The Texas Supreme Court announced today that it intends to hear oral arguments in the appeal of a major school finance lawsuit starting Sept. 1. Lawyers representing numerous school districts across Texas have sued state officials claiming that the funding of our schools is inadequate and inequitable and amounts to an illegal statewide property tax. Since the bulk of funding for public schools comes from locally assessed property taxes, differences in property values and tax rates have caused vast disparities in how much revenue each school district is able to collect. The legislature also devised a complicated “recapture” system to try to redistribute funds more equitably throughout the state – a mechanism that many refer to as a “Robin Hood” plan – and minor tweaks to the funding laws in recent years have only exacerbated long-term problems with the system. The bottom line is that most schools have struggled to generate enough funding to meet rising standards and deal with population increases.
Former Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s system of funding public schools unconstitutional in 2014 in response to multifaceted claims brought by several plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit over which the judge had presided since Oct. 2012. The state, represented by the Texas Attorney General, is appealing that ruling to the state’s highest court. The current lawsuit is only the latest in a string of challenges to the state’s convoluted system of funding schools across our large and diverse state.
During ATPE’s Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day event in February, Dietz spoke about the lawsuit in his first major public appearance since retiring from the court at the beginning of this year. He told a crowded ballroom of ATPE members and reporters, “We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education.” Dietz urged the 84th Texas Legislature to take action right away to find a solution to the broken school finance system.
Unfortunately, the pending appeal of the lawsuit was one reason cited by legislators who declined to pass a school finance reform bill during the 84th legislative session. As we reported previously on Teach the Vote, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R), chairman of the House Public Education Committee, filed HB 1759 in an attempt to bring about at least modest increases in per pupil funding and equity. After being approved by the House Public Education Committee, the bill died on the House floor when Aycock opted to pull it off the crowded calendar on the last day for consideration. Depending on how and when the Supreme Court ultimately rules, it might become necessary for Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to call legislators back to Austin for a special session to address school finance. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote this fall for updates as the appeal proceeds.