In Texas, School Finance Battle is a Perennial One

Running the public schools has been a policy issue — and a legal one too — for the better part of a century in Texas.

State officials have never found a lasting way to pay for or to provide the promised level of public education in all classrooms, and they repeatedly find themselves “solving” the problem, often under court order.

The latest round of court hearings began this week with the state’s lawyers defending the fairness of the current system. School districts say they do not have the resources to provide the level of education the state requires and do not have the legal means to obtain those resources, given the state’s limits on how high the districts can raise their local property taxes.

This is familiar ground.

A February 1931 copy of The Texas Weekly — no relation to The Texas Tribune’s online newsletter of the same name — had a related issue as its top article: “Do we want the schools in state politics?” it asked. “Abolition of the constitutional tax for the school fund would destroy their independence.”

That was not the first time the issue had drawn attention, and lawmakers and the courts have been solving the problem ever since. Politicians have used it as a campaign rallying point, both as would-be reformers and as fresh faces trying to knock off the authors of a particular era’s latest reforms.

The state got rid of the constitutional tax mentioned in that article 83 years ago. Legislators thought they had it licked in 1949 with the Gilmer-Aikin reforms. Lawsuits originating in the 1970s opened a line of argument that still thrives today, challenging the state to provide adequate levels of education in all of its schools, to all of its student populations.

That became the rationale for the state’s controversial top 10 percent rule, which requires schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University to give preference to the top performers in every Texas high school’s graduating class. The logic behind it is tight: If the state argues — and it does — that the school districts across Texas are substantially equal and adequate, then it follows that their graduates are adequately and equally prepared for the state’s colleges. The colleges ought to admit them, no matter which high school awarded their diplomas.

Reality is somewhat messier: The students are not getting the same preparation for college in all of the state’s schools. Just ask the colleges. But the state cannot concede the argument without forfeiting its argument in school finance cases like the one that restarted this week in Austin.

Schools are expensive. Lawmakers from both parties were elected by price-sensitive voters who responded enthusiastically to antitax pledges. And the only times lawmakers have been willing to spend more on schools — or to allow local school districts to spend more on schools — is when the courts have told them to do so.

Periodically, the public schools or their constituents become so frustrated with the state’s funding mechanisms that they ask the courts to intervene. And the Legislature, when faced with episodic judicial rulings that the money machine is busted, responds with fixes that either raise state funding, allow higher local taxes or some combination of those things.

On one end of the seesaw: no new taxes. On the other: public education.

That may sound cynical, but it has worked that way for years. Lawmakers change the formulas for school finance whenever the courts tell them things have veered outside the margins described in the state Constitution. This time, the argument is that the schools do not have the means to meet the state’s standards. The state gives them some money and leaves them to raise most of their budgets with local property taxes. The districts can charge whatever they want, below a state-set maximum. If they max out the tax rates and still need money, they argue that the state has imposed their property tax rates, violating the state constitutional ban on a statewide property tax.

If the courts buy that — appeals will certainly follow the current district court’s ruling — it will fall to the Legislature to fix it again. Most previous fixes lasted for a decade or two before the system once again went out of whack and the courts intervened.

It is not particularly elegant, but that is not news.

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