While most politicos in Austin sit waiting for the courts' next move on our 2012 electoral maps, forces more basic to our state's functioning (both political and otherwise) are pushing the legal system.
Tonight, the Austin Indpendent School District, on a unanimous vote, joined the fray by teaming up with law firm Thompson & Horton that argues “that the school finance system in its current state constitutes an unconstitutional statewide property tax, and that target revenue provides funding levels to schools that are arbitrary, and thus are an inefficient and unsuitable method for financing public schools.”
And that's just the smaller lawsuit – comprised of wealthier districts that don't think they can afford current funding to spread out equally among Texas schools. The Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, on the other hand, is comprised of over 250 different school districts throughout Texas. That's about one fourth of Texas's independent school districts. And almost a fourth of the Lone Star State's schools are going to court – against Texas.
The major coalition includes local ISDs, too – Pflugerville, Elgin, Smithville, Coupland, Granger, Hutto, Thrall and Taylor ISDs are the other districts from Travis and surrounding counties. And with so much effort behind this suit, noise will surely be made. Already in the Texas Tribune's “Insider Poll,”, 60% of respondents said that the school finance lawsuits were “serious” at level 5 on a 1-5 scale (with 5 being the highest.)
One even went to say, “By the time this hits the district court, over half of Texas schools will be involved. The suit also will include parents, small business owners and other taxpayers.”
Two Hundred Fifty Plus and Counting.
The main battle at stake, in the larger coalition, was outlined in a press release sent almost a month ago by the Equity Center, a group that represents a large portion of this coalition on matters of school finance equity at the legislature every session:
Because the Legislature has failed to adopt a rational and efficient system that treats all Texas taxpayers and children fairly as required by the Texas Constitution, districts believe now is the time to take legal action.
Given the disparities in student funding and taxpayer equity, these districts have a strong case and their position cannot be ignored.
For example, per student funding across Texas ranges from under $5,000 to over $10,000, even though state accountability standards are applied to all children uniformly.
Dr. Wayne Pierce, Executive Director, explains it this way: “We believe litigation is the only way to ensure taxpayer equity and a quality education for Texas children. We must litigate for a school finance system that makes sense and is fair to all children, taxpayers, and districts.”
Or read the argument from the lawyers in the first paragraph in the Plaintiffs Original Petition and Request for Declatory Judgement:
Before the 82nd Legislature convened in January of 2011, Texas' funding for public education had already become an arbitrary hodge-podge of approaches rather than a coherent system. This hodge-podge, built around a hold-harmless scheme adopted in 2006 called “Target Revenue,” resulted in huge differences in yields for similar tax effort that gave property-wealthy districts unconstitutionally greater access to educational dollars. This constitutional inefficiency was compounded in 2011 by SB 1 passed by the 82T Legislature which reduced school funding formulas by $4 billion dollars in addition to other cuts in excess of $1 billion. In FY 2012, SB1 makes across-the-board percentage reductions to districts' regular program funding. These losses in already low-funded districts have a harsher impact than similar Cuts to a much higher funded district. In FY20 13, SB 1 cuts more from districts with Target Revenue, but limits their losses so that they will still have greater resources than the lower wealth districts.
This isn't the first time schools needed to sue the state. In fact, it's a relatively common occurrence, and it's a sad reflection on our state government that litigation is the most effective means towards reasonable policy.
Perhaps this time, with such a force behind multiple lawsuits against the state, the ballot boxes will hear this roar, too.
Edit 10/25 1:25 pm: Turns out I made a significant mistake in the original write-up. AISD did not join the same lawsuit as the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition. AISD, along with other large and wealthy joined a lawsuit that doesn't make the equity argument, which could potentially mean less money for wealthier districts. Either way – Texas school districts statewide are finding major problems with the school finance system that the legislature passed, no matter how relatively bad their current situation is.