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School Finance Explained: A Look at the 30-Year Battle Over Texas Public Schools

Todd Wiseman, Damian Gadal, Robert Couse-Baker/Texas Tribune
Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, describes Texas' school funding formula as an old house that needs to be updated.

The system Texas uses to pay for public schools was back in court today, and lawyers on both sides argued over whether the system is constitutional. It's an argument that's been going on for more than thirty years.

This particular case started in 2011, when the state legislature cut more than $5 billion from public education. Two-thirds of Texas school districts sued the state, arguing the cuts made it impossible to meet state academic standards. They won in a lower court. But today, the case was argued in the state Supreme Court.

Think of Texas’ school finance situation like an old house. That’s how Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, describes it.

“When it was first developed we had these grand ideas,” she says. Grand ideas like offering free public education to everyone, which was written into the state constitution in 1854. “We started with this grand blueprint of what we wanted to do.”

With that foundation, fast-forward more than a century. The house is older. The people who live in the house are different, and they need different things – more space, newer appliances – just like Texas public schools. Student enrollment is growing, and those students are more challenging to educate. Most are economically disadvantaged, and the number of English language learners has risen.

Villanueva says instead of making big repairs to school finance, lawmakers made little tweaks along the way – band-aids and quick fixes, she says.

Politics has played a big role in that, she says. Lawmakers didn’t want their districts negatively affected, so, they created exceptions.

“That’s created layers of layers of convolutedness,” she says. “I’d like to see everyone get on the same formula, playing the same game. I think one thing the legislature needs to do is just sort of clean out some of these old provisions that created carve-outs for particular districts over time that may not be relevant today.”

Other funding formulae haven’t been changed for 25 years.

But the Texas Attorney General’s office disagrees. In the two legislative sessions since 2011, the state argues it’s put billions of dollars back into public education.

In 2013, lawmakers restored $3 billion and reduced state academic standards, but a district court judge still ruled the system unconstitutional.

Then, this year, lawmakers added another $1.5 billion. Gov. Greg Abbott says the courts should give some time to see if that money makes a difference. Outgoing State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock says at the very least, it’s worth another look on the district court level.

“If I were one of the judges, I’d remand it back for further study, rather than make a final decision,” says Aycock, who chaired the House Public Education Committee in the last Legislative session. “We’ve made it better than it was – perhaps, not as good in places as it should be. I wish the court would give us some guidance as to what they expect. In the previous situations that’s been pretty much missing.”

In 2005, the courts ordered the state to fix parts of the school finance system, and then-Gov. Rick Perry ordered a special session over it, which, Aycock says, gave lawmakers a better blueprint that ultimately didn’t make the grade in court.

“That puts the legislature in a situation [to] try to pass something, try to get political taxation, school people, all the things to line up and then only to find out, no, that wasn’t what the court was expecting,” he says. “So, I’m hoping we get pretty clear guidance, [that] is the main thing I’d hope for.”

That way, if the Texas Supreme Court tells the state to change the system, lawmakers can create a whole new blueprint for public education funding. Whether the high court will provide that guidance is unclear — there are hundreds of thousands of documents to be reviewed. The court isn’t expected to hand down a ruling for months. 

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