Keeping the School Finance Cases Straight

By the end of the year, there will likely be four school finance lawsuits pending against the state. Here's a primer to keep them all straight. 

First off, it's important to remember that once in court, they'll all be consolidated into one case. The districts will share experts and discovery costs while maintaining their own lawyers. They are allies — they have a common opponent, the state — but their interests don't necessarily align in all instances. That's where the separate legal representation comes in.  

Districts typically use three different grounds sue the state: efficiency, adequacy and what’s called “meaningful discretion.” The Texas Constitution requires that the state provide efficient and adequate funding for its public schools. It also says that school districts must have discretion in how they spend the money they receive from property taxes.  

Chapter 41 schools, the property-wealthy districts that give local revenue back to the state under Robin Hood laws, are largely joining the lawsuit in a defensive position, to make sure that they don’t end up worse off than when they started. A broader coalition of schools, led by attorney David Thompson, will add to that an attack on the adequacy front. That group, which has not yet filed in court, will argue that not only has the state failed to dedicate enough money to public education for schools to meet increasingly rigorous accountability standards, but that in doing so, it has not given local districts enough choice in how to spend or whether to raise property taxes — in effect, instituting an unconstitutional statewide property tax. 

The two other lawsuits, which have both been filed, represent the interests of poorer districts. One, brought by the Equity Center, which is made up of suburban, rural and inner-city schools of varying sizes, attacks the target revenue system established in 2006, when lawmakers reduced the property tax rate and guaranteed that districts would get no less than the amount they received per student at that time. That stopgap has since become permanent, resulting in an arbitrary funding scheme in which neighboring school districts can have as much as a $7,000 difference in state spending per student; the Equity Center will argue it is wildly inefficient. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund argues in its lawsuit that the target revenue system disproportionately hurts school districts that serve large contingents of English-language learners. 

The plaintiffs all agree that current levels of state funding aren't adequate. What they don't agree on is the details — in particular, whether the "equity" concern should be a priority. But the looming question is how the court should go about meeting those requirements — will it bring all districts up to the same level by pouring more money into the system for poorer districts, or will it level the playing field by bringing the wealthier districts down?  

The litigants would prefer the former solution. But that may not be an option with the state's current budget.