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School finance retrial wraps

We’re back where it all began.

The Texas Legislature failed to bridge funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts despite partial restoration of funds that were cut, lawyers representing schools told a state district judge Friday.

“They have put a Band-aid on a Band-aid on a Band-aid,” said Rick Gray, attorney for the Texas Taxpayer Student Fairness Coalition, during closing arguments in the second phase of a school finance trial. “We have a constitutionally and fundamentally broken system, and it’s time that that be repaired and be repaired on a non-Band-aid approach.”

State lawyers countered that previous actions have addressed the plaintiffs’ concerns and the system is constitutional.

Hundreds of schooldistricts sued the state in 2012 after the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public school funding during the 2011 session.

State District Judge John Dietz ruled the finance system unconstitutional last February. He reopened the trial in January to examine the effects of House Bill 5, an overhaul of the state’s graduation standards passed by the Legislature in 2013, and the state’s new biennial budget, which injected about $3.4 billion back into the school finance system.

Dietz could rule by mid-March.

It remains the case that public education is down $2 billion from the 2009 budget, and that’s before factoring in enrollment growth. It remains the case that many property-poor districts receive far less money per pupil than many property-rich districts despite having a higher property tax rate. It remains the case that the state of Texas thinks everything is hunky dory, just as it was in 2011 after $5.4 billion had been cut from public ed. And it remains the case that it will ultimately be the State Supreme Court that settles this. Assuming there isn’t a settlement, of course.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, called on her likely Republican opponent Monday to use his power as Texas attorney general to settle a massive school finance lawsuit instead of defending the troubled funding system in court.

“Attorney General Greg Abbott continues to defend the indefensible,” the Fort Worth Democrat said at an Austin news conference. “He’s wasting time and taxpayer money on a frivolous lawsuit that hurts Texas.”

[...]

Davis said Monday that Abbott should have instructed the Legislature last year how to avoid the litigation. She said lawmakers could have avoided cuts that she said caused teacher layoffs, increased classroom sizes and led to the elimination of vital programs.

“As our lawyer, it was Greg Abbott’s job to come and work with the Legislature to stave off yet another lawsuit. We knew that this lawsuit was coming,” Davis said. “And yet Greg Abbott remained silent.”

The Davis campaign distributed a memo outlining past cases in which the state settled litigation, ranging from prison overcrowding issues to redistricting. It was written by Dave Richards, who has been tangling with Texas in court for decades on issues including civil rights and voting rights. (Richards is the ex-husband of the late Gov. Ann Richards).

“Texas’ Constitution and case-law provide clear precedent that establishes the attorney general’s discretionary power to settle cases,” Richards wrote. “Based on precedent, past actions and any informed interpretation of law, it is absolutely within the power of the attorney general to settle cases of this nature.”

Davis was asked during the news conference how Abbott would settle a case that ultimately requires legislative action. She said he should advise lawmakers, probably in a special session, to consider changes to the complicated school finance system.

I don’t think that would be terribly complicated, but it ain’t gonna happen. As has always been the case, Texas will have to be forced to do what is right. My guess is that Judge Dietz will rule in substantially the same was as he did last January, which is to say in favor of the plaintiffs on all counts. This time he’ll release a full opinion, which will be for the Supreme Court to suss out. Just keep in mind that if the ruling I think Dietz will deliver is upheld, the Legislature is going to have to find billions of dollars more for public education. Who do you trust as Governor to work with the Legislature to do that? The Observer and BOR have more.

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