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School finance lawsuit starts today

Ready or not, the latest school finance lawsuit, which Judge John Dietz has called “the granddaddy of them all”, begins today in Travis County. The Statesman takes a look at the history of school finance and associated litigation, and how we got here.

In a 2006 special legislative session, lawmakers reduced local school property tax rates by one-third and dedicated more state money to the schools to replace the local money. So that no district suffered as they rebalanced the share of state and local dollars, legislators temporarily froze districts at the amount of per-student funding they were spending at the time and planned to implement a long-term solution the next year.

But the freeze was never lifted. There was no appetite in 2007 to dive back into school finance after years of tortured debate over the issue, and the problems with the temporary system were not immediately evident to legislators.

For some districts, the freeze came at a bad time. Pflugerville, for example, was in the middle of a growth spurt and a leadership change and had yet to invest in the programs needed to serve the districts burgeoning population of low-income students and English-language learners. Yet the district was locked at a low level of funding.

Compared with neighboring Round Rock, Pflugerville gets about $720 less per student. If funded at the higher level, Pflugerville would have an additional $19 million a year in its $160 million budget — or nearly 12 percent more, Superintendent Charles Dupre said.

There is no rational policy reason for the difference, said Dupre, who is also president of a coalition of more than 430 school districts that are advancing theequity argument.

“Pflugerville has always been fiscally lean. We have never had fluff or waste in our budget,” Dupre said. “Since 2006, we have been living in a stressful, perpetual state of budget reduction. … When they set in stone the target revenue, they basically codified inequity in our system.”

Past court rulings have found a $600 funding gap to be “minimally acceptable,” but the funding disparities now have increased by two and three times that amount, according to MALDEF, which is representing one of the plaintiff groups. Funding now ranges from about $4,000 per student to more than $12,000.

School districts with the most wealth have the most to lose, and they are making a different argument against the current finance system. They have avoided the equity argument in their briefs because of concerns that the potential remedy would probably hurt them without helping the overall public education system, lawyer Mark Trachtenberg said.

“To focus on equity doesn’t really capture the real problem with the current system,” Trachtenberg said. That problem, he said, is inadequate funding: The Legislature is asking districts to get students to ever-higher levels of academic performance without providing them sufficient resources to do so.

“We are making claims that, if successful, will benefit all districts,” said John Turner, another lawyer representing the property-wealthy school districts.

And you thought early voting was the biggest thing going on this week. The stakes here cannot be overstated. We won’t have a final answer until the Supreme Court has its say, but there’s an awful lot hanging in the balance for them.

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