School Districts, State Trade Blame at Finance Trial

After a morning where school district lawyers attacked Texas for underfunding public schools and its “hopelessly broken” finance system, an attorney for the state shot back, saying that decisions made at the local level — not the state — were to blame for school districts’ failures.

Another party in the lawsuit, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, an organization made up of school choice advocates and business interests, took a broader tack. The state’s public education system is fundamentally flawed, lawyer Chris Diamond said, because it is a monopoly.

Monday’s hearing in district court before Travis County Judge John Dietz marked the start of the massive trial involving more than two-thirds of the state's school districts and most of its charter schools, offering a taste of what's to come in the trial that's expected to last through January.

Four different coalitions of school districts offered the same underlying message: that by reducing funding to public schools during the 2011 Legislature while ratcheting up standards for academic performance through the new accountability system, the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and efficient public education. Meanwhile the concentration of low-income and English language-learning students in Texas schools, groups that require more resources to educate and consistently score lower on state exams, has continued to increase.

"If we had sat down with the intent to say what can we cut out that is going to impair the ability of kids to meet these higher standards, we would have cut out what we cut out," said David Thompson, an attorney for the largest group of school districts, listing funding for full-day pre-kindergarten, remedial classes and after-school tutoring as examples.

The morning's arguments focused on highlighting the changes in the system since the Texas Supreme Court last ruled on school finance in 2005, something that was emphasized in an exchange between Dietz and Thompson over the rigorous new STAAR exams students began taking this spring.

“It's a tough test," Dietz said. "So what?"

Thompson's answer brought him to the crux of the districts' argument. For the first time, not only were Texas students taking a tough new test tied to whether they would move on to the next grade or graduate from high school, but also, the year before its implementation the state had made an unprecedented $5.4 billion reduction in funding to public education. Both of these circumstances have pushed the current system over the boundary that the high court defined in 2005, Thompson argued, when the court ruled that while the state hadn't quite violated the Constitution, it had come close.

"The Supreme Court didn't say no," said Thompson, "It said not yet."

That time has still not arrived, said Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg in her opening argument for the state. While there may be an “impending crisis” in Texas public schools, she said, the school districts would not be able to meet their burden of proof to show that there was a present one.

Dahlenberg said inefficiency in the system was a result of decisions made on the local, not state level. As examples, she pointed to districts spending money on classes and extracurriculars not required by the state and teacher pay raises based on longevity rather than merit.

“Ask yourself or the witnesses whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand new facilities,” she told the judge, adding that inconclusive studies and the “wish lists of superintendents are not sufficient evidence that the Legislature has acted arbitrarily.”

Though they differ on some of the legal points, the four groups of school districts are largely allies. They'll share many of the same expert witnesses, and their interests mostly align. The group including the Charter School Association has additional goals that traditional school districts have not always favored — like doing away with the state’s cap on charter contracts and acquiring facilities funding — as their attorney Robert Schulman said Monday in court, they will still make the same basic argument that the state has failed to adequately fund public education.

That’s not so with the sixth party in the lawsuit, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, which along with the Texas Association of Business is arguing on behalf of five families for a competitive, free market-based education system.

In his opening statement, attorney Chris Diamond said that the issue of inefficiency in the state’s public schools was a symptom of a larger, more fundamental flaw. 

“The current system is simply a public monopoly,” he said.

The public education system is inherently inefficient, he said, because by definition monopolies “drive up prices, increase costs, keep wages low and erect barriers to others entering the market.”

A more competitive system would not only be a better use of taxpayer money, he said, but also benefit teachers and students by increasing the compensation for high-quality instructors.

“It is the poor, economically disadvantaged who are saddled with the monopolistic system,” he said. “We ask this honorable court to focus on equity for Texas school children, not just equity for school districts.”

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