Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Equity in Texas school funding returns to fore in court

I'm gearing up for next week's opening hearings.  This is a nice overview of the issue.  Also check out IDRA's "Fair Funding for the Common Good" website.  Another good resource is the Texas Tribune's article, "How to Navigate Texas' School Finance System".

Very honored to be a part of these historical battles and look forward to keeping folks updated.


Arguments begin Oct. 22 in sweeping school finance trial involving two-thirds of Texas school districts.

American-Statesman Staff
More than 135 years ago, state leaders etched into the Texas Constitution a commitment for the Legislature to provide an “efficient system of public free schools.” Those words have bedeviled their successors ever since.

Public education was “the most important yet the most difficult question that has or will come before us,” said one attendee at the constitutional convention in 1875, where they struggled with how to raise money for schools and apportion it across a vast and diverse state.

“They were talking kids, taxes, class and race,” said Albert Kauffman, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who litigated a seminal Texas school finance case.
And they still are.

Beginning Oct. 22 in a Travis County courtroom, lawyers representing about two-thirds of Texas’ school districts — which combined educate three-quarters of the state’s 5 million students — will argue that the Legislature has once again failed to meet its constitutional obligations.
At the center of Texas’ protracted battle over school finance is whether the state is providing more than 1,000 ethnically and economically diverse school districts what they need to ensure students are getting the constitutionally required “general diffusion of knowledge” needed to succeed in the 21st century economy.

“It looks to me like this is the granddaddy of all these cases,” state District Judge John Dietz said during a preliminary hearing this summer. “We’ve got every topic that’s ever been discussed.”
Six different groups have sued the state over a laundry list of potential violations, and many of the legal complaints overlap. The issue of “constitutional efficiency” — equity — has emerged as one key issue that divides the different coalitions of school districts. In short, can a poor school district access roughly equal amounts of money to educate students as a rich district?

The fundamental question about equity dates back to a 1984 lawsuit that for the first time successfully challenged the constitutionality of Texas’ school finance system.

Because Texas relies heavily on local property taxes to pay for schools, plaintiffs from the Edgewood school district in San Antonio argued that huge disparities in spending had emerged because of differences in communities’ property tax bases.

The wealthiest school districts — those rich in oil, natural gas and other resources as well as tony residential enclaves — were by and large taxing less than were poor districts. But they were able to spend on average $2,000 more per student because they had much higher property values. Spending across the state ranged from $2,100 to more than $19,300 per student and at least one of the poorest districts did not have the resources to offer instruction in chemistry, physics or any foreign languages.
In a landmark 1989 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that “children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts must be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds.”

For the state’s school finance system to be efficient, the court explained later, “citizens who were willing to shoulder similar tax burdens should have similar access to revenue for education.”
“For the poor districts, it was the greatest quantum leap in equality when the court finally came down on our side,” said Kauffman, who represented the Edgewood plaintiffs as a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

It took the Legislature several tries to craft a system that met constitutional muster. The final outcome pumped more state money into schools, obligated the state to supplement local taxes in poorer school districts and required property-wealthy school districts to share some of their riches with the poor school districts — a provision commonly referred to as Robin Hood.

Over the next decade, disparities crept back into the school finance system, some school districts argued before the Supreme Court in 2005. The justices, however, did not uphold that claim of inequity. Instead, they found the system unconstitutional because the Legislature by imposing caps on local property tax rateshad effectively enacted a statewide property tax, which the constitution explicitly prohibits.

The Legislature’s remedy for that lawsuit, however, made the situation worse for districts on the low-end, they say in the current lawsuit.

In a 2006 special legislative session, lawmakers reduced local school property tax rates by one-third and dedicated more state money to the schools to replace the local money. So that no district suffered as they rebalanced the share of state and local dollars, legislators temporarily froze districts at the amount of per-student funding they were spending at the time and planned to implement a long-term solution the next year.

But the freeze was never lifted. There was no appetite in 2007 to dive back into school finance after years of tortured debate over the issue, and the problems with the temporary system were not immediately evident to legislators.

For some districts, the freeze came at a bad time. Pflugerville, for example, was in the middle of a growth spurt and a leadership change and had yet to invest in the programs needed to serve the districts burgeoning population of low-income students and English-language learners. Yet the district was locked at a low level of funding.

Compared with neighboring Round Rock, Pflugerville gets about $720 less per student. If funded at the higher level, Pflugerville would have an additional $19 million a year in its $160 million budget — or nearly 12 percent more, Superintendent Charles Dupre said.

There is no rational policy reason for the difference, said Dupre, who is also president of a coalition of more than 430 school districts that are advancing theequity argument.

“Pflugerville has always been fiscally lean. We have never had fluff or waste in our budget,” Dupre said. “Since 2006, we have been living in a stressful, perpetual state of budget reduction. … When they set in stone the target revenue, they basically codified inequity in our system.”

Past court rulings have found a $600 funding gap to be “minimally acceptable,” but the funding disparities now have increased by two and three times that amount, according to MALDEF, which is representing one of the plaintiff groups. Funding now ranges from about $4,000 per student to more than $12,000.

School districts with the most wealth have the most to lose, and they are making a different argument against the current finance system. They have avoided the equity argument in their briefs because of concerns that the potential remedy would probably hurt them without helping the overall public education system, lawyer Mark Trachtenberg said.

“To focus on equity doesn’t really capture the real problem with the current system,” Trachtenberg said. That problem, he said, is inadequate funding: The Legislature is asking districts to get students to ever-higher levels of academic performance without providing them sufficient resources to do so.
“We are making claims that, if successful, will benefit all districts,” said John Turner, another lawyer representing the property-wealthy school districts.

From the state’s perspective, the bar is quite low in order to meet the constitutional standard for equity. The school finance system is significantly more equitable than it was when the court originally deemed it unconstitutional in 1989; thus it is not “inefficient as a constitutional matter,” the state’s lawyers argue in a brief.

A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would not comment beyond its brief.

It’s doubtful that the current litigation will lead to an end of the century-old battle over school finance, experts say.

Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, said a school finance system needs regular tweaking because the demographics, economics and expectations of education evolve, particularly in a growing state such as Texas.

“All of these things are out there, and you will never get a final permanent solution to your school funding issue,” Griffith said. “It will always be there because society always changes.”
Capitol staff writer Kate Alexander began covering education issues 10 years ago in Williamson County. She has spent the past four years reporting on the legislative battles over education spending.

Texas school finance court battles

1876: Texas Constitution adopted. It states: A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

1984: Edgewood school district files suit claiming Texas’ public school finance system violates the state constitution because it is inequitable, failing to provide an “efficient” system of schools.

1989: Texas Supreme Court finds the system unconstitutional. Over the next few years, several different Edgewood-related cases head back to the court as the Legislature tries and fails to craft a response that passes constitutional muster.

1993: Legislature adopts a share-the-wealth system commonly referred to as “Robin Hood.”

1995: Texas Supreme Court upholds the school finance system as constitutional.

2001: A small group of property-wealthy school districts sue the state arguing that a state-imposed tax rate cap had effectively become a statewide property tax, which is prohibited by the constitution. The case was dismissed.

2002: Texas Supreme Court reverses the dismissal. Nearly 300 other school districts join the case and expand the arguments to claim the system is inequitable and does not provide adequate resources.

2005: Texas Supreme Court finds the school finance system unconstitutional only on the statewide property tax claim.

2011: Four separate plaintiff groups representing two-thirds of Texas school districts sue the state, making sweeping arguments that the school finance system is unconstitutional.

2012: Two other groups representing charter school interests join the lawsuit.

Oct. 22, 2012: Trial set to begin in Travis County.
Per-student funding in Austin area districts

In 2006, the Legislature froze per-student funding for school districts, which exposed significant differences among neighboring districts. Those inequities are part of the school finance litigation.
Granger | $4,990
Pflugerville | $5,264
Hutto | $5,504
San Marcos | $5,781
Round Rock | $5,981
Wimberley | $6,022
Austin | $6,101
Eanes | $6,347
Jarrell | $6,641
Source: Texas Education Agency data compiled by the Equity Center

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