Texas Supremes: Not Our Job to Fix School Finance

Long-awaited ruling says school funding system constitutional

After the Texas Supreme Court's school finance ruling, it looks like the Legislature will have free rein to take an even deeper bite out of Austin ISD finances.
After the Texas Supreme Court's school finance ruling, it looks like the Legislature will have free rein to take an even deeper bite out of Austin ISD finances.

The Texas school finance system meets the minimum standards demanded by the Texas Constitution: That was the surprising ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, ending the long-running challenge to how the state funds grade school education.

Aptly released on Friday the 13th, the ruling is terribly unlucky for the 600-plus school districts and multiple civil rights groups that have been challenging the system ever since the Legislature slashed funding in 2011.

The bases of the challenge were simple: that it is inefficient, inadequate (the state allocates too little money to provide a real education), and inequitable (as the current Robin Hood recapture system shifts cash between districts based on housing prices, not on student need).

However, in penning the ruling for the court, Justice Don Willett basically punted on intervening and reduced the chances of future legal challenges, writing "our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy or to issue edicts from on high increasing financial inputs in hopes of increasing educational outputs."

The ruling will be deeply frustrating for many educators and stakeholders, because Willett concedes on repeated points that the system is far from perfect. He reiterates that the Constitution places the job of fixing school finance squarely on the shoulders of lawmakers, thereby attempting to push the issue off the court's table. He continued, "Texas’s more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Daedalean 'system.' 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."

Ignoring the core message of the ruling (that the system is legal, but still broken), Gov. Greg Abbott wrote, "The Supreme Court's decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the state's school finance system."

The Center for Public Policy Priorities was the first group to make some lemonade out of these bitter lemons. CPPP Executive Director Ann Beeson wrote this morning, "The Texas Supreme Court has once again declared that not every child in Texas has an equal opportunity to learn. It's time for the Legislature to make meaningful investments in our schools so that all Texans have the chance to live up to their full potential."

So the ball is now firmly back in the Legislature's court, which is not exactly good news for school districts. The Lege rejected even minor reforms during the 2015 session, with promises to come back with a more systemic reform in 2017. However, those reforms seem likely to be cover for another push by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for school vouchers and increased charters, which will only make the situation worse for public schools.

Pointing back at the last time the Legislature intervened heavily in school finance – the devastating 2011 budget reductions – Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza wrote, "Those $5 billion in cuts were devastating to schools, led to classroom overcrowding, and made it harder to retain high quality teachers. So the next time you hear about struggling schools in Texas, you can thank a Republican."

The ruling is particularly bleak news for Austin ISD, which the state has turned into a cash cow through the Robin Hood recapture system. Current forecasts are that the district will send half a billion dollars to the state in the very near future (and, important to note, that money goes into general revenue, and is not dedicated to school finance).

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