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Texas Judge Reopens School Finance Trial (Update)

Kate McGee, KUT News
Judge John Dietz (right) speaking with lawyers on both sides of the school finance trial, which reopened Tuesday with opening arguments. The trial will see if actions during the 2013 legislature should change the judge's initial ruling.

Update: Travis County District Judge John Dietz heard opening arguments today in the second round of Texas' school finance trial. The two sides are arguing over whether actions taken by the legislature last year change the judge’s preliminary ruling that the state’s public education finance system is unconstitutional.

When the legislature reconvened last year, it added back $3.4 billion for public education after it cut $5.4 billion during the 2011 session. Lawmakers reduced the number of required standardized tests for graduation from 15 to five.

At issue: were those changes enough to create a fair and equitable system to finance public education and allow schools and students to meet the state standards?

Lawyers for nearly two-thirds of Texas school districts say no: the system is still unconstitutional. David Thompson, one lawyer representing school districts, including Houston ISD, says  lawmakers set education standards, but don’t fund public education.

“It would be like if we ordered everyone in this courtroom to leave here right now get in your car and drive to Dallas, but we’re only going to give you enough gas to get to Waco," Thompson says.

Other attorneys argued while the legislature was right to restore some public education funding, it still doesn’t fund public education enough to change the judge’s preliminary ruling.

On the other side, state lawyer Shelley Dahlberg argued the legislature merely improved an already constitutional system by restoring funding and reducing tests.

“The evidence and record will show that the Texas Legislature made these changes in response to pleas for change by public school administrators and teachers, parents, business stakeholders and the community at large," Dahlberg said. "That response impacts if not moots many plaintiffs claims and that’s why we’re here.”

Dahlberg also said it’s too early to weigh the impact of new legislation — and tried to get Judge Dietz to exclude 2013 standardized test results in this part of the trial. She argued they were outside the scope of this part of the trial, but the judge denied her request.

Testimony is expected to take two to four weeks. After the judge rules, the case is expected to head to the Texas Supreme Court.

Original Post (7:17 a.m.): A Travis County judge is scheduled to reopen a trial over the state’s school finance system today.  He’ll decide whether last year's legislative session had any effect on a preliminary decision that Texas is underfunding public education.

In Texas and across the country, school districts are funded mainly with local property taxes and money from the state legislature. Over the years, there have been various lawsuits that challenge how Texas finances its public education system. One main issue is the idea of equity.

“For the same effort, various school districts should be obtaining the same amount of funding approximately per student,” says former state representative Sherri Greenberg, who is now a professor at the LBJ School of Public Policy.

The Texas Constitution calls for “an efficient system of free public schools.” Greenberg says equity is always questioned, especially when it comes to those property taxes.

“When you base it on the property tax, if property tax is low in one area and high in the other, then that same tax value does not bring in the same amount of money," Greenberg says.

To fix that equity problem, the Texas legislature created what’s known as the Robin Hood law. It requires districts that are rich in property taxes to send money to districts in poorer parts of the state. But in the most recent lawsuit filed by multiple plaintiffs in 2011, they argue the system unfairly distributed funding.

However, the main part of the case, however, has to do with the idea of adequacy.

“Is the state putting enough money into the education system for the outcomes that are being demanded?” Greenberg says.

After the 2011 legislature cut public education spending by $5.4 billion, four groups of school districts sued. They claim it isn’t possible to meet high state accountability standards and provide adequate education with such little funding. Therefore, they argued, the public school finance system violates the Texas Constitution.

Last February, District Judge John Dietz issued a preliminarily ruling that found the school finance system was inadequate, unfair and created a de facto state property tax, which is illegal in Texas. But when the legislature reconvened last year, it restored $3.4 billion of the money cut from education spending, and reduced the number of standardized tests. Lynn Moak is with Moak Casey, a consulting firm that specializes in school finance and accountability.

Moak says restoring over $3 billion helped a bit, “The question is for the courts was that degree of improvement sufficient or was it still insufficient?”

That’s what lawyers will begin arguing starting today – does more money and fewer state tests create a more balanced school finance system?

David Sciarra studies school funding for the Education Law Center. He says however Dietz rules, Texas lawmakers need to start thinking seriously about increasing funding for public education in what he calls an era of high-stakes testing.

"Politicians in Austin just aren’t making a decision to invest the kind of dollars in the educational system and target those dollars where they’re needed the greatest," Sciarra says.

The trial is expected to take around four weeks. Last week, Judge Dietz said he wants to make a decision by April.

Clarification: Lynn Moak is a consultant with Moak Casey, not a lawyer, as previously stated. 

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