Thursday, July 07, 2005

Texas Supreme Court hears districts' school finance arguments

The Daily Texan
Issue: 7/7/05
Texas Supreme Court hears districts' school finance arguments
By Jimmie Collins

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday from the state and lawyers representing nearly 300 school districts in the appeal to the school finance case that could leave schools penniless. A decision is pending in the court but could take anywhere from days to weeks.

Last year, State District Judge John Dietz ruled with the plaintiffs that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional, calling it "financially inefficient, inadequate and unsuitable."

Arguments Wednesday from the plaintiffs paralleled those from the original trial, stating that property-poor districts don't have the school financing to provide a constitutionally adequate education to their students. Schools in Texas are held to three standards: They must provide a "general diffusion of knowledge," make "suitable provisions" and "make an efficient system of public free schools," according to the state constitution. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing the case for the districts, said the schools wish to have a finance system that will provide a "general diffusion of knowledge to all students" and is equal and efficient across all districts.

MALDEF's desired outcome is for the Texas Supreme Court to provide guidance to the Texas Legislature in meeting its constitutional duties.

"Should the court deny the relief sought by the property-poor districts, not only will the children suffer, but our great state of Texas will too," said David Hinojosa, MALDEF staff attorney and lead counsel in the case.

But the state argued that, according to the Texas Constitution, the decision is not for the courts to make.

"Issues surrounding how much money and what kind of education should be provided are policy issues for the Legislature to decide," argued Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in the trial. "The Texas Constitution clearly says that education policy will be decided by the Legislature and not the courts."

However, the court determined that the Legislature is responsible for deciding how schools meet the constitutional standard, and the judiciary is responsible for making sure that they actually meet it.

"Whether districts are exercising discretion in expenditures is not a state matter," argued Solicitor General Ted Cruz. "It is up to the individual district to decide the property tax level and how money is spent."

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said in a written statement he believes House Bill 2 and House Bill 3, the school finance reform legislation currently in the House, will create a fair and constitutionally sound school finance system.

But not all lawmakers in the Legislature feel the same way about the turn school finance is taking. While the court heard arguments Wednesday, lawmakers continued to debate the relevant legislation.

"If we stay on the course we are on now with House Bill 2, we are on a road to nowhere," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, in a written statement.

Turner mentioned he met with several superintendents of school districts in Harris County who said they would rather deal with the Robin Hood Act and what financing they have now rather than deal with HB 2.

Turner explains that the bill mandates changes by the districts, such as teacher pay raises, but doesn't appropriate funds for these actions. Turner also said he is concerned that property tax relief has taken priority over education and argues that one cannot be separated from the other.

"As reluctant as I am to say it, it may be in our children's best interests for us to wait for the Texas Supreme Court to rule in the school finance case, unless the Legislature decides to spend more money on education than what is presently in HB 2," Turner said.

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