Texas Education
3:35 pm
Thu August 28, 2014

Judge: Texas school finance system unconstitutional

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Nearly three years after more than 600 Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state's school finance system, a Travis County district judge has ruled in their favor.

Judge John Dietz of Austin, Texas.
Judge John Dietz of Austin, Texas.
Credit KUT

In an almost 400-page opinion released Thursday, District Court Judge John Dietz of Austin said that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional not only because of inadequate funding and flaws in the way it distributes money to districts, but also because it imposes a de facto state property tax. It is certain to be appealed by the state to the Texas Supreme Court.

Though Dietz made no public remarks on Thursday, his decision is a reprise of an earlier oral ruling in February 2013. From the bench at the time, Dietz discussed what he called the "civic, altruistic and economic" reasons for supporting public education.

"We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others," he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income. 

The lawsuit arose after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system. 

Dietz decided to hear evidence again in the trial for a four-week period this year so that he could consider changes made by the 2013 Legislature. Lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in public education cuts made in 2011 and changed graduation and testing requirements. 

In the trial's second round, lawyers for school districts argued that the funding boost was short-term and that other changes like implementing complex high school curriculum requirements had imposed additional expenses on schools. On Thursday, Dietz agreed. 

The ruling is likely to fuel continued sparring over the issue in the state’s gubernatorial contest between Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis. As the Texas attorney general, Abbott is responsible for the state’s defense. Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, filibustered the 2011 budget bill that enacted the $5.4 billion in cuts that led to the litigation that arose two summers ago.

Abbott attempted to remove Dietz from the case in June, when he filed a recusal motion that questioned Dietz’s impartiality based on a series of emails sent to school district lawyers. The visiting court judge appointed to decide the motion dismissed it a few weeks later, saying the evidence did not justify Dietz's recusal. The emails were not made public. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/08/28/judge-issues-school-finance-ruling/