Court: School finance constitutional

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Some four years after it started its way through the Texas legal system, a school financing lawsuit against the state of Texas, claiming the current system of funding public schools is unconstitutional, was rejected by the Texas Supreme Court this month.

The state’s highest court, in a unanimous ruling, said that the mechanism was indeed lawful.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote in the court’s 100-page opinion, per the Texas Tribune; the opinion asserted that the court’s “lenient standard of review in this policy-laden area counsels modesty.”

Noting that, he said the court system should not be intervening.

“But our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy or to issue edicts from on high increasing financial inputs in hopes of increasing educational outputs,” Willett said. “Judicial review, however, does not license second-guessing the political branches’ policy choices, or substituting the wisdom of nine judges for that of 181 lawmakers.”

The state has been sued seven times, over more than two decades, over school finance issues, the opinion notes. This is the first time the state has won.

Madisonville CISD Superintendent Keith Smith said local administrators were not surprised by the ruling and it does not drastically affect their day-to-day operations.

“The Supreme Court says it meets minimum standards,” Smith said. “We can’t control that. “All we can really control is what’s happening here in Madisonville. We take care of the kids, and if we get an extra dollar, that’s great. There’s enough money spent on public education; it just needs to be distributed in a more equitable way. I don’t want more. I want equal.”

Madisonville gets roughly 60 percent of its budget from the state, 10 percent from the federal government and 30 percent from local taxes, Smith said.

“We’re doing well financially,” he said. “We’re going to keep focusing on the kids.”

Willett’s stance was argued against by former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who was one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. Jefferson led the court in 2005, at the time of the last school finance lawsuit.

“Now is not the time to abandon judicial review,” he said at the start of the appeal last September.

The current case was filed when about two-thirds of the state’s school districts sued after the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion in K-12 funding in 2011. A second, separate suit was filed by backers of charter schools and others, later. Travis County state District Judge John Dietz had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2014. Greg Abbott, now governor and then the state’s attorney general, appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The justices also rejected Dietz’s ruling that, because school districts have so little control over their property taxes, the state has a de facto statewide property tax. In 2005, as the result of a previous school finance lawsuit, the Texas Supreme Court had made such a finding as part of its ruling.

The Texas School Coalition, an umbrella group for one set of plaintiffs, also commented.

The group of 88 school districts, known collectively as the Calhoun County ISD Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were represented by Mark Trachtenberg and John Turner, partners with Haynes and Boone, LLP, who expressed disappointment at the Court’s ruling.

“This decision represents a dark day for Texas school children, especially given the Legislature’s repeated failure to adequately fund our schools,” Trachtenberg said. “Given the importance of education in the 21st Century economy, Texas simply cannot afford to be bringing up the rear among the states in financial support of public education.”

Turner added that the trial court’s conclusion was correct: schools do not have the resources — or the local control over their tax rates — to meet the standards set forth in the Texas Constitution. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court justices did not agree,” he said. “At this point, our districts can only hope that the Legislature will reverse course on its own, and make the changes needed to improve our system.”

Clare Haefner, director of publications for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, also responded to the lawsuit.

“We believe it is clear that our public school system is underfunded and inequitable,” Haefner said. “The tension between performance expectations and inadequate resources for schools is not going to go away because of this decision. For the millions of Texas schoolchildren, parents and teachers who deserve better, we hope legislators will heed the court’s suggestion to ‘seize this urgent challenge.’ When the Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers must make significantly improving education funding a priority, so that schools have the resources to match the increasing expectations and challenges of educating this state’s diverse population.”

Meteor Sports and Education Editor April Towery contributed to this story.

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