Few solutions in wake of Texas school finance ruling

AP News
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Posted: May 15, 2016 12:24 PM
Few solutions in wake of Texas school finance ruling

DALLAS (AP) — Now that it's clear Texas' complicated school finance system is here to stay, cash-strapped districts around the state must find a way to move forward — whether that's pressuring lawmakers for more money or finding a taste for raising property taxes.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected arguments Friday by a coalition of 600-plus districts that the "Robin Hood" school funding system, in which wealthy districts share local property tax revenue with those in poorer areas, was unconstitutional.

The unanimous decision, which stemmed from a lawsuit over the GOP-led Legislature's 2011 move to cut $5.4 billion in education funding, does not mandate the Legislature to do anything, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Republicans at the party convention that the issue "for now, has been resolved."

But that didn't keep the justices from urging that lawmakers should do something. As Justice Don R. Willett wrote, they have "vast discretion in fulfilling their constitutional duty to fashion a school system fit for our dynamic and fast-growing state's unique characteristics. We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas."

Whether lawmakers will accept that challenge remains to be seen. When the 2017 legislative session convenes in January, there will be a number of other financial obligations, including covering the continued costs of $3.8 billion in property and business tax cuts, fixing the state's embattled foster care system and finding more money for a road and highway network overtaxed by a booming population.

Plus, Patrick has promised to make up $4 billion in federal funding for free and reduced-price school lunches that will disappear if Texas defies the Obama administration's order to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

Patrick and many other Republicans in the state Legislature seized on the ruling to advocate for increasing "school choice" in the form of expanded charter schools and voucher programs. Outnumbered Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, said 2017 should bring a major effort to strengthen traditional public schools — though that will be a tough sell.

"The issue requires the Texas Legislature's undivided attention this next session," said Buddy Guerra, a Democrat from McAllen on Texas' border with Mexico. "The future of our state is at stake."

The high court made clear that "kids deserve transformational top-to-bottom reform," said Karen Rue, president of the Texas Association of School Administrators. What's needed the most, she says, is a better understanding of what it costs to educate 5.2 million students — second-most in the U.S. after California.

"What does it take in today's economic environment to actually turn on the lights, pay teachers, provide training" and does that amount ensure that students are ready for college, Rue asked.

The Texas State Teachers Association notes that the state spends an average of $9,561 per student annually, below the national average of $12,251. But Rue, who is a superintendent in a district north of Fort Worth, noted there's an array of rankings to see how one state compares to the next. "Whether or not they fit us is really the point," she said.

Texas' overall funding mechanism is similar to ones found in many other states, with base funding that's augmented by extra "weights" for those who need specialized or extra instruction, according to Allan Odden, a national school finance expert based in Chicago.

"The one wrinkle for Texas is that special component to get resources from high-wealth districts to low-wealth districts," Odden said. "That's a unique Texas thing."

What's important for districts to determine, he said, is whether money is being used efficiently. Odden said studies don't indicate whether student performance improves if a school focuses on small classrooms, and there's no discernable benefit to offering more electives to keep students engaged.

Public schools rely heavily on property taxes because Texas has no state income tax, so unless the Legislature changes the funding formula, the only way districts will be able to keep up with rising costs is increasing taxes, Texas Classroom Teachers Association general counsel Lonnie Hollingsworth said.

But if that happens, then lawmakers need to ensure that money stays with the local school district instead of diverting it to other purposes statewide.

"Had this mechanism been in place years ago, the schools would be in a much better situation," Hollingsworth said.

All told, the issue isn't going away, said attorney Rick Gray, who represented more than 400 districts in mostly poorer areas in the case that the Supreme Court decided Friday.

"What school districts have to do is turn to the Legislature and ask, and try and force, Texas lawmakers to do their jobs," Gray said. "There's enough good Texans in the Legislature that will realize that changes need to be made."

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Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Dallas contributed to this report.

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Follow David Warren on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/WarrenJourno