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How the School Finance Trial Will Impact Texas Education

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

If you're confused by the all the lawsuits, arguments and recent rulings in the ongoing Texas school finance case, you're not alone.

Last month, the drawn out saga took a new turn when the presiding judge in the case said he'd need to reopen the case in January to determine whether the way the state pays for its public schools still needs fixing. In essence, it looks like Texas has another six week trial to look forward to.

It seems like now is as good a time as any to get up to speed on where the case has been, and where it could go from here.A history of challenges
Since 1984, various school districts have sued Texas, arguing that it was not meeting the constitutional mandate to run an equitable system of public education.

Previous lawsuits have resulted in what is known commonly as the Robin Hood law, in which property wealthy districts help fund districts in poorer areas of the state. Other changes to the system were made in response to a Supreme Court ruling that the system has resulted in the creation of a illegal statewide property tax.

Filed in 2011, this latest lawsuit includes several coalitions or groups of school districts representing about two thirds of the state's school districts, each of whom are making arguments that the public school finance system still violates the Texas Constitution.

One argument was that the system is inequitable in that not all districts receive the same amount of funding – with some getting as much thousands less per child.

Another was that by raising academic standards and simultaneously cutting the budget for schools by $5.4 billion in 2011, the legislature didn't adequately fund education.

A third was that the system has, yet again, resulted in another statewide property tax.
In February, State District Judge John Dietz sided with the districts, finding that the system was indeed inequitable, inadequate and had again succeeded in creating an illegal statewide de facto property tax.
The system, he said in an oral ruling, was unconstitutional and a victory for the plaintiffs. But he held off on making a final written ruling until after the just-completed legislative session, during which about $3.4 billion worth of those cuts were restored.

A new twist
As the parties involved waited on the final ruling, which will serve as the basis for the state's appeal to the Supreme Court, a major development occurred at a hearing in Austin last month.
After months of waiting,

Credit Marjorie Kamys Cotera, Texas Tribune
Judge John Dietz in his courtroom before he ruled that school finance system unconstitutional on February 4th, 2013.

Dietz announced that he'd reopen the already-decided case with a six-week trial in January.

Joking at the time that the case was not unlike a long-running soap opera, Deitz announced that he would allow new evidence so that he could determine whether lawmakers had done enough to fix the system during the 2013 legislative session.

"In some fashion, we need to evaluate and deduce whether there have been material and substantial changes, or even just changes, to the circumstances that are outlined in my February 4th decision," Dietz said.

The decision was supported by lawyers from the state as well as two of the plaintiff groups including the Texas Schools Coalition, the group that represents the wealthiest districts in the state. It was opposed by others including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which represents a group consisting of some of the poorest districts and had focused during the case on the argument that the system was inequitable.

David Hinojosa an attorney for MALDEF, said his group had been wary of the Texas Schools Coalition and "at arms length" during the trial. Having a co-plaintiffs ask that the case they won to be reopened, was "simply unheard of."

"It has broken any sense of trust that we had with them moving forward," he said.
Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, said regardless of whether the new trial helps or hurts any aspect of the case, it's imperative that the court have an "accurate and up-to-date record" as it moves inevitably toward the Supreme Court, which is where the system's constitutionality will ultimately be decided.

"We don't think this changes the fact that the system is unconstitutional but we want to make sure that the record moving through the Supreme Court is up to date and complete," she said.

Moving forward
With about one-tenth of the public school population nationwide, the trial and its effect on how Texas handles these issues of public school funding, equality and accountability is being watched closely.

However, Hinojosa said that the latest twist leaves him at a complete loss as to where to go from here.

"We are in a desert with no compass and no stars and its dark at night," he said explaining the predicament he finds himself in as the parties prepare to convene again later this month to discuss what statutes should be considered for the new trial, which is set to begin Jan 6.

Hinojosa said his clients' position has always been and continues to be that none of the statutes passed during the 2013 legislative session were significant enough to really effect the meat of the case.

"There are some far-reaching estimates but you really won't know until a year after the funding has been distributed," he said, explaining that data quantifying the effect of the legislature's recent actions won't be available until the fall of 2014.

Rome, meanwhile, said that in fact much of the additional revenue approved this past session would be going toward the property poor districts, while half of her clients have yet to see relief.

"We believe that there were significant changes and, quite frankly, a lot of progress made during the legislative session that needs to be taken in to account." 

The question now, Rome said, is when Supreme Court will decide and whether the decision will be something that the 2015 legislature will have to act on while it is in session. Rome said a delay now is better than the setback that could have resulted had Dietz gone ahead with his final ruling and the Supreme Court remanded the case back to District Court.

Hinojosa disagreed, saying that a ruling from Judge Dietz would have sent the case to the Texas Supreme Court by January of 2014. Even if the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to a district court, the case wouldn't have been delayed past 2015.
He said the delay proves that the wealthiest districts are still the ones with the most power.

"It's essentially pushing this thing out, and you are never going to have finality and we're talking about constitutional rights that are being violated today," he said. "And where does that get us? Where does that get the parents and children that have been subjected to an unconstitutional system? It gets them basically another year of waiting."

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