recapture,” or what’s commonly known as Robin Hood. The nickname comes from the practice of taking property tax revenue from richer districts and redistributing it to poorer districts in an attempt to equalize school funding throughout Texas.

That adjustment, Skillern-Jones said, was a life raft for school districts that are “property rich, but poor in students,” like Houston. The district faces sending $200 million back to the state in the 2016-2017 school year.

(See how individual school districts would fare under Aycock’s plan here.)

It also eliminates the “Cost of Education Index,” which gives districts extra money based on characteristics like size, teacher salaries in neighboring districts and percentage of low-income students. Under Aycock’s proposal, that money would instead go to overall per-student funding.

That change that generated the most discussion Tuesday. Both smaller school districts that would lose money meant to help them account for economies of scale and districts with high numbers of the low-income and English-language learning students that the index is supposed to help raised caution about the effects of such a shift.

“While I never say no to money… I would ask that it would be looked at in the way that it is distributed,” said Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers. “I believe that our most needy students … are perhaps are going to get left out.”

See here for the background. The Observer notes the points where there is still work to be done.

But the biggest change Aycock proposes is the elimination of the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which steers more funding to urban and high-poverty districts to pay for higher teacher salaries. In the last few weeks, Aycock has stressed that the index is hopelessly outdated—it was created in 1991 and hasn’t been updated since—and nobody argued that point Tuesday night. But many weren’t willing to simply let it go.

“The underlying premise of the CEI is undeniably sound,” said Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who has conducted a series of studies since 2000 on how the Legislature could update the index to reflect current costs.

Former state Rep. Paul Colbert (D-Houston), a school finance leader in the ‘80s and ‘90s, agreed that while the index is flawed, its purpose—steering more money to urban and high-poverty districts that must pay higher salaries—is still vital. “You can’t just do away with it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. You’re merely not addressing an uncontrollable cost,” Colbert said. “And that’s not equitable.”

Aycock agreed the change would affect districts unevenly; changing any piece of the school finance system creates winners and losers. Aycock has said he’s trying to minimize the pain of simplifying the system. “The party that gets hit the worst removing the CEI is the Valley area,” he noted at one point last night.

“How do we fix that?” wondered Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston).

“I don’t know that I can,” Aycock told her. “I’ve done everything I think I can to fix that.”

[…]

Aycock has suggested his bill would improve equity by moving more districts closer to the state average of per-student funding. But it would also enrich wealthy districts more than poor districts, which some analysts last night noted was basically the opposite of equity. San Antonio’s Edgewood ISD, with 96 percent students are from low-income families, would gain $171 per student under Aycock’s bill, while nearby Alamo Heights—with 22 percent low-income students—would gain $469. In South Texas, Los Fresnos CISD would gain $54 per student while the wealthier Point Isabel ISD. which includes South Padre Island, would gain $289.

Analysts outside the Capitol realm have noted these disparities too. Bellwether Education Partners analyst Jennifer Schiess recently told Education Week that Aycock’s bill “isn’t negative on equity. It just doesn’t move very far.” Schiess wonders whether such modest improvement is truly worth the fight.

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Intercultural Development Research Association urged the committee to focus on steering money to students who need it most, and to follow Travis County District Judge John Dietz’s suggestion last year by updating the adjustments for poor students and those with limited English. Like the CEI, those weights have been untouched for decades.

None of these problems are going to get solved until there’s more money allocated to public education. That ain’t gonna happen until the Supreme Court says so.

Aycock’s bill has not yet been voted on in committee, and while I expect it will eventually pass who knows what will happen when it hits the Senate, which has shown little appetite so far for anything positive for public education. Even if this does get signed into law, there will still be questions of adequacy of school funding for the Supreme Court to rule on, as well as to decide whether or not this satisfies the equity issue. There’s still a long way to go.

Here comes the school finance bill

It’s a big deal.

Jimmie Don Aycock

The House education chairman on Tuesday unveiled a $3 billion proposal he hopes will overhaul the way Texas funds public schools and derail a looming lawsuit in the process.

“My objective when I began this was to simplify the situation that we’re in,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said before providing details of his proposal to the House Public Education Committee he chairs. “Please, before you take a shot at it, take a look at it.”

House Bill 1759 would make 13 changes to the way Texas funds public schools. It would provide $3 billion more than what’s needed to fund enrollment growth and would redistribute some existing funding to ensure each school district receives a more equitable amount.

Nearly all of Texas’ 5.4 million schoolchildren would receive more funding under the proposal. No district would see its per-student funding amount drop, according to data released Tuesday, but some would not see any gains.

Houston ISD, for example, would see its per-student funding increase by $213 in 2016 and $269 to $5,747 in 2017. If current funding mechanisms are continued, by contrast, HISD’s per-student funding level would drop. This is because HISD faces what’s called a “recapture cliff” in 2018, when it will be required to give an estimated $101 million back to the state to prop up poorer school districts.

[…]

Aycock hopes his bill will represent enough of a change to derail Texas’ latest school finance lawsuit, filed against the state by more than 600 school districts after the Legislature in 2011 cut billions in public education funding.

Last August, state District Judge John Dietz struck down the state’s public school funding system, saying it created an illegal, de facto statewide property tax and citing problems of equity, adequacy and efficiency. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule before the legislative session ends in June.

Aycock said Tuesday that he thinks his bill makes enough changes that, if it passes, Dietz’s ruling would be reversed or the case would be sent back to the lower court. Sheryl Pace, a school finance expert at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, agreed.

“If this were to pass, I think there’d be a good chance of that,” said Pace. “This is a substantial change.”

See here and here for the background. This is a big step forward, and I agree it would have an effect on the litigation. Keep in mind, however, that funding disparities between districts wasn’t the only issue that was litigated.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

It does, and Rep. Aycock deserves a lot of credit for that forward motion. Assuming the House passes his bill – and I think it will – the question is what if anything the Senate will do with it. The prospect of at least scaling back the school finance litigation is sure to be an incentive for them, but the Senate has not shown any inclination to add money to public education – those tax cuts ain’t gonna pay for themselves, if you know what I mean – and has chosen instead to spend its time on bills that won’t actually solve any problems. Remember, Dan Patrick thinks the main problem with the 2011 cuts to education is that they didn’t go far enough. So good luck, Rep. Aycock. You’re going to need it. The Trib has more.

House will address school finance

Good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

With a plan that would add $3 billion to the state’s public education budget, the Texas House has decided to take on school finance reform this legislative session.

As he announced a deal Wednesday that would put $800 million on top of the $2.2 billion the chamber had already allocated to public schools, Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, called the decision a “significant change in direction.”

The topic of school finance was largely expected to go unaddressed this legislative session while a massive lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts awaits a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system. The proposal will be filed as House Bill 1759.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

The Observer fills in some details.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

[…]

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

Rep. Aycock had previously filed a different school finance bill, HB654, to simplify the school funding mechanism by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into at least 30 “school finance districts”. This is something else entirely, and it’s not clear to me what the status of that bill is. Regardless, considering that Rep. Aycock talked about “nibbling around the edges” back in December, it’s quite a step forward. Whether it can survive the tax-cuts-uber-alles mania that is gripping the Senate remains to be seen, but for now this is a hopeful sign.

Aycock files school finance reform bill

Interesting.

Jimmie Don Aycock

A key House Republican said Texas lawmakers should not wait for the outcome of a sprawling school finance lawsuit to discuss changes to the state’s current public education funding system.

“While we do not know the final outcome of the school finance lawsuit, I believe it is appropriate to foster broad conversations on this matter while awaiting the final decision,” Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said in a memo circulated to colleagues Monday.

[…]

In the memo, Aycock asked for the input of House lawmakers on a “very rough initial bill” that he intended to be a “conversation starter.”

His proposal, House Bill 654, would simplify the school funding mechanism by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into at least 30 “school finance districts,” which would provide per-student funding that is within $30o of the statewide average.

“I am not even confident that I like this concept,” Aycock said. “The unfortunate truth is that with each passing lawsuit, the Legislature is forced into more and more convoluted decisions in our effort to balance constitutional requirements, court mandates, and limited resources.”

Aycock’s memo is here. I didn’t expect anything of substance to happen this session, but I’ll be glad to be wrong. Aycock is an honest broker, so while there’s obviously a lot of blanks to be filled in, this is a discussion well worth having.

Until we have some more of those blanks filled in it’s hard to evaluate this idea – as noted above, even Aycock himself isn’t sure about it – but the basic idea has merit. It does attack the basic inequity problem, though I suspect setting up these school finance districts and maintaining them going forward will be fraught with political intrigue. Can you imagine what the school finance district redistricting process will look like? I’m not saying any of this to cast aspersions, just to point out that any change to the existing system, whatever its merits, will necessarily be difficult because someone will wind up better off and someone else will wind up worse off. It’s human nature.

And indeed, that seems to be the opening bid in response.

Aycock said his proposal is modeled after the “County Education Districts” the state set up in 1991, which subsequently were shot down for violating the state Constitution by enforcing an illegal statewide property tax.

School finance expert Sheryl Pace of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association said she believed the education districts were working before they were undone.

“I thought it was a good system. It provided equity, but also gave school districts some local control,” said Pace, who added she believes Aycock’s proposal could “be an improvement because you’d have statewide equity.

“Right now you have some districts that are receiving substantially more revenue than others per weighted student,” she said. “My guess is the property-wealthy districts won’t like this bill because it forces them to consolidate their tax bases with other school districts, and more than likely given the math, their tax rate would go up.”

Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney representing many of the property-rich school districts, including Alamo Heights in Bexar County, confirmed Pace’s suspicions Monday.

“I think it’s a good idea to have a wide-ranging discussion on how we should finance our schools,” said Trachtenberg, who said the proposal “causes some concerns” from a legal standpoint. “I just think this idea is going to be a nonstarter for a lot of my clients.”

None of this means that Aycock’s bill can’t or won’t go anywhere, just that it will take a lot of effort and a lot of compromise to get something resembling consensus. I have more faith in some people working to achieve that consensus than I do in others. K12 Zone and Trail Blazers have more,