Attorney Rick Gray, representing more than 400 districts mostly in poorer areas of the state, is congratulated Monday in Austin following a ruling in a consolidated six-lawsuit case contending the school finance system violates the Texas Constitution.
A state district court in Texas has ruled that the way the state funds its public schools is unconstitutional, both because the money is insufficient and because it is not distributed fairly.
After a 12-week trial, Judge John Dietz took only moments to agree with schools that the current funding mechanism violates the state Constitution.
"It was a great relief," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, an organization of some 675 of the school districts arguing that the system is "hopelessly broken."
Texas does not have a state income tax and relies on local property taxes to fund schools. A so-called "Robin Hood" scheme, enacted in 1993 as a result of an earlier lawsuit, requires schools with more resources to share with those in poorer districts.
The current lawsuits were filed by districts in both wealthy and poor areas.
Attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represented nearly 90 school districts in the Texas School Coalition, said that as education funding continues to be cut, even richer schools are unable to meet the increasing academic standards set by the state. In the past two years, money for schools has been slashed by $5.4 billion.
"The former lieutenant governor [Bill Ratliff] said it best: Essentially, school districts are being asked to make bricks without straw," said Trachtenberg, whose coalition includes mostly richer districts. "Schools need money for smaller class sizes, particularly in the earlier grades.
"They need money for remediation in the form of tutoring or after-school programs. They need money to retain and hire quality teachers. They need money to have full-day pre-K programming. These things all cost money."
Advocates say the state has more than enough money in its rainy-day fund to start restoring some of that funding. But Texas state Attorney General Greg Abbott has argued that schools already have adequate funding but are mismanaging it.
Michael Sullivan, with the anti-tax lobbying group Empower Texans, says he agrees.
"I would actually argue that we need more money going into the classroom," Sullivan says, "but I am not so convinced that is the same thing as needing more money period."
The state Constitution also requires schools to be run efficiently, and any fix, Sullivan says, needs to start there.
"We see school districts building a multimillion-dollar football stadium; we've got math teachers being fired while superintendents are taking home record salaries," he says. "We have a superintendent with a press secretary making more than the White House press secretary.
"You know, you have to scratch your head and say, 'Wait and minute — there are screwy priorities,' " he says. "Let's redirect those dollars into the classroom."
An appeal of Judge Dietz's decision is all but certain, and it could be years before the case is ultimately resolved by the Texas Supreme Court.
Plaintiffs such as Wayne Pierce say lawmakers should not wait to act.
"The longer you wait before you fix the system that funds [kids'] education, the more you hurt them," Pierce says. "And if we have to wait two more years before this goes through the full process, there are sophomores in high school right now that will not benefit one day."
Some state lawmakers had already begun making contingency plans, setting aside some money in case they need to increase funding. But even after Monday's ruling, Republican Sen. Kel Seliger — who sits on the state Senate Finance and Education committees — says the debate on the nature of the fix will continue.
"The judge said [the current system] was unconstitutional, but he did not prescribe any remedies," Seliger says. "We're just going to have to come up with a remedy that may not be a preferred one but that it is constitutional.
"And we've been told by the courts before that [we] were going to have to go back to the drawing board. This is pretty much the same situation."
Indeed, this was the sixth lawsuit challenging school funding in Texas since the 1980s; many doubt it will finally end the battle. As one advocate put it, "We've seen lawsuits filed just about every five years, you can set your calendar to it."