The Supreme Court of Texas.

The Texas Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Friday upholding the state’s public school financing system as constitutional even as the justices criticized the system as “sclerotic” and in need of “top-to-bottom transformational reforms.”

In its opinion, the state’s highest court has given the state a major victory in its long legal battle with a majority of the more than 1,000 independent school districts in Texas that filed the lawsuit challenging the funding system as unconstitutional. Despite the court’s unusually direct condemnation of the funding system stated in the opinion, the legal decision means state legislators will not have to find additional funds in the next two-year budget cycle to increase public school funding.

In their opinion, the justices described the case as “the most far-reaching funding challenge in Texas history,” a case that arrived at state’s highest court with a lower court trial record that was more than 200,00 pages, and included 1,508 findings of fact and 188 conclusions of law.

“(Our) judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy or to issue edicts from on high increasing financial inputs in hopes of increasing educational outputs,” Justice Don Willet wrote. “There doubtless exist innovative reform measures to make Texas schools more accountable and efficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Judicial review, however, does not license second guessing the political branches’ policy choices, or substituting the wisdom of nine judges for that of 181 lawmakers. Our role is much more limited, as is our holding: Despite the imperfections of the current school funding regime, it meets minimum constitutional requirements. Imperfection, however, does not mean imperfectible. Texas’s more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Daedalean ‘system.’ They deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, non-sclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”

The Supreme Court’s nine justices, all Republicans, are elected to staggered six-year terms. When a vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a new justice who serves out the unexpired term of the departing justice and then must run for election. Five of the nine justices currently serving on the court were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. Seven of the nine justices are men, and only one, Justice Eva Martinez Guzman, is Hispanic. There are no African-American justices.

Although the justices issued a unanimous ruling, two justices issued concurring opinions. Justice Guzman issued one concurring opinion joined by Justice Debra Lehrmann, while Justice Jeffrey Boyd issued another concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Lehrmann and Justice John Devine. Justices can sign on to more than one legal opinion in a case.

In her concurring opinion, Justice Guzman pointed out the growing number of economically disadvantaged students in Texas.

“The majority of Texas school children are presently categorized as economically disadvantaged, and that majority is likely to grow. Enrollment data shows higher concentrations of economically disadvantaged students in lower grades and an oncoming population bulge among younger children,” wrote Justice Guzman.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), an Austin think tank, has encouraged an overhaul of the financing system specifically accounting for these students, who are inherently more expensive to educate. The basic allotment, how much money a district gets for every student, is inadequate already, and the percentage supplements for special populations including economically disadvantaged, were not adequate when they were adopted over 20 years ago.

Justice Guzman acknowledged these deficiencies in spite of legislative efforts along way.

“Districts with a high level of need, but few financial resources, remain hampered in their ability to serve their disadvantaged students,” wrote Guzman.

 The CPPP has devoted time and analysis to the specific deficiencies in the system and the inadequacies of the legislature’s “Band-Aids” that fail to meet the needs of today’s public school children.

“A revamp – or remodel – of the state’s school finance system is what we’ve been consistently requesting,” said CPPP Policy Analyst Chandra Kring Villanueva. “The structure of our school finance system is strong, but the patchwork fixes over the years have left it unable to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. As the Court acknowledged, some key parts of the school funding formula are frozen in time, and fail to adequately keep pace with population or economic growth.”

Kevin Brown, superintendent of Alamo Heights ISD and president of the Texas School Coalition, one of the defendants in the school finance case, said that the fight now moves to Texas lawmakers who have the responsibility to fund education.

“The target needs to be squarely on the Texas Legislature to do something,” Brown said.

That is not likely given the current makeup of both the Senate and the House, which are firmly controlled by Republicans who have demonstrated a willingness to cut public education funding in the past, and have refused to fully restore funding even in years when the legislature benefitted from multi-billions budget surpluses. Budget planners say the collapse of oil prices will lead to a much tighter budget for next biennium when legislators reconvene in January 2017.

“The ruling by the Supreme Court of Texas today does not absolve the Texas Legislature of its duty to ensure that every child in Texas has equal access to a high quality education,” state Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) said Friday. “In fact, I agree with Justice Guzman and Justice Lehermann in their concurring opinion when they write: ‘Good enough now, however, does not mean that the system is good or that it will continue to be enough. Shortfalls in both resources and performance persist in innumerable respects, and a perilously large number of students is in danger of falling further behind.’ While I would have preferred a different result, I urge my colleagues to improve school district equity and to reduce the burden of property taxes on our communities.”

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) is ready to take up the cause in the House.

“The court did say in a sort of roundabout way that just because the system is constitutional doesn’t mean that its right or that its operating for the best of all students,” said Bernal, who disagrees with and is disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision. “If the Supreme Court is saying things can and must be better, to me, that’s our charge.”

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D123) responds to Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. Photo by Scott Ball.
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) responds to a question from Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith during a recent Tribune event. Photo by Scott Ball.

It is incumbent on the legislature and Gov. Greg Abbot to fix the system, Bernal said, either in the coming legislative session or in a special session right now.

“We agree with Judge Willett that Texas needs an education system fit for the 21st century,” said SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. “We look forward to working with the legislature during the 2017 legislative session to create an education system that is fit to adequately and equitably educate all students in Texas.”

In a statement following the ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton celebrated the decision, calling it “a major victory for the people of Texas, who have faced an endless parade of lawsuits following any attempt to finance schools in the state.”

Abbott agreed, calling the decades of lawsuits “wasteful.”

Paxton said the issue is now back with the legislature where it belongs. While Bernal and others are ready to debate the issue, they face what could be an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated Senate and House.

The cuts in funding made by the legislature in 2011 brought many property rich schools into the conversation, showing how far short the new funding structure fell. In 2013 the state restored some of that money, but did not bring funding to pre-2011 levels.

“We have been struggling financially since the cuts in 2011,” said Brown.

While the court did seem to acknowledge the budget cuts and ever-changing assessment criteria as a failure of the legislature, the justices did not agree that it was therefore in the territory of the judiciary to decide.

“The Court has not previously concluded, and does not conclude today, that the Legislature’s decisions in the school-finance arena have been wise or desirable. All the Court concludes today is that they have not been so arbitrary and unreasonable as to fall below the minimum constitutional standards,” Justice Boyd wrote in his concurring opinion.

Bobby Blount, a Northside ISD trustee and president of the Go Public campaign, believes that the state has yet to truly understand the needs of educators and school.

“(The Supreme Court’s decision) is a continuation of the challenges that school districts and public education continue to face getting all the different entities understanding what the needs are,” Blount said.

While educators need to be able to continue to doing their jobs, Blount resolved that school boards and community members would need to push forward.

“Our priority is to educate kids,” said Blount, “We’re going to continue to fight and service the kids as best we can.”

Potential students of SAISD's Advanced and Creative Learning Academy participate in an activity during an event previewing the learning process at the new school. Photo by Scott Ball.
Potential students of SAISD’s Advanced and Creative Learning Academy participate in an activity during an event previewing the learning process at the new school. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report
https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Top image: The Supreme Court of Texas. Courtesy photo.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.