This Tuesday the Texas Supreme Court will open the next chapter of the Texas school finance saga. For more than 30 years districts have been suing the state over funding. The current lawsuit, filed in 2011 after the state legislature cut $5.4 billion from public schools, claims that current funding is inadequate and inequitable.
Chandra Kring Villanueva, a policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) said this is the strongest case yet filed against the state.
“This is the first time the district court has ruled on adequacy,” Villanueva said.
The Texas Supreme Court will hear the appeal originally brought by Gov. Greg Abbott while he was the state attorney general and after District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the finance system unconstitutional.
While district hearings stretched on for weeks, Villanueva expects the Supreme Court hearing to last for a mere two-and-a-half to three-hours. Every party will make their claim, and the state will rebut, sending the court away with testimony and more than 1 million pages of written submitted evidence. The CPPP does not expect to see a verdict until spring of 2016.
The plaintiffs are organizations representing Texas businesses, charter schools, 400 property-poor districts, and 60 wealthier Texas school districts. They are seeking more than a restored budget.
“It’s not really about an exact number,” Villanueva said.
They want a new system of school funding. They want a dynamic formula that will account for inflation, unequal property tax bases, and increasing rigor and requirements. They want an increase in the per student basic allotment (the amount of money a school receives from the state per student enrolled in their school) and other changes to the formula to make schools less reliant on property tax, a major driver for inequality.
Villanueva compares the current system to an old house that no one is willing to maintain. It remains frozen in time, unable to meet the needs of a changing and growing student population.
“We’re not allowing education to experience the prosperity that the rest of the state is experiencing,” Villanueva said.
The old house started out well. Texas was one of the first states to realize that districts with high levels of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners would need more state funding than the more affluent districts. But, like many of the more progressive ideas in the state, it was never funded by the legislature.
Over the years legislatures have funded quick fixes like raising the basic allotment by minimal amounts. Last session the legislature raised the basic allotment by $100 per student for 2016 and 2017. According to the CPPP, this is not even enough to cover inflation on the cost of education. Villanueva compares this to putting duct tape on the plumbing. To adequately and equitably serve the students of Texas, she argues that we need to be thinking about a full remodel and continued maintenance.
To end the cycle of lawsuits and shoddy patches, the plaintiffs want to see an equitable renovation of the school finance system with growth in mind. Villanueva suggested these structural changes that would create the dynamic system the state needs:
- An inflation adjustment factor included into the formula.
- Appropriate weights applied to economically disadvantages. Currently these students are funded at 20% above the basic allotment, though the original recommend funding was 40%.
- Raising the basic allotment so that property tax no longer accounts for 58% of district funding.
“As long as the system is overly reliant on local property tax, there will continue to be inequity,” Villanueva said.
San Antonio sees this inequity at work even more than other cities because of it’s fragmented districts. In Austin, Houston, and Dallas, the city essentially has one district, widening the tax base, and consolidating administration costs. While their metro-area suburban districts like Plano and Katy are predictably more affluent, there is some diversity across the cities’ proper.
San Antonio on the other hand has middle-class districts like North East Independent School District and Northside Independent School District cut off from districts like Edgewood Independent School District and San Antonio Independent School District where the percentage of economically disadvantaged students is more than 90%. Edgewood in particular has long been an example of the tragic effects of under funded schools with insufficient local property tax base.
“Edgewood has been a major player in school finance litigation,” Villanueva said.
Recognizing this institutionalized inequality, San Antonians attempted to consolidate the districts many times over the 20th century. In the end, concerns over administration accessibility and regional control have prevailed. San Antonio Independent School District has absorbed three districts in the past, however the districts with the most and least resources remain disconnected.
School finance reform has an uphill battle ahead. Not only will it face the conservative Texas Supreme Court, but, should it progress, the overhaul of the “old house” will be at the hands of the legislature.
For the 600-plus districts filing suit, the fight is not only worth the effort, it’s a fight for their survival as independent school districts able to educate their students to state and national standards. The alternative is a slow deterioration, leaving Texas students underserved and lagging behind their peers across the nation and just across town.
*Featured/top image: A student participates in a workshop at Lanier High School. Photo by Scott Ball.