Texas Public Schools in Financial Mess: State Sued by Districts

Texas Public Schools in Financial Mess: State Sued by Districts
After massive budget cuts and claims of economic inequity within the state’s public school system, districts are taking matters in their own hands and suing the state for the mess.

When the economy slowed to a nearly grinding halt a few short years ago, school districts across the country quickly felt the pinch. States were forced to slash budgets, leaving less funding for their schools and other public services. School districts had to come up with creative solutions to the financial challenges in an effort to meet the growing needs of students. Today, some school districts, like ones in Colorado, are getting tired of pinching their pennies, particularly in light of the fact that state governments may be sitting on much needed resources without allotting them appropriately. In fact, a number of Texas school districts have taken their state to court – in hopes of providing more and equitable funding to students throughout the Longhorn State.

A Lawsuit is Filed

The largest school districts in Texas recently filed a lawsuit against their state government, alleging the public school system in Texas is both inadequate and inequitable. This suit is the fourth of its kind filed against the state since June, 2011, when the legislature ended their session. This particular lawsuit, according to a report at the Houston Chronicle, includes more than 60 school districts that currently serve around 1.3 million Texas students. This brings the total litigation against the state to more than 500 Texas school districts, serving approximately 3.3 million children.

“We wish litigation weren’t necessary, but the nature of school finance just seems to be that you have this back-and-forth dialogue going on between the legislative branch and the judicial branch,” David Thompson, a lead lawyer in this recent lawsuit, told the Chronicle. “It seems like a judicial decision seems to be a necessary spur to legislative action.”

Larger Districts, More Diverse Student Population

The unique feature of this latest lawsuit is the size of the school districts involved in the filing. This lawsuit includes the largest school districts in the state, such as Houston, Austin, Dallas and Cypress-Fairbanks. This group of districts also represents the most diverse student population, since the other lawsuits involve focused groups of districts that primarily represent a specific demographic. For example, one lawsuit includes mostly property-wealthy residents, while another has a majority of ESL students.

All in all, the number of districts now represented in the legal system makes up more than half of all the school districts in the state. While this number may not be as much of a consideration for the court system, it is a big concern for state lawmakers who have been tasked with the difficult job of fixing what many consider a broken education system.

“You have elected officials in every one of these school districts, saying that things are bad enough that we need to sue the state,” Ray Freeman, director of the Equity Center, explained to the Statesman. The Equity Center has led up one of the other lawsuits against the state, claiming inequity in funding – and therefore educational quality – for low-income students throughout the state.

Promised Money Not Coming

One of the primary factors that spurred districts to seek legal action occurred in 2005, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a statewide property tax enacted by lawmakers was unconstitutional. At that time, legislators reduced local school property tax rates and dedicated more state money to schools to replace the money. However, that funding rate has not been kept up in recent years, and schools claim they are suffering from it.

At the same time, state lawmakers put a freeze on the level of per-student revenue during the 2005-2006 school year, with the intention of fixing the money problem in 2007. However, school districts are still waiting for the state to make that promised change. As a result, lawyers who have filed the latest suit against the state claim that lawmakers have left a funding system in place that assigns money to districts without taking into account the growing population of low-income students that many districts are facing. Low-income students tend to cost more to educate because they require a larger number of services than their wealthier counterparts.

Inequity in Education a Growing Problem

In addition to inadequacies in public education funding, inequity in education funding is becoming an increasing concern. Currently, per-student funding across the state ranges from under $5,000 per student in some areas to more than $10,000 per student in others.

“The school board and administration believe that the current school finance system prevents the district from providing an appropriate and adequate education to all students,” Alex Sanchez, a spokesman for a district involved in one of the lawsuits, told the Statesman. “It is in the best interest of Austin students to seek a remedy within the court system that will ensure the level of funding to which they are entitled by the Texas Constitution.”

Sandy Kress, an attorney in Austin, told National Public Radio that he is concerned that the increasingly tight budgets may encourage school districts to neglect low-income and minority students as well.

“The result is that children will be left behind, gaps will grow again and we may be in a place where we are retreating instead of advancing for the first time in 50 years,” Kress stated. “And this is disastrous,” he added.

The four lawsuits currently on file are expected to be consolidated into a single lawsuit next year. Some are speculating that the case could go to trial late next year, with a ruling in time for the 2013 legislative session.

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