Though Judge John Dietz issued a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit back in February, he still hasn’t written his full decision yet. That’s because he wanted to see what the Legislature did this session, so he could take it into account in his opinion. Well, the session is over and barring a veto or two, we know what we’ve gotten. How will that affect what Judge Dietz has to say? Probably not that much.
[W]ill a $3.4 billion increase in funding and a sharp reduction in high-stakes testing be enough to sway Dietz and ultimately the Texas Supreme Court?
Closing the chasm between districts may help with the issue of equity. The second issue, adequacy, is hotly contested, as education groups and others note that funding is, at best, where it was four years ago. And lawmakers did little to address the third major component of the case, the ruling that districts are locked into what is essentially an illegal statewide property tax.
Legislative leaders are nonetheless optimistic, while the plaintiff school districts see only a small impact.
“This should influence the final decision that Judge Dietz is going to write,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston. “With the combination of the reduction in STAAR testing and this infusion of cash into our schools, I believe the judge needs to revisit the issue. At the least, it could mean that the state may want to ask to reopen the case.”
In addition to the extra $3.4 billion in the coming two years — which erased a good chunk of the $5.4 billion funding reduction over the past two years — lawmakers also slashed the number of high school end-of-course tests required for graduation.
Instead of 15 exams, students will now have to pass just five — and the tougher tests like chemistry, physics, Algebra II and English III have been jettisoned. The testing requirements were a prominent part of the lawsuit against the state.
Attorney David Thompson, who represents Dallas, Fort Worth and dozens of other school districts, said the Legislature fell far short of what is needed to get the state out of its legal troubles.
“What they did this session was very significant and commendable,” he said, referring to the funding boost. “But you have to remember, it doesn’t even restore what was cut in 2011, not to mention increased costs for schools in the two years since then.”
David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the plaintiff lawyers in the school finance case, said a major problem is that the state hasn’t responded to the needs of lower-income and limited-English students, who cost more to educate.
“All the money that was taken out of the system in 2011 still hasn’t been put back in,” such as funding for the remedial programs that targeted low-achieving students, he noted.
Hinojosa agreed that steering most of the new money to lower- and medium-wealth school districts helps the state’s position on equal funding.
“This is the first time I have seen the Legislature react to its school finance shortcomings without being ordered to do it by the Supreme Court,” said Hinojosa, a veteran of two long-running school finance court fights in Texas.
Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who proposed the original plan to eliminate funding gaps between districts, said the decision “will go a long way” in resolving the argument that the system is inequitable.
“Our lower-wealth districts will be getting a lot more and our higher-wealth districts won’t be getting much at all,” Deuell said. “That has been one of the primary issues in the lawsuit.”
But that still leaves the other major arguments. And in his initial ruling, Dietz seemed most concerned about schools not having enough money to properly educate all students and meet rigorous state standards.
The judge’s point was driven home in the National Education Association’s annual comparison of school spending this spring, which showed that Texas had slipped to 49th among the 50 states and District of Columbia in spending per pupil.
That’s a key point to consider. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments was that the Legislature had increased standards and curriculum requirements on school districts, but had not provided the means to pay for them. The Lege did restore some, though not all, of the funding they cut in 2011, but their response to the standards argument was to reduce the number of tests that students must take, though Rick Perry hasn’t signed those bills yet. Even if he does sign these bills, it’s an interesting question as to whether that was the better approach.
The state will get a chance to make that argument before Judge Dietz writes his ruling.
In a hearing in Dietz’s courtroom Wednesday, lawyers for both the districts and the state said that evidence should be updated following a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers made significant changes to public education policy. The judge asked all parties to return June 19 to present arguments over what the scope of those new hearings should be — including what issues they should cover and logistical questions, like limitations on discovery and other procedural rules.
Dietz warned lawyers against looking at the hearings as “a chance to clean up or make stronger” their arguments during the trial.
“I really think that the consideration is, was there a material change in the circumstances, was there a substantial change in circumstances by reason of” the most recent Legislature, he said.
On Wednesday, Dietz said he was still reviewing and making notes on a “densely packed,” 285-page written opinion, which he has not released and will once again be updated to include the results of the upcoming hearings.
After the hearing, Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer for a group of school districts in the case, said he did not expect the legislative changes — one of which reduces the end-of-course exams that students must take to graduate — to substantially affect the judge’s ruling in favor of the school districts. He said new hearings were necessary to make sure that when the lawsuit reaches the state’s Supreme Court, justices there could issue a decision based on current circumstances.
Note that the briefing deadline is after the sign-or-veto deadline for Rick Perry; the fact that Perry may scotch the extra funding given to schools this year was brought up by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. My guess is that Judge Dietz will still opine that the Legislature has fallen short in many areas. Most school districts still have very little or no leeway in setting property tax rates. Equity is still an issue, and it’s hard to see how adequacy can have been achieved when funding levels are still down from four years ago. Dietz originally said that the Lege might need to come up with an addition $2000 per student per year. That number may be lower now after the regular session, but not by much. See here and here for some background, and EoW, the TSTA blog, and the Trib have more.