Tue, Nov. 29, 2005
We've got our marching orders
By KENT GRUSENDORF
Special to the Star-Telegram
Throughout the Texas Supreme Court's 117-page Nov. 22 ruling on school finance, the message is clear. We must be innovative -- no more "that's the way we've always done it."
The school system must be results-oriented. After all, we are preparing children to run tomorrow's world -- a daunting task, and one that's even more daunting for the ill-prepared. And the system must be efficient -- money well spent rather than just more money.
Now the biggest political obstacle is gone.
Previously, many interest groups were very resistant to solving the problem before first hearing the court's opinion. Some wanted much more money for education; some wanted less. Both sides were convinced that the court would see things their way.
The court has now ruled for the state on all issues except the statewide property tax. The justices rejected the call for huge injections of cash and increased taxes by the school leaders suing the state. Instead, the court repeatedly called for structural changes in the system.
Throughout the opinion, the justices called for change -- e.g., "structural changes, and not merely increased funding, are needed." A recurring message appears to be that the status quo will not solve the problem.
The justices noted that the Legislature can "consider, for example, the improvements in education which could be realized by eliminating gross wastes in the bureaucratic administration of the system."
As with earlier rulings, the court called for consolidation of school districts: With "a proliferation of local districts enormously different in size and wealth, it is difficult to make the result efficient -- meaning 'effective or productive of results ...' "
Consolidation is one of the most difficult and contentious political issues. Yet the court ruling clearly will require serious discussion of this issue.
The court said that the Texas Constitution requires the school system to be "structured, operated, and funded so that it can accomplish its purpose for all Texas children." It also stated that to achieve such a constitutional system, the Legislature "has chosen to use local school districts."
Bottom line: The court has said that every student must be served, and the method to achieve that goal is left to the Legislature; however, the standard of review must be "results-oriented" as opposed to measuring inputs. The justices said that in order to determine if the system is constitutional, "it is useful to consider how funding levels and mechanisms relate to better-educated students."
The court warned that the system "has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education." Earlier in the opinion, the justices said: "Pouring more money into the system may forestall those challenges, but only for a time. They will repeat until the system is overhauled."
The Texas Supreme Court has given us thoughtful and meaningful insight into the legal and constitutional requirements of school finance. As the speaker, lieutenant governor and governor have done in the past, we must continue to make the tough decisions.
Let's find common ground on the amount of new money and make the necessary changes for not merely a temporary fix but a system that works over time. The status quo is not acceptable.
We live in a very competitive global economy. We must restructure our education system with common-sense reforms that work for the benefit of every child, every taxpayer, every Texan.
This ruling is a victory for Texas taxpayers and for Texas students. No longer can some hide behind the curtain of judicial uncertainty. The fog has lifted. We have our road map. We must now finish the job.
State Rep. Kent Grusendorf of Arlington is chairman of the House Committee on Public Education.
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