Why is this school finance ruling different from all other school finance rulings? For one thing, it was way more comprehensive.
The changes needed to correct the constitutional violations [Judge John] Dietz identified could comprise the most far-reaching overhaul of education policy the state has enacted in more than 40 years, said Lynn Moak, a school finance veteran who has testified in all six of the school finance lawsuits dating back to 1987.
“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the bill that resolves yesterday’s decision is going to be one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching pieces of legislation that we have seen in the education system certainly over my lifetime,” Moak said.
Dietz’s decision Monday looked much like the court order he issued in 2004, when he heard the previous legal challenge to the school finance system.
At that time, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with Dietz’s finding that the Legislature had effectively imposed a statewide property tax in violation of the constitution. The high court rejected his conclusion that the Legislature had failed to provide adequate resources to meet the state’s academic standards.
This time around, Dietz also declared that the funding differences between school districts are now constitutionally inequitable. He had turned aside that claim from property-poor school districts in 2004.
The funding gap between property-rich and property-poor school districts has grown since the previous case from $965 per student to nearly $1,600, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.
“The facts scream out that there is an equity violation,” said Richard Gray, a lawyer who represented more than 600 property-poor school districts.
The court has said that districts that tax the same must have access to essentially the same amount of funding. It is the state’s constitutional obligation to even out the differences among property-poor districts and their wealthier peers.
The fix implemented after the last lawsuit, which involved freezing the amount of per-student funding each district got, contributed to the inequity problem that Dietz ruled was unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court upholds this, it’s going to be a big effing deal.
On a side note, please read this. The key takeaway:
Bottom line: While the claim that the state has increased spending on public education is technically correct, data from the Legislative Budget Board, which accounts for inflation, shows that state spending has largely flat-lined — even before accounting for the roughly 70,000 students who enter the school system each year.
That was a key aspect of Judge Dietz’s ruling as well. The budget cuts of 2011 exacerbated the problem, but it was a problem even before that. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t gut Judge Dietz’s ruling, it will finally be time to fix this.
Finally, the Chron prints an excerpt of Judge Dietz’s remarks from his ruling.
Finally, I would point out the simple truth: We are in competition with 195 other nations and their economies. If I ask the 20 million Texans who are not in school right now whether they agree that we should have more rigorous and challenging standards for our education systems, what would their answer be? I believe a vast majority of Texas would say “Yes” and that for our students to successfully compete in the future, we must have tougher, higher standards now.
So with this vast majority of Texans in support of higher standards, I now say, “Great, we’re going to have to develop a new curriculum, we have to substantially upgrade our technology in schools, we have to increase training for teachers, we have to hire some new teachers in complex content areas that we will be teaching and we have to provide more tutoring and remediation to our challenging population. We need to have evaluation and accountability to make sure we are meeting our goals concerning these increased standards. Finally, we need some public outreach to make sure the parents buy into this new program. I think we can do all of that for an additional $2,000 per student, or in other words, an additional $10 billion to $11 billion. You support this tax increase, don’t you?”
Suddenly, my vast majority becomes a minority. Now, what I begin to hear from my vast majority is, “You can’t solve the problems of education by throwing money at it.”
As the economists put it, there is no free lunch. We either want the increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t. 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. So, we as a state and as a nation are wrestling with this question of priorities, and our leaders are looking for direction from you, the public.
The full decision will be released later this month. Given the price tag suggested, you can see why most Republicans are eager to appeal this, and not so eager to do anything until the Supreme Court has ruled.