Published: 23 October 2012 08:22 PM
The state’s latest school finance lawsuit is only into its first week of hearings, but this much already is clear: Poor and wealthy districts aren’t fighting each other. They are united in protesting that lawmakers aren’t adequately funding Texas schools. It is not often that you see rich and poor districts partnering in a school finance case.
Equally compelling is that suburban, urban and rural districts are making the same funding point. So are charter schools. In fact, most corners of Texas are saddling up together in this suit, in which the main contention is that legislators aren’t meeting their constitutional duty to provide resources for a decent education.
The plaintiffs have on their side the massive $5.4 billion cut that legislators took out of school budgets during the 2011 Legislature. Plus, the state has limited local districts’ ability to raise funds. In 2006, legislators put an arbitrary cap on the rate districts can charge property-tax payers without calling an election to go beyond the ceiling.
Most districts have not called raise-the-rate elections. David Thompson, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, made a persuasive point before the trial began: Even if all districts in the state did raise their rates to the top, they couldn’t together make up the $5.4 billion collective whack that they took.
Going forward, schools need resources to meet the state’s increasing requirements for students. We long have supported higher benchmarks, so we are not arguing against them. We are glad that more high school students are taking the state’s most rigorous degree plan. We also like that many Texas students are showing progress on the state achievement exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But it’s hard to see how schools can sustain some of their progress if they continue to struggle for dollars. They need a reliable revenue stream so students have access to good teachers and relevant materials.
Another reality bolstering the plaintiffs is the troubling gaps in funding levels across the state. This isn’t the old rich-districts-can-raise-more-money argument. This time around, most districts are underfunded. It’s just that some are more underfunded than others. That isn’t healthy for a state that needs to provide a quality education across all parts of Texas.
To be sure, districts must focus on spending their money prudently. We’re glad that a separate group of plaintiffs wants the court to focus on the financial accountability of districts.
This case will continue to run for several more weeks, so much more evidence will be displayed by both the plaintiffs and the state. School districts, however, are starting with a strong case, one that state legislators should closely follow.