breaking news

Bombing suspect Mark A. Conditt proposed ending sex offender registry

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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Supreme Court sides with Texas death row inmate
Supreme Court sides with Texas death row inmate

Siding with a Texas death row inmate Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a lower court to take another look at Carlos Ayestas’ request for money to properly investigate the inmate’s claims of schizophrenia, history of brain injuries and similar issues. Known as mitigating evidence, such information is supposed to be provided...
Bombing investigators return to Austin FedEx facility, police say
Bombing investigators return to Austin FedEx facility, police say

Authorities investigating previous reports of a suspicious package at a FedEx ground facility near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport returned to the facility on Wednesday, the second response to the location in as many days. Earlier in the day, sources told the American-Statesman that suspected Austin serial bomber who apparently killed himself...
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Authorities converge on Pflugerville home in Austin bombing case
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Authorities converge on Pflugerville home in Austin bombing case

Authorities have blocked off portions of North Second Street in Pflugerville, the location of a home linked to Mark Conditt, the suspect in a series of deadly Austin bombings. Texas Department of Public Safety troopers blocked off traffic to the street where Conditt may have lived but would not confirm that the blockade was related to the bombing investigation...
THE SUSPECT: Mark A. Conditt proposed ending sex offender registry
THE SUSPECT: Mark A. Conditt proposed ending sex offender registry

11:30 a.m. update: In 2012, when he was 17 years old, Austin bombing suspect Mark Conditt laid out his political views in a series of blog posts he wrote for an Austin Community College course on U.S. government. No motive for the bombings has been disclosed, either by the bomber or by authorities. Four bombings in Austin over 17 days left two people...
Criner’s lawyers want DNA evidence in Haruka Weiser case tossed
Criner’s lawyers want DNA evidence in Haruka Weiser case tossed

Lawyers will discuss DNA evidence Wednesday in the murder trial of the man suspected of killing University of Texas freshman Haruka Weiser in April 2016. The defense for Meechaiel Criner is trying to get results from a DNA test tossed from his July trial. They have argued the testing was flawed. Criner is accused of strangling Weiser, whose body was...
More Stories