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Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education

School finance retrial starts today

Back in the saddle again.

A fight over the state’s controversial school funding system is headed back to court Tuesday before the same judge who declared it unconstitutional nearly a year ago, with state lawyers hoping they can persuade him that an infusion of new money and other legislative remedies have restored the requisite measure of equity to Texas’ classrooms.

But Judge John K. Dietz must also weigh arguments from attorneys representing hundreds of cash-strapped Texas school districts, who contend that $3.9 billion in education funding restored by the Legislature last year – still a billion and a half dollars less than the $5.4 billion cut in 2011 – has fallen far short of attaining the educational standards required by the state constitution. Dietz ruled in February 2012 that Texas did not adequately or equitably fund public schools. The 2011 funding cuts, he found, violated the constitution by preventing school district from exercising “meaningful discretion” in setting local tax rates.

The trial is expected to last up to four weeks.

See herer, here, and here for the previous entries. Everybody knows this is going to go back to the Supreme Court. The question is whether Judge Dietz buys the state’s arguments that the partial restoration of funds cut from 2011 plus the scaling back of standardized testing puts the finance system back into compliance, however temporary. For various and in most cases obvious reasons, the school districts as well as the poseurs at Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, who think the problem is too much money, don’t agree. I don’t either, but we’ll see what Judge Dietz thinks.

From the “Anyone can call themselves an expert” department

Now see, this is what happens when you go soliciting expert witnesses on Craigslist

Bloom County was awesome

Joseph Bast, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, is a witness for Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, or TREE, a group led by former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf that is not a plaintiff but was permitted by state District Judge John Dietz to present testimony.

Bast said a taxpayer savings grant program similar to education vouchers would benefit low-income families who could put grant money toward paying for private school tuition.

“If you’re low-income, you’re pretty much trapped in the public school that’s in your direct area,” he said.

Bast estimated that such a grant program would spur about 6 percent of students in Texas public schools to move to private schools, a number he arrived at by evaluating similar programs, including the now-defunct CEO Horizon voucher program in San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District.

He said the state saves $7,750 each time a child leaves the public system and, therefore, “the program actually benefits the public schools.” He estimated the annual savings would be about $2 billion.

The state’s previous failure to act on such a proposal “is evidence of the inefficiency of public schools,” Bast said.

[…]

Questioned by Maribel Hernández Rivera, an attorney for one of the plaintiff groups represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Bast acknowledged that he has not graduated from college and holds no degrees in economics, though he considers himself an economist.

He also said neither of two reports he co-authored, which were entered into evidence, had been peer-reviewed.

David Thompson, attorney for another group of school districts, later pointed out that the Legislative Budget Board concluded that the taxpayer savings grant proposal would cost the state money in its first two years of operation. Bast acknowledged that he and the budget board arrived at different conclusions on this point.

“To your knowledge, no government entity in the state of Texas has ever agreed with your analysis of savings, is that correct?” Thompson asked.

“Apparently,” Bast replied.

I figure civil litigators live for these sort of “Perry Mason” moments. I really don’t think I can add anything else to that.

TREE lawsuit may proceed with the other school finance suits

We will have one big school finance lawsuit, not multiple separate suits.

State District Judge John Dietz ruled on Tuesday that the claims from Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a group of charter school supporters and parents, belong in the lawsuit. The decision ensures that case will proceed to trial on Oct. 22.

The group, referred to as TREE, argues that the current cap on new charter schools stifles competition and maintains that large swaths of the education code foster waste and inefficiency in traditional public schools.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing one of the six groups of plaintiffs, petitioned to remove TREE, asserting that its concerns are political issues that need to be addressed by the Legislature, not constitutional issues that must be decided by the courts.

MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa said on Tuesday that TREE had “cherry-picked” elements of the education code with which its leaders disagree politically, and it was asking the court to “redesign the system of education to suit their specific needs.” Those elements include minimum salary requirements and certain job protections for teachers.

Dietz, however, said TREE was not asking the court to impose its own judgment over that of the Legislature. Rather, TREE wants him to review components of the education system that it believes to be unconstitutional.

MALDEF was the only plaintiff to contest TREE’s presence in the lawsuit. Texas Politics notes that TREE still has some homework to do.

In his ruling, the judge noted that Enoch and his party “have not asked the court to dictate a particular course of action. (They) asked the court to review different aspects of the public school system to determine if they meet the constitution.”

Hinojosa argued that [TREE lawyer Craig] Enoch’s side, which includes parents and the Texas Association of Business, don’t have a legal standing in the case.

Dietz disagreed.

“The court can certainly concede that Texas parents and business owners are and will be injured by a public school system that fails to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge,” the judge said.

He did instruct Enoch to clean up his pleading to specifically explain how his clients could be injured in an unconstitutional school funding system.

Failure to fix that issue will allow the judge to dismiss them from the case, Hinojosa said later.

TREE has its own agenda and should not be trusted. The trial begins October 22. Mark your calendars.

One more thing, from the Statesman story:

Research released on Tuesday from Pennsylvania State University education professor Ed Fuller showed that fifth- and sixth-graders entering high-performing charter schools already had higher reading and math scores than their peers in traditional public schools. Fuller said that difference might explain why some charter schools register better achievement scores when compared with traditional public schools.

In addition, Fuller noted that charter schools also enrolled far fewer students with special needs, such as those learning English or who have disabilities.

“This simply makes it easier for a school to claim success as well as for a school to operate efficiently and effectively since students are more homogeneous and have fewer needs,” wrote Fuller, a former University of Texas researcher.

The study was commissioned by the Texas Business and Education Coalition in advance of a state Senate committee hearing Friday on the issue of charter schools and school choice.

That ought to add some fuel to the debate fires. As noted yesterday, the Harmony schools spend a lot less money than the traditional public schools do on such students. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of tomorrow’s hearing.

How long will those school finance lawsuits take?

That depends in part on whether they all get heard together or not.

The massive lawsuit over the state’s method of financing schools, scheduled for trial beginning Oct. 22, could continue into January if two challenges by charter schools are included in the case, District Judge John Dietz said Wednesday.

First, however, Dietz will hold a July 24 hearing to decide whether one of the charter school challenges should be excluded — or at least limited — in the overall lawsuit, a compilation of five separately filed lawsuits.

MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, opposes the inclusion of what it calls “political” portions of a lawsuit filed by a pro-charter-school organization — particularly the group’s attempt to remove a state cap limiting the number of charter schools to 215.

That matter is a policy question for the Legislature, not the courts, MALDEF contends.

Lawyers for the charter group, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, disagree. On Wednesday, they advised Dietz that if he rules against them, they will appeal and seek to delay the trial until their appeals are exhausted, prompting the judge to urge all sides to schedule a hearing as soon as possible to avoid postponing the October trial date.

“I don’t want any delay,” Dietz said during an informal conference in his Austin courtroom.

Great, another hostage situation. The TREE plaintiffs have different objectives than the other plaintiffs, and I think MALDEF’s point about their issues being for the Lege to decide and not a court is a strong one. If they’re going to pitch a fit because the other kids don’t want to play with them, there’s not much that can be done about it. The other charter school lawsuit is a better fit and seems to have drawn no objections from the other plaintiffs. If all goes more or less as expected, Judge Dietz will rule next year while the Lege is in session, and the Supreme Court will have its say before the 2014 election. That ought to liven up that campaign.

A cheat sheet for the school finance lawsuits

The Trib has a useful guide to the six (so far!) lawsuits that have been filed over school finance.

Texas’ latest round of school finance litigation adds some new players to the courtroom, with interests that are more varied than ever before. We’ve created a cheat sheet to help you keep all six lawsuits — and the plaintiffs’ basic arguments — straight.

Charter schools and a newly formed organization pushing for more school choice are both suing the state for the first time. Four different groups of school districts, by now veterans in the school finance wars, are returning once again.

A judge has already consolidated these five lawsuits into one trial, and will likely do the same with the latest claim, filed by the Texas Charter School Association. In many instances, the plaintiffs’ arguments will overlap, but in some, their interests will conflict — that’s why there are so many different parties.

(And note that at least one party doesn’t agree their cases should all be heard at once. MALDEF has filed a petition to dismiss the complaint from Texans For Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, saying that group should be making their argument to the Legislature, not the courts.)

The main thing to know as far as I’m concerned is that the TREE lawsuit is the skunk at the garden party. It’s the one of these things that isn’t like the others. I think MALDEF’s petition has a lot of merit, and I hope the judge looks favorably on it. Anyway, you can see all of the plaintiff’s complaints as well as a chart showing who’s alleging what and a summary of the key issues. Check it out.

School finance lawsuit #6

And then there were six.

The Texas Charter School Association announced Tuesday that it would enter the legal fray, arguing that the state has short-changed charter schools because it does not provide funding for facilities.

“Just because a parent puts his or her students in a charter school doesn’t mean that they deserve that funding any less,” said David Dunn, the association’s executive director. “It’s a pretty simple argument: They get billions, we get zero.”

Along with TCSA, which represents most of the charter schools in the state, there are six parents of children in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and South Texas charters who are plaintiffs in the suit. Former Texas Solicitor General James Ho is also serving as a legal consultant.

Traditional public school districts primarily pay for facilities through bonds levied with local tax dollars. But they also receive some state assistance in meeting bond payments through two state programs passed in 1997 and 1999. Because charters do not have a local tax base or have access to state aid for facilities funding, they must dip into money allocated for instruction at a rate that Dunn said amounted to about $830 a student.

“That $830 a kid is significant. That is $830 a kid that could go to more teachers, smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay, instructional materials,” he said.

In the court filing, the group argues that a finance system that denies facilities funding to charters is not efficient, and therefore violates the Texas Constitution. The lawsuit also attacks the “arbitrary” limit of 215 charter contracts that the state may grant for the same reason. A spokeswoman said that the Texas Education Agency had not yet received the suit, but that it was not commenting on school finance litigation.

See here and here for some background on the facilities issue. This is different than the TREE lawsuit. It’s not really clear to me that what the charters are litigating over is actually litigation-worthy, but I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take my word for it. For what it’s worth, the public school plaintiffs seem to be okay with the charters’ involvement.

Houston attorney David Thompson said the charters’ lawsuit helps support his case, filed on behalf of the state’s largest school districts.

“If our good charters – which already have fewer mandates than our traditional public schools – are struggling with funding, then we think that supports our case that the public school funding system generally is adequate,” he said.

October is going to be a very busy month.

TAB joins school finance litigation

But not as a force for good.

The Texas Association of Business announced today that it will join a school finance lawsuit against the state, demanding a study of Texas school system efficiency.

“The Constitution of Texas calls for the state to provide an efficient public school system, and in our view, clearly the school system is not efficient,” said Bill Hammond, the organization’s president. “Only two-thirds of ninth-graders graduate in four years, and, of those who graduate, only a quarter are what we call career- or college-ready.”

Hammond hopes the suit will encourage the Legislature or the appropriate agency to produce a study into how much it may cost to create a better school system — even if that may cost more than what is currently spent.

“I would not preclude [spending more on students],” Hammond said. “We need an honest broker to do the study on the true costs of educating a child. We’ll deal with the facts as they’re presented to us.”

TAB will be joining the fifth party to sign up for litigation against the state, a group made up of parents. Hammond noted that they are they only litigants in the lawsuit looking specifically into efficiency.

Hammond made the announcement alongside former Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch and Chris Diamond, both attorneys in the case, and former House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, who heads the organization bringing the lawsuit.

Calling that fifth group “made up of parents” is more than a bit disingenuous. The group in question is Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, and you only have to spend a few minutes on their sparse website to recognize that they’re a front group for charter schools and voucher proponents. Having TAB on their side is further evidence that their involvement isn’t about educating kids but about protecting their own financial interests. As that earlier Trib story notes, they’re there to provide a way out that doesn’t require the Lege to adequately fund public education. It’s not clear yet what role they’ll be allowed to play in the suit; the other plaintiffs, whose interests are not aligned with TREE’s, have not taken any formal action in response to their entry. Just remember when you see vague media descriptions of these guys who they really are. Postcards and Trail Blazers have more.

School finance lawsuit #5

The plaintiffs keep on coming.

A lawsuit by a small group of parents claims Texas is not getting enough bang for its educational buck, and asks the state’s courts to address inefficiencies in how education funding is spent.

Attorneys plan to file their litigation Friday in Austin on behalf of five families who say Texas schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs, as well as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a new group formed by three entrepreneurs. The plaintiffs made a copy of the filing available to The Associated Press before submitting it to the court.

[…]

[Lead attorney Chris] Diamond said the latest suit had nothing to do with the Legislature’s budget. He said it is about parents who “feel as if their children are trapped in an unproductive system.”

Going to court to settle school finance questions has been a staple in Texas for more than 40 years. Diamond said that in past rulings, the state high court has issued opinions that “all-but invited” a legal challenge to the overall way Texas pays for its schools.

“We’ve been challenging this funding issue, but we need to hear about the basic, fundamental issues in the system,” he said.

Diamond said the idea would be to have the courts force the Legislature’s hand, and rule the system unconstitutional so as to compel lawmakers to overhaul school finance.

I couldn’t find a website for “Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education” when I first googled them, which is always a bit suspicious. There was just something about what they were saying in this story that gave me an odd feeling. This confirmed it.

TREE’s founder, James Jones, said in a statement that Waiting for Superman, a documentary that highly praises charter schools, inspired him to “dedicate his personal time and resources to the cause of saving children who are trapped in dysfunctional and inefficient public schools in Texas.”

“Imagine if a parent didn’t think their child’s physician was meeting their kid’s needs and the law made it nearly impossible for them to change doctors. We owe it to our kids to do better than this,” said Jones, who runs a mineral royalty firm.

The lawsuit has high-profile supporters: Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch is a co-counsel, and former House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who left the Legislature in 2006, is the executive director of TREE.

In a statement, lead attorney Chris Diamond said the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the question of funding is secondary to the question of efficiency. He said court has “issued a wide invitation for structural, qualitative reform that extends beyond the singular question of adequate funding” which the current system has not met.

Yeah, any group that has Kent Grusendorf on board is not to be trusted. I love how the story says that Grusendorf “left” the Lege in 2006. He left by getting beaten in the primary by Rep. Diane Patrick, who was backed by Parent PAC and who successfully attacked Grusendorf for his relentless hostility to public education. Subsequent googling found this press release for TREE, which in turn contained this website link. I presume Google’s indexing hadn’t caught up when I first went looking. There’s not much there, but at least they do have a website and it does contain their intervention pleading. Any lawyers want to comment on that?

The Statesman has some reactions to this effort.

Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services and governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said there is scant evidence that charter schools are more efficient since many of them get substantial private investments to supplement the public dollars they receive.

“It’s clearly an attempt to tag a policy agenda on a school finance lawsuit,” Hollingsworth said. “These are policy issues and they’ve been rejected by the Legislature.”

The group did not file a separate lawsuit but sought to join one of the existing suits.

Lawyers representing the school districts in the original lawsuit have the right to object to including the new plaintiffs. A judge will have the final say.

David Thompson, the lead lawyer on that suit, said no decision has been made on whether to do so. He welcomed some of the group’s arguments while disputing others.

“To the extent that there are allegations that school districts are being wasteful with funds, we strongly disagree and we believe the facts will show that school districts are being good stewards of public money,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that school districts are not afraid of competition from charter schools and are offering parents and children many new options. For example, the Austin school district recently hired IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas charter operator, to run a program out of an East Austin elementary school.

“We need to remember that 90 percent of the school-aged kids of Texas are in our (traditional) public schools, and any competition must be fair and on a level playing field,” Thompson said.

HISD does some partnering with charter schools as well. Go back and listen to my interview with Chris Barbic, the founder and now-former CEO of the YES Prep schools, in which he describes the relationship between charters and school districts as both cooperative and competitive. I will be very interested to see how the existing plaintiffs react to this. I don’t see it as a friendly intervention, but perhaps there’s more to it than I’m currently perceiving. The Texas Observer has more.