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School finance dispatches

Some bad news for the state in the school finance lawsuit.

State District Judge John Dietz directed state attorneys Wednesday to redo a key study that underestimated the funding advantages of higher-wealth school districts — a blow to the state’s arguments in a school finance lawsuit that current differences among districts are insignificant.

Dietz asked that the study be corrected after attorneys for school districts suing the state cited multiple miscalculations in the report. It was offered as evidence by the state to show that the funding gap between higher-wealth and other districts has diminished in the last six years.

Rick Gray, an attorney for one of the plaintiff groups, said the gap has actually increased more than 50 percent during the period. The 152 wealthiest districts in Texas have $1,671 per student more to spend than the rest of school districts.

In a class of 22 students, that amounts to an extra $37,762 per year.

[...]

One big mistake in the state study was that it counted twice the amount of revenue that higher-wealth districts had to surrender last year under the “Robin Hood” provisions of school funding law. That miscalculation artificially reduced the funding levels for higher-wealth districts listed in the study.

Gray said the gap between wealthy and other districts actually increased from $1,084 in 2006 to $1,671 in 2012 — unlike the original study, which showed the gap decreased during the period. He also said that tax rates were 1.3 cents lower in higher-wealth districts in 2006, but 9.8 cents less in 2012.

Gray then asked [Lisa Dawn-Fisher of the Texas Education Agency] about wide funding disparities among school districts located in the same county.

One example was in Dallas County, where the Irving school district has a slightly higher tax rate than the Highland Park district, but receives $1,615 less per student than Highland Park. That difference means an extra $35,530 per classroom in Highland Park.

“Is there any reason to justify that kind of funding difference?” Gray asked.

That’s a critical question for the part of the lawsuit that focuses on inequity. I don’t think there’s a good answer to Gray’s question, but we’ll see what the state has to say. My suspicion is that they won’t directly rebut the point but will simply argue that there’s no proof the disparity makes that much difference.

The lawsuit is also about adequacy, which is to say the claim that the state is not providing enough money for the standards and requirements it mandates. To that end, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst expects the state will need to pony up, though not just yet.

Given the state’s $8.8 billion surplus—a relative bonanza compared to the rough situation during last legislative session—will the Legislature share some of that bounty with the schools?

Dewhurst doesn’t seem to be thinking in those terms. Instead, he told the Observer, he’s concerned that if legislators aren’t careful, that excess money will quickly run out.

“Well, we knew our economy was rebounding from the recession, so my advice to people is don’t get greedy,” Dewhurst said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in a year or two from now, but we need to leave some savings in the Rainy Day Fund.”

Dewhurst said it’s imperative that the state set aside money, since so many districts are suing for more money in the funding system. “I would expect the odds are that whatever the courts decide will mean more money that the state will put in,” he said, suggesting the state needs to budget for the likelihood of a court-mandated funding system that’s more expensive. “I think it’s imperative that we set aside some money to go ahead and cover that decision.”

Not really clear what that means. It’s consistent with the idea of at least restoring the funds needed to cover enrollment growth, but it’s also consistent with the idea of being as penurious as possible. Why pay now if you have to pay later, right? The Trib goes into some more detail.

Dewhurst said the Senate’s base budget, which will be proposed next week, will include “$88 or $89 billion” in general revenue spending. He said the budget would include enough funding to account for growth in entitlement programs and public school enrollment, but said it would be based on the current public education budget and not on education spending patterns before budget cuts two years ago. A loud chorus of education groups and Democratic lawmakers has called for restoring the last session’s school cuts as well as increasing the budget to account for the state’s population growth, a task that would require an $108 billion budget, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Austin.

The supplemental appropriations bill, needed to cover spending in the current budget, will initially total about $5.2 billion, Dewhurst said. That includes $4.5 billion to carry the state’s Medicaid program through the end of the year, with the balance being spent on health care in the state’s prison system and on money Texas unexpectedly spent fighting wildfires. It doesn’t include $1.9 billion to offset a public education payment delayed into the next fiscal year to balance the budget; Dewhurst said that would be included in the next two-year budget instead of in the supplemental bill.

Ongoing school finance lawsuits have prompted predictions that lawmakers will have to punt on public education funding until the suit is resolved later this year. Dewhurst said he wants lawmakers to prepare for a ruling that requires the Legislature to put more money into schools by putting some money aside in the current budget for that purpose.

“Based on my experience in 2006, in which the courts came back and said we needed to put several billion dollars more in public education. … I’m saying it would be wise to leave some money,” he said.

If lawmakers don’t plan ahead, the extra funding that the courts may mandate might force lawmakers to break the state’s spending cap, a move that requires support of four-fifths of lawmakers. Crossing such a hurdle would be difficult, if not impossible, Dewhurst said.

“We’re not going to have a lot of room,” he said. “If the courts require us to break the spending cap, I want everybody to realize that or we’re not going to get the [required] four-fifths vote.”

Perhaps the court should include a provision in its ruling that allows for the incarceration of any legislator who prevents complying with its order. Regardless, given all this and Dewhurst’s desire to tackle water and transportation issues as well, I hope he expresses similar reservations about tax cuts until we know what the courts say about school finance. Wouldn’t be prudent to cut a bunch of taxes and then have to go searching for more revenue to fulfill the court’s order, would it?

On the other hand, while there may not be much appetite to restore funding for things like classroom instruction, libraries, or science labs, we may get funding for weapons training for teachers. Boo yah!

Finally, this AP story says that Rep. Lon Burnam has filed a bill to restore all of the $5.4 billion cut from the state’s public schools in 2011. However, I can’t find any such bill at this time, and neither a press release from Rep. Burnam’s that lists his opening day bills nor this report detailing the impact of the education cuts mentions such a thing. I’m sure there will be such a bill filed, whether by Rep. Burnam or someone else, but as far as I can tell Rep. Burnam has not done so yet.

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