Lawyers Ask to Reopen Evidence in School Finance Trial

After a trial that lasted more than three months, Judge John Dietz ruled in February that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional.
After a trial that lasted more than three months, Judge John Dietz ruled in February that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional.

State district court Judge John Dietz has agreed to hear new testimony in the sweeping school finance trial involving more than two-thirds of the state's school districts, a trial that had concluded in February.

In a hearing in Dietz's courtroom Wednesday, lawyers for both the districts and the state said that evidence should be updated following a legislative session in which Texas lawmakers made significant changes to public education policy. The judge asked all parties to return June 19 to present arguments over what the scope of those new hearings should be — including what issues they should cover and logistical questions, like limitations on discovery and other procedural rules. 

Dietz warned lawyers against looking at the hearings as "a chance to clean up or make stronger" their arguments during the trial.

"I really think that the consideration is, was there a material change in the circumstances, was there a substantial change in circumstances by reason of" the most recent Legislature, he said.

During the regular session that ended in late May, lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as a bill expanding the state's charter school system, also passed.

 

Gov. Rick Perry has not yet signed the budget, or the testing and charter school legislation. He has until June 16 to decide whether he will veto them.

In February, Dietz issued an oral ruling from the bench in the lawsuit that arose last summer after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system. He found the school finance system unconstitutional, both because of inadequate school funding and flaws in the way the state distributes money to districts. A more detailed, written decision was expected in March, but that has yet to come. (Find the text of Dietz's remarks and oral ruling at the upper left.)

On Wednesday, Dietz said he was still reviewing and making notes on a "densely packed," 285-page written opinion, which he has not released and will once again be updated to include the results of the upcoming hearings.

After the hearing, Mark Trachtenberg, a lawyer for a group of school districts in the case, said he did not expect the legislative changes — one of which reduces the end-of-course exams that students must take to graduate — to substantially affect the judge's ruling in favor of the school districts. He said new hearings were necessary to make sure that when the lawsuit reaches the state's Supreme Court, justices there could issue a decision based on current circumstances.

But Chris Diamond, who represents Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, an organization of parents, school choice advocates and business interests that intervened in the lawsuit to challenge the state's statutory cap on charter schools and system for financial accountability, disagreed. Diamond said the legislative session, where he said lawmakers responded to the lawsuit by increasing funding and reducing accountability, only strengthened the case that the state's public school system was inefficient. 

While Dietz said in February that the group's arguments should "bear the Legislature's scrutiny," he did not rule in their favor.

 

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