Texas school finance trial underway in Austin

By Marilyn Tennissen | Oct 23, 2012

AUSTIN – The trial against the system to finance public schools in Texas is underway.

Monday, lawyers for four groups of school districts began their arguments before U.S. District Judge John Dietz in Austin. The districts, representing about 75 percent of Texas students, claim the school funding system in the state is inadequate and inequitable.

“It is not only inadequate, it is irrational, it’s unfair and, most importantly, it’s unconstitutional,” said one of the schools' attorneys Richard Gray, according to the Texas Tribune.

Plaintiffs also claim the school finance system has become a de facto state property tax.

The system, often called a “Robin Hood” plan, requires school districts with high property value or plentiful tax revenue to turn over part of their funds to poorer school districts.

The system was overhauled, but found unconstitutional again in 1991, 1992 and 2005. In 2006, the Legislature cut school property taxes by one-third, and more than $5 billion for school spending and grants were cut in 2011.

 The districts argue that the new standardized tests required for all students and the rising number of low income students cannot be paid for under the cuts.

“If we had a fair funding system we wouldn’t have sued the state,” said David Hinojosa, chief attorney for one of the plaintiff groups, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said to the Amarillo Globe-News. “The state continues to leave many of our most vulnerable students behind, especially low-income and English-language learners, as well as students in low-wealth school districts.”

During opening arguments for the state on Monday, Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlenberg said the education set up is not yet at a crisis point.

Texas Attorney General’s Office puts the blame for the inequalities on the school districts.

“Given the fact that the public education system is founded on local control, success or failure of a school district is necessarily linked to the school district’s own leadership, policies and operations,” the AG’s office wrote in a pretrial brief. "If a local school district fails to provide its students a general diffusion of knowledge, such a result, while unacceptable, does not render the entire public school system unsuitable."

According to the Texas Tribune, Dahlenberg pointed out districts that spend money on classes or extracurricular programs that are not required by the state.

“Ask yourself or the witnesses whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand new facilities,” she said.

Dahlenberg also contends that “wish lists of superintendents are not sufficient evidence that the Legislature has acted arbitrarily.”

The trial is expected to last through January, and the final decision of the outcome will most likely be made by the Texas Supreme Court once again.

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