AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Attorneys for 600-plus school districts suing Texas told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday that the GOP-controlled Legislature doesn't provide enough funding for classrooms and distributes it unfairly, especially given ever-tougher academic curriculum standards and a population boom pushing enrollment to record levels.
The state countered that, while not perfect, the system meets standards set in the Texas Constitution of 1876 mandating a "general diffusion of knowledge" — and that the all-Republican court shouldn't take the job of distributing money away from lawmakers.
"We want to do better, we are not where we want to be, but the system is constitutionally adequate," Assistant Solicitor General Rance Craft said. He and others arguing for Texas said repeatedly that "more money doesn't necessarily guarantee better-educated students" and pointed to federal data showing high school graduation rates have steadily risen and are among the country's highest.
With no state income tax, school districts rely heavily on money from local property taxes and a "Robin Hood" system mandating that districts in wealthy areas share tax levies with poorer counterparts.
The case is the latest in nearly 30 years of Texas school finance legal fights, and started in 2011, when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education and grant programs. Those cuts have made it impossible to meet state academic standards set by lawmakers, according to the suing districts, which are responsible for educating more than three-quarters of Texas' 5.2 million students — a population they say is growing by an average of 80,000 students per year.
In a public school system whose size is second only to California's, more than 60 percent of students now come from economically disadvantaged homes. Those kids, as well as some 17 percent of students statewide who need instruction in English as a Second Language, generally require more resources to educate, school districts argue.
Enrollment growth statewide has been driven almost entirely by minority students, said one of the attorneys representing school districts, Rick Gray, and many of those come from economically disadvantaged homes or need ESL instruction.
"We can sugarcoat this any way you want to sugarcoat this," Gray said, "but the reality is the face of Texas is changing dramatically."
Attorney Marisa Bono, representing school districts in mostly-low income areas, said Texas is no longer adequately preparing its high school graduates — a sign of things to come.
"The state's failure jeopardizes our economy and our way of life," Bono said.
Schools in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side of the case, with those in well-to-do areas saying that voters who would otherwise support property tax increases refuse to do so for schools, knowing the funding mechanism will send much of the money elsewhere.
State District Judge John Dietz has twice declared the system unconstitutional. One of those decisions came despite the Legislature pumping $3 billion-plus back into schools in 2013 and easing high school graduation requirements. During this year's session, lawmakers approved about $1.5 billion more for schools — only enough to cover growing enrollment.
"The amounts that they put in have not replaced the amounts they reduced in 2011," said Wallace Jefferson, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice who argued on behalf of the state's largest school districts Tuesday. "You're going in the exact opposite direction."
After the hearing, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller summed up the case as about "who sets education policy."
"The argument is simple," Keller said. "It's the peoples' representatives, it's the Legislature."
The court heard about three hours of oral arguments, but isn't expected to rule for weeks. If it sides with Dietz, it will be up to the Legislature to devise a new school funding formula.
Still, Justice Don Willett noted that any long-term solution won't be easy, since, as he put it, Texas has "lurched" from "finger-wagging lawsuit to finger-wagging lawsuit."
Eds: The story has been corrected to show that Justice Don Willett's last name is spelled Willett, not Willet.