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AUSTIN, Texas –State District Judge John Dietz heard closing arguments today at the conclusion of a three-week evidentiary hearing, which focused on whether the actions of the 83rd Legislature impacted his prior ruling that the school finance system was unconstitutional.
Just over a year ago, Judge Dietz ruled in favor of both of the claims brought by the Calhoun County ISD plaintiffs, a group of 88 school districts represented by Mark Trachtenberg and John Turner, partners with Haynes and Boone, LLP. Judge Dietz held that the school finance system had evolved into an unconstitutional state property tax and that the system failed to provide the Texas school districts access to funding sufficient to provide a constitutionally adequate education. Last June, he reopened the record to assess the impact of recent legislative actions.
Counsel for the Calhoun County ISD plaintiffs are confident that the evidence presented during the three-week hearing demonstrated the continuing unconstitutionality of the school finance system. “The court was absolutely right to find the school finance system inadequate and unsuitable and in violation of the state property tax prohibition last year,” said Trachtenberg. “Nothing the legislature did in 2013 cured the constitutional deficiencies in the system.”
Evidence presented during the recent hearing showed that even after the legislature restored $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in budget cuts that had been implemented in 2011, funding still dropped by $312 per student over the last decade in real dollars, and almost $600 per student since 2009. Most of the districts in the Calhoun County ISD plaintiff group saw very little new money and their funding levels remain well below where they were before the 2011 budget cuts.
“Over the same decade that we’ve had declining per-student funding and increasing demographic challenges, we have also seen a quantum leap in education standards,” said Turner. “The Texas Legislature has set college and career readiness as the mission and goal of the Texas educational system, and the legislature did not back away from this goal in 2013. Texas school districts across the board do not have the kind of funding they need to get our students to the higher levels the state itself is now expecting.”
The 83rd Texas Legislature reduced the number of state assessments for high school students from 15 to five, but four of the five remaining exams were the very focus of discussion during the trial. English I reading, writing, algebra, and biology are all still required. Forty-two percent of students who took STAAR exams as ninth graders in the Spring of 2012 have still failed to pass all of the exams required for graduation that they have taken, even after five administrations of those assessments. The majority of those students must still take and pass U.S. History.
“Districts have exhausted their available taxing capacity because of increased academic standards and reduced state funding,” Trachtenberg said. “They lack any meaningful discretion to provide enrichment opportunities desired by their communities. Because the state has effectively co-opted school districts’ taxing authority, we are once again in violation of the constitution’s prohibition on a state property tax.”
Added Turner: “The Supreme Court has said that the state must provide the resources necessary to meet its own standards. We believe that Judge Dietz correctly found that the state is not providing those resources when he ruled the system unconstitutional. Those basic facts have not changed”