State’s school finance system is legal, Texas Supreme Court rules

The way Texas funds its public schools is far from perfect, but it’s good enough, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday, bringing an abrupt end to a years-long legal fight from school districts anxious for more state money to educate children.

The unanimous decision was an emphatic victory for state officials and Republican leaders who argued that education problems couldn’t be fixed simply by directing more money to schools.

The ruling — the court’s seventh decision on school finance lawsuits since the late 1980s — also will likely limit future legal challenges by emphasizing that school finance policy must be determined by the Legislature, not the courts.

“Our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy,” Justice Don Willett wrote for the all-Republican court. “Our role is much more limited, as is our holding: Despite the imperfections of the current school funding regime, it meets minimum constitutional requirements.”

Still, Willett wrote, schoolchildren deserve better, and the court advocated “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

But the court gave legislators no mandate to change a system it described as “ossified” and ill-suited for the 21st century, and proposed school finance fixes could easily be overwhelmed in a 2017 legislative session that will be dominated by a tight budget and hot-button issues that will include religious freedom, transgender bathrooms and researchers’ use of fetal tissue.

Gov. Greg Abbott praised the ruling as a landmark in Texas politics and a victory for taxpayers.

“The Supreme Court’s decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the state’s school finance system,” Abbott said.

School districts complained that the ruling did nothing to alleviate the unfair burden placed on local taxpayers, while education advocates said the court ignored its responsibility to repair a broken system.

“The Texas Supreme Court abandoned its duty to defend the interests of Texas’ 5.3 million public school students,” said Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers. “Texas schools are underfunded, inequitably funded, and force an inordinate share of the cost of education onto local school districts and their taxpayers.”

Two-thirds of the state’s school districts — including Austin, Pflugerville and Hutto — filed four separate lawsuits in 2011 complaining that, among other things, the state isn’t providing enough money to ensure a proper public school education, particularly for the growing number of low-income and foreign-language students.

The four lawsuits, plus challenges by charter schools and business interests, were wrapped into one massive case that led to almost four months of trial, more than 90 witnesses and about 5,700 exhibits before state District Judge John Dietz from 2012-14.

Dietz, a now-retired Democrat from Travis County, found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional in August 2014. His 404-page decision relied on 1,626 separate findings to painstakingly document his conclusion that by every measure presented to his court — including passing rates on state-mandated tests, college-entrance test scores and graduation and dropout rates — Texas schools are falling short “due to inadequate funding.”

“Texas schoolchildren, particularly the economically disadvantaged and English-language learners, are denied access to that education needed to participate fully in the social, economic and educational opportunities available in Texas,” Dietz wrote.

But the Texas Supreme Court, in Friday’s 100-page opinion and two concurring opinions, rejected Dietz’s conclusions as flawed because he based his analysis on the amount of money that should be spent per student to provide an adequate education.

There is an active debate among social scientists, however, about how much cost affects quality, Willett wrote.

“What is not clear, given the current state of knowledge in the social sciences, is that spending a specific amount of additional money necessarily correlates to a better education,” he wrote.

“We have never sanctioned a trial court’s ordering the Legislature to spend a specific amount of money on the schools to achieve constitutional adequacy, as doing so would deprive the Legislature of the broad discretion the Constitution provides for such inherently political decisions,” the ruling said.

The court also rejected Dietz’s finding that the school finance system amounted to an illegal statewide property tax.

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