Point Austin: Hecht v. Dietz

Supremes find high taxes onerous, but lousy schools OK

Point Austin: Hecht v. Dietz
Illustration By Doug Potter

The elephants labored, and brought forth a church mouse.

Despite weeks of feverish Capitol speculation long past the nominal Oct. 1 deadline, last month's 7-1 school finance decision of the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court remained dismally true to political form. The court found that yes, indeed, the state's abundantly awkward means of public school funding – letting local jurisdictions collect property taxes and then clumsily redistributing a portion of the results – violates the constitutional prohibition of a statewide property tax. But it does so, ruled the Supremes, only because the Legislature-imposed cap of $1.50 now constitutes an effective floor (the job can't be done for less) while also preventing wealthy districts from spending whatever they like on "enrichment."

"The current situation," wrote Justice Nathan Hecht, "has become virtually indistinguishable from one in which the state simply set an ad valorem tax rate of $1.50 and redistributed the revenue to the districts." Such a system, of course, would have the advantage of eliminating the middleman – aka "Robin Hood," in sneering political parlance – but in addition to violating the Constitution, it would make more difficult the slander that school taxes are "robbing" the rich to give to the poor, rather than simply treating all Texas children (i.e., citizens) equally.

However, although the court – like the Legislature – is exquisitely sensitive to the predicament of property owners, it has much less interest in the dire situation of the state's schoolchildren, especially those without the foresight to be born in a tony suburban school district. "Although the districts have offered evidence of deficiencies in the public school finance system," they opined, "we conclude that those deficiencies do not amount to a violation of article VII, section 1."

Since we all could use a little reminder of the superior vision of Texas founders (at least in this regard), the cited article reads: "A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."

Such Bolshevist rhetoric, of course, wouldn't be tolerated in today's reactionary climate. Indeed, Hecht spends much of his dreary opinion fending off the ideologically driven dissent of his colleague Scott Brister, who would prefer to dismiss two decades worth of grudging educational and legal progress and throw both plaintiffs and schools to the bracing winds of post-"Soviet" "competition."


What Would Harriet Do?

In the state district court of Austin Judge John Dietz, the plaintiff school districts – standing for the majority of the 1,031 state districts – had also prevailed on the issues of "adequacy" and "equity" in funding, demonstrating at excruciating length that the current system neither fulfills its constitution obligation of "suitability" (sufficient to the job at hand) or that of "a general diffusion of knowledge" – both because it is radically underfunded, and those funds are inequitably distributed. In his opinion, Dietz had been abundantly careful to document the current system's shortfall – using the state's own witnesses to demonstrate that by the state's current (and rising) standards, the available money is simply insufficient. And Dietz had also shown, especially for school facilities, the state has made no real attempt to bring the poorest districts up to even a statewide average, in recent years declining even to fund the paltry building programs already established.

Writing for the majority, Hecht sweeps away all that evidence with barely a shrug, saying that things are indeed bad, but they could be worse – and that "adequacy" is all that the Constitution requires. Hecht's opinion does give lip service to the notion that the schools could use more funds – he especially tut-tuts over the statistics showing epidemic shortages and turnover of certified teachers, and the embarrassing fact that national tests generally fail to reflect the academic "progress" purportedly shown by the state's tailored test regimes. But in the end, he notes that on the now-ubiquitous standardized tests, most schools achieve at least "acceptable" state rankings – thus being validated by the very same officials charged with defending the current system before the court. Such is the circular logic of our highly remunerated justices, who so recently (and successfully) lobbied the Lege that they themselves couldn't be expected to maintain high juridical standards at such piddling salaries.

We should hardly be surprised that the Texas justice who most loudly defended Harriet Miers as adequately qualified for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court should also find the state's public school system good enough for government work. But even as such things go, this opinion is a strained exercise in maintaining the political status quo, allowing the public schools to continue to deteriorate while Gov. Perry and the Legislature persist in the charade that all they need worry about is lowering property taxes.


The Next Shell Game

Reaction to the decision has been mixed but careful, as officials try to position themselves to approach an inevitable special legislative session necessitated by the court's new June 1, 2006, deadline. (Meanwhile, another 75,000 students will be added, without more funding, to the Texas schools). Gov. Perry welcomed the court opinion that "additional spending" was not necessarily the answer, while Democrats noted that even a Republican court had acknowledged that if the current pattern continues, the system would soon be both "unsuitable" and "inefficient." And from deep Inside the Beltway, anti-tax zealot (and Perry confidant) Grover Norquist advertised his willful ignorance by announcing that the court has declared "Robin Hood" (recapture) unconstitutional – although it has done nothing of the sort, and in fact did not question the now well-established principle of equity at all. (Getting there is another matter entirely.)

Nearer home, Austin Rep. Eddie Rodriguez lamented the timidity of the court's decision, and the even greater timidity of the legislative leadership, which has been studying the problem to death and will spend a few more months (at least until after the primaries) studying it some more. At the outset, noted Rodriguez, they have ruled out the most efficient and equitable solution – a personal income tax dedicated to replace property taxes while directly funding the schools.

Since Rodriguez is now our local Quixote on this matter, I'll let him have the last word. "The good news is that the Legislature must finally take action. The bad news is, we are: 1) still wasting time on studies, 2) still refusing to look to the most obvious solutions, and 3) still more worried about the politics of taxes than providing an excellent education system." end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

education funding, Supreme Court, school finance, Nathan Hecht, John Dietz, Rick Perry, Eddie Rodriguez, Harriet Miers, Scott Brister, Grover Norquist

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