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Trial Court Rules School Finance System Unconstitutional

AUSTIN, Texas—Today, Judge John Dietz once again ruled that the current school finance system violates the requirements of the Texas Constitution.

Despite the actions of the 2013 Texas Legislature, the Court found the current funding system still does not suitably, adequately or equitably provide the resources necessary to give all students a real opportunity to meet the state’s rising expectations. The Court also found that the funding system does not provide local school districts and communities, like Austin ISD, with meaningful discretion to set their property tax rates and provide local supplementation or enrichment above state requirements.

While the actions of the Texas Legislature in partially restoring the funding cuts were a step in the right direction, the state still does not provide districts with enough resources to meet the state’s rising standards. While Austin ISD is successfully educating many of our students and preparing them for college and/or a career, we are struggling with too few resources to help economically disadvantaged students meet heightened expectations. The undisputed evidence at trial showed large performance gaps between Texas’ economically disadvantaged students and their non-economically disadvantaged peers.

“Increased standards and an emphasis on post-secondary readiness for all students are the right goals for Austin ISD schools,” said Paul Cruz, Interim Superintendent of Austin ISD. “We must have additional resources if we are to provide the interventions and individualized attention our struggling students need in order to succeed.”

Despite a constitutional mandate to ensure that the amount of funding provided to districts is linked to the performance expectations, the Legislature has ignored its statutory responsibility to study the school finance formulas and ensure they provide sufficient funding. Most of the special weights and allotments — including those aimed at our state’s most vulnerable economically-disadvantaged students — have not been studied or adjusted in three decades.

As a result of the State’s failure to update and adequately fund the formulas, the burden has shifted to local property taxpayers.

AISD and the State of Texas cannot forget that while AISD is considered a property wealthy district, simultaneously 62 percent or 53,000 of our student enrollment is on free and reduced price lunch. The state must recognize this disparity and provide the appropriate funding to address this unique challenge. For the FY2015 budget, AISD taxpayers will have $175 million captured by the state.

Since 2002, AISD taxpayers have sent $1.66 billion to the state treasury. This is not earmarked to education, but instead to general revenue. In 2018, if state law is not changed, AISD taxpayers will send more than $300 million to the state treasury.

The decision today provides the Texas legislature with yet another opportunity to address the deficiencies in the public school funding system.

“Judge Dietz’s ruling is the logical conclusion to the Supreme Court’s 2006 warning that the system already was on the verge of constitutional inadequacy. Since 2006, we have increased standards without regard to whether districts have the resources to meet them, all while adding hundreds of thousands of students who come to school with more needs and challenges. We respectfully believe that now is the time to begin to address the fundamental question over the resources that are needed to meet our state’s high standards.” said David Thompson, attorney for Austin ISD, which is a member of the Fort Bend ISD Plaintiff group.

Today’s decision comes almost nine years after the Texas Supreme Court last struck down the state’s school funding system. In November 2005, the Court found that the Texas legislature had over-relied on local property taxes, left local school districts without meaningful discretion over local tax rates, and was operating a state property tax in violation of the Texas Constitution. At that time, the Supreme Court also cautioned that the school funding system was on the verge of resulting in a constitutionally inadequate education system. The Court warned that structural change was needed and stated that it “remain[ed] to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy [would] be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”

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