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Texas Matters: The Story Of Education Funding Turns Another Page

State of Texas

Texas education funding is ruled unconstitutional, and Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. There are opposing views in the legislature on whether to immediately act to address the issue, or wait until the court forces it. Gov. Perry is causing a stir with his radio ads in California that try to lure companies to the Lone Star State, and one columnist from San Francisco says this is generating some interesting conversation.

The cycle of school finance issues in Texas

On Oct 22, 2012 the Texas public school system went on trial. Testimony lasted 3 months and a ruling was delivered this week. The district court judge found that the tax system Texas uses to finance public schools is unconstitutional.

Judge John Dietz determined the Legislature has not adequately funded schools as required under the Texas Constitution. Key to that decision was the fact that in 2011, the Legislature cut $5.4 billion in public education funding. The state countered that the system -- while flawed -- is still constitutional.

This is not the end of the fight, as Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

It’s only a coincidence that the ruling happened near groundhog day, because in a way we are trapped in a school finance temporal loop. A judge declares the system is broken, it goes to the lawmakers, school districts sue the state and it starts over again. In the meantime children are milling through the system and dealing with the consequences.

Closely following the school finance saga is a former school district superintendent and editor of the online state education blog TexasISD.com, Joe Smith.

"The legislature should look at it and say, 'Men, we've got a problem, we need to address this,' and it should be an emergency item that they are addressing. I don't think they'll do that, and the pundits are all looking at the fact that they'll wait until the Supreme Court tells them they have to to address it."

To wait, or not to wait: That is the question

The school finance ruling comes as a Texas legislature is in the early stages of their session. Many lawmakers want to wait until Abbott's appeals have worked their way through before taking up the issue, but one leading democrat, Rep. Trey Martinez Fishcher, is telling his fellow lawmakers to act now.

On Thursday Martinez Fischer called to be recognized to dissolve the current House Committee of the Whole, in order to form a new one to take up school finance reform. The current Committee of the Whole was formed to address another issue and so must be dissolved before re-forming to address a new item.

Credit Trey Martinez Fischer via Facebook
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer is pushing state lawmakers to address school finance now instead of waiting for another court ruling.

In the past, the Texas State Legislature has acted on issues of the upmost importance while litigation is pending. In 2009, the legislature modified the top ten percent plan (S.B. 175) while litigation was pending. In 2007, the legislature acted with all due diligence to enact Jessica’s Law (H.B. 8) despite pending litigation on the matter.   

"While members of the Leadership have held that we must wait until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of our state’s school finance system, it is clear that we have the ability, within our rules, to act today. We have the opportunity to prove that education is our number one priority. There is a clear path to begin the debate of restoring education funding cuts and fixing our broken school finance system."

At issue are $5.4 billion in cuts to education the Legislature imposed in 2011. Texas does not have a state income tax, meaning it relies on local property taxes to finance schools. But lawyers for about 600 public school districts said the bottom 15 percent of the state’s poorest districts tax average 8 cents more than the wealthiest 15 percent of districts but receive about $43,000 less per classroom.

There is additional money left in the state budget over the next couple years, but Gov. Perry outlined in his address to state legislators and in his State-of-the-State address that he would like to use that money for tax breaks.

"I don't believe that there is a groundswell for cutting taxes up here. Governor Perry is talking about cutting taxes by $1.8 billion. There are 25 million people in the State of Texas, that means each Texan will get $36 for the next two years. Frankly, I'm not so sure there is going to be a lot of love for a tax cut that is going to put $36 in my pocket. I'd rather take $1.8 billion and fix the school system, I'd rather take $1.8 billion and build some new roads, I'd rather take $1.8 billion and build some water reservoirs; lets have some meaningful use of that money for a project that the entire state will benefit from."

Gov. Perry on the radio (in California)

Earlier this week Perry began running radio ads in California asking businesses to move their operations and their jobs to Texas, and now Perry is taking that job snatching pitch on the road.

Perry announced he is taking an Economic Development Trip to the golden state.

Credit Texas Tribune
Gov. Rick Perry at the State-of-the-State address this January.

Perry will travel this week to San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles to meet with business leaders in the high tech, biotechnology and film industries. The governor’s trip will be paid for by TexasOne – and according to his office no tax dollars will be used for his travel and accommodations.

Californians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, are sounding off about Perry’s job poaching – saying the Texas economic miracle is more of a mirage when the state is cutting education funding and is last in the nation for health insurance.

Perry’s radio ad and job snatching strategy has not gone unnoticed in California, and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joe Garofoli says it has has sparked a needed conversation in the Golden State about its economic future.

"[Texas] is spending $18-$19 billion a year in incentives to corporations to expand or move to Texas, and the same time they cut their education budget by $6 billion. I think the question here among a lot of people is it stinks like corporate welfare. On the flip side, California could be doing more. That's another issue it's been raising: What is California doing to bring more business to this state?"

What gives Texas the economic edge over California?

Gov. Perry has inspired a conversation comparing Texas and California – and some on the West Coast say when it comes to economic success in Texas – all that glitters isn’t as golden as it is in the Golden State. But Chuck DeVore of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation says the Lone Star State’s economy shines bright.

Devore expounds upon why his adopted homestate is booming while his former home is floundering – with the book "The Texas Model: Prosperity in the Lone Star State and Lessons for America."

"The government in California is about 33 percent larger in both taxation and in the size of the government as a percentage of the economy, and that leads to more regulations. And the lawsuit climate as well is less conducive in California. So if you are a small business person, a medium sized business, and can't afford a lot of lawyers and expensive tax attorneys, it is a lot harder to make ends meat in California than it is in Texas."

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi