Monday, March 12, 2012

A New Round of School Finance Litigation Underway

The Texas Constitution pays explicit homage to Thomas Jefferson’s educational ideal that the “diffusion of knowledge” is a necessary component of a free society:

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of 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.

Despite this constitutional guarantee of a funded public school system, the Texas Legislature has repeatedly failed to create or maintain a viable school finance framework.

In late 2005, the Supreme Court of Texas warned that the state’s school finance system was “drift[ing] toward constitutional inadequacy.” The governor responded by calling a special legislative session during which state lawmakers enacted a plan to address the issues diagnosed by the Court. In the wake of the economic downturn, however, the continuing deficiencies of the system became clear. The 81st Legislature’s “fix” in 2009 was to plug the multi-billion dollar gap in the public education budget with federal stimulus funds, effectively punting the problem to the next biennium.

Faced with dearth of quick fixes in 2011, the 82nd Texas Legislature again avoided the underlying issues and slashed the public education budget by $5.4 billion. Meanwhile, the Rainy Day Fund—the state’s savings account—contains over $6 billion in idle funds. This legislative evasion has had far-reaching consequences, including teacher layoffs and local attempts to raise property taxes, but many school districts are left with few if any options to raise further revenue because they already taxed at the maximum allowable rate. Moreover, both the legislature and the Texas Education Agency have continued to tighten curriculum and performance standards. For the first time, a new standardized testing scheme expressly aims to “increas[e] postsecondary readiness of graduating high school students,” despite only 1 in 4 high school graduates scoring above the state-defined threshold for college readiness on the SAT or ACT. For a state that seems to be yearning for a Santorum candidacy, these new standards would appear to be the height of snobbery.

While the combination of budget reductions and stringent standards may have been enough to send the system into a tailspin, districts have also had to contend with a ballooning and increasingly diverse student population. The number of school-aged children has grown at four times the national rate over the past decade, and 60% of all students now come from economically disadvantaged households. School districts simply can’t keep up.

All of this has triggered a new round of potentially historic litigation. To date, four major lawsuits have been filed by various coalitions of schools. Two of these involve mostly property-poor districts represented by MALDEF and Equity Center. Another suit was filed by a group of property-rich districts. The fourth and arguably most significant case includes a diverse collection of plaintiff districts that collectively represent more than 1.5 million Texas children, including some of the largest districts in the state. This suit was recently joined by another plaintiff group of pro-charter school parents.

Fundamental change to the school finance system is long overdue. Many of the issues in these cases were previously addressed by the Supreme Court yet failed to be remedied by the legislature. The various plaintiffs represent a substantial swath of the state’s school districts and bridge the demographic rifts that often divide the legislature—urban/rural, rich/poor, etc. At this point, Texas lawmakers have established an unmistakable record of failing to revamp the system with any lasting measure of change. It is therefore incumbent upon the Supreme Court to heed the lessons of the past and issue the strongest possible mandate on the legislature to address this crisis with a qualitatively significant overhaul of public school financing.

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