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The Brief: Oct. 23, 2012

Election Day is quickly approaching, but in Texas this week, a huge lawsuit involving most of the state's school districts has managed to steal some of the spotlight.

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The Big Conversation:

Election Day is quickly approaching, but in Texas this week, a huge lawsuit involving most of the state's school districts has managed to steal some of the spotlight. 

As the Tribune's Morgan Smith reports, Monday's opening arguments in the landmark case challenging the state's school finance system offered a preview of the long fight likely to play out in District Judge John Dietz's Austin courtroom.

The case, which is expected to last three months, pits about two-thirds of the state's 1,000-plus school districts and most of its charter schools against the state, which has faced several challenges to its school finance system over the years. 

The districts argue that the state's decision to cut public education funding by $5.4 billion in the 2011 legislative session while implementing a tougher standardized testing system has failed to provide schools with the tools needed to offer the quality of education called for by the state Constitution. Lawyers for the districts said those two factors had led the state's education system toward a level of "constitutional inadequacy" established in a 2005 Texas Supreme Court decision.

"It is hopelessly broken," Richard Gray, a lawyer for the districts, said of the finance system. "It is not only inadequate, it is irrational, it's unfair and, most importantly, it's unconstitutional."

But the state says that level hasn't been reached, and that decisions made by local — not state — officials have created failures in the education system.

Shelley Dahlberg, an assistant attorney general for the state, pointed to some examples of such decisions: "Ask yourself or the witnesses," she said, "whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand new facilities."

Another party in the suit made up of business groups and school choice advocates argues that the state's school finance system has created a public monopoly. 

Today the court will hear testimony from Steve Murdock, the former state demographer and U.S. Census Bureau director, who will address the changing demographics of Texas schools, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Culled:

  • Texans lined up as polls opened on Monday for early voting, but it's unclear whether turnout will outpace that of 2008. Tarrant County and Bexar County each recorded more than 30,000 votes cast on Monday, beating the record both cities set four years ago. But in Dallas County, first-day totals appeared to have fallen slightly short of 2008 levels (though turnout at least one Republican precinct looked on track to beat its 2008 record).
  • San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff squared off Monday over Castro's high-profile initiative to raise the city's sales tax to fund a pre-kindergarten program for low-income children, the San Antonio Express-News reports. At St. Mary's University, Castro and Wolff, the only Republican on the county's commissioners court, debated the program's cost and how many children would have access to it. "There is no panacea. We are not saying this is the solution," said Castro, who has staked his mayoral tenure on the initiative, which will appear on the November ballot. But "it's pay now or pay later," he added. "We can do better now or we can wait until they're more likely to drop out of high school, get incarcerated and cost us money in the future." Wolff expressed concern that residents who live near San Antonio but not within city limits would not be eligible for the program. "This is, for me, the biggest fault. The key to success is making it available to everyone," Wolff said.
  • John Jay Myers, the Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate who has struggled to attract attention, released a TV ad Monday bluntly touting his anti-government views. "You should be able to eat, drink or smoke whatever it is you like," Myers says in the ad. "It's certainly not government's business to tell you who you can marry." Myers said the spot would air in the Ellis County area on various cable channels and asked for donations to help run the ad elsewhere in the state.

"I pale in comparison to these two men." — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Paul Sadler on U.S. Reps. Charlie Gonzalez and Lloyd Doggett, who attended a rally for Sadler on Monday

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