Dietz says Texas school funding is unconstitutional — again

By Marilyn Tennissen | Aug 28, 2014

State District Judge John Dietz has declared that the system used to fund public schools in Texas is unconstitutional, the same ruling he made on the subject more than a year ago.

Dietz is presiding over the trial stemming from suits filed by hundreds of the public school districts in Texas three years ago. He has already ruled that the $5.4 billion in cuts from the state’s public school funding made the finance system unconstitutional. But some of that funding has been restored and the recent legislature approved new testing standards, so Dietz reopened the case earlier this year.

More than 600 school districts — almost two-thirds of the districts in Texas — sued the state claiming the Legislature failed to live up to its duty to provide an “efficient system of public free schools.”

The districts sued after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from the budget. At the same time, the state instituted a rigorous new student assessment and accountability system.

The case went to trial in Dietz’s court on Oct. 22, 2012. After 12 weeks of testimony, Dietz upheld all the major claims by the school districts that the system was unconstitutional.

Dietz said that the state does not adequately or efficiently fund public schools and that it has created an unconstitutional de-facto property tax in shifting the burden of paying for them to the local level.

He also found there was a gap in the funding between wealthy districts and poorer ones, and that the state failed to provide resources to prepare students for the new standardized tests.

Dietz verbally made his ruling in February 2013, but waited to issue a written decision. A few months later, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion to schools and slashed the number of required standardized tests.

Despite the changes, Dietz still found that the state fails to provide adequate funding or distribute it fairly among school districts in wealthy and poor areas.

The state will probably appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. If the high court rules against the state again, it would be up to the Legislature to create a new funding method.

Earlier this summer, Dietz himself came under scrutiny over emails he had been exchanging with plaintiffs’ attorneys in the school funding case. The state argued that Dietz was showing bias to the plaintiffs, and asked that he be removed from the case.

A regional judge looked into the matter, and did not find any evidence that the emails were prejudicial but were routine questions on matters of law. The judge ruled June 24 that Dietz was allowed to stay on the case.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, Democratic candidate for governor, said Dietz’ decision was a “victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that's at the core of who we are as Texans.”

In a press release, she said insiders like Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, her Republican challenger for governor in the November general election, have not been working for the schools, but “actively working against them.”

Davis claims she led the fight against the $5.4 billion in education cuts in 2011, and filibustered that the budget shortchanged Texas children.

“Abbott has been in court for years, defending overcrowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and public-school closings, and today, Judge John Dietz ruled against him,” Davis said. “This ruling underscores the crucial need to invest in education and reminds us of just how much our schools, teachers and students have had to sacrifice over the past three years just to get by."

But Abbott has laid out his plans as governor to address the school funding issue.

According to a new posting Aug. 28 on Abbott’s campaign website, he proposes increased funding for schools that adopt “Gold Standard” Pre-K 4 programs, provide new instructional resources to ensure students are reading and doing math on grade level by 3rd grade, restore genuine local  control to school districts, empowering parents and providing expanded access to virtual courses.

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