More than four years after the Texas Legislature cut state education funding by $5.4 billion during the 82nd legislative session, hundreds of school districts fighting the state’s education funding formula began to have their cases heard by the state Supreme Court on Sept. 1.
“The lawsuit is all about adequacy, which means funding an appropriate amount of dollars into the system, and equity, simply meaning that there should be a greater balance among school districts as to how much funding per student you received throughout the school year,” Klein ISD Superintendent Jim Cain said.
The lawsuit features six different plaintiff groups with more than 600 school districts represented across the state. KISD is among more than 80 districts represented by attorney David Thompson, Cain said.
Wayne Pierce, executive director for Austin-based education nonprofit Texas Equity Center, said the Legislature added $1.2 billion to the base allotment for education funding for the next biennium in the last legislative session this summer, but education has yet to reach funding levels prior to the 2011 cuts.
Despite the drop in state funding, Pierce said overall revenue for Texas school districts has risen 1.5 percent per year as a result of rising property taxes since the cuts in 2011.
“The state has not come back to the [funding] levels it was back in 2010-11, and when you add inflation and the enhanced economy we have, they’re really getting by on the cheap compared to even what it was [then],” Pierce said.
State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said the state was facing a roughly $27 billion deficit during the 82nd legislative session. The education cuts were among many tough choices the Legislature made in addressing the deficit.
“You never want to cut education, but it was a time where we had to cut everything,” Harless said. “I think we’ve worked hard to make up the cuts that we’ve done in the past, and also [Public Education Committee] Chairman [Jimmie Don] Aycock had done a great job in reducing the requirements on school districts.”
Pierce said attorneys have told him a decision could be made by the Supreme Court as early as January or February. Depending on the court’s ruling, he said Gov. Greg Abbott could call a special session next year to address the issue, which would likely come some time after the March primaries in mid-May or June.
“We would hope that [the court] would say, ‘You failed to fix the system repeatedly, and you need to start over, make it cost-based, make it fair to kids [and] make it fair to taxpayers,” he said.
Equity and adequacy
Both Pierce and Cain agree the current education financing system used by the state is neither adequate nor equitable. Cain said he believes there is no reason why some school districts should receive thousands of dollars more per students from the state than other school districts. He also stressed the need to provide additional funding for students who are economically disadvantaged, which make up about 60 percent of students across the state.
“There’s no question in my mind—based upon the research I’ve seen—that children that fall into that category simply need more material resources and more human resources,” Cain said.
Pierce said studies have shown impoverished and bilingual students require 40 percent more funding than the average student, but the state funding formula only provides about 20 percent more funding per impoverished student and 10 percent more funding per bilingual student.
“You’re not doing the quality job that you could be doing if you were funded well-enough in that area,” he said.
Harless said she does not know how the equity problem between school districts could be fixed as high-growth school districts like Cy-Fair ISD get $5,600 per student from the state while small districts can receive between $12,000 and $20,000 per student. Meanwhile, 1,000 people continue to move to Texas daily, putting more students in classrooms.
“The only way to solve it is to consolidate the smaller school districts,” Harless said. “It’s hard to get a state representative to say, ‘Let’s go consolidate two rural schools in my district.’ Because those school districts are the largest employers in those little towns. I don’t know how you ever solve the equity part of the finance system when you have situations like that.”