Just before breaking for lunch today, Travis County District Judge John Dietz joked that it was appropriate the last day of the school finance trial fell so close to Groundhog Day. Like him, many of the lawyers making their closing arguments today had been through this before in at least one of the six previous school finance cases against the state since 1984.
This afternoon, Dietz issued his ruling—again, a repeat of many school finance rulings issued from the Travis County Courthouse—that Texas’ system for funding its schools is inadequate, unfair and creates a de facto statewide property tax. As a broad coalition of school districts spent 44 days arguing in court, each of those means the finance system violates the Texas Constitution.
And now, just as in those six previous cases—known colloquially and at really wild parties as Edgewood I-IV and West Orange-Cove I and II—it’s up to the Texas Supreme Court to make the final call. If the Supreme Court agrees with Dietz, it’ll be up to the Legislature to “fix” the system to their satisfaction, a whole ‘nother messy procedure that could mean special legislative sessions and new trials to see if the new system passes muster with the courts. (Hence the previous cases’ Rocky-esque names.)
The latest case, likely to be remembered as Fort Bend ISD v. Texas Education Agency (or, God forbid, Fort Bend I), brought together more than 600 districts representing three-quarters of the students in the state—the largest school finance case Texas has ever seen.
This case isn’t just the biggest one Texas has ever seen, but the most complex as well, thanks to a pair of groups that joined the case with arguments that hadn’t been raised in school finance trials before. The Texas Charter School Association and TREE (Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, if you’re long-winded about it) argued for more charter schools, more money for charter schools, and a guarantee that schools spend their money wisely. Today Dietz ruled against both groups, saying the issues they raised are best left to the Legislature.
Dietz was more sympathetic to the central argument raised by school districts in varying forms: that lawmakers had raised standards for Texas schools—specifically by rolling out the new, tougher STAAR test—just when they were cutting funding from public education.
“We either want increased standards, and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t,” Dietz said today.