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Judge Urges Lawmakers to Fix School Finance

Retired state District Judge John Dietz, who found the Texas school finance system unconstitutional last year, told teachers Sunday that Texas is "dooming a generation" of children. The Legislature, not the courts, should fix the problems, he said.

District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin is shown in his courtroom on Feb. 4, 2013, before he ruled that the state's school finance system was unconstitutional.

In his first major appearance since finding the Texas school finance system unconstitutional in 2014, retired state District Judge John Dietz said Sunday that a solution to the state's unequal and ineffective public education system should come from the Legislature.

"We are dooming a generation of these children by providing an insufficient education, and we can do better," Dietz told hundreds of teachers gathered in Austin. "It's in our best interest to do better."

In his decision last August, Dietz ruled in favor of more than 600 Texas school districts that brought the case. The districts, which serve three-fourths of the state's estimated 5 million public school students, argued that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education. 

"Whether we like it or not, this lies with the legislature, not the courts," Dietz said. "Even if I am wrong, what do they say about what they have in their own materials? The achievement gap is substantial, persistent, and it has been for ten to 15 years."

Dietz's comments were met with applause at a training hosted by the Association of Texas Professional Educators – the largest independent teachers' organization in Texas, and the largest of it's kind in the United States, with an estimated 100,000 members. 

Association representatives believe the case remains key in solving major problems facing Texas public education.

“Our priorities this year are to get a professional board, good health care for active and retired teachers, and to stop the privatization of schools,” said Brock Gregg, ATPE's governmental relations director. “But the cloud that is hanging over all of this is this case on public school finance.”

The lawsuit was filed after lawmakers cut an estimated $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011. In a 400-page opinion, Dietz found the school finance system unconstitutional due to inadequate funding and flaws in the way money is distributed to districts – imposing a de facto state property tax by transferring financial responsibility to the local level. 

"It ought not to make a difference as to your zip code as to your right to receive an adequate education," Dietz added, met by cheers and applause by the ATPE. The case remains on appeal before the Texas Supreme Court.

Then attorney general, now Gov. Greg Abbott attempted to remove Dietz from the case last year, questioning his impartiality based on a series of emails between the judge and school district lawyers. But at ATPE, lobbyists remain optimistic that Abbott will work with them to solve problems affecting public education.

“We think that this governor is a breath of fresh air in education, and he wants to work with public educators, unlike the previous governor,” Gregg added. “But it is yet to be seen if the money will follow the idea. Until substantial funding is directed towards education, we are working at the edges.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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