School funding has trapped state in cycle of laws and lawsuits; high court to decide whether to scrap or hold

By The SE Texas Record | Sep 8, 2015

AUSTIN – Liberties and rights of Texans depend on general diffusion of knowledge, according to the state Constitution, but its vague requirement of an efficient school system has trapped Texas in a cycle of laws and lawsuits.

Now the Supreme Court must decide whether to uphold current school funding law or scrap it and order the Legislature to write new law.

The Justices heard oral argument from 10 lawyers on Sept. 1, over a Travis County court order declaring current law unconstitutional.

Retired Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson argued in favor of the order on behalf of 82 districts in the Houston and Dallas areas with about 1.8 million students.

He said legislators raised standards and cut funding.

Justice Jeffrey Boyd asked if they could fix that by lowering standards.

“I think that’s what they have done,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said legislators would act if the Court found the law unconstitutional.

“They are crying out for the Court to have them act,” he said.

Justice Phil Johnson predicted litigation over any law the Legislature might pass.

“This is a never ending process,” he said.

Justice Don Willett told state solicitor general Rance Craft, “We seem to lurch from

one lawsuit to another. How should lawmakers dedicate their focus instead of pouring money into the system?”

Craft said, “Funding is no guarantee of better student outcome but that’s the foundation of the case.

“It all traces back to the idea that we can identify an amount of money that will bring efficiency.”

The section of the Constitution on education declares, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the 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 public free schools.”

In 2011, after legislators reduced school funding, groups of school districts and the state charter school association challenged the action in Travis County court.

District Judge John Dietz granted intervention to eight parents acting through the Texas Association of Business, alleging inefficiency not only in funding but also in teaching.

Dietz consolidated the cases and held a bench trial in 2012.

In 2013, before he entered judgment, legislators restored most of the funds they had cut two years earlier.

Dietz held an evidentiary hearing on the impact of the new law last year, and decided the Legislature still hadn’t met its duty.

He declared the school finance system unconstitutionally inadequate, unsuitable and financially inefficient. He found that it could not accomplish a general diffusion of knowledge due to insufficient funding.

Dietz wrote that school districts showed the state made no effort to determine the cost of meeting its standards.

“Property wealthy districts are able to access substantially more funding at all levels of the system,” Dietz wrote.

He wrote that the funding formula inadequately weighted economically disadvantaged students and those learning English.

Dietz denied relief to a group representing six districts in favor of current law. He also denied relief to the charter schools and the parent group.

The state appealed, pleading that the system is efficiently achieving a general diffusion of knowledge.

The charter schools appealed, pleading that they receive $1,000 less per student than school districts and zero for facilities.

“If anyone is entitled to relief in this case, it is the charter schools,” they argued.

The parent group appealed, pleading that taxpayers put tens of billions into the system and no improvement occurred.

They argued that the system encourages “self litigation.”

U.S. Senator Phil Gramm filed a brief as friend of the Court, arguing that money without structural reforms won’t fix the system.

He wrote that the Legislature mandates operating under rules that benefit teachers at the expense of students.

Oral argument packed the Supreme Court chamber and lasted three hours.

Solicitor general Scott Keller asked the Court to hold that this is a political issue.

He said that in 2015, there is no way to address the adequacy of the billions that the Legislature appropriated in 2013.

For the parent group, Craig Enoch said, “There is no correlation between more money and school improvement.”

“Teachers are not evaluated based on student performance,” he said. “Teacher evaluations are confidential and not available to parents.”

Jefferson said this is not the time to abandon judicial review.

“We believe we have proved that the system has failed the Constitution,” Jefferson said.

“This is where the court has done its best work.”

As his time was running out, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said he could continue.

Hecht said, “I’m not as strict as you were.”

For a group of school districts, Marisa Bono of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund said the state provides more advantages to those in advantaged districts.

She said arbitrary decisions of legislators leave districts unable to give low income students the services they need.

“These populations are growing exponentially,” she said.

“These students are not receiving meaningful opportunities to achieve,” she said.

For 442 districts with about 1.3 million students, Richard Gray said, “The face of Texas is changing dramatically.”

He said the state could pay now or pay later in greater costs for social services and prisons and less revenue from retail sales.

“How can a system be suitable that pits rich against poor?” Gray said.

He said the rich oppose more money for the poor because they fear it would mean less for them.

On rebuttal for the parent group, Enoch said, “We have no idea if the next dollar that goes to any school district will bring a different result.”

“One year with a bad teacher is devastating to a child’s education,” Enoch said.

The Justices took it under advisement.

Boyd, former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry, pounded all morning on the meaning of general diffusion of knowledge.

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