Robin Hood Goes To Court

The latest school-finance trial begins August 9

Kent Grusendorf
Kent Grusendorf

Woe be to the lawmakers who underestimate the appeal of the great Robin Hood.

More than a year ago, Republicans proclaimed that the Sheriff of Nottingham would soon ride the state's "share the wealth" school-finance system out of town on a rail. Almost 15 months and four special sessions later, though, the outlaw Robin Hood still reigns, and the leadership of the Legislature is without consensus. It will soon be up to Travis Co. District Judge John Dietz whether the system is adequate – a decision that will surely be appealed, by either side, all the way to the Supreme Court.

Robin Hood dodged the bullet during the most recent special session, despite some intense arm-twisting from House Speaker Tom Craddick. Last week, the sponsor of the school-finance bill that failed during the special session – House Public Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington – told a closed-door meeting of the Lege's school-finance working group that he didn't think the House had the votes to kill Robin Hood, much less the 100-vote supermajority to pass a state constitutional amendment allowing the expansion of gambling to fund education in Robin Hood's absence.

"The votes just aren't there to get rid of Robin Hood," says Grusendorf. "The people who want to get rid of Robin Hood probably have a better chance of success going through the judicial process than through the legislative process."

That judicial process began in 2001 with the filing of West Orange-Cove CISD v. Alanis, a case joined by (at latest count) more than 260 Texas school districts (including Austin ISD) against the state, charging that Robin Hood – by capping school districts' maximum tax rate – amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax while still not providing enough funds for an adequate education for every Texas schoolchild. After years of wrangling, the Texas Supreme Court last year ruled that West Orange-Cove could go to trial, and the actual courtroom battle began this week, with an anticipated motion for summary judgment by the state. Dietz denied that motion on Monday; a trial begins Aug. 9.

Regardless of that outcome, the state likely must find a new way to fund its schools; the Robin Hood system has simply run out of capacity. Still, it's difficult to figure out what crisis would spur the kind of resolve necessary to pass new taxes. Lawmakers and school districts alike talk about the crisis in the most dramatic terms, but it's not universally bad. Property taxes are high, but that's only in the state's biggest cities; rural areas don't feel the hit. School districts say they are making drastic cuts, but most won't accept a new plan without new money in it, and in fact the great majority of Texas districts benefit financially under Robin Hood. And while Democrats have shared jokes about the "tassel tax auditors" – referring to Gov. Rick Perry's quickly abandoned proposal to tax strippers – a precious few of them had alternative proposals to replace the current system.

Strangely, the more the Legislature talks, the more Democratic lawmakers are saying that the Robin Hood school-finance system "just isn't that bad." One Democratic staffer relates the story of a reporter who called him to comment upon "the failure of the special session."

"I told her, 'That session was no failure. We kept Robin Hood,'" he says.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Robin Hood, share the wealth, recapture, West Orange-Cove, John Dietz, Kent Grusendorf, property tax, school finance

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