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Texas Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Public School Finance Reform Case Appeal

The Texas Supreme Court set September 1 as the date to hear oral arguments in the appeal of the public school finance reform case, a court spokesman announced on Friday.

“We are very pleased that the court is moving so expeditiously,” said attorney David Thompson in response to the court date, the Houston Chronicle reported. He represents dozens of independent school districts in the case, including in Houston and Fort Bend County.

“We think it’s a recognition of how important this issue is to every community in the state,” he added.

Last August, Austin Democrat, and State District Court Judge John Dietz ruled on behalf of the 600-plus school districts that sued the state in 2011 after lawmakers cut almost $5.4 billion from public education amid a 2011 budget crunch.

Dietz ruled the funding mechanism unconstitutional. He asserted that the state distributes tax revenues unfairly among districts, even though the Legislature restored $3.4 million of that funding in 2013.

The districts in the case represent three-quarters of the state’s 5.2 million public school students. At issue are differences in property values and tax rates, causing disparities in how much revenue a district can collect.

Breitbart Texas reported that schools in rich and poor areas are on the same side in the case because of the “Robin Hood” style funding system which “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.”

In a 21-page opinion, Dietz wrote that the Legislature 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,” the Breitbart Texas article highlighted.

Breitbart Texas reported the judge also conditionally awarded the attorneys representing the plantiffs approximately $10 million in attorney’s fees. He deemed this dollar amount met the legal standard for Texas attorney fee awards.

The office of former Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, appealed the unconstitutional ruling to the state’s Supreme Court. Abbott released a statement regarding the intention to appeal and “defend this law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the Legislature when they are challenged in court.”

Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court agreed to take the case.

Education Commissioner Michael Williams issued a statement after the decision, calling it “a first step on a very familiar path for school finance litigation in Texas. 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.”

In 2004, Dietz presided over a similar school finance case. He listened to more than two months of testimony before ruling that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional. That decision was partially upheld and partially overturned by the Texas Supreme Court, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The Texas Tribune reported that Abbott questioned Dietz’s impartiality in the current case based on a series of emails that the judge and his staff sent between March and May to lawyers who represent the school districts suing the state. The former AG noted that these correspondences suggested “the judge is coaching the plaintiffs’ counsel in order to improve their case.”

Then, the AG’s office sought to remove Dietz from the case. According to the Tribune, Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) was optimistic that Abbott would work with them. ATPE does not describe itself as a union but it lobbies the state legislature on behalf of public school teacher concerns.

It is the largest independent teachers’ organization in the state and the largest of its kind in the United States wth 100,000 members.

Since retiring last winter, Dietz addressed these lobbyists at a February ATPE training. His comments “were met with applause,” The Tribune reported.

During the recent 84th Legislature, House Education Chair, Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) pushed and then pulled a hefty school finance reform funding package, House Bill 1759. It did not gain steam in the senate chamber. One reason given by legislators was the AG’s appeal was already in play and they wanted to wait on the Texas Supreme Court’s decision.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.

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