Arguments Begin in School Finance Suit
Opening arguments begin today in a school finance lawsuit pitting about 600 school districts against the state of Texas. The legal battle could reshape how money is distributed to classrooms.
There are actually six different suits that have all been merged into one. One of the largest lawsuits was brought by more than 400 low- and middle-income school districts under the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. Pflugerville ISD superintendent Charles Dupre is the president of the coalition.
“Back in 2005 and 2006, in reaction to another lawsuit, our legislators enacted a plan called Target Revenue,” Dupre said. “And essentially what they did at that time, is they enacted what was intended to be a temporary measure that basically said whatever you’re funded right now, we’re freezing it at that level.”
Target Revenue was part of a plan to reduce local school district property taxes by a third. But the end result is that some school districts were locked in with a lot more funding per-student than others. Here’s one example: Pflugerville gets about $700 less per student than Round Rock ISD, which is just down the highway.
“It’s not fair, and it’s not rational,” Dupre said. “It feels random and capricious.”
But the equity argument is just one of the complaints against school funding in Texas. A plaintiff in another suit, the Texas School Coalition, represents more than sixty school districts. Executive director Christy Rome says they are making two claims.
“The first of which is that our current system has become a de facto statewide property tax, and therefore we have no local, or very limited local control over the funding,” Rome said. “And then secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, is that our schools are inadequately funded.”
The state has set a goal that students be college-ready when they graduate, but Rome says the money to make that happen has not followed.
So far, we have addressed three main complaints: local control over property taxes, the equity of funding and the adequacy of funding. But there is one more complaint. A group representing charter schools and business interests says money is not being spent efficiently. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch is co-counsel on the case and says plaintiffs are hoping to have the state lifts its cap on the number of charter schools, which right now is set at 215.
“Do we have a demonstration of how this dollar translates to the achievement of this child?” Enoch said. “When that proof is put there, then I think everything else starts falling into place. We just don’t want the litigation to skip what we think is a necessary step.”
Arguments in the school finance case are expected to last about six weeks. But a decision might not come until after the end of the upcoming state legislative session, which starts in January and lasts 140 days. That could mean lawmakers would have to be called back to the capitol for a special session and deal with whatever the court says they have to fix.