District judge again rules Texas school finance system unconstitutional
Date Posted: 8/28/2014 | Author: Jennifer Mitchell, CAE
Today, District Judge John Dietz issued a long-anticipated ruling in the latest round of cases challenging the constitutionality of Texas' school finance system. Dietz found the state's system unconstitutional on nearly all grounds alleged by the plaintiffs in the case. Attorney General Greg Abbott, currently running for Texas Governor, defended the state in the lawsuit filed by attorneys representing hundreds of school districts. The districts suing the state argued that the method of funding public schools is inadequate, inequitable and amounts to an illegal state property tax. Dietz agreed with the school district plaintiffs, writing that "the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated, and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren." The ruling also states that the system "cannot accomplish, and has not accomplished, a general diffusion of knowledge for all students due to insufficient funding." In addition, Dietz held that the current system is inefficient based on the lack of equity in how school districts across the state are funded. Finally, the judge wrote that "the Texas school finance system effectively imposes a state property tax in violation of Article VIII, Section 1-e of the Texas Constitution because school districts do not have meaningful discretion over the levy, assessment, and disbursement of local property taxes." In rulings on some ancillary claims, Dietz declined to grant declaratory relief on "taxpayer equity" that was sought by one group of plaintiffs known as the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. They were organized by the Equity Center and represented more than 400 school districts with low- to mid-property wealth. The coalition argued that under the state's "target revenue" methodology, individual taxpayers residing in districts with lower property wealth cannot achieve the same benefit for their tax effort as those residing in districts with higher property values. The court ruled against a group known as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education that intervened in the case under the direction of former House Public Education Committee chairman Kent Grusendorf; Dietz similarly denied some additional relief sought by the Texas Charter Schools Association. Those groups had argued that policy changes favoring school choice and the expansion and funding of charter schools, including charter facilities, would make the state's school finance system more efficient. Today's decision was hardly surprising to those following the litigation in recent years. Dietz previously announced a preliminary opinion in Feb. 2013 in which he concluded that the state does not fund our public schools adequately or efficiently through its current system, which relies on local property taxes as its primary revenue source. Similar to today's ruling, Dietz also said in 2013 that a lack of meaningful discretion in setting local property tax rates essentially amounts to a statewide property tax. However, the court agreed to reopen the case for new evidence last year. The state argued unsuccessfully that additional funds appropriated by the Legislature in 2013, along with changes to graduation and student testing requirements, would negate any concerns that the system was broken. Dietz disagreed and stated, "All performance measures considered at trial, including STAAR tests, EOC exams, SATs, the ACTs, performance gaps, graduation rates, and dropout rates among others, demonstrated that Texas public schools are not accomplishing a general diffusion of knowledge due to inadequate funding." Earlier this summer, Abbott filed a motion to have Judge Dietz removed from the case, claiming that Dietz was biased in favor of the school district plaintiffs' lawyers. Another judge denied the motion to recuse Dietz, who has presided over a series of school finance cases against the state for more than a decade. His 2004 school finance ruling, also finding the state's system unconstitutional, was partially upheld by the Texas Supreme Court and resulted in the Legislature's adoption of its current funding mechanism in 2006. Despite those changes, a structural deficit has persisted and the school finance system has failed to generate enough money to meet increasing state standards and expectations for schools and students. At the same time, the system has resulted in wide disparities in the amount of per-pupil funding from district to district. Abbott is expected to appeal the district court's ruling today to the Texas Supreme Court. A final decision is unlikely prior to the conclusion of 2015 legislative session, meaning that schools, teachers and students will have to keep waiting for a resolution to the broken funding system. Click here to download the summary version of today's school finance ruling. Read ATPE's press release here.
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