The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas Supreme Court rules state school funding system is awful — but constitutional

The Texas flag at the Capitol in Austin. (Associated Press)

The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday that although the state’s “Byzantine” school funding system is “ossified” and urgently needs to be modernized, it is constitutional — a defeat for more than 600 school districts that had been fighting for years for relief.

It was the sixth significant legal battle fought in the state about how public schools should be funded since 1984, and only the second time that the high court ruled that the complicated finance system was not unconstitutional.

This case is one of a number that have been working their way through courts in states across the country as school districts are becoming more proactive in suing for adequate and fair funding. This past February, for example, the Kansas high court ordered the legislature to create a “constitutionally valid school finance system” before the 2016-17 school year begins in August.

The Texas case stemmed from some $5.4 billion in budget cuts approved by the legislature in 2011, which the school districts contended left them with unfairly distributed funding and forced many to raise taxes to provide even a basic education for its students. Two-thirds of the school districts in the state sued, and in 2014, Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz sided with the plaintiffs in a written opinion that was appealed to the Supreme Court by state officials. He ruled the funding system unconstitutional, just as he had twice before.

All of the justices on the Texas high court are Republican, the legislature is Republican-controlled, and Dietz is a Democrat.

The nine justices on the state Supreme Court overturned his latest ruling with a decision that says in part:

Our Byzantine school funding “system” is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority by issuing reform diktats from on high, supplanting lawmakers’ policy wisdom with our own. The Texas legislature, the center of policymaking gravity, is not similarly bound. And smartly so. Our constitution endows the people’s elected representatives with vast discretion in fulfilling their constitutional duty to fashion a school system fit for our dynamic and fast-growing state’s unique characteristics. We hope lawmakers will seize this urgent challenge and upend an ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.

The Associated Press quoted Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), leader of the Texas Senate and former head of its education committee, as saying that the current funding system, known as “Robin Hood” because it requires more affluent districts to share tax money with poorer districts, doesn’t actually “work well,” but that the school funding issue, for now, “has been resolved.”

But educators and others were beyond upset. Noel Candelaria, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said in a statement: “It is a sad day when the state’s highest court decides that doing the least the state can do to educate our children is enough.”

The ruling, which you can read below in full, also says:

For the seventh time since the late-1980s, we are called upon to assess the constitutionality of the Texas school finance system, a recondite scheme for which the word “Byzantine” seems generous.
In this round, more than half of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts have brought the most far-reaching funding challenge in Texas history. We are presented with a court reporter’s record exceeding 200,000 pages and a trial court judgment accompanied by 1,508 findings of fact and 118 conclusions of law. Dozens of briefs, many filed by new parties raising new claims, frame the intricate arguments now before us. The depth and breadth of Texans’ attention is understandable — and also commendable: Good education is good policy.
But 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. There doubtless exist innovative reform measures to make Texas schools more accountable and efficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Judicial review, however, does not licence 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 5 million schoolchildren 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, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century.

Here’s the ruling: