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Defining "Adequate" in Financing Texas Schools

Since 1984, Texas has faced six lawsuits over public school funding. Over the years, a chorus of conservative voices has posed another fix for the school finance problem: Why not just change the duties under the state Constitution?

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During opening statements in the current trial over how the state finances its public schools, a lawyer for the state expressed what many were already thinking.

“This is like déjà vu all over again,” said Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg.

The state district court trial, which began in October and involves about two-thirds of Texas districts, is the sixth time since 1984 that districts have sued the state over the way public schools are financed.

The Texas Supreme Court last ruled on the issue 2005 when it said current funding levels were adequate but left the door open for future challenge — with the same judge and many of the same lawyers involved. The courts, facing many of the same arguments, will again decide whether the Legislature has met its constitutional obligation to public education.

But over the years, a chorus of conservative voices has posed another fix for the school finance problem: Why not just change the state’s duties under the Texas Constitution?

“The Legislature has never really defined in statute what they are trying to accomplish and what they are willing to fund,” said Bill Peacock, the vice president of research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, championed a state constitutional amendment in the early 1990s as a state legislator that would to keep the courts out of school finance and allow lawmakers to define adequate levels of financing under the state Constitution. It is a concept supported by fiscal conservatives — many of whom object to what they view as the use of taxpayer dollars to sue the state for more taxpayer dollars.

Such a measure would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to make it onto the ballot, and it has struggled to gain traction. State Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, was the latest lawmaker to offer the amendment last session. His resolution failed to make it out of committee.

Opponents view the courts as a needed backstop against legislative decisions made for political rather than sound policy reasons — and they say the amendment would shift the burden of paying for public schools from the state to local taxpayers.

“It’s hard to convince two-thirds of the representatives that their local school districts would be better off, that their local taxpayers would be better off in general because of such an action,” said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, the outgoing vice chairman of the House Public Education Committee. “It has always taken the courts to force the Legislature to do the right thing on this issue.”

But as the 2013 legislative session approaches, echoes of the philosophy behind the amendment have cropped up in the state’s defense during the current school finance trial.

Dahlberg said during her opening statement that if there was not enough money to go around, it was because of decisions made on the local, not state, level. She pointed to districts spending money on extras that are not explicitly required by the state.

“Ask yourself or the witnesses whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand new facilities,” she told the judge. “The wish lists of superintendents are not sufficient evidence that the Legislature has acted arbitrarily.”

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