School finance trial resumes in politically charged atmosphere

By Marilyn Tennissen | Jan 28, 2014

The legal fight over how to fund public education in Texas resumed last week in Austin and round two looks to be more politically heated than before.

The State Board of Education, the Texas Education Agency and its commissioner, Michael Williams, were sued by more than 600 of the state’s school districts in 2012 after the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion out of the state’s public education budget during the 2011 legislative session.

Districts suing the state included those that are considered to be “property wealthy” and those that are considered to be “property poor.” All of the lawsuits had a common theme that education in Texas is not adequately funded.

In February 2013, State District Judge John Dietz ruled the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. The trial resumed on Jan. 21 to see if bills passed by the 2013 Legislature will effect his decision.

During the summer, lawmakers added more than $3.4 billion in public school funding – about two-thirds of the funds cut by the 2011 budget.

Opponents say the money doesn’t resolve the basic problems with the school finance mechanism.

House Bill 5 revamped graduation and testing standards. The board is expected to finalize additional graduation requirements under House Bill 5 at their meeting next week.

An education analyst testifying last week said school districts need at least $1,000 more per student to meet minimum standards.

Unlike February 2013, this part of the trial is occurring during a campaign season, with primaries coming up on March 4. School finance and public education standards are among the platform issues of nearly every candidate.

In the race for governor, current Attorney General Greg Abbott is representing the state in the litigation and is also currently the leading Republican candidate. His Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, has used the opportunity to say Abbott is defending the $5 billion in cuts. Davis had filibustered the 2011 budget that enacted the reduction of funds to public education.

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