3 years in, Texas' slow-moving school finance trial heads to state Supreme Court



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FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2013 file photo, Cate Foughty, 6, of Frisco, Texas, takes part in a rally for Texas public schools at the state Capitol, in Austin, Texas. Ninth-graders who were barely a month into high school when Texas’ latest school finance trial began in 2012 are now entering their senior year. There’s no end in sight for the case, in which oral arguments begin Tuesday in front of the state Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)


FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2013 file photo, teachers, students, parents and school administrators march up Congress Avenue to the state Capitol, in Austin, Texas to a rally for Texas public schools. Ninth-graders who were barely a month into high school when Texas’ latest school finance trial began in 2012 are now entering their senior year. There’s no end in sight for the case, in which oral arguments begin Tuesday in front of the state Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)


AUSTIN, Texas — Kids who were barely a month into their first year of high school when Texas' latest school finance trial began are now seniors — and there's still no end in sight.

The next stop is the state Supreme Court, which hears oral arguments Tuesday.

Attorneys for more than 600 school districts suing Texas argue that the funding is inadequate and unfairly distributed, making it hard for students and schools to meet stringent academic standards. Attorney General Ken Paxton's office counters that, while not perfect, public education money meets state constitutional requirements for an efficient system providing a "general diffusion of knowledge."

Both sides agree that nothing about the case is simple. With no state income tax, school districts rely heavily on property taxes and a "Robin Hood" system mandating that those in wealthy areas share levies with poorer counterparts. In a public school system whose size is second only to California's, more than 60 percent of the 5.2-plus million children now come from economically disadvantaged homes and the number continues to rise.

The all-Republican high court will decide whether to uphold Democratic District Judge John Dietz's rulings that have declared the school finance system unconstitutional. There's no timetable for the court's decision in the state's sixth school finance case since 1984.

If it sides with Dietz, the GOP-controlled Legislature would have to devise something new; it's unclear whether the governor would need to convene a special session or wait until lawmakers are next scheduled to return to the Texas Capitol in 2017. And the Supreme Court may further slow the process by remanding the case back to lower courts.

Legal battles over school finance are common nationwide — and often crawl along. The high court in Washington state recently ordered $100,000 in daily fines until the governor and Legislature devised a new funding system, while a lawsuit filed by several Kansas school districts has again returned to the state Supreme Court.

In Texas, school districts in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side of the case, with those in well-to-do areas saying that voters who would otherwise support property tax increases refuse to do so for schools, knowing "Robin Hood" will send much of the money elsewhere.

"It's an open-and-shut case if they apply the facts of the law," said attorney David Hinojosa, who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and low-income school districts. Paxton's office doesn't discuss legal strategies outside court.

At issue is a 2011 move by the Legislature, which, reeling from the Great Recession, cut $5.4 billion from public schools and grant programs. Texas saw its per-pupil spending fall more than 8 percent to $8,213 between 2011 and 2012 alone, according to federal National Center for Education Statistics. School districts reduced services like busing, and staff cuts led to a spike in the number of campuses being exempted from state requirements that class sizes for kindergarten through fourth grade not exceed 22 students per teacher.

The districts that sued, responsible for more than three-quarters of Texas' students, said the cuts have made it impossible to meet state academic standards, especially amid a population boom bringing an average of 80,000 new students per year.

The case began in October 2012 and Dietz first declared the system unconstitutional four months later. Lawmakers responded in 2013 by restoring more than $3 billion to classrooms while easing academic standards. Dietz reopened the case after that, again finding the funding unconstitutional, a ruling that set up the state's appeal to the Supreme Court.

Though Texas spent $53.3 billion in federal, state and local classroom funding in the 2014-2015 academic year, attorneys for school districts maintain there's still too little money for too-high standards, especially since enrollment growth has largely been driven by students who need extra instruction to learn English and are therefore more expensive to educate.

"It's a real problem since politicians look at the $5 billion in cuts and say, 'The sky hasn't fallen,' but they're not looking at the long term," said Chandra Villanueva of the Center for Public Priorities, a left-leaning Austin think tank.

During this year's session, state lawmakers approved $1.5 billion more for schools — only enough to cover growing enrollment. But a bipartisan House plan to overhaul the school finance system without waiting for the Supreme Court didn't even make it to the floor, ensuring the matter stays tied up in the legal system.

"Lots of things happen that drive these lawsuits to be filed that are complex issues," said Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican who sponsored the failed fix. "They are not resolved quickly."

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