Travis County District Court Declares Current Texas School Finance System Unconstitutional — Again
Current Finance System Violates Students’ Rights to an Adequate and Equitable Education
AUSTIN, TX — Today, Travis County District Court Judge John K. Dietz issued his final judgment, declaring the current Texas school finance system inadequate, unsuitable, and inequitable for Texas school children under Article VII, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, and in violation of the prohibition on a state ad valorem tax under Article VIII, Section 1-e. “Rather than attempt to solve the problem, the State has buried its head in the sand, making no effort to determine the cost of providing all students with a meaningful opportunity to acquire the essential knowledge and skills reflected in the state curriculum and to graduate at a college- and career-ready level,” Judge Dietz stated in his scathing rebuke of the school system. This long-anticipated ruling follows a three-week hearing earlier this year after Judge Dietz reopened the evidence in the wake of statutory changes made to the public education system during the 2013 Legislative session. On February 4, 2013, he issued a similar ruling from the bench following a three-month trial.
“This powerful ruling provides Texas with the opportunity to secure its own successful future, as well as the state’s future contribution to our national prosperity, by finally ensuring that it invests wisely and sufficiently in the educational success of all Texas children,” stated Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel. “Business as usual, which in Texas regrettably includes perpetuating longstanding patterns of discrimination, would simply ensure the state’s slow but steady educational decline.”
The suit was joined by over 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students. On the final day of trial on February 4, 2013, the Court held the school finance system unconstitutional. However, before the Court entered its final judgment, the 83rd Legislature passed several bills implicating the claims. The Court reopened the evidence, over the objection of MALDEF, which argued that the changes were inconsequential. The three-week evidentiary hearing concluded February 7, 2014.
MALDEF’s clients and experts in the case testified that the playing field remained unequal, with property-poor school districts having approximately $1,000 per student less than property rich districts-despite taxing 10-cents higher. Experts also testified that the legislature failed to increase funds for low-income and ELL students, who continue to struggle to meet minimum standards on the State’s more rigorous STAAR standardized tests. The absence of sufficient resources for these at-risk students particularly troubled the court; the court’s findings are riddled with examples of the challenges those students face and of unacceptable, substantial achievement gaps.
“If this ruling does not serve as the wake-up call for our Legislature to provide equal educational opportunities for all, then I’m not sure anything ever will,” stated MALDEF lead counsel David Hinojosa. “We call on the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty of ensuring that every Texas child has the resources needed to achieve their true potential.”
Judge Dietz declared that the school finance system fails to satisfy the Texas Constitution’s:
- adequacy standard by failing to provide school districts with the resources needed to provide ELL and low-income students an adequate education;
- suitability standard by structuring the system in a way that prevents districts from providing an adequate education to ELL and low-income students;
- efficiency/equity standard by forcing low-wealth districts to tax higher but generate substantially less revenue per student than high-wealth districts;
- meaningful discretion standard by forcing school districts to tax at or near the property tax cap of $1.17.
The Court ordered Texas to correct the violation before July 1, 2015, or else face an injunction enjoining the school finance system.
“This is an historic day for the State’s school children and school districts,” stated Edgewood I.S.D. Superintendent Dr. José Cervantes. “Texas communities should be proud of this decision and hopefully it will bring the districts involved the resources needed to help all students succeed in the classroom and in life.”
“The fact that the State of Texas holds all kids to the same rigorous standards but provides far fewer resources to families like mine based on the zip code we live in is appalling. I am grateful for this decision and hope that if the State appeals, the Supreme Court will work to correct this grave injustice,” stated plaintiff-parent Ms. Yolanda Canales who testified in the case.
MALDEF Staff Attorneys Marisa Bono and Celina Moreno and META Executive Director Roger Rice serve as co-counsel. MALDEF and META represent parents of low-income and ELL students attending public schools in Pasadena ISD and Amarillo ISD, and the following low-wealth school districts: Edgewood ISD, Harlingen CISD, La Feria ISD, McAllen ISD and San Benito CISD.