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Education

Updated: Judge Rules Texas School Finance System Is Unconstitutional

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Eileen Pace
/
TPR News

Update (4:05 p.m.): In his final decision, Travis County District Judge John Dietz said that the property tax system set up to fund school districts was ineffective at distributing funding equally to campuses across the state. 

Attorney David Thompson represents the largest number of schools in the lawsuit.

“We have a system in Texas that is heavily, heavily dependent on local property taxes for it’s primary support and that dependence on local property taxes is increasing every year," Thompson said. "We earnestly look to the state to carry a larger share at the state level.” 

Thompson said the current system asks predominately lower income schools with English-language learners to rise to the higher standards set by the state with less money. Texas is 47th in the nation for per pupil spending.

“As a state we need to establish high standards and we need high standards for all students and then we actually need a funding system that is designed to support those high standards,” Thompson said.

Dietz also wrote in his ruling that the Texas Legislature failed its constitutional obligation by not adequately funding schools, referring to the $5.4-billion cut in 2011 and the $3.4 billion replaced in 2013. 

Attorneys do not expect to argue the case before the Texas Supreme Court until early next year, which could put the 2015 state budget in limbo.

Update (2:55 p.m.):  The decision has been released and Judge Dietz has ruled once again that the school finance system in Texas is unconstitutional.

From the decision:

"The court finds that the Texas school finance system effectively imposes a state property tax in violation of Article VIII, Section 1-e of the Texas Constitution because school districts do not have meaningful discretion over the levy, assessment and disbursement of local property taxes. The court further finds that the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated, and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren."

(Original Post) Attorneys for the school districts in the Texas school finance trial say they are expecting the judge to rule the system for funding schools in Texas is unconstitutional.

Travis County District Judge John Dietz' office has confirmed that he has reached a decision in the case. The decision could be released sometime today.

David Hinojosa is an attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and represents some of the school districts in the case.

“TEA officials could not say how things had changed the outcome, so we’re extremely confident that we’ll get a favorable ruling and that we can finally get some real equal education opportunities in our Texas schools” Hinojosa said.

The lawsuit from more than 600 school districts came in 2011 when the state cut $5.4 billion from the education budget while raising academic standards.  

Hinojosa said the last few years hasn't been easy for those districts to meet the new standards with fewer resources.

"Tens of thousands of students who are of color and low-income status, who are English-language learners, who are still struggling without the educational opportunities, they really need to achieve not only the standards but their full potential. And so it can be a bit distressing," Hinojosa said.

Shelley Dahlberg with the Texas attorney general’s office argued on behalf of the state in the case. 

"The districts have not demonstrated that they could not provide meaningful access to a general diffusion of knowledge without access to all these technological advances,” Dahlberg said in the closing arguments of the trial.

The case was put on hold in 2013 to give state lawmakers a chance to restore some of the money cut in 2011. The Legislature replaced $3.4 billion of the original cut.

Regardless of the outcome the lawsuit is expected to head to the State Supreme Court on appeal.