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A Texas Supreme Court decision saying the state’s school funding system is a big, stinking mess — but not an unconstitutional one — might be just the medicine to keep things just the way they are.
One of the truisms of Texas politics and government is that it’s practically impossible to pass significant school finance legislation without an open threat from a court. This is not as cynical as it might sound. The latest lesson came about a year ago, when state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, introduced and then withdrew a sweeping overhaul of how Texas pays for schools. Among other things, the school officials, experts and trade groups that might have helped propel it forward took a pass, thinking they’d get a better deal after the courts had ruled.
They thought their side would win. Nearly everyone agreed with them.
School finance is hard. It forces policymakers to either raise state spending, lower state standards or force local school districts to raise their own spending — which means higher property taxes.
None of those is a crowd pleaser, and politicians are in the crowd-pleasing business.
Typically, that means they wait until school funding is so out of balance that the courts step in and force the Legislature to make some changes.
This time, nearly everybody who was paying attention thought the courts would find something in the current system unconstitutional, and that the resulting ruling could have as much influence over the state budget as the trouble in the state’s oil and gas sector.
State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the state’s method of paying for schools was unconstitutional in almost every way: that it didn’t give every kid in public schools in Texas access to the same-quality education, that it relied so strongly on local funding that it accidentally amounted to a state property tax, and that the state and local spending was too low to meet the academic standards set by the state itself.
That’s just a sampling from a pile of legal hurt Judge Dietz dumped on the state of Texas: 200,000 pages of records, 1,508 findings of facts and 118 conclusions of law, according to the Texas Supreme Court.
The state was clearly in for a financial storm, just as soon as that high court reviewed Dietz’s ruling and handed down its own. The only questions seemed to be what the Supreme Court would do and how much it would cost. The court heard arguments last September, and the looming school finance decision has been a centerpiece of political and budget presentations ever since.
Those storm preparations were apparently for naught: Hurricane Dietz never made landfall.
In their decision, announced on Friday, the Supremes said the funding system for public schools in Texas is totally fouled up. They detailed some of the troubles. They called it names. They made their plea for change.
But they didn’t give reformers any leverage, saying they found no violations of the Texas Constitution that would force lawmakers to make changes.
Legislators are running around like the owner of a smoking, rattling jalopy who has just learned that the car passed a vehicle inspection. The justices could have learned this trick from one of those mechanics who details everything your car needs and then says, “But you can still drive it out of here if you’d like to skip these repairs.”
The justices talk fancier than some mechanics, but the message is familiar. “Texas’s more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Daedalean ‘system,’ Justice Don Willett wrote for the majority. “They deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”
So here’s what happens when the Legislature isn’t staring down a muscular court opinion. Aycock, in a Facebook post (he was unavailable for interviews after the court ruling), described what happened to his last effort: “Even the proposed $3 Billion funding increase left districts divided about how to distribute the money. All wanted the dollars. None wanted the pain of the needed corrections. When added to those who wanted to wait for the court, and those who don't support school funding in general, there was simply no way to get the bill passed. I was probably foolish to try.”
He won’t be back — he’s not seeking another term. He offered some advice, though, writing that the schools shouldn’t expect big changes and that the Legislature will never do anything unless the schools can get a consensus of their own.
The courts aren’t going to do it. Maybe somebody else will step up.