by KIM HILSENBECK
After months of testimony, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the funding mechanism in place in Texas for public education violates the state’s constitution by not providing enough money to school districts and failing to distribute the money fairly.
Dietz also said that the state’s new demands on accountability and standardized testing, such as the STAAR test and end-of-course exams, means Texas has a duty to provide adequate resources.
“As the economists put it, there is no free lunch. We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t,” Dietz said in his ruling. “However, as the economists point out, there is a cost to acting, namely the tax increase and there is a cost to not acting, namely loss of competitive position.”
Dietz wrote that the problem with education in Texas today is that “we are not producing college and career-ready students.” He relayed an anecdote to opine that Texas could get students up to speed with about a $10 billion increase in public education funding – essentially a tax increase.
His Feb. 4 decision on the school finance case came shortly after the closing arguments from both sides. The defendants were the Texas commissioner of education, the state comptroller of public accounts and the state board of education.
The plaintiffs were more than 600 public school districts across the state, including Hays CISD; the case was comprised of six separate lawsuits. Hays CISD’s lawsuit, filed by the Houston firm Thompson & Horton, was part of the group that included a variety of districts in terms of wealth and diversity.
Hays CISD Board of Trustees President Willie Tenorio said in an email that Hays CISD joined the litigation because the current school funding system violates the state constitution.
“Both property rich and property poor school districts were parties to the lawsuit because the system is unfair to all school districts,” he wrote.
He added that the ruling against the state was as expected.
Tenorio said funding cuts during the last legislative session resulted in cuts to classroom teachers and thereby increased student to teacher ratios in Hays CISD.
“We also cut math and reading intervention teachers, custodians, and truancy officers,” he said.
Yet in September, trustees approved a budget that provided salary raises, higher contributions to employee health care premiums by the district, no staffing cuts and no increase in student-teacher ratios.
Complaints filed against the state included several different issues.
School districts in several of the suits argued that when the 82nd legislature cut school funding by more than $5 billion, it violated the Texas Constitution.
Five of the lawsuits were aligned on the issue of property tax; they argued that by the state leaving school funding decisions up to local districts, those authorities had no choice but to raise taxes to meet minimal education standards, thus creating what the plaintiffs allege is essentially a statewide property tax, which is also not allowed by the state constitution.
Two of the complaints representing poorer districts said the “target revenue” system put in place by the legislature in 2006 resulted in a significant loss of revenue. As a result, some school districts receive a lot of state money to make up the difference, while others receive far less. The plaintiffs say neighboring school districts can have as much as a $7,000 difference in per student spending.
Arguments were also made by various plaintiffs that student enrollment has increased but adequate funding has not kept pace.
That appears to be the case in Hays CISD where enrollment went from about 14,600 in 2010 to 16,470 this school year, yet per student spending decreased each of the last few years from more than $10,600 a year in 2010-20122 to about $9,500 for 2012-2013.
The state argued, however, that because Texas places great emphasis on local control of its school districts, budget shortcomings are the fault of individual districts – not the entire system.
In opening arguments in October, Assistant Attorney General Shelly Dahlberg said that the state funded public schools beyond the rate of inflation and enrollment growth between 2006 and 2010.
Tenorio said Hays CISD is a financially sound district.
“We budget conservatively, and manage our finances well. Also, our tax base is increasing,” he said.
Even with the 2011 cuts, Dahlberg said, “Districts still need to show they are spending their money efficiently.”
Dietz did not agree.
The state is expected to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. This was the sixth case of its kind since 1984.
Dietz is the same judge who heard the 2004 trial on public education funding. His ruling in that case found the previous funding system unconstitutional as well.
His statement this time around said, in part, “Eight years ago…I said that education costs money but that ignorance costs more money.”
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams issued a statement emphasizing that the latest ruling is “simply one step on this litigation’s path.”
“All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court,” he said. “I’m appreciative of the strong case presented by the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the state. The Texas Education Agency will continue to carry out its mission of serving the students and educators across our state.”
Total HCISD spending per student
2009-2010 enrollment as of Jan. 24, 2010 = 14,625 – $10,062
2010-2011 enrollment as of Jan. 24, 2011 = 15,346 – $10,625
2011-2012 enrollment as of Jan. 23, 2012 = 15,898 – $9,997
2012-2013 enrollment as of Jan. 28, 2013 = 16,470 – $9,570
- Judge rules against school finance system 02/14/2013
- School finance trial will make mark on Texas 83rd legislature 01/3/2013
- Schools join suit 12/14/2011