Texas High Court Upholds ‘Imperfect’ School Funding System

  • Lawmakers urged to to attack short-changing of poor systems
  • Court calls for ‘top to bottom’ reform for meeting standards

The Texas State Capitol building stands past cars and pedestrians crossing the street at dusk in Austin, Texas, on April 4, 2015.

Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

Texas’s system of financing public education was ruled constitutional, if imperfect, by the state Supreme Court, which called on state lawmakers to find ways to balance unequal funding between rich and poor districts.

The court refused to substitute its judgment for that of the Legislature, saying it isn’t judges’ responsibility to “second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy.” Instead, it called on lawmakers to address criticism of the system for short-changing poor schools and failing to provide the money to meet the Legislature’s own standards.

“Imperfection,” the justices said Friday in a 100-page opinion, “does not mean imperfectible.” They said Texas’s more than 5 million school children deserve “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid” to equip them for the 21st Century.

Almost two-thirds of the state’s 1,023 school districts sued in 2011 after Republican lawmakers cut $5 billion from the education budget while raising student achievement standards. The case marked the latest round in a 30-year legal struggle over education funding, with Texas having lost all five previous major court rulings.

Lawmakers’ Job

“We have said all along that school financing must be debated and shaped by the Texas Legislature, not through decades’ worth of ongoing litigation in the court system,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in a statement praising the court’s unanimous decision.

Democrats issued a statement attacking the ruling.

“It’s unacceptable that Republicans continue to shortchange our children’s education,” the state Democratic Party said. The justices, all Republicans, ignored “years of court battles, research studies, and outcry from Texas parents and educators” to reach a ruling that is “dead wrong,” the Democrats said.

Critics contend the budget cuts exacerbated inequalities in property tax rates that left rich districts with sharply higher amounts per student than poor districts. Texas funds its schools largely through local property taxes, which lawmakers have capped statewide.

Earlier Decision

With most districts taxing as much as they can to cover the funding gap, an Austin trial judge in 2014 declared the current system amounted to an unconstitutional statewide property tax, a finding the high court rejected.

State lawmakers restored some education funding in 2013 and 2015, but more than $3 billion in increases were offset by student-population growth of 300,000 in the second-largest state. The Legislative Budget Board found 30 percent of Texas schools still get less than they did before the 2011 cuts, with wealthy districts getting about $50,000 more per classroom than poor ones.

In poor districts, critics say, the difference results in more crowded classes, fewer teachers for non-English-speaking students, fewer enrichment programs like art classes and field trips, and fewer remedial programs to help low-performing kids meet the test standards.

The case is Morath v. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, 14-0776, Supreme Court of Texas (Austin).

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