Robin Hood Goes to Court

The Lege punts, and the judge catches the school-finance football

Robin Hood Goes to Court
Illustration By Doug Potter

Depending on your perspective, the Texas school system is either near collapse from insufficient resources and rampant inequity, or it's entering a new era of academic excellence and financial stability.

That was the basic rhetorical framework Monday morning, as the legal teams gathered in District Judge John Dietz's courtroom for opening arguments in the West Orange-Cove CISD v. Neeley public school finance case. The plaintiffs, representing several hundred school districts ranging from the state's wealthiest to its poorest, argued that the Texas school finance system has reached its capacity, not only failing the state's constitutional obligation to support "general diffusion of knowledge" but violating its prohibition of a statewide property tax. The Texas Attorney General's office, defending the current system, responded that not only is the current finance system constitutional – as last found "minimally" by the state Supreme Court in 1995 – but that the system has gotten better and better since that time.

"Surely Texas can and must do better," was the plaintiffs' frequent refrain, borrowing the language of then Texas Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn (later AG, now U.S. senator) in the court's ruling in the Edgewood case that prompted the unpopular "Robin Hood" share-the-wealth system now under attack. Responded Assistant Attorney General Jeff Rose, "Texas' students are performing today, at present state spending levels, at an exemplary level."

The arguments were certainly familiar – we have been hearing them in various forms for decades – but the political bedfellows seemed a trifle out of place. Here are the school districts of Texas – folks who typically brag to their communities that a Texas education is the best that money can buy – claiming that the schools they administer are strapped, constricted, gone or going broke, barely adequate for shelter, riddled with dropouts, and educationally just plain overwhelmed. And here was the legal arm of the state – whose elected leadership never tires of complaining that the public schools are going to secular bureaucratic hell in a poured-concrete handbasket – declaring to all and sundry that the public schools are just dandy, Texas students can't be beat, and every day in every way we're just getting better and better.

Grading on the Curve

That will be the slightly screwy legal landscape for the next several weeks, although it's not quite as surrealistic as it seems. The case began primarily on its tax claims – a handful of wealthy districts like West Orange-Cove (in the Golden Triangle) had met the state-mandated $1.50 cap and were thus suddenly constricted in spending – but has morphed over the past year into something much more interesting. There are now over 300 plaintiff districts, in three groups:

  • nearly 50 property-wealthy districts (including Austin), also taxing at the cap, subject to Robin Hood, and yet steadily cutting back on academic programs;

  • the "Alvarado" intervenors, about 260 middling property-poor schools that receive money via recapture and yet still lag behind the wealthier districts; and

  • the "Edgewood" intervenors, a smaller group of virtually destitute districts, some of whom were plaintiffs in the Edgewood case, represented now and historically by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

    In the state system, the three groups can be structurally at cross-purposes. But historical circumstances and the foot-dragging of the Legislature have brought them together. As Alvarado attorney Randall "Buck" Wood put it Monday, the interests of the districts have steadily converged because all have increasingly found it nearly impossible to do their jobs in an era of rising accountability standards and diminishing state support. "The Legislature is not willing to put their money where their mouth is," said Wood, with the result, "We're not educating our kids anywhere near where we ought to be." His colleague George Bramblett, representing the West Orange-Cove plaintiffs, argued that rising standards, an exploding and increasingly diverse student population, and the looming tax cap have combined to create a "perfect storm" undermining the districts' ability to provide for "general diffusion of knowledge."

    Rose responded that the plaintiffs' case is simply about money, and that the Legislature is the proper venue to decide such policy questions as how to fund the schools. Rather than an undue burden, argued Rose, the accountability standards are further evidence of the state's commitment to public education, and moreover the school boards have plenty of "meaningful discretion" – another loaded Supreme Court term – in how they choose to raise and spend their money. "The system was ruled constitutional in 1995," declared Rose, "and it has improved since then."

    One Long Step

    In bare outline, that is the framework of the evidence to be set forth before Judge Dietz over the next several weeks. Dietz bit his tongue throughout most of Monday's proceedings, although he couldn't help but goose Rose a bit on whether the Lege had managed to abolish Robin Hood last spring (it pretended to), and on the difference between constitutional mandates and legislative wistfulness. "The 'general diffusion of knowledge' is not an aspirational goal, is it?" he asked Rose, who had to acknowledge the phrase had a little more force than simply fond and ever-receding hope.

    Eventually, Dietz will have to rule (with the state Supreme Court inevitably following behind him) whether the Lege's elongated exercise in passing the buck has created a de facto statewide property tax, and in the bargain made that tax inadequate for any kind of a modern system of education. It will certainly be entertaining to watch the state explain that a school system it devotes so much political energy to undermining is in fact the best of all reasonably possible guardians of young Texas minds. It will be less amusing to ponder, whatever the courts' rulings, how the state's leadership will once again contrive to postpone the day of reckoning when Texas designs a revenue system to meet the actual common needs of its citizens.

    "Whatever the outcome of the trial," commented Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center following Monday's arguments, "there will be a lot of good information on what constitutes a good education, on what that is and what it costs. ... We all agree that there is an over-reliance on local property taxes, but we're still a step away on finding some kind of dynamic state revenue system that can efficiently and equitably replace it.

    "We need both equity and adequacy, meaning more money for everybody. The quality of a child's education in Texas should simply not depend on where he lives." end story

    Correction: Much to my mortification, I mistyped my cardiologist's name last week. He is Dr. David Terreson (not Tenneson). Rather than blame my own stupidity, I'm volunteering an entirely new scapegoat: a brace of additional medications. I do apologize to Dr. Terreson and his staff, and again thank them all and the good folks at Seton Medical Center, for their exemplary and generous care.

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    school finance, John Dietz, West Orange-Cove, Jeff Rose, recapture, Edgewood, Alvarado, MALDEF, Buck Wood, George Bramblett, Wayne Pierce, Equity Center

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