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Texas School Finance Trial Goes for Round Two

After hearing brief arguments on whether to reopen evidence in the school finance case because of laws passed during the legislative session, state district court Judge John Dietz announced Wednesday that a new, six-week trial will begin in January.

After a trial that lasted more than three months, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled in February 2014 that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional.

State district court Judge John Dietz likened the state's school finance case to the soap opera As the World Turns when he opened Wednesday's hearing on whether to reconsider evidence in the trial that concluded in February.

He drew the comparison not because of the trial's drama but because of its longevity.

"There were 13,858 episodes of As the World Turns, and we are getting pretty close," Dietz said. 

After hearing brief arguments from the state and the six parties in the case, the judge announced that a new six-week trial would begin on Jan. 6 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. 

"The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial," Dietz said. 

The two largest groups of school districts represented in the case, along with the state, were in favor of reopening evidence in the case to update the record after a legislative session in which the Legislature 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.

"It's not in anyone's interest to allow it to go to [Texas] Supreme Court. It'd be highly likely we'd be back in this court in six months," said attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents some of the districts in the case. He argued that the high court would remand the decision if it did not consider the impact of the 2013 Legislature.

Lawyers for the Texas Charter School Association and school districts with a high proportion of English language learning students both separately opposed a further delay in the judicial process, saying that it would be impossible to measure the outcomes of legislative changes in a timely manner.

David Hinojosa, who represents the latter group, pointed out that much of the evidence the other parties wanted the court to consider was still not in effect. New graduation requirements that passed in House Bill 5 will roll out in the 2014-15 school year; new school district accountability requirements would be rolled out in the 2016-17 year.

While questioning state lawyer Shelley Dahlberg, Dietz asked her how many bills had passed related to the topics of the litigation.

"I can say with some certainty that there are at least five bills that materially affect issues that were hotly litigated in this case," she said, adding that a number of the more than 100 education bills lawmakers had approved at least touched on areas the case covered.

In February, Dietz issued an oral ruling from the bench, finding 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 did not come.

All of the parties will be back in court on July 17 to determine what procedures will govern the new trial.

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