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Hey, Texplainer: A judge recently ruled in favor of more than 600 Texas school districts suing the state, agreeing with their claim that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional. I know the state plans to appeal the decision, but what will its defense be moving forward?
At the heart of the school finance lawsuit is a fight over the interpretation of two provisions in the Texas Constitution — one that requires the state to adequately provide for an efficient public school system and another that prohibits a statewide property tax.
Though the Texas attorney general’s office has confirmed that the state plans to challenge the decision, lawyers for the state have yet to file their appeal, which is expected to happen within the next month. And as the school finance case makes its way through appeals — probably to the Texas Supreme Court — the strategy for the state’s lawyers could include a number of legal maneuvers, including asking for a new trial. But looking back at what the state’s defense has been so far provides some guidance into what it may argue going forward.
During a trial that lasted a total of 55 days, school districts pointed to a host of issues — including subpar performance on state exams, poor graduation rates and the number of districts forced to tax at the highest-allowed level — to prove that Texas had violated the constitutional provisions on funding and a statewide property tax prohibition. Attorneys for the state focused their defense on a basic argument: whatever problems might exist in Texas public schools, including inadequate funding and a lack of discretion in setting property tax rates, are not the result of decisions made at the state level.
Here’s how Shelley Dahlberg, the assistant attorney general leading the state’s legal team, put it when the trial opened in October 2012:
“It would not be fair to fault the state for any inefficiencies or any spending that the districts make that is not required by the state in order to achieve whatever results they need.”
Dahlberg acknowledged that after the budget cuts made during the 2011 Legislature, school districts had been asked to do more with less. But to prove the school finance system left them without the ability to adequately educate students, Dahlberg said, school districts would have to show that they were efficiently spending money at the local level.
Asking the judge to “seriously look not only at what the state is doing but what the districts are doing,” she pointed out that districts control a large part of their own budgets, including personnel decisions and whether to spend money on classes and extracurricular activities not required to meet state standards.
Texas public schools, she said, could provide an education that met constitutional muster “without iPads or teacher aides or brand-new facilities.”
“Conclusory statements, studies that don’t prove the direct causal links between money and performance, and the wish lists of superintendents are not sufficient evidence that the Legislature has acted arbitrarily,” she said.
In his late August ruling for the school districts, state District Judge John Dietz of Austin said the way Texas funds its public education leaves school districts without the resources to meet the state’s academic standards. And because the state has not paid its share into the system, school districts have had to raise more money at the local level — leaving them without what courts have called “meaningful discretion” to set their own property tax rates, effectively creating a statewide property tax. Among the evidence Dietz cited in his findings was the “dismal” performance of poor and English language-learning students in Texas compared with their peers; the 100,000 students not on track to graduate high school on time and the high remediation rates of students who go do on to college.
The state’s legal team will probably respond to Dietz’s conclusions in detail when it files its appeal. Until then, here’s a final quote from Dahlberg:
“We aren’t saying the districts are making the wrong choices, or that they are improperly motivated by something other than the education of children. We simply contend that those choices are made within the districts’ local discretion.”
Bottom line: Barring a fresh set of legal maneuvers, the state would probably continue to make the same argument it made at trial — that the state should not be held responsible for choices made at the district level.