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Educators Stunned, GOP Leaders Pleased, With Court Ruling On School Finance


State GOP leaders are applauding a unanimous Texas Supreme Court ruling that described the state’s school finance system as “flawed” but constitutional.  Many of the 600-plus school districts that sued to gain greater education funding said they’re stunned and disappointed. 

  The 9-0 decision followed nearly five years of wrangling in which schools convinced a Travis County judge in 2014 that Texas doesn’t provide enough money for educators to meet higher state academic standards, and there are wide differences in per pupil funding across districts.

But Republican legislative leaders urged the State Attorney General to appeal the decision and Friday, at the GOP state convention, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the Supreme Court’s reversal of the lower court decision.

“It supports what many of us in the legislature have said.  Our finance system does have flaws.  It’s not perfect, but it is constitutional,” said Patrick.

Patrick said the Texas Senate, where he presides, will continue working to distribute money more fairly.

What he didn’t say was whether the legislature next year is likely to provide additional per student funding, something nearly every district says it needs.

The San Antonio Independent School District was among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Superintendent Pedro Martinez said he was hoping for a ruling that would require the state to do more for at-risk children like those in his district.

“We know children who live in poverty, who are English-language learners, who have disabilities, require more resources,” said Martinez. 

“What they basically decided (Friday) is that the state does not need to differentiate for those populations. And for us, it’s just disappointing because our teachers, our principals, my colleagues around the state, we all know that these children need more services.”

State Sen. Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, called the decision a “punch in the gut,” and said he’ll continue working in the legislature to replace more than a billion dollars cut from public education in 2011 that hasn’t been restored.   

“For me it’s a call to redouble the efforts on behalf of our public schools,” said Menendez.”

“I plan on shining a very bright light on the fact that our schools never received the funding that had been cut when the cuts really were not necessary.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), who represented Edgewood and other property poor districts, blamed the loss on justices who didn’t properly evaluate the complicated data that was before them.   

As districts and their advocates now turn their effort for better school funding from the courthouse to the statehouse they’ll find themselves up against an often familiar challenge: a budget with limited dollars; conservative lawmakers who want to spend less; and many needs competing for their own piece of the budget pie.

Schools and state lawmakers have gone to court over classroom funding six times since 1984. This is only the second time the state court has failed to find the system unconstitutional.

Here’s how some others reacted to the school finance ruling:

Gov. Greg Abbott:

"Today's ruling is a victory for Texas taxpayers and the Texas Constitution. The Supreme Court's decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the State's school finance system.”

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, a member of the Senate Education Committee:

“Public schools will never say they have enough money and there will never be a shortage of lawyers who will sue, who will offer to sue the state, in order to get that money.  So it’s not over. This little chapter is over but it doesn’t really change anything.”

Superintendent Brian Woods, Northside ISD:

“If we’re going to continue our economic prosperity, we must educate the future of Texas. Today’s ruling does not help with that. We hope that the legislature will have a change in its recent behavior towards this issue and start to take a long-term view on what the advantages are of an investment in public schools.”

Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel: 

“This is not a case where the court delved deeply into the evidence and concluded the system was acceptable. It acknowledges the serious achievement gap for economically disadvantaged and for English language learner students that is not only lingering but growing larger.”

Shelley Kofler is Texas Public Radio’s news director. She joined the San Antonio station in December 2014 and leads a growing staff that produces two weekly programs; a daily talk show, news features, reports and online content. Prior to TPR, Shelley served as the managing editor and news director at KERA in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.
Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.
Louisa Jonas is an independent public radio producer, environmental writer, and radio production teacher based in Baltimore. She is thrilled to have been a PRX STEM Story Project recipient for which she produced a piece about periodical cicadas. Her work includes documentaries about spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Louisa previously worked as the podcast producer at WYPR 88.1FM in Baltimore. There she created and produced two documentary podcast series: Natural Maryland and Ascending: Baltimore School for the Arts. The Nature Conservancy selected her documentaries for their podcast Nature Stories. She has also produced for the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations Podcast. Louisa is editor of the book Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her training also includes journalism fellowships from the Science Literacy Project and the Knight Digital Media Center, both in Berkeley, CA. Most recently she received a journalism fellowship through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she traveled to Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska to study climate change. In addition to her work as an independent producer, she teaches radio production classes at Howard Community College to a great group of budding journalists. She has worked as an environmental educator and canoe instructor but has yet to convince a great blue heron to squawk for her microphone…she remains undeterred.
Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules