DALLAS, Texas — In Austin, State District Judge John Dietz, a Democrat, ruled that the state’s funding mechanism for public schools was unconstitutional on August 28. The Travis County judge’s opinion was in favor of the 600-plus school districts who filed the suit against the state. These districts represent three-quarters of the state’s more than 5 million public schools students.
His ruling was no surprise. He had already signaled his decision 18 months ago in favor of the school districts. The case was prompted by Legislaturecutting $5.4 billion out of the education budget in 2011. Dietz reopened it in January because of new information presented in light of the 83rd Legislature restoring $3.4 billion of that funding.
The “College and Career Readiness” standards (HB 5) that slashed the number of standardized tests from 15 to five as part of a high school graduation requirement was also a factor.
Ultimately, Dietz was unmoved even after he heard the new testimony on the 63 percent of funding that had been restored or any of the evidence regarding the high school graduation requirements revamp, according to AP.
AP also reported that schools in rich and poor areas were on the same side in the case because the “Robin Hood” style funding system “requires districts with high property values or abundant revenue from oil or natural gas interests to turn over part of what they collect in property taxes to poorer districts.”
Meanwhile, impoverished districts claimed those dollars were not enough and the affluent areas argued that voters “often refuse to approve local tax increases they might otherwise support since much of the money would go elsewhere,” AP wrote.
In the 21-page opinion, Dietz wrote that the “Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system is structured, operated, and funded so that it cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texas schoolchildren,” according to the San Antonio Current.
Dietz also said the system was “tantamount to an income tax, which is forbidden by the state constitution;” AP also noted that this was the second time in a decade that that state has had to remake its school finance system.
In 2004, Dietz was the Travis County judge who heard arguments in a similar school finance case, listening to more than two months of testimony before ruling that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional; a ruling that was partially upheld and partially overturned by the Texas Supreme Court, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
Besides the four groups of school districts that bandied together in the lawsuit, charter schools were part of the litigation. They sought state funding for their facilities and to have the cap on the total of 215 licenses permitted statewide either eased or removed.
Dietz said these complaints did not violate the state constitution. The Texas Association of Business also argued that the education code should be scrapped to improve efficiency, the Austin American-Statesman also reported.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the favored candidate for governor, did not argue this case, according to AP. Still, his opponent WendyDavis (D-Fort Worth) has taken every opportunity to use this lawsuit as a political weapon on the campaign trail, falsely accusing Abbott of being against schools.
Following the ruling, Lauren Bean from the Office of the Attorney General, released a statement regarding their next steps: “The State will appeal and will defend this law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature when they are challenged in court.”
The Office of the Attorney General will take this to the state Supreme Court.
Commissioner of Education Michael Williams also weighed in with his perspective following the school finance ruling. He said, “Today’s decision is just a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation inTexas. Regardless of the ruling at the district court level, all sides have known this is an issue that will again be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court.”
Williams, who has come under some fire lately for maintaining low STAAR performance standards, added, “Texas is committed to finding solutions to educate every student in every classroom. However, it should be our state leaders making those decisions, not a single judge.”
Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston), the conservative favorite running for Lt. Governor agreed in a statement: “Today’s decision is the sole decision of one judge in Travis County. The final say will come from the Supreme Court. Ultimately, it is the legislature, voted by the people of Texas, who should make these important decisions.”
Patrick also emphasized that “during the last economic downturn we only had two options; cut spending or raise taxes. I, along with the Texas Senate, chose to make cuts and keep taxes low.”
He added, “As chair of the Senate Education Committee, I led the charge to restore most of the education funding cuts from last session. We have spent vast amounts of money towards education and we’re still struggling to see significant improvement. Spending continues to rise steadily while the number of failing schools increases.”
Follow Merrill Hope, an original member of the Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.