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Education Funding Blame Game in Texas: Districts Decry Lawmakers

I have a story in the upcoming Dec. 12 edition about state K-12 budgets heading into 2013, but one of the most interesting situations involving state school aid is in Texas, where school districts suing the state over $5.4 billion in lost funding in 2011 wrapped up their case on Wednesday, after several weeks of testimony before Texas District Court Judge John Dietz.

Essentially, the districts allege the drastic funding cuts from Texas coffers violate the state's constitution, and that districts with relatively large shares of low-income students are getting hit particularly hard.

The Dallas Morning News reports that in their testimony, the districts argued that much of the problem can be traced back to 2006, before the recession, when lawmakers lowered property taxes. In order to replace lost revenue, substituted in a "business tax." The problem? The new tax on business did not in practice make up for the revenue lost by lower property taxes, catching legislators off guard.

John Folks, former director of the Texas Association of School Administrators and former superintendent, argued that lawmakers got a reprieve in 2009 when federal stimulus money arrived, but Folks said the Texas legislature managed to foul that up as well: "We urged them not to use that money to fill the hole because it was going away. They were told not to put that money into recurring expenditures, but that is exactly what the legislature did."

When the stimulus money faded away, Folks noted, it contributed to legislators' decision to cut $5.4 billion in funding for K-12 in 2011. In 2011 and 2012 combined, Folks noted, his former district in San Antonio had to cut $85 million out of its budget, in part because districts can't raise taxes beyond $1.04 per $100 of assessed value without voter approval.

For actual examples of what districts are complaining about, the Austin American-Statesman quotes Charles Dupre, superintendent of the Pflugerville district, which levies the same property tax as other districts nearby but sees per-pupil funding disparities as high as $1,417 between his own district and one of his neighbors: "We're participating in this litigation because school funding in the state of Texas is not equitable and it is not adequate ... Our children are worth the same amount as every other student in Central Texas and in the state of Texas ... What really drove us over the edge is that the system itself is random and capricious. It is not even logical."

Now that districts have wrapped up their arguments, it's time for the state's lawyers to defend what legislators have done. The UPI reports that they may have a relatively easy legal job because they merely have to show that Texas districts haven't definitely proven the legislative actions to have been unconstitutional. In other words, they don't have to prove what lawmakers did was constitutional.

The state Supreme Court in 2005 previously struck down a part of the state school finance system as unconstitutional, so there is recent history of conflicts between the legislature and districts about funding.

"It's as high a civil burden as there is, because after all you're trying to declare an enactment of the Legislature unconstitutional," said Craig Enoch, who represents a separate group of plaintiffs in the case, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a group of parents supporting charter schools.

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