A Travis County state district judge issues a final judgment that Texas’ school finance system imposed a property tax that violates the state constitution and the state legislature failed to adequately fund K-12 classroom instruction.
State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the state education financing system was a classic case of have and have-nots; it failed to distribute money fairly between rich and poor communities and school districts.
The suit was joined by over 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ five million-plus public school students. The districts sued the state after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011. They said they did have the money to educate their students.
Dietz had earlier this year ruled the system unconstitutional, but withheld a final ruling to give the state legislature time to address the problems. State lawmakers pumped more than $3 billion into the school financing system, but the judge ruled the new laws were just as inadequate as the old ones.
Dietz agreed with experts who testified that the playing field remained unequal, with property-poor school districts having approximately $1,000 per student less than property rich districts-despite taxing 10-cents higher. Experts also testified that the legislature failed to increase funds for low-income and ELL students, who continue to struggle to meet minimum standards on the state’s rigorous STAAR standardized tests.
The absence of sufficient resources for these at-risk students particularly troubled the court; the court’s findings include examples of the challenges those students face and of unacceptable, substantial achievement gaps.
“If this ruling does not serve as the wake-up call for our legislature to provide equal educational opportunities for all, then I’m not sure anything ever will,” says David Hinojosa, an attorney for MALDEF, which is a party to the case.
The court ordered Texas to correct the violation before July 1, 2015, or else face an injunction enjoining the school finance system. That gives the legislature, which reconvenes in January, an opportunity to “cure the constitutional deficiencies,” the ruling says.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says he will appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s high court eventually upholds the Dietz decision, it will be up to state lawmakers to design an entirely new funding method. But until then, the system remains unchanged.