AUSTIN, TX – Today, in a disappointing blow to equal educational opportunity, the Texas Supreme Court reversed a 2014 trial court ruling that declared the current state school finance system constitutionally inadequate, unsuitable, and inequitable for Texas school children.
The case, Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition vs. Williams, is the latest challenge to Texas’ school funding system, part of a long line of cases dating back decades. It is the largest school funding lawsuit in Texas history, joined by over 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students.
“The Court’s failure to fulfill its role in ensuring equal educational opportunity under the Texas Constitution represents a near-complete dereliction of duty,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel. “Leaving the acknowledged need to reform education finance solely in the hands of the Texas legislature violates our governing principle of checks and balances.”
In August 2014, Travis County District Court Judge, John K. Dietz, after almost four months of trial, issued a 400-page ruling holding that the current school finance system violates Article VII, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, and the prohibition on a state ad valorem tax under Article VIII, Section 1-e. He held the State’s school finance system is unconstitutional in the following ways:
– Fails to satisfy the adequacy standard by failing to provide school districts with the resources needed to provide English language learner (ELL) and low-income students an adequate education;
– Fails to satisfy the suitability standard by structuring the system in a way that prevents districts from providing an adequate education to ELL and low-income students;
– Fails to satisfy the efficiency/equity standard by forcing low-wealth districts to tax higher but generate substantially less revenue per student than high-wealth districts;
– Fails to satisfy the meaningful discretion standard by forcing school districts to tax at or near the property tax cap of $1.17.
At the district court trial, experts testified that the educational playing field remained inequitable despite a half-hearted 2013 legislative attempt to address the system’s constitutional infirmities. The lower court ruled that the Texas Legislature failed to increase funds for low-income and ELL students at the same time that it raised academic standards for all students. Property-poor school districts continue to access about $1,000 per student less than property-rich districts, resulting in larger class sizes, fewer high-quality teachers, and outdated instructional materials.
“MALDEF will not stop fighting until all Texas students, regardless of the neighborhood in which they happen to live, have an equal opportunity to a high-quality education,” said Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel and lead counsel in the case. “We urge the Legislature to invest in Texas’ educational system – for the good of all Texas students and the vitality of our state.”
Ms. Bono presented oral argument in September 2015 before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of the “Edgewood ISD Plaintiffs,” comprised of low-income and English language learner students and five property-poor school districts in Texas. MALDEF staff attorneys Celina Moreno and Jack Salmon also worked on the appellate case.