Thursday, July 14, 2005

School Finance Crisis: The Lege is failing again; court must be enforcer


School Finance Crisis: The Lege is failing again; court must be enforcer
12:05 AM CDT on Thursday, July 14, 2005

Texas' school funding crisis continues to play out on two tracks. The Legislature's working in special session to fund schools, while the Texas Supreme Court reviews a lower court ruling that says legislators have failed to adequately fund them. Here's a look at both fronts:

The Legislature
This is it? Two years of work on school finance, three legislative sessions devoted to the subject, and all the good citizens of Texans are likely to get from their governor and legislators are higher sales taxes and diddly property tax relief?

Apparently so. By all estimations, Austin's settling in on a plan that'll hit Texans with the highest sales taxes in the nation and substantially less than a 15 percent cut in their school property tax rates. Even worse, the plan will leave schools vastly underfunded. If you call this progress, we've got some beachfront property in Waco to sell you.

To be fair, legislators aren't the only culprits. Gov. Rick Perry is responsible as well, declining to take the lead in the special session to secure passage of a new business tax to help fund schools.

Parts of the Texas business community are to blame, too. While some corporations and firms testified in favor of various business tax options to help schools, others took the small view and worried only about how a new tax would affect their bottom line. You have to wonder where they plan to get smart workers if Texas doesn't adequately fund its schools.

And speaking of adequacy, the school funding proposal now being fine-tuned could put less than $3 billion in new money for schools over the next two years. Six weeks ago, lawmakers were considering $3 billion. Now, that figure looks to be going down faster than the Dow on a bad day.

Even the most pessimistic observer of Austin couldn't imagine the Legislature would go this route. Texas schoolchildren are getting shortchanged. Consumers are getting hijacked. Property owners are getting puny relief. And business is largely getting a pass. Pitiful.

The Court
We can only hope the state Supreme Court is watching this mess unfold. It's hard to understand how such a minimal investment in schools, which doesn't even account for inflation, qualifies as "adequate" funding of Texas schools.

The justices also must deal with the argument the state presented them last week that says, hey, you don't have a dog in this hunt.

That's effectively what Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz told the court when he argued school funding is a legislative issue, not a judicial one. He's right, of course: Legislators must find a way to adequately , efficiently and equitably fund schools. The Texas Constitution requires it meet those three standards.

But some entity has to ensure those standards are met, and that body is the Texas judiciary. For the last 16 years, it has ruled in at least five court cases about the state's duty to fund schools right. Going back to its first big decision in 1989, and in its follow-up rulings, the justices have shot down the argument that it has no business intervening in school funding.

The court need not dictate school funding solutions. But remember, the people of Texas are the voice in the Constitution. And the people left it to the courts to enforce their right to quality schools. It's ludicrous to think the court doesn't have standing in this case.


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