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Latest School Finance Challenges Resigned to Robin Hood

Texas has a long history of school finance lawsuits, many of them fought over the same themes. But in the latest round, one phrase has been conspicuously absent from the discussion: Robin Hood.

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When David Thompson is asked about Texas’ long history of school finance litigation, he likes to make a Harry Potter analogy.

“There are common characters, common themes, consistent plot thematic issues that run through all the books,” said Thompson, a lawyer. “But every one of them has a specific focus.”

Now, one phrase is conspicuously absent from the discussion: Robin Hood. The state’s practice of collecting portions of property tax revenue from wealthier districts and redistributing it to poorer ones, also known as “recapture,” was a rallying cry for districts challenging the school finance system in a lawsuit that made its way through the courts from 2001 to 2005.

Though Robin Hood has been a political flash point since its inception in 1993, it has now become settled law. After it survived a high-profile effort at repeal during the 2003 legislative session, a decision from the Texas Supreme Court in 2005 “pretty much dashed” any expectation that the law could be overturned, said F. Scott McCown, who presided over the case in the lower courts as a state judge in 2002.

The state received just over $1 billion in payments in 2010 from more than 300 Robin Hood school districts, according to Texas Education Agency data.

By the end of the year, there will most likely be at least three lawsuits filed against the state relating to how it finances public schools, one led by Thompson. But none of the plaintiffs — not even the group formed primarily of school districts that contribute revenue under Robin Hood — have said their goal is to overturn the law.

“We’re not asking to alter or repeal that provision,” said Rickey Dailey, a spokesman for the Texas School Coalition, which represents property-wealthy school districts that send money back to the state.

Dailey said the districts would instead argue that the state has failed to dedicate enough money to public education to meet increasingly strict accountability standards, and that it has created an unconstitutional statewide property tax because it has left them with little choice in how to spend local taxes or whether to raise them.

“We’re all resigned to the fact that, until the state does something to pull the many school districts that are tax-poor to a minimally adequate level, Robin Hood is going to be here,” said David Webb, the chief financial officer of Deer Park, a wealthy district near Houston that has given back about $578 million since the law was enacted.

While wealthy districts may not have chosen to highlight concerns with Robin Hood as a part of their lawsuit, they still struggle with its consequences — and many have devised ways to get around it, like creating private foundations to help support their schools.

Asking voters to approve higher taxes, some of whose receipts go to poorer schools, is “really a nonstarter,” said Superintendent Kevin Brown of San Antonio's Alamo Heights Independent School District, which has given about $300 million of its property tax revenue to the state since 1993.

But districts hoping for a school finance solution beyond Robin Hood will most likely be disappointed, said McCown, who is now the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal research group that supports Robin Hood.

“This very court would have to reverse itself,” he said, “and it doesn’t solve anybody’s problem.”

The state needs the money it receives from wealthy school districts to help finance education for the rest, said Pat Forgione, who was superintendent of the Austin Independent School District from 1999 to 2009 and was a chief witness for the districts fighting Robin Hood last time. The Austin district still sends more to the state through Robin Hood than any other. In 2011 those payments will amount to $111 million — more than three times what the second-highest-contributing district, Plano, in Collin County, will give up.

“They don’t know how to deal with Robin Hood because now Robin Hood isn’t just $100 million anymore,” Forgione said of state lawmakers. “It’s hard to give up that.”

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