In many parts of Texas, school districts are in the throes of a heated debate concerning the state’s “constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and efficient public education,” according to the Texas Tribune.
Six lawsuits were filed on behalf of about two-thirds of the state’s school districts that educate about 75 percent of the state’s roughly three and a half million students. They have been rolled into a single case, which opened on Oct. 22 before State District Judge John Dietz in Austin.
The lawsuit was filed after the state Legislature cut $4 billion dollars in state funding to schools, along with a 1.4 billion dollar cut to grant programs in 2011. This case has been reopened after the 2005 ruling that mandated, “the existing system was an impending crisis, but not a present crisis.”
Attorneys representing children across Texas claimed, “Texas’s school financing system is so hopelessly broken that it violates the Constitution while keeping students from being prepared for the well-paying jobs of tomorrow.”
David Thompson, a partner at the Thompson & Horton law firm out of Houston, referred to Article VII, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution which states, support and maintenance of system of public free schools: A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Section 2 of Article VII calls for a permanent school fund from the state. Thompson said, “Our group of plaintiffs represent all parts of the state. The system wants the state to support high standards, if you are to meet those standards, you need equitable and adequate systems for schools and students to meet those standards.”
Funding for these demands is an ongoing problem. “Our districts [in San Antonio] have to use their available taxing capacity just to try to meet state requirements, and therefore, lack any real control over setting their local tax rates. The result is a de facto property tax,” said Mark Trachtenberg, attorney with Hayes & Boone LLP.
Texas school districts argue that students are at a disadvantage when it comes to their education. Allegedly, there is not enough funding for well-qualified teachers, needed programs or small class sizes where students could benefit from one-on-one attention from their teachers.
According to the plaintiffs, these deficiencies are making it harder for students to do well on more difficult testing standards imposed on them by the state. Recently, the Legislature implemented the Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STARR) to replace the former standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).
Weissert stated, “Texas has imposed increasingly more difficult standardized tests that high school students must pass to graduate. The districts claim that funding cuts have forced them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut back on education programs-all steps that ultimately leave their students less prepared for tougher exams.”
Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg said, “the lawsuits, inspired by school districts…are sore because they have to do more with less.” Dahlberg, however, dismissed the complaints “about the more rigorous STARR as premature because students will steadily improve, she says, just as they did years ago when the tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) arrived.”
David Hinojosa, counsel for Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), represents the poor-property school districts-which collect significantly lower revenues from property taxes-such as Edgewood ISD in San Antonio. “The state raised the standards on everyone. Things can’t happen just because you wish it to…it doesn’t happen that way,” Hinojosa said. “Virtually everything costs money. I’m not fighting against higher standards; I just want equity to meet those standards.”
Hinojosa believes that students attending poor-property districts like Edgewood ISD suffer because the funding stands at “less than $1,000 dollars per child, yet they are all forced to play on a level playing field.” MALDEF emphasized the disparity for the English-language-learners (ELL) who “suffer the most from less equity because they have to compete with wealthy district children and the funding is just not there.” This case, Hinojosa said, is “about fairness and giving vulnerable children a voice.”
Judge Dietz questioned the districts’ priorities and whether schools really need “big football stadiums.” Dahlberg urged Judge Dietz to “grill school officials on their spending habits. Are they offering curriculum and classes not required by the state? How about extracurricular activities including sports?”
Attorney Rick Gray, however, stated, “It is [the funding system] not only inadequate, it is irrational, it’s unfair and, most importantly, it’s unconstitutional.” Hinojosa agreed and claimed, “The finance system is the worst it’s been since 1993.”
The trial will run through mid January and is expected to go to the Texas Supreme Court. If the ruling favors the districts, the legislature may have to call a special session in 2014.