Marilyn Tennissen Nov. 6, 2012, 10:43am

AUSTIN – A federal judge is now hearing his third week of testimony from experts trying to convince him that the state’s school finance system is inequitable and unconstitutional.

The trial over the funding plan began Oct. 22 in the court of U.S. District Judge John Dietz. More than 600 districts sued the state in six lawsuits, which have been combined into one trial.

One expert, Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, testified for more than six hours. According to the Houston Chronicle, Pierce said the bottom 15 percent of poorer school districts collect almost $2,000 less per student per year than the top 15 percent of the wealthiest districts.

He said the top 15 percent of the wealthiest districts collect an average tax rate of $1.02 per $100 of property value, compared to an average of $1.10 per $100 collected by the poorest districts.

In Texas, the funding system requires wealthy districts to share a part of their tax revenue with schools in poorer areas. But opponents, including Pierce, say the system is not working and the gap between rich and poor districts continues to grow.

Pierce, whose Equity Center is dedicated to increasing state funding for poorer schools, told Dietz that poor school districts would have to raise their tax rate to $1.95 to equal the funding of wealthier districts. But in Texas, it is illegal to raise property taxes above $1.17 per $100.

Another leading education analyst, Lynn Moak, testified that current funding doesn’t support the new standardized tests implemented by lawmakers last year. In 2011, the Texas legislature cut $5.4 billion in education funds, and Moak said $4 billion would need to be restored and an additional $6 billion would be needed each year.

Moak also argued that new performance standards are required for students, but the per-pupil funding needed to meet the standards is being cut.

But the state claims that the funding is adequate and that the poor performance is due to mismanagement at the district level.

Attorneys for the state pointed out that some districts are spending millions on football stadiums and athletic facilities while laying-off teachers. Moak responded that those projects are paid for by bonds, not local property taxes.

The trial is expected to continue through January, and the final decision will likely end up at the Texas Supreme Court.

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