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Texas School Finance System Violates State Constitution, Judge Says

Education funding for public schools in Texas is inadequate and therefore violates the state's constitution, Texas District Court Judge John Dietz ruled Monday afternoon, in a significant, although possibly temporary, blow to state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry, who had maintained otherwise.

The Associated Press reported that Dietz, after listening to closing arguments from both the state and the roughly 600 districts that had sued the state following $5.4 billion in state aid cuts in 2011, ruled that the system is inefficient, unfair, and does not allow for the "general diffusion of knowledge" in K-12 schools. In more concrete terms, he also said that the state's new demands on students and schools to perform up to snuff on standardized tests (the STAAR testing regimen and end-of-course exams) means that the state has a duty of its own to provide adequate resources: "There is no free lunch. We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't," Dietz said.

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This is a point that often comes up when schools talk about their stretched resources in Texas. In addition to the new requirements under the state's STAAR and end-of-course tests, schools have said that their enrollment continues to grow significantly. In their view, those two facts mean that the state should be adding significant funding for schools, instead of cutting funding that has led to the loss of 25,000 employees, including 11,000 teachers, as the Texas State Teachers Association's Clay Robison said in a story I wrote last month.

However, Sandy Kress, who was an architect of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and is now an attorney in Austin, the state capital, said the teachers union has been using STAAR and end-of-course tests to suit its own arguments, complaining that teachers lack the resources they need to do well on those tests on the one hand, and then vehemently protesting the existence of the new tests in principle on the other.

The Feb. 4 ruling marks the second time that Dietz has come down on the side of schools arguing that the Lone Star State's funding apparatus is too rickety to satisfy the law—in 2005, Dietz also ruled the state's existing K-12 financing system unconstitutional and directed the state to form a new one.

"Hopefully this latest in a long line of decisions will force the legislature to truly and systemically address the inequities in our school finance system to ensure that every child in every school—regardless of wealth&mdash:has access to a top-notch education," Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, said in a statement.

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Again, this echoes something Robison told me: The goal for districts and other advocates is a long-term solution crafted by the state legislature in which lawmakers make sure that funding at least keeps up with enrollment, and ultimately ensures that poor districts are not left staring across a huge funding chasm at their wealthier counterparts.

But Dietz probably won't have the last word on the matter. Attorneys for the state are virtually certain to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. Kress told me that the conservative judges on the court might be more sympathetic to arguments that say there are unfair funding gaps between wealthy and poor Texas districts, than to arguments that overall funding levels are unconstitutional. The AP says that this is the sixth such school funding case in Texas in almost 30 years—as I note in my story, all but five states have experienced such lawsuits related to K-12 funding adequacy.

Charter schools had joined the Texas lawsuit, saying that the cap of 215 charter schools in the state should be tossed out. Dietz disagreed and sided with the state against the charters, but they may not have to wait long to get what they want. Perry, a Republican, said Feb. 1 that he wants the cap to be lifted so that charter schools can expand, the AP said. (He also wants the state to begin offering vouchers so that students in struggling districts can begin attending private schools with public funds.)

PHOTOS: (Above left) Attorney Rick Gray, center, who represented more than 400 districts located mostly in poorer areas of the state of Texas, reacts as he is congratulated following a ruling on Monday in Austin, Texas, contending that the Texas school finance system violated the state constitution. (Above right) State District Judge John Dietz gives his remarks and ruling in a consolidated six-lawsuit case contending the school finance system violates the Texas Constitution. (Associated Press)

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