Whatever Became of That School Finance Ruling?

District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin is shown in his courtroom on Feb. 4, 2013, before he ruled that the state's school finance system was unconstitutional.
District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin is shown in his courtroom on Feb. 4, 2013, before he ruled that the state's school finance system was unconstitutional.

When John Dietz issued an oral ruling declaring the state’s school finance system unconstitutional in February, the state district court judge said he would release a more detailed, written decision by mid-March.

It’s now June, and there is still no final decision in the sweeping lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that arose after the Legislature eliminated roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011.

Dietz, who did not return a call for comment, has not formally communicated any reason for the delay to the parties in the lawsuit, according to David Thompson, an attorney involved in the litigation.

But Thompson said his “best surmise” was that the judge decided to wait until the dust from the then-ongoing legislative session had settled.  

Shortly after the initial ruling came down, it became apparent the legislative session could have an effect on the details of Dietz’s decision, which will explain how and why the state has failed to adequately fund its public schools. Lawmakers began adding money back into public education. It also became clear they would likely make changes to charter school policy and high school graduation and testing requirements, all of which were covered in testimony during the trial.

By the time Sine Die rolled around on Monday, lawmakers had restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. They also passed House Bill 5, testing and high school curriculum legislation, and Senate Bill 2, which expands the state’s charter school system.

All three bills now sit on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk awaiting final approval. If they become law, the court will likely hold a few additional evidentiary hearings to update the record before the case goes on its expected trip to the Texas Supreme Court.

How students did on the 2013 administration of the STAAR exams, the results of which will be announced in the next few weeks, could also be a factor. During the trial, lawyers for the state said that poor performance the first time around was to be expected as schools adjusted to the new assessment system.

Thompson said that while it would be important to clarify in court how the legislative session had affected the case, he did not expect the outcome to differ much from the judge's bench ruling in February. Likening the changes to tuning up a 20-year-old car, he pointed to the outdated formulas and disparities from district to district that remain in the state's funding for schools.

“We haven't said, 'Do we have the right structure, do we have a system that is actually designed to give our kids a good shot at meeting the standards that we've set?'” Thompson said.

The state, of course, will argue differently, as lawmakers did when they praised the passage of the 2013 budget. House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said it contained the “most equitable” school funding plan the Legislature had ever approved.

When that happens depends on whether Perry vetoes any key education legislation, and what Dietz thinks of the final results. The governor has until June 16 to make up his mind. The judge doesn't have a deadline.