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School Finance

Sen. Wendy Davis Implores Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott to Settle School Finance Lawsuit

by: Joe Deshotel

Mon Feb 10, 2014 at 04:00 PM CST

The fight over public school funding remains an important front in the battle for Texas Governor between Senator Wendy Davis and Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Today Senator Wendy Davis held a press conference in front of the old Austin High School and implored Greg Abbott as the state's top lawyer to settle the school finance lawsuit. Currently Abbott is defending the legislature's $5.4 billion cuts to public education made in 2011 that were the subject of Davis' first filibuster and for which roughly 600 of the state's school districts have sued over.

"We're locked in a legal battle that everyone, except General Abbott, seems to know is over," said Davis. "He's defending the indefensible. Now he has a choice - continue defending an unconstitutional school funding system and appeal, or move to settle. I call on him to settle this case."

Davis said a special session to address the finance issue would not be out of the question.

More below the jump...


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What "Unconstitutional" Means

by: Kirk Watson

Tue Feb 12, 2013 at 10:39 AM CST

(This week's Watson Wire emphasizes the need for real leadership on education here in Texas. Our future depends on it.   - promoted by Katherine Haenschen)

I wrote some last week about a judge’s ruling that the way Texas finances schools and education is unconstitutional.

But that word, “unconstitutional,” doesn’t really do it justice. The ruling was a sweeping condemnation of the way Texas has failed to invest in our schools and our future, even in violation of our history, our identity and, yes, our constitution.

“The Court declares that the current school finance system violates ... the Texas Constitution," state District Judge John Dietz declared. He called the system "inefficient, inequitable and unsuitable," and he found that it "arbitrarily funds districts at different levels below the constitutionally required level.”

He later called the school finance system “inadequate,” saying it doesn’t give schools the resources they need to achieve that constitutional standard of “a general diffusion of knowledge.”

It’s hard to think of a way that the system could be much more broken. Maybe if someone were stealing something ...

Save our Schools Rally


Read more below the jump. 


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Democrats Move to Fix School Finance Immediately

by: Michael Hurta

Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 09:26 PM CST

After Tuesday's school finance ruling, many politicos reacted by predicting a special session next year to fix the unconstitutional school system. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans won't want to fix their unconstitutional policy unless they have to (that is, if the Texas Supreme Court affirms on appeal). That will take a little while.

But an idea popped up into the head of some state legislators: our children deserve better.

It was clear from Democrats' statements then that they didn't want to wait quite that long. They want to fix school finance this session, because even if the Supreme Court reverses Judge Dietz's adverse ruling -- we can't really be proud as Texas leaders if we fund our schools in a constitutionally questionable way.

As it turns out, Democrats are moving with every asset they have to immediately bring our schools back to par. Yesterday, six state representatives sent a letter to Governor Perry asking for school finance to be declared an emergency item. Bills can be passed addressing emergency items immediately, while most bills cannot be passed until after a large chunk of session. The key argument from the letter:

You have criticized the federal government for creating a "climate of uncertainty" for business. Texas leaders should be held to no less of a standard. After cuts of last session, the public schools responsible for over five million children deserve confidence that they will be adequately funded.

Unfortunately, Rick Perry is among the Republicans in Texas who have shown an anti-education tilt, so it would shock everyone to see him declare the emergency item.

So, Democrats have two other moves up their sleeves.

First, from Yvonne Davis, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, on the caucus's behalf:

the House Democratic Leader and Democratic members announce their intent to offer an amendment to the supplemental budget. This amendment will utilize the budget surplus and restore $5.4 billion in funding to public education that was cut last session as well as pursue ways to fund education this biennium.

What's the supplemental appropriations bill? It's a bill that helps pay for things that the Texas Legislature didn't agree to pay for last session. That is, the Texas Legislature didn't think it could pay for a full 2 years of Texas government, so it used an accounting trick. So we're going to pay for the rest of the current two year cycle before we write our next budget. The problem, of course, is that Republicans don't seem to consider billions of dollars in education cuts as money that should be paid on the last budget.

The supplemental appropriations bill is important. It has to pass. And it needs 100 votes in the House. Republicans have 95. They need Democrats to support, so Democrats have a little leverage to return some money to education there. (You'd think, of course, that Democrats wouldn't need leverage; that Republicans would want to give schools their money back, too.)

Meanwhile, Representative Trey Martinez Fischer has found that the Texas House can create their own emergency items.

From the Mexican American Legislative Caucus's press release:

Today, MALC Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer called to be recognized to dissolve the House into a Committee of the Whole, in order to consider school finance reform. Chairman Martinez Fischer is recognized as an authority on the Texas House Rules. Last legislative session, he successfully bought to light procedural defects in legislation by deploying 11 of 16 points of order. Under Rule 4, Sec. 51, the Texas House has the ability to create a Committee of the Whole to consider any matter. In addition, in order to pass legislation from the Committee of the Whole within the first 60 days of the legislative session, 120 members must suspend Art. III, Sec. 5(b) of the Texas Constitution.

In the past, the Texas State Legislature has acted on issues of the upmost importance while litigation is pending. In 2009, the legislature modified the top ten percent plan (S.B. 175) while litigation that would have affected admissions to institutions of higher education was pending. Further, in 2007, the legislature acted with all due diligence to enact Jessica's law (H.B. 8) despite pending litigation on the matter.    

"While members of the Leadership have held that we must wait until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of our state's school finance system, it is clear that we have the ability, within our rules, to act today," said Chairman Martinez Fischer. "We have the opportunity to prove that education is our number one priority. There is a clear path to begin the debate of restoring education funding cuts and fixing our broken school finance system."

The Dallas Morning News reported that Martinez Fischer's parliamentary inquiries to Speaker Straus won't be answered until Monday. But the jist is that Martinez Fischer wants to ask our state representatives if our children are worth helping immediately. It's not just on Perry: it's on everyone.  

And it seems, through Martinez-Fischer's plan and the amendment coming to the supplemental appropriations bill, state representatives will have at least two opportunities to show their constituents if they think that children are worth it. Keep an eye out. With any luck, we may adequately fund our schools next week.  

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Uresti: School finance reform will require margins tax reform

by: Michael Hurta

Sun Oct 14, 2012 at 04:00 PM CDT

The legality of the state's margins tax will be decided soon, and a separate trial is slated to begin Oct. 22 regarding Texas' school finance system. With both verdicts likely to face a lengthy appeals process, a judicial solution to Texas' school tax woes won't come anytime soon. In the op-ed below, Senator Carlos Uresti argues that lawmakers should not wait on the courts and address the issue in the next session of the Legislature by reforming the margins tax and creating a school finance system that is fair and equitable to all Texans.

The state of Texas is headed back to court this month for the latest round in a never-ending battle over public school finance. This time hundreds of public school districts, some charter schools, and a group of parents are challenging the state's method of funding our schools, alleging it is inadequate and inequitable.

The state's attorneys have their work cut out for them because, frankly, the plaintiffs appear to be waging this fight on solid ground.

The legal battle over public school funding in Texas has been raging on and off for more than 40 years. The so-called Robin Hood approach and revenue sharing by property-wealthy districts seemed to work at first, but soon became inequitable as well. It would be a stretch right now to call the system efficient, which is what the Texas Constitution requires.

While the lawsuit challenges the state's method of distributing property taxes, there will be another gorilla in the courtroom - the state's much maligned margins tax, which is facing its own court challenge as well.

There's no other way to say it: the state's attempt to provide tax relief to homeowners back in 2006 by swapping the franchise tax for the margins tax has been a monumental failure.

At the time, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn said lawmakers were writing the "largest hot check in Texas history." I agree with here. The margins tax has repeatedly failed to keep up with the growing demands of public schools, creating an ongoing structural deficit that forced the Legislature in 2011 to slash school spending by almost $5 billion.

According to the Tax Foundation, the margins tax has always fallen short of initial revenue projections of almost $6 billion a year, due to its complexity, number of exclusions, and its sensitivity to downward economic trends.  For example, the Foundation says more than 18,000 taxpayers that had paid the franchise tax had no liability under the margins tax.

I voted against the margins tax because it placed too large a burden on small businesses, caused severe cuts to our schools, harmed our ability to fund vital government services, such as maintaining our highways and bridges; and made it more difficult to balance the state budget.

The school finance lawsuit is scheduled to begin Oct. 22, and any ruling by State District Judge John Dietz will no doubt lead to a round of appeals, all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. A final ruling may not be in hand until after the next legislative session, which convenes in January.

In the past, the Legislature has waited on court orders before tackling public school finance. I believe we should not wait on the courts or apply another Band-Aid solution. We can no longer afford to kick the can down the road.

In the next session, I will work to fix our broken margins tax and take the pressure off small business by eliminating loopholes and requiring all businesses to pay their fair share.

The Legislature has no more important job than maintaining a fair and equitable public school system that provides every child with an opportunity to succeed. The fair part of that equation involves large and small businesses, industry, property owners, and even renters - anyone fortunate enough to call Texas home.

Everyone must share in the cost of schooling our children because everyone benefits from an educated workforce and an informed electorate. Come January, the Legislature should seize the moment, end decades of litigation, and enact a school finance system that Texans can finally be proud of.

Senator Carlos Uresti is a Democrat who represents State Senate District 19, which is based in San Antonio.

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Burnt Orange Report Endorses Alma Allen in HD-131

by: Burnt Orange Report

Tue May 15, 2012 at 01:00 PM CDT

Dr. Alma Allen is an expert on school finance and an experienced legislator. Now is not the time to be turning our education experts out of office. We unanimously and enthusiastically endorse her for re-election to HD-131.

Allen is a former member of the State Board of Education (not one of the "crazy" ones, no worries)  who served on the board for 10 years. She is a former public school teacher and school administrator who worked for Houston ISD for 39 years. She has taught at Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern University. Her broad and deep experience in education and seniority in the state house make her an important member of our delegation.

Allen's opponent Wanda Adams is term limited out of her seat on the Houston City Council. We are not convinced that she wants to serve in the Legislature so much as she wants to find a place to land after her service in Houston is over.

Allen may be nearing end of career, but for now experience is at a premium in our Democratic state house delegation. We see no reason to get rid of this capable and amiable public servant.

Dr. Alma Allen is an advocate for public schools and experienced educator. We unanimously and enthusiastically endorse her for re-election to HD-131.

Endorsements are made based on a weighted consensus of the staff, which guides the type and tone of endorsement. Members of the Burnt Orange Report staff employed by campaigns abstain from voting on those races.
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Texas Association of Business Joins Charter School Lawsuit

by: Emily Cadik

Mon May 07, 2012 at 10:00 AM CDT

Last week, the Texas Association of Business (TAB) joined a lawsuit in support of charter schools as a roundabout way of fixing public education.  Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, the group filing the lawsuit, has charged that "the lack of outside competition to Texas public schools has rendered the state education system inefficient and thus unconstitutional."  There is currently a statewide cap of 215 charter schools, which the lawsuit is seeking to lift.

TAB is one of the most influential business groups in the state. By joining the lawsuit, TAB President and CEO Bill Hammond hopes there will be more pressure on the court to act.  

I think we can all agree school finance in Texas is a mess.  But a lack of funding - not a lack of competition - is the more pressing problem, which is why it's concerning that the groups condemning public education are the same groups opposing taxes to help fund schools.  

In a recent column called Why don't state's business leaders stand up to Perry?, Patricia Hart asks why business groups who appear to recognize the importance of education (in particular, the Greater Houston Partnership) still stand with Perry, especially in light of his budget compact to agree to no new taxes in the next legislative session. Her argument is that these groups get enough payout from Perry in other ways (read: the Texas Enterprise Fund) that it prevents them from standing up to him in any meaningful ways. It's easy for them to pass resolutions about their noble intentions, but when those principles conflict with the governor's, they're notably silent.

TAB isn't really any different.  When asked about the next eduction commissioner in Texas, Hammond said, "You need someone who is in line with the governor - that is critically important."  His group did call on Perry to use funding from Texas' rainy day fund to bolster school finance, but would not go so far as to support anything sustainable like a new revenue stream.  

Some of the school finance battles actually have a shot at making things more fair in Texas.  Over half of the school districts in Texas are suing for adequate funding.  But this charter school lawsuit, if successful, would continue to send the message that Texas has given up on public schools.  If TAB and the Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education really want to foster an environment of healthy competition in the Texas education system, they need to recognize that Perry and the state legislature have put a major handicap on public schools.  

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Texas 2012: The School Finance Lawsuits and the General Election

by: Michael Hurta

Mon Apr 23, 2012 at 09:00 AM CDT

On Saturday, as we chose delegates to the State Democratic Convention in Houston, the general election officially began.

We may not have our nominees, but last week we got our campaign issue ironed out for good: Campaign finance is certain to be on the minds of voters as they go to the polls for the November elections.

District Judge John Dietz set October 22 as the trial start for the major school finance lawsuits. October 22 is also the first day of in-person Early Voting.

The real issue with timing is for the Texas Legislature to get guidance from the court system (including a possible appeal ruling or two) in time for action during the 2013 Legislative Session. Judge Dietz has implied with this schedule that he hopes to give an initial ruling before Christmas.

But the start will occur during the heat of Election Season, and Republicans across the state are probably already planning to defend their bad budget. True, the first BOR PAC poll showed that Texans would not have liked higher taxes for their schools (at least not yet, as the severity of the cuts only begin to show). But we, as Texans, still support Rainy Day Fund use.

We can already see the posturing. Rick Perry, not on the ballot in 2012, proposed a hardcore conservative Texas Budget Compact. The idea would certainly make navigation out of the School Finance debacle even more impossible. And that's why Republicans' lead legislators aren't buying it.

Republicans will try every trick to avoid blame. As the legal battle formally begins on October 22, however, let's be sure that voters remember who started it.  

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School Finance Lawsuits To Get Rolling

by: Michael Hurta

Tue Apr 03, 2012 at 01:30 PM CDT

In just under two weeks, the ball will start rolling for the many school finance lawsuits against the State of Texas. April 16 is the deadline set by District Court Judge Dietz for a scheduling order, and other key dates are also coming up. Expert reports for the plaintiffs are due by July 30th and expert reports for the State by August 27th. These deadlines were set last Wednesday

Judge Dietz has also indicted that he will roll the four most major school finance lawsuits into one trial. The Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, MALDEF, Haynes & Boone, and Thompson-Horton all fighting together will make the lawsuit look more like this: Texas v. Texans. Because with as many schools that are represented in these lawsuits, it truly looks like the State of Texas will fight its entire constituent body in court.

And you can bet that the lawsuit will vibrate into the next legislative session under the pink dome, too. One might only ask, "How much?" There's a distinct possibility that the lawsuit will take place in October, casting an appropriate backdrop for the November elections.

If the trial waits until November to begin, however, an initial decision from the District Court will come down as any jockeying for a challenge to Speaker Straus might happen or while state senators brawl to determine our next Lieutenant Governor.

If you thought the State of Texas fights its constituents during Photo ID and Redistricting legal battles, however, just you wait and see how this looks.  

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Join the School Finance Lawsuit Battles!

by: Michael Hurta

Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 04:31 PM CST

Do you read updates about the school finance lawsuits and wish you can be there with them? Do you wonder why only school districts, and not you, get to enjoy the fun of fighting your own poorly run state on such an important issue?

Well, you're not alone. There are multiple ways to join in.

The first is an outreach effort by the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, one of the larger groups suing the state. Join their fight here. From their press release:

The Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition, a group representing nearly 400 school districts, has launched a statewide outreach effort to engage the public in the Coalition's fight for fairness.

By registering on the Equity Center's website (www.equitycenter.org) under the Join the Fight! icon, any interested individual may learn more about the Coalition and support its mission. In addition to registering online, individuals can also find a list of ways to spread the word about the Coalition and the impact it can have on millions of Texans.

"We encourage every Texan to support this effort to bring fairness to taxpayers and students. This lawsuit won't just be won in the courtroom; it will be won in every community across Texas, as individuals and groups join together to stand up for Texas taxpayers and children," said Doug Killian, Superintendent of Hutto ISD and the Coalition's Vice-President of Communications.

Meanwhile, Democratic US Senate candidate Paul Sadler (profiled earlier today on BOR) is circulating a petition for a special session. True - this isn't directly related to any of the school finance lawsuits, but a Special Session could theoretically remedy the problems brought by the hundreds of school districts bringing Texas to court. Sadler had some particularly hard-hitting words for the Democrats' potential general election opponent, David Dewhurst:

I have a simple message for David Dewhurst: get to work, or resign.

That's right -- Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst should support bipartisan calls for a Special Session of the Texas Legislature to address the state's school funding crisis, or resign his office immediately. Massive cuts to education this year, followed by systematic cuts planned for next year, will create a "Double Robin Hood" scenario for many public schools -  I call this the Dewhurst Disaster.  

So...what are you waiting for? Don't just read this - sign up for better schools!

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A Quick Update: The School Finance Lawsuits

by: Michael Hurta

Tue Feb 14, 2012 at 10:00 AM CST

About three months ago, we reported that almost two million students were likely represented between two separate school finance law suits. I suggested that at least one would likely make headway. Well, it turns out that there are at least four major school finance lawsuits, and they all have made significant headway.

Besides the school finance lawsuits represented by the Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition and Thompson & Horton, there are also cases from MALDEF and the "Texas School Coalition." In December, Morgan Smith at The Texas Tribune published an excellent explanation piece of the different cases. Here's the basics:

Districts typically sue the state on three different grounds: efficiency, adequacy and what's called “meaningful discretion.” The Texas Constitution requires that the state provide efficient and adequate funding for public schools. It also says that school districts must have the ability to choose how they spend money they bring in from property taxes. (Download all of the available complaints in the lawsuit, including the state's response, to the left.)

2011-12 School Finance Lawsuits
 Texas School CoalitionTaxpayer and Student Fairness CoalitionDavid ThompsonMALDEF
WhoAbout 60 property-wealthy districts, including Alamo Heights ISD, Eanes ISD and Highland Park ISDAs of last week, 381 districts, primarily mid-to low-property wealthA variety of districts, including the state's largest, Houston ISDDistricts with large portions of low-income and English-language-learning students, including San Antonio's Edgewood ISD.
Property TaxXXXX
RepresentationHaynes & BooneEquity CenterThompson & HortonMALDEF  

All four cases have now been assigned a hearing with Travis County's Judge Dietz. John Dietz, Judge of the 250th District Court (a civil bench), is one of this county's elected officials. And if you recognize his name, it might be because he was the same judge who heard the 2004 School Finance lawsuit(s)...and found the Texas school finance system unconstitutional back then.

That's more than half of the school districts and students in the State of Texas in one court here in Travis County. We're still waiting on a timetable, but a fall hearing is expected. While a ruling this year is still a possibility, appeals could keep the case within the courts for a matter of years. It is also not yet confirmed whether or not Judge Dietz will hear all four cases at once or separately. If there is no remedial action, however, a gigantic set of lawsuits against the state will clearly be a backdrop to both the November elections and the 2013 legislative session

Further, a fifth lawsuit has been considered.

Clearly, Rick Perry, the only Republican with the power to help undue his party's public education debacle right now, clearly doesn't get the message. Not only is his state being heavily litigated against by a majority of his constituents, but calls for a Special Session to clean the mess only grow louder and louder. Thus far, public calls for a Special Session have come from Republican statesman and  Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, the Texas State Teachers Association, and the State Democratic Executive Committee (who unanimously passed a resolution just this past weekend).

The response from the Governor's office has been the same multiple times: 

"There are no plans to call a special session on this or any other issue. Thanks to Gov. Perry’s fiscally conservative leadership Texas has a balanced budget and has increased funding to Texas public schools by billions of dollars,” Perry spokeswoman  Castle said.

I'm not the only one coughing an expletive or two at the arrogance of Rick perry and his Texas Republican Party. Being sued by the people you represent should be a sobering experience, but Governor Goodhair is even more oblivious to his failed public policy than he once was to his failed Presidential campaign. 

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