Mackowiak: School finance decision is hardly final

The 2015 legislative session is going to be intense. Significant budget, transportation, water, border security issues — as well as property-tax and education reform — all await the new Texas Legislature in January, which has only 140 days in the regular session.

Now, potentially add the hugely complex and hypercharged issue of school finance to the session — or even a special session.

Just before Labor Day weekend, State District Judge John Dietz of Austin ruled in favor of 600 school districts that say the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional by imposing a state property tax and falling short of the state’s own education goals. Judge Dietz ordered that the Legislature must remedy the system by July 2015.

In response to the ruling, a spokesman from the office of the Texas attorney general said, “The state will appeal and will defend this [school finance] law, just as it defends all laws enacted by the legislature when they are challenged in court.”

Indeed, the final word rests with the Texas Supreme Court, which could overturn the ruling by Dietz.

On the merits, a recent Killeen Daily Herald editorial summed up the “statewide property tax” charge like this: It is “what you get when the state tells you what services need to be provided and then caps the amount of money you can raise to get it done.”

But how much is enough?

The Dallas Morning News reports that “Texas spends nearly $60 billion a year on its schools, which includes billions in federal funding and local property tax revenue.” Texas has five million students in public schools.

So we spend an average of $12,000 per pupil per year. That is more than some four-year colleges. Is that not sufficient?

Recall that Dietz originally ruled that the state’s funding system was unconstitutional in February 2013, but he withheld that final decision until after the 2013 legislative session. Last year, the Legislature restored $3.4 billion in school funding in the current biennium ($5.4 billion was cut to balance the budget in 2011). The Legislature also cut standardized tests by two-thirds for graduation standards.

Republicans believed this should have been enough to assuage the concerns of Dietz. Apparently, it wasn’t.

However Dietz’s impartiality has been questioned after Attorney General Greg Abbott took the unusual step of asking Dietz to recuse himself from the case in light of emails that Abbott believes show Dietz coaching the plaintiff’s counsel. Fourth Administrative District Judge David Peeples declined the recusal motion in June.

As lieutenant governor candidate and State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has noted, this ruling is the opinion of one judge in Travis County.

Had he ruled for the state, the plaintiffs surely would have appealed, so we are in the same spot either way.

The central policy questions, which the Legislature may need to address next year, are:

  • What is an “adequate” level of funding?
  • How do you ensure that poor school districts have equal performance with rich ones?
  • Do we effectively have a statewide property tax today?

State spending on education must be accountable. Not every funding cut is wrong. If we increase education spending but the number of failing schools also increases, then aren’t we needlessly wasting tax dollars?

It is likely that the Legislature will have to grapple with this sometime in 2015, after the Texas Supreme Court rules on the matter.

Any state education reform must include school choice, because the state’s dollars should follow the child, not fund stale bureaucracies. Competition is a necessary ingredient for improvement.

Matt Mackowiak is syndicated columnist and an Austin- and Washington-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC.

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