The Texas School Finance Trial: Dedication to the Status Quo

One of the few things that virtually everyone in the Texas education community agrees on is that our school finance system is terrible. We've been suing ourselves repeatedly (seven times in total) for the last five decades in an effort to make it less terrible, most recently in a series of lawsuits that began getting filed in October 2011.

Explaining a fifty year mess in two paragraphs is heavy work, so bear with me. Our school finance system is funded largely through property taxes collected and distributed at the school district level. So, in theory, every district is responsible for funding its own schools. But, not all property is of equal value. The discrepancy between property rich and property poor districts' capacity to generate education funding was at the heart of the four finance lawsuits that took place prior to 1991.

To combat this discrepancy, the Texas Legislature implemented a system of property wealth recapture and redistribution, (un)popularly known as the "Robin Hood" laws. These laws dictated that if a school district generated revenue beyond a certain level, a portion of their funding had to be given to property poorer districts, either via direct partnership with one of those districts or through state channels.

Robin Hood has satisfied no one. The current round of litigation includes suits from property poor districts claiming they are still insufficiently funded, property rich districts claiming their portion of the school funding burden is too high, and MALDEF, claiming the needs of the state's English language learning population are not being met. Throw in a group of efficiency interveners attempting to bring competition to our education system, and you have an impressive array of unhappy Texans trying to change the way we fund our schools.

On February 4th, 2013, 250th District Court Judge John Dietz handed down his ruling. We are, he said, under funding our schools, possibly to the tune of $2,000 dollars per student, or $10 to $11 billion dollars in total. Our school finance system fails to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a general diffusion of knowledge to Texas students, and is therefore unconstitutional. In short, we need a new one.

The bright side here is that this ruling, if it survives a trip through the state's appellate and supreme courts, will get us a new school finance system, something we absolutely need. The rest of it is bleak. The solutions to the problems in Texas education cannot be addressed with money alone.

Dietz' ruling is grounded in the idea that we are not funding our students adequately. The fact of the matter is that no one in education has a firm sense of what "adequate" really looks like when it comes to per-pupil funding. Once you adjust for cost of living, Texas funds its students at 97 percent of the national average, per the most recent available data from the National Education Association (NEA). Relative to other states, we are certainly not under funding our students.

Where we do fall short of other states is in the openness and competitiveness of our education system, and in the arena of parental empowerment. Education research indicates that no factor will have greater sway on a child's academic success than an involved support system. Obviously that's hard to legislate for. One of the few ways researchers have found to encourage as much in parents is to provide them as much opportunity as possible to have a say in how (or where) their child is educated.

The lack of school choice in Texas today--no private school choice at all, a cap on our charter schools, limited access to online learning--provides families, particularly low income families, with few options along these lines. If Judge Dietz had chosen to, he could have ruled that competition would indeed be of benefit to the Texas education system, per the request of the efficiency interveners. Instead, he punted that issue back to our lawmakers, deeming in the purview of the Legislature--the same Legislature that has proved repeatedly reluctant to make any substantial reforms when it comes to education in this state.

This process is a long way from over. The rumblings here are that the Legislature will not take up the school finance issue until has a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court. There's a good chance that won't be until the start of the 84th Texas Legislature in 2015. From there, anything could happen. Perhaps our lawmakers will take it upon themselves to finally make Texas education a competitive system in which our parents are empowered and every student has a fair shot at a great education (if they do not do so sooner; we may yet see as much in 2013). But Judge Dietz' ruling, which is a blanket declaration that we need to be spending more money, suggests an overly simple fix to the complex issues that influence education in our state.