Opening arguments begin today in a school finance lawsuit pitting about 600 school districts, including the Austin Independent School District, against the State of Texas. The legal battle could reshape how money is distributed to classrooms.
The way schools are currently funded in Texas is an intensely complicated set of mathematical formulas that even experts sometimes struggle with. Without wading too deeply into the Texas Education Code, here’s what you need to know about the school finance lawsuit getting started today:
- There are actually six different suits.
- They’ve all been merged into one.
- One of the largest lawsuits was brought by more than 400 low- and middle-income school districts under the Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition.
“Back in 2005 and 2006, in reaction to another lawsuit, our legislators enacted a plan called Target Revenue,” says Charles Dupre, Pflugerville ISD Superintendent and president of the Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. “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 wound up 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. It feels random and capricious,” Dupre says.
But the equity argument is just one of the complaints about school funding in Texas. A plaintiff in another suit, the Texas School Coalition, represents more than sixty school districts. The coalition is 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. And then secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, is that our schools are inadequately funded," Texas School Coalition Executive Director Christy Rome says.
The state has set a goal for students to be college-ready by the time they graduate, but Rome says the money to make that happen has not followed.
There is one other 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. Right now the cap is set at 215.
“Do we have a demonstration of how this dollar translates to the achievement of this child? 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," Enoch says.
Arguments in the school finance case are expected to last about six weeks. But a decision may not come until after the end of the upcoming state legislative session, which starts in January and lasts 140 days. This could mean Texas lawmakers could end up in a special session to deal with whatever the court says they have to fix.