McALLEN, February 5 - Border senators have praised a state district judge for ruling that the Texas public school finance system is arbitrary, inequitable and inadequate under the Texas Constitution.
In an oral ruling, Travis County District Court Judge John K. Dietz on Monday said low-wealth school districts lack local control over their tax rates. Plaintiffs such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had argued that state money is inadequately and unfairly distributed to public schools.
MALDEF wants the school finance system to provide equal educational opportunities for all students, including low-income and English-language learner children and those educated in low-property wealth school districts.
“Judge Dietz's ruling is clear and unambiguous. Texas' school finance system is broken and must be fixed,” said state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. “The Legislature should act now to create a system that is fair and efficient. With our children's future at stake, the appeals process should not be used as an excuse for delay.”
The consolidated case, Edgewood Independent School District v. Williams, was initially filed in December 2011.More than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's five million-plus public school students joined the lawsuit, including many from the border region. They claimed the state was not providing adequate funding and that what funding was provided was unfairly distributed. They said the decision by lawmakers in 2011 to cut public education funding and educational grant programs by $5.4 billion only made the situation worse.
Uresti chairs the Senate Hispanic Caucus. He said school finance reforms should reflect the new face of Texas. “Latinos now account for more than half of all Texas public school students. The school funding system must account for the special needs of property poor districts, high dropout rates, and other challenges faced by this community.”
Attorneys for the state contended that although the system is lacking, it is not unconstitutional.
“The state had to make that argument to defend the suit, but it's a sad commentary on our priorities. It tells our children that mediocrity will do,” Uresti said. “We need to craft a school finance system that's more than just legal, and we should do it now.”
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, agreed with Uresti’s analysis.
“Judge Dietz's ruling today that Texas' school finance system is unconstitutional is no surprise. The system is broken, and our children deserve a permanent solution to the problem. Now is the time to work swiftly and purposefully to arrive at a school finance solution that is fair and equitable for all Texas children,” Zaffirini said.
“Today's decision also reflects the need to fund our public schools more adequately and fairly. To remedy the situation immediately, legislators should restore the $5 billion cuts from public education in 2011.”
Zaffirini pointed out that she voted against the appropriations bill last session. “This year's budget should be better for education and for health and human services,” she said.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, offered this analysis of Dietz’s ruling:
“Today proved that we need to start working today to fulfill the constitutional promise -- enshrined in Texas' origin -- of fair education for millions of students in the state. This ruling is evidence that Texas can do better. We're not at the end of this journey, which started decades ago. But I hope this will be a step toward finding a solution.
“While the judge's ruling does not solve this problem, there are some things we can do immediately. Restoring the cuts from last session to school district budgets, pre-k programs, bilingual education and other programs that are important to my constituents and to the future of the state should be a priority this legislative session.”
In its statement, MALDEF noted that that Dietz criticized the State for failing to meet its obligation to provide equitable funding for children in property-poor school districts. MALDEF pointed out that Dietz noted that children in property-poor districts do not have access to substantially equal access to similar revenue at similar tax efforts.
MALDEF also pointed out that the Dietz detailed the failures of the system for low-income and English-language learner children. Dietz had noted the tremendous growth of these student groups across Texas and the greater challenges they bring to Texas schools, especially in light of increased academic standards. Dietz said “the miracle and promise of education is unlocking the potential of every child as you find them.” He also noted that the State is not producing career-ready and college-ready students and ruled the system inadequate for all schoolchildren.
“This afternoon's decision provides hope that Texas might one day actually invest adequately and fairly in the education of all its children. Given the size and growth of Texas, our entire nation must work to ensure that the state of Texas responds to this decision by acting immediately to fix its broken school-finance scheme,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel.
“The State of Texas set up this recipe for disaster by shortchanging the education of students in low-wealth districts and cutting funding in the face of a growing population of high-need students and increasing standards and mandates,” said David Hinojosa, southwest regional counsel for MALDEF. “Today’s ruling is a victory for Texas school children and the future of Texas. We now call upon the Legislature to do what is right by investing in the students and ensuring they all have access to a high quality education.”
MALDEF noted that Dietz declared the school finance system unconstitutional because it did not allow low-wealth school districts discretion in setting their tax rates. Such districts claimed they are forced to tax at the maximum rate because of increased mandates.
MALDEF counsel included staff attorneys Marisa Bono and Rebecca Couto. Maribel Hernandez Rivera and the law firm of Fried Frank provided pro bono assistance.