Lawsuits put Texas school finance system on trial
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Attorneys representing around 600 school districts argued Monday that Texas' school financing system is so "hopelessly broken" that it violates the state Constitution while keeping students from being prepared for the well-paying jobs of tomorrow.
The state countered that, even though the system is flawed, it's nowhere near a crisis point.
Six lawsuits have been filed on behalf of about two-thirds of school districts, which educate about 75 percent of the state's roughly 5 million students. They have been rolled into a single case which opened before state District Judge John Dietz in Austin. The trial is expected to last into January.
The Texas Constitution guarantees an "efficient system of public free schools," but the plaintiffs say many schools can't provide an adequate education because the way they are funded is inefficient and unfair. Districts in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side in the matter because Texas relies on a "Robin Hood" scheme in which districts with high property values or abundant revenue from oil or natural gas taxes turn over part of what they collect in property taxes to poorer districts.
"The system of school finance, as we see it, is hopelessly broken," said Rick Gray, who represents more than 400 districts mostly in poorer areas of the state. All the plaintiffs "are a united front in our belief that the system is unconstitutional," he said in his opening statement, adding that "the stakes are simply too high to ignore anymore."
The lawsuits were filed after the Legislature cut $4 billion in state funding to schools and another $1.4 billion for grant programs in 2011. The plaintiffs note the money was cut even though Texas' population has boomed and the number of low-income students has skyrocketed. Students from low-income families generally cost more to educate because many require instruction to learn English or participate in costly remedial programs outside the classroom.
Meanwhile, Texas has imposed increasingly more-difficult standardized tests that high school students must pass to graduate. The districts claim that funding cuts have forced them to layoff teachers, increase class sizes and cut back on education programs — all steps that ultimately leave their students less prepared for tougher exams.
"The bar has been raised and yet one hand has been tied behind school administrators' backs," Gray said.
He said experts will testify in coming days that, if current educational trends continue, the earning power of Texas residents forced to settle for low-wage jobs will decline so much that it will cost the state $11 billion in lost tax revenue by 2050.
The state Attorney General's office says that because Texas places great emphasis on local control of its school districts, shortcomings are the fault of individual districts.
Texas funded schools beyond the rate of inflation and enrollment growth between 2006 and 2010, and even with the 2011 cuts, districts still need "to show they are spending their money efficiently," Assistant Attorney General Shelly Dahlberg said.
"Superintendents' wish lists" include items like iPads for students, and districts offer programs, such as sports and extracurricular activities, that aren't required by the state, she said. Dahlberg also noted that districts pay teachers based on seniority, not student performance.
Standardized testing requirements that began last year are being phased in gradually and won't fully be required to graduate at least until 2015, Dahlberg said. She also predicted that "almost every single" superintendent eventually called to testify in the case will concede that they expect their students' test scores to continue improving over time — regardless of funding levels.
"I would suggest that we might have an impending crisis, but today it is not a crisis," Dahlberg said. "And we do not believe the plaintiffs can meet their burden of proof to show that it is."
Legal battles over school finance are nothing new in Texas; the case that began Monday is the sixth of its kind since 1984.
In 1993, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that it took $3,500 per student for schools to meet state standards, a figure which Gray said now equals around $6,600 when adjusted for inflation. But he said only 233 of Texas' 1,024 school districts can raise that amount because of state-imposed caps on how much they can collect in property taxes.
Also, districts considered property-wealthy collect on average about $2,000 more per student per year than those in poorer districts — even though they charge on average 8 cents less per dollar paid by area residents in property taxes. Gray said that works out to a discrepancy of about $64,000 per classroom each year.
Attorneys for other plaintiffs told the judge that it costs more to educate the growing number of students who are poor or don't speak English as a native language.
David Hinojosa, who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that 60 percent of Texas students now receive free or reduced-price lunches at school, and as Texas enrollment grows by 80,000 students per year, as many as 95 percent of those new students are from low-income families.
Mark Trachtenberg, arguing on behalf of mostly property-wealthy districts, noted the state's growing Hispanic population now means roughly one in five students requires extra instruction in English.
"This is not a future crisis," he said, "it is a present crisis."