August 28, 2014

Texas school finance unconstitutional: Judge Dietz slaps down Perry, Abbott

State District Judge John Dietz, upholding his initial ruling of last year on review, says that Texas' school finance system is unconstitutional.

Here is the basic background, to refresh you:
The case grew out the Legislature's cutting $5.4 billion from public education in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts responsible for educating three quarters of Texas' 5 million-plus public school students to sue. 
 They claimed they no longer had sufficient resources to educate students. The lawsuit cited Texas' school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students per year due to a booming population and the Legislature's increased demands for standardized testing and curriculum requirements to graduate high school.

As it turned out, of course, Texas' economy was nowhere near that dire, and Comptroller Susan Combs had good reason to know that before giving information that she did the the Lege.

Here's what happened next:
Dietz's initial verbal ruling came after 44 days of testimony, but he held off compiling a written ruling that would start the appeals process. Four month later, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion to classrooms, translating to a 2014-2015 public education budget worth nearly $56.3 billion, and slashing the number of standardized tests required for high school graduation from 15 to five. 
 Dietz then reopened the case this past January, hearing testimony on how the extra funding and curriculum standards overhaul had affected school districts. But the new evidence wasn't enough to change his mind.

Why?

Basically, because math!

Note that $3.4 billion is $2 billion less than $5.4 billion, first. Second, note that that was one budget cycle ago and didn't account for growth in student population. Third, even the 2011 budget before the $5.4 billion cut was inadequate.

The Dallas Morning News, here, addresses the growth issue part of the ruling.
The lawsuit cited Texas' school enrollment growth of nearly 80,000 students per year due to a booming population and the Legislature's increased demands for standardized testing and curriculum requirements to graduate high school.

The cut in standardized tests may have helped somewhat, but, it didn't address 80,000 new students per year. 

More details here from the Austin American-Statesman. Here's the bullet points of a 404-page ruling that notes Dietz found four specific constitutional problems.
• The Legislature has failed to suitably provide for Texas public schools because the school finance system “cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texans,” Dietz said in his order.
• The finance system is inadequate because it does not provide enough money to accomplish a “general diffusion of knowledge.
• The system effectively imposes a property tax, in violation of the Texas Constitution, because districts do not have “meaningful discretion” over how the taxes are raised, assessed or spent.
• The system is financially inefficient because all Texas students do not have equal access to the educational money needed.
“Consequently, the court enjoins further funding under the system until the constitutional infirmities are corrected,” Dietz wrote. 
As the ABC story at the second link notes, this will be a campaign issue.

As the Houston Chron notes, complete with the ruling documents on site, there's one small twist that's different from a year ago:
The ruling wasn't a victory for all the plaintiffs, however. Dietz denied declaratory relief for a group of charter schools that joined the suit, as well as a sixth group of so-called "efficiency interveners" pushing school vouchers and reforms to teacher tenure laws.

Whether that will cause a new wave of charter school creations, I don't know. And, the other issues have to make folks like the Texas State Teachers Association a bit leery. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has already asked why the office of Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott is defending the case. Assuming he appeals to the Supreme Court, that becomes a bigger issue and a bigger question.

Plus, per that story, assuming the state Supremes haven't made their final ruling before next year's Lege starts (I'm assuming Abbott appeals directly to there), it will create fireworks there for Speaker Joe Straus, the new guv, and the new lite guv.

Per the Chron, the political optics are already starting:
"Republicans like Sens. Dan Patrick (GOP lieutenant governor candidate) and (GOP Comptroller candidate) Glenn Hegar have touted their education cuts as a victory, and Attorney General Greg Abbott defended those cuts in court," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. "The decision today is clear: these cuts were bad for Texas students and our state."

That's about right.

Speaking of, Abbott's released a statement:
"Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago. In my campaign for governor, I have proposed substantial improvements for our schools that will do a better job of educating Texans while spending tax dollars wisely. My plan will make Texas top-ranked in the nation for education by returning genuine local control to school districts, ensuring all children are reading and doing math at grade level by third grade, and graduating more students from high school than ever before."
Translation? 

"I'm cheap, I'm hoping that the new loophole for charter schools is a massive one, inner cities are still SOL, and rural wingnuts are stuck with me."

Dan Patrick's is even stupider; he says that it's ultimately for the Lege to decide all of this, rejecting the idea of judicial review.

I don't know if Davis has a statement out yet or not.

Until she, her campaign, Battleground Texas, etc., learn that weekly newspapers exist in Texas, I'm not going fishing for any statement of hers, either. That said, it's not just her. It's Dan Patrick vs. Leticia Van de Putte. I'm sure that, as other statewide races gear up, it will also be other Democrats vs. other Republicans. If you're a Democrat running for statewide office and has a campaign staffer savvy enough to do email blasts, and you're refusing to reach out to smaller newspapers, I don't have a lot of use for you. You are somewhat fulfilling stereotypes that this is all about seven-eight counties in the state.

Meanwhile, back to the main point.

And, also, as if his abuse of power indictment isn't a political boat anchor enough, this, too could weigh on a 2016 Presidential run, if Perry is dumb enough to continue down that road.

That said, let's get back to Dietz's bullet points.

The first and second tie in with the Texas franchise tax and a Perry-pushed "reform" that's what, almost a decade old now? At the time, everybody with brains said it was inadequate and that's proven to be the case.

Bullet point 4 could be a bit dicey. It gets more at the issue of "equalization," beyond the failed "improvement" to the franchise tax. It could be interpreted as saying that the state needs to find better ways of distributing money, as well as distributing more of it, and not just for equalization purposes.

Bullet point 3? Depending on how it's interpreted, that sounds, although it's not new out of Dietz' mouth, like it could be a ticking time bomb.

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