By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas, Feb 4 (Reuters) - The Texas school finance
system violates the state constitution because it is inequitable
and not adequately funded, a state district judge ruled on
Monday in a move that could force an overhaul in how the state
pays for public schooling.
State District Judge John Dietz also declared that the
system prevents school districts from exercising meaningful
discretion in setting tax rates as required by the constitution,
which prohibits a statewide property tax.
The state is expected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
Lawyers for hundreds of Texas school districts besieged by
rapid population growth and deep budget cuts argued in a massive
school finance trial in Austin that began in October that the
state had not adequately funded public education or resolved
inequities among districts.
The legal action was brought on behalf of about 650 of the
state's 1,000-plus school districts, accounting for some 3.7
million of Texas' 5 million school children.
Many Texas students, particularly those from low-income
families, are struggling with Texas' new state exams and are not
on track to graduate, said David Thompson, a Houston lawyer
representing the largest group of districts suing the state.
They need tutoring and smaller classes, he said.
"There's just a disconnect between those standards that we
have for all the kids and the system that will get us to those
standards," Thompson said after the ruling.
Similar battles are playing out across the country. Active
school finance lawsuits are pending in 16 states, including
Texas, according to the National Education Access Network, which
tracks such court action across the country.
In Kansas, a three-judge panel ruled in January that the
state was unconstitutionally short-changing its students by
underfunding education needs and must increase spending by about
In Texas, the lawsuits came after the Republican-controlled
legislature acted in 2011 to trim $5.4 billion in education
funding to help balance the state's two-year budget.
The result was widespread teacher layoffs and larger class
sizes as schools struggled to meet higher state and federal
standards and school enrollment soared, attorneys for the
Lawyers for the state argued that although everyone was
asked to do more with less, Texas schools provide what the state
"Our system did not collapse; it did not fall off the
bridge," Nicole Bunker-Henderson, a lawyer for the state, said
during closing arguments Monday.
Lawsuits filed by six groups were merged into a single trial
that spanned more than 240 hours in court, according to Dietz.
Four of the six groups suing the state represent school
districts. The others are advocates for charter schools and a
group of business people pushing for more efficient schools.
Dietz declared that it was within the legislature's
discretion to fund charter schools differently than traditional
public school districts and that the concerns raised by the
business groups were matters for lawmakers to consider.
Monday's ruling is just one step for this litigation, Texas
Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement.
"All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the
district level, final resolution will not come until this case
reaches the Texas Supreme Court," Williams said.
State Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, said
lawmakers should restore the money cut from education now rather
than waiting for the case to be resolved.
"Our children's education should not be placed on hold while
the legislature waits for instruction from the courts," she said
in a statement.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal
Responsibility which advocates for limited government, said he's
glad Dietz doesn't have the last word.
"He was not persuaded by evidence showing just how
inefficient schools are at spending the money they already get,"
Sullivan said in a statement.
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