Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday called for an end to “a never-ending cycle of perpetual litigation” over how the state funds its public schools, describing the latest school finance case pending before the Texas Supreme Court as another example of parties inappropriately turning to the courts when they don’t get what they want from the Legislature.
“Unfortunately, opponents of Texas policy use the courts as legislative do-overs where they can seek to accomplish what they couldn’t accomplish during the (legislative) session,” the state’s top civil lawyer said during a brief speech to an annual gathering of tax and fiscal experts.
The current lawsuit is the seventh since 1984 challenging the state’s school finance system that has reached the state’s highest civil court, which has no deadline to decide the case. It was filed by more than two-thirds of school districts in 2011 after state lawmakers slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget to help balance a post-recession budget shortfall.
During the long-running challenge, lawyers for the more than 600 districts have argued that the Legislature is violating its constitutional duty to provide an adequate and efficient public school system, enacting large cuts even as rigorous new testing and accountability systems raised the bar on expectations.
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On Friday, Paxton — a former state lawmaker sworn in as attorney general in January — went on to echo an argument that the state's solicitor general made last month during oral arguments in front of the state’s high court that raised eyebrows in the school finance world: The courts should stay out of the issue and leave it to the Legislature.
In past school finance lawsuits, some state lawmakers have appeared grateful that courts have forced them to make the politically difficult decisions required in setting school finance policy.
Paxton on Friday said it was “worth noting that our schools are doing well” and ticked off a variety of statistics that top education officials have touted: Texas has the second highest graduation rate in the nation — with its Hispanic and African-American students ranking first — and more high school seniors are passing their five end-of-course exams on the first try.
By other measurements, student performance is either stagnant or dipping.
“Are there ways we can improve? Of course there are,” Paxton said. “But the proper way to do that is through the legislative process — not endless court cases as we’ve seen.”
Paxton's comments come a day after state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht told The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith in an interview that the court could rule "any minute" but suggested that a decision could come in early 2016. Some experts have predicted the same timing, and speculate the ruling will side, at least in part, with the school districts suing the state, which could require a special legislative session next year.