Monday, January 24, 2005

An Inauguration Day Betrayal on Civil Rights: The Heart of Texas

Note: Recent important editorial on how the language in Judge Dietz’ ruling may compromise the current school finance battle. -Angela

Texas Civil Rights Review
Weekend Edition January 22 / 24, 2005


In late December, Texas media headlined the State Attorney General's
announcement that he would go directly to the Texas Supreme Court to
overturn a trial-court order for reform in school funding. On that same day,
the same media did not report on a motion filed in the trial court by the
Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) asking for an even stronger

And this week, as well-fed Texans feted their first family in Washington,
the pattern of selective perception continued. On Wednesday, as the high
rollers of Texas power tightened their ties and buffed their boots for a
pre-inaugural orgy of schmooze, the State Attorney General repeated his
request for a fast track hearing before the Texas Supreme Court. And all
those things made headlines.

But with the news agenda hijacked by inaugural or anti-inaugural activities
on Thursday, the property-rich districts in the school funding trial broke
ranks with their poorer cousins at MALDEF and asked the Texas Supreme Court
to get double busy for them, too. As this story goes to press, there is no
mention of this significant event in the usual places Texans look for hot

So that makes two times in two months that the State Attorney General was
crowned king of the media battle against school funding reform in Texas,
getting all His Majesty's Ink, without even a fair or balanced notice, not
even in nine-point type, that something else is going on.

"I'm surprised altogether by the State and the West Orange Cove Plaintiffs
efforts to circumvent the laws we have in place," says MALDEF attorney David
Hinojosa, speaking by telephone from his San Antonio office Friday evening.

While MALDEF and other allies for equity were openly cheering the original
trial-court ruling that ordered the state to reform its school funding
during the upcoming legislative session in Austin, a closer reading revealed
that the judge had written a small puzzle.

At one point in the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law handed down on
Nov. 30, District Judge John Dietz found that the state fails to provide
constitutionally guaranteed education to Texas children because "the current
funding capacity of the Texas school finance system, in conjunction with the
inequitable access to revenue in the system, does not provide property-poor
districts with sufficient access to revenue" (FOF 294). This phrasing
suggests that not only is the state funding too low to be constitutional
overall, but also that the property-poor districts can't get their hands on
their constitutionally equitable share.

About 20 pages later, however, the judge says that "a structural disparity
in access to revenues, that, while not reaching the level of a
constitutional violation at this time, still puts property-poor districts at
a financial disadvantage when compared to Chapter 41 districts [the legal
definition of a property-rich district under Texas law]" (FOF 435). Which is
to say, what? That "inequitable access" to funds among property-poor
districts is pretty bad, but not really a constitutional concern for Texas
at this time? In its Dec. 28 motion to the trial court, MALDEF asks to have
this language revised.

All through this latest round of the school funding trial, property-rich
districts allied with property-poor districts because both sides said out
loud in court that they supported each other's claims. The property poor
districts agreed to the property-rich argument that Texas needed more money
overall in absolute dollars. If this argument prevailed in court the
property-rich districts would get to raise and spend more money from their
gilded tax bases at home.

In return for this kind of support from the property-poor side, the
property-rich districts gave lip service to the claim that inequities
between rich and poor districts also deserved the court's attention. Any
court-ordered increase in overall revenues should be accompanied by enough
re-distribution of wealth to keep the tax bases equitable, so said the
rich-district attorneys in court.

Smells like catfish bait in August when the property-rich districts suddenly
join the state's effort to get inside the jurisdiction of the all-Republican
Supreme Court, as MALDEF is trying to finish up its equity advocacy at the
trial-court level. The rich districts already have the ruling they need from
the trial court, don't they? They've got their constitutional issue in the
pocket that mandates more overall funding at higher tax rates. Why do they
suddenly need to speed up the appeal?

"The issue of equitable access to revenues for maintenance and operations
funding has yet to be fully rendered by the trial court, yet the
property-rich districts think certain issues should be yanked up by the
Supreme Court?" asks Hinojosa in a question punctuated by 500 years of

Hinojosa wears his tired voice like a black-tie tuxedo some days, and he was
formally weary in tone and cadence as he talked about the one-two punch of
Wednesday-Thursday motions filed by state attorneys and rich districts who
are suddenly rushing into each other at the Supreme Court door.

It's plain as day to us lowly observers of Texas politics that a deal has
been cut to enrich the richies and cut the poor folks out at the final
buzzer. It's the only theory that makes sense. Only thing at this point for
us know-nothings is to ask: is it a done deal yet? When everybody gets back
from the parties in Washington, we'll see. But you won't get the headline
from the usual media publishers, so please stay tuned.

Meanwhile the solidarity chant of the moment seems pretty clear to me:
finish the trial court business you black-boot Texas lawyers, before you go
the appeal.

Note: motions filed by the Texas Attorney General and the West Orange Cove
Plaintiffs are available in pdf format at the Downloads section of the Texas
Civil Rights Review:

Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of
Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of
Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in
Dime's Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St.
Clair. He can be reached at:

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