Texas Supreme Court finds school finance system constitutional

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the school finance system is constitutional. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the school finance system is constitutional.[/caption]

The Texas Supreme Court ended years of lawsuits between over two-thirds of Texas school districts and the state when it declared the school funding process constitutional May 13.

Justice Don Willett delivered the unanimous opinion and validated the “recapture” or “Robin Hood” system in which property-rich districts are mandated by law to send a portion of their property tax revenue to the state to be redistributed among districts deemed property-poor.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement,” Willett wrote in the court’s 100-page opinion. “But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing reform diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy wisdom with our own.”

Multiple lawsuits have been ongoing since 2011, when the legislature cut public education funding by $5.4 billion in the aftermath of the Great Recession. However, budget challenges for Cy-Fair ISD can be traced back to when House Bill 1 passed in 2007, freezing all districts’ revenue targets at 2005-2006 amounts.

This presented a problem for fast growing districts, such as CFISD, which has added over 27,000 students in the past 10 years, according to the 2015-16 CFISD State of the District.

In 2013, Judge John Dietz ruled the existing school finance system unconstitutional.

CFISD Superintendent Mark Henry celebrated Dietz’s ruling at the time, saying in the 2013 State of the District address that it was the first step forward in solving an inequitable state funding system that gives CFISD up to $1,000 less per student than neighboring districts.

One of the biggest problems many school districts had with the funding formula was trying to meet higher test standards with increasingly limited budgets. As a result of the 2013 ruling, the state allocated $3 billion more for public schools and lowered the number of standardized test required for high school students from 15 to five.

Dietz reopened the case in August 2014 in light of the changes, but ruled again that the funding system was unconstitutional. However, the state appealed that decision, which resulted in the system being declared constitutional on May 13.

“The Supreme Court’s decision ends years of wasteful litigation by correctly recognizing that courts do not have the authority to micromanage the state’s school finance system,” Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Abbott served as Attorney General during the filing of these cases. He never argued the case in court.

"Governor Abbott said that the Texas Supreme Court ruling was a victory to Texas taxpayers and the Texas Constitution,"said Stuart Snow, associate superintendent for business and financial services at CFISD. "I have to ask, where do the 5 million Texas school children fit into his assessment of the ruling?"

The legislature could potentially address the issue when the legislative session reopens in January 2017. However, there is no requirement to change any element of the funding formula.

“The school funding issue, for now, has been resolved,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said at the Texas Republican Convention in Dallas.

CFISD officials are questioning if the issue is truly resolved.

"The Supreme Court recognizes the many significant failings of the current school finance system; and in its ruling the Court calls for transformational, top-to-bottom reforms of the system," Snow said. "As I see it, the Texas Legislature is at a crossroads... The Legislature has a choice to make regarding the manner in which it funds public education. It can either take the road of complacency, or the road of transformation. In any case, our 5 million school children are looking to our lawmakers to stand up for them."