Long battle expected over school funding lawsuit

By Mary Alys Cherry

A final decision in the school funding lawsuit may be months off and will probably be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.

State officials indicated as much after State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the current funding system is not only inefficient and inadequate but unconstitutional as well, and needs to be repaired.

In his ruling, a decision that could have a major impact on education, Judge Dietz specifically called on the state to provide the resources necessary to give all students a real opportunity to graduate from high school ready for college or a career and provide equitable funding to bring all Texas school districts up to the funding levels necessary to meet Texas’ high standards.

Gov. Rick Perry declined to comment and Attorney General Greg Abbott said the system is adequately funded but that school districts don’t always spend their money wisely.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst expressed disappointment in the ruling and said he expected “an immediate appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.”

Clear Creek ISD was one of 600 Texas school districts to file suit against the state when the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education in 2011– at a time when the state increased unfunded requirements and testing requirements for school districts.

“We are pleased with Judge Dietz’s decision,” said Dr. Greg Smith, superintendent of schools. “We are in favor of higher standards for education. We look forward to the state doing its part to provide the appropriate financial and human resources to meet those shared goals. I think that is the bottom line on this verdict.

“We certainly hope our lawmakers, who are currently in session, use this as an opportunity to meet the needs of students and teachers in classrooms across Texas,” said Smith.

Public school financing, Smith explained, is a complex and controversial system dating back to 2006 when the state forced school districts to reduce property tax rates from $1.50 to $1 per $100 valuation, froze per-student funding based on 2006 property values, and promised to make up the difference through the business franchise tax.

“This tax never delivered the intended results. In 2011, the state cut $5.4 billion to education. This reduction equaled $17.5 million for the Clear Creek Independent School District.” Besides the funding cut, which resulted in massive job cuts and larger classes, the state imposed a new tougher testing program and additional unfunded mandates such as requiring four years of math and science to graduate.

The Texas Constitution forbids a state income tax, meaning the school finance system is built on what schools districts can raise in local property taxes. The state also sends money to fill in the funding gaps between districts.

With the Feb. 4 ruling, nothing will change immediately in the way education is funded.  The attorney general’s office can appeal Dietz’ decision directly to the Texas Supreme Court, and, if it upholds the district court ruling, will order the Legislature to overhaul the way it finances Texas schools.

Such a decision will most likely mean Governor Perry will have to call a special session on school finance in 2014, as the current session ends in May. But allowing the case to slowly wend its way through the lower appeals court system might be a better political option for Republicans, who might not want to have to vote in favor of increasing education funding before the March 2014 primary, so as to avoid challenges from tea party candidates.

Some of the area school districts in the lawsuit included Pearland, Houston, Pasadena, Spring Branch, Klein, Katy, Cy-Fair, La Porte, La Marque, Santa Fe, and Humble, plus Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth.

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