Texas Supreme Court Upholds School Funding System

May 13, 2016

From the Texas Tribune – The Texas Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling upholding the state’s public school funding system as constitutional, while asserting it could be better. 

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willett wrote in the court’s 100-page opinion, which asserted that the court’s “lenient standard of review in this policy-laden area counsels modesty.”

“The judicial role is not to second-guess whether our system is optimal, but whether it is constitutional,” the ruling said.

It is the first time the state has won a school finance case. Justices Eva Guzman and Jeff Boyd delivered concurring opinions. 

Two-thirds of Texas school districts sued the state after the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget in 2011. 

Their lawyers argued the state's method of funding public schools was unconstitutional on a variety of grounds — that the Legislature had failed to provide districts with sufficient funding to ensure students meet the state's increasingly difficult academic standards; that big disparities had emerged between property-wealthy and property-poor school districts; and that many school districts were having to tax at the maximum rate just to provide a basic education, meaning they lacked "meaningful discretion" to set rates. That amounts to a violation of a constitutional ban on a statewide property tax. 

In a 2014 ruling, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz — a Democrat — upheld all of those claims, siding with the more than 600 plaintiff school districts.

He ruled against two other parties in the lawsuit that did not represent traditional school districts.

In early 2012, a group representing parents, school choice advocates and the business community filed a suit alleging that the current school finance system is inefficient and over-regulated. The Texas Charter Schools Association also sued the state, arguing that a cap on charter school contracts and charters' lack of access to facilities funding was unconstitutional.

Then-Gov. Greg Abbott appealed Dietz's ruling directly to the state Supreme Court.

During oral arguments Sept. 1, state lawyers asked the court to dismiss or remand the case to a lower court so it may consider changes lawmakers recently have enacted to the state's school finance system. Last year, the Legislature increased public education funding by $1.5 billion and authorized another $118 million for a high quality pre-kindergarten grant program that Abbott championed. 

Before issuing his ruling, Dietz reopened evidence for a four-week period so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature, which restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements.