School finance case: ATPE attends Supreme Court hearing
Date Posted: 9/02/2015
$50,000 more per classroom. That is how much more the top quarter of school districts have available to spend compared to the bottom quarter of districts. If it is broken down further, it can be shown where the top 10 percent of districts have over $100,000 more to spend per classroom than the lowest 10 percent. This is a glaring disparity, and the children in these classrooms are being presented very different educational experiences. If each school district had access to these funds, it would be money that could be spent on computers, supplies, increasing salaries, or even reducing the exorbitant health insurance premiums school employees are required to pay – all supporting the recruitment and retention of quality educators. Without question, these money-related factors would give schoolchildren greater educational opportunity. Enter stage right: On Sept. 1, 2015, the Supreme Court of Texas (SCoT) met to hear arguments from parties involved in the four-year-old lawsuit. ATPE attended yesterday's long-awaited hearing. Six separate parties, as well as the state, presented their arguments before the court. The six parties include four that represent school districts: The Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition; the Texas School Coalition; Fort Bend ISD et al; and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). The other parties include the Texas Charter School Association, which is arguing largely for increased facilities funding, and a group composed of voucher and privatization proponents known as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education (often referred to as the "efficiency intervenors"). The attorney for the efficiency group argued that additional funding is unneeded, and that instead the court should require lawmakers to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, implement mandatory merit pay (almost certainly based on test scores), and allow public tax dollars to be used for private school vouchers (even though private schools, strangely, are not required by the state to test students at all). On the other side of the dispute, the school districts won in the lower district court based on their argument that the current school finance system devised by the Texas legislature violates the Texas Constitution on three issues: efficiency, adequacy, and local discretion in setting property taxes. Further, the districts pointed out that during the same time that the STAAR test was being implemented and standards were increasing, legislators made nearly $5.4 billion in budget cuts to public education. Four years later, over 30 percent of districts are still operating on less funding per student than they were in 2011. There is no timeline for when the SCoT will issue its ruling, and there are a number of possible outcomes, such as affirming the district court decision, overruling the district court, or affirming only some portions of the lower court’s ruling, which has been the case in recent school finance lawsuits. Depending on the timing of the ruling, lawmakers could be forced to return to Austin for a special session or be allowed to address possible judicial orders in 2017 when the Texas legislature is scheduled to meet next. It may sound a bit dramatic, but the truth of the matter is that the outcome of this court case will determine what the Texas public education system looks like in the foreseeable future. Every child who enters a classroom in our state will be affected by this decision, and we believe that the SCoT justices are acutely aware of this fact. Also yesterday, Pastors for Texas Children (PTC) filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the school finance appeal. Like ATPE, the PTC has been a member of the anti-voucher Coalition for Public Schools and a longtime advocate for fully funding Texas public education. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter assisted in the crafting of the PTC brief, through which the Texas pastors argue that a state-funded voucher system benefiting private, religious schools would not be more efficient than the current public education system. PTC filed its brief in response to another amicus brief recently filed by the U.S. Pastor Council advocating a private school voucher system as a means of solving the constitutional challenge to the state's funding system. ATPE appreciates PTC's efforts to weigh in on behalf of public schools that need greater support from the state. Read a copy of the full PTC brief here. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates on the school finance case.
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