July 6, 2005, 5:48PM
Texas Supreme Court hears arguments on schools
AUSTIN — Attorneys for hundreds of school districts told Texas Supreme Court justices today that the state has failed in its duty to educate 4.3 million public school students, while state lawyers argued that the Legislature — not the courts — should repair Texas' troubled school finance system.
The justices weren't expected to rule for several weeks or months after hearing oral arguments from both sides in the ongoing battle over how Texas pays for public education.
The case is an appeal brought by the state of last summer's ruling in which state District Judge John Dietz sided with the more than 300 districts that sued Texas, saying the way the state funds public education is unconstitutional. The districts argued that Texas doesn't spend enough money on schools to provide a "general diffusion of knowledge."
Buck Wood, an attorney representing some of those districts, reiterated that point Wednesday.
"Is the state providing a general diffusion of knowledge to its students when over 30 percent of its students never graduated from high school?" Wood asked the court.
The state, which quibbled with the dropout figure, argued that it was the Legislature's responsibility to determine school funding policy. The state also argued that the plaintiff districts failed to prove a link between money spent and student achievement.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to work toward a solution Wednesday in a special legislative session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry for the sole purpose of addressing the funding problem. Lawmakers were debating a tax measure that would replace property taxes used for schools with new business and consumer taxes.
Dietz ruled last year that the system is "financially inefficient, inadequate and unsuitable" and is unconstitutional because it doesn't provide equal opportunities for education. Attorneys for the state argue that the system does meet the minimum constitutional requirements.
Dietz ruled that Texas must stop funding public schools by Oct. 1 if the constitutional violations are not corrected, although that deadline is on hold because of the state's appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
In the Texas House, Republican Speaker Tom Craddick says the tax measure being debated Wednesday that would change the way Texans pay taxes for public schools won't do enough to satisfy the court ruling. Craddick, who presides over the House, said Tuesday that the measure before the chamber does not solve the legal problems facing the state.
Many districts, which now tax property owners at the maximum legal amount — $1.50 per $100 of property value — don't have room to raise more money and still don't have enough money to meet basic educational needs. Dietz ruled that the school property tax cap amounts to a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas.
The tax bill, which could change significantly during floor debate, would lower property taxes but pay for it with a higher state sales tax and by closing loopholes in state's main business tax. The sales tax base also would be expanded to include bottled water, auto repair, and certain computer goods and services. The bill would increase the cigarette tax by $1.
Reducing the property taxes for homeowners has been a rallying cry for many Republican legislators. Critics argue that the state can't afford to choke off the money stream that is used to pay for public schools at a time when hundreds of districts are facing deep budget cuts.