Sunday, January 23, 2005

School Finance Plaintiffs United Front Splinters Over Equity Issues

Property rich districts want fast track to Supreme Court, property poor want Dietz to reconsider equity issues

The first cracks in the education coalition that took the state’s school finance case to court have appeared in the last week as the group has split on the question of equity.

The lawyers from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents the Edgewood interveners, are disappointed that the other plaintiff groups agreed with Attorney General Greg Abbott’s statement of jurisdiction, asking the Texas Supreme Court to expedite the school finance case and hear the case as soon as possible. Even in a best-case scenario, the case will not make it to Court before the session ends.

MALDEF Attorney David Hinojosa told the Quorum Report he was not ready to give up on the equity claims they want Dietz to reconsider. That reconsideration, which could mean a trip to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, could significantly delay the case.

On Friday night, Hinojosa told the online Texas Civil Rights Review he was surprised by the West Orange-Cove plaintiffs’ agreement with Abbott’s office that the case should move forward. The Texas Civil Rights Review, edited by Greg Moses, spoke of the West Orange-Cove brief as "an Inaugural Day Betrayal," when the property-rich districts who gave "lip service" to maintaining Robin Hood finally tossed aside their property-poor cousins.

"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, according to a posting at the Texas Civil Rights Review website, Later in the posting, Hinojosa is quoted saying,

"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?"

The Texas school finance case actually is three separate groups of plaintiffs with discrete claims, although those claims tended to overlap at trial. The West Orange-Cove plaintiffs, for instance, represented the property-wealthy districts that claimed they no longer had discretion once they reached the state-imposed $1.50 tax cap.

The Alvarado plaintiffs, which represented many of the member districts of the Equity Center, argued some equity questions but also a whole lot on the cost of an adequate education. And the Edgewood interveners, represented by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued the gap between wealthy and poor districts had opened to the point that equity was, once more, an issue in Texas schools.

It’s to the credit of the plaintiff attorneys that such disparate claims were brought under a single tent for the trial in District Judge John Dietz’s last summer. The attorneys, for their part, made a point of never saying Robin Hood was the enemy given MALDEF’s substantial concerns that the end of Robin Hood would mean the end of real equity.

But that common good has taken a hit over the last couple of months as the plaintiff groups have filed their appeals with Dietz’s court. MALDEF’s filings clearly indicate the Edgewood interveners want to send the case back to Dietz so he will recommend that the current school funding needs further equalization. The logic is that no new school finance system should be laid over an inequitable system. That just memorializes the current inequities of the system, which continues to widen the funding gaps.

For its part, the Equity Center also has continued the push for 98 percent equity in Tier I funding for the school districts in the state. In a dose of reality, the center’s December newsletter pointed out it would take billions to correct long-neglected areas such as updating formulas for transportation, small-sized school districts and bilingual education. And the main point of the Texas Federation of Teacher’s school finance plan was that the inequities of the current system must be corrected before new money is counted.

The Alvarado plaintiffs asked Dietz to consider the inclusion of additional evidence in the case, but they plaintiffs did not ask for further reconsideration of the equity issue. Dietz’s court has jurisdiction over the Texas school finance case until Feb. 14.

The West-Orange Cove plaintiffs have less to gain by delaying the case. Any school finance formula passed by the Legislature is likely to moot the statewide property tax claim, if it’s done correctly. Privately, those familiar with the case say that equalizing school facility funding should cut the gap between property-poor and property wealthy school districts in half, putting the gap within an "acceptable range" of inequity that could be corrected by other remedies that have popular acceptance, such as updating the cost-of-education index, or CEI, which has not been updated since 1990.

For its part, MALDEF always has the option to pursue its claim through the appeals court process, even if the rest of the case moves to the Texas Supreme Court. – Kimberly Reeves
January 23, 2005

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