Posted: Feb 4, 2013 2:38 PM by Associated Press
Updated: Feb 4, 2013 3:13 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Attorneys representing around 600 public school districts argued Monday that the way Texas funds its schools is "woefully inadequate and hopelessly broken," as a sweeping case featuring more than 12 weeks of testimony came to a close.
State District Judge John Dietz said he would issue a verbal ruling immediately after closing arguments on whether Texas is meeting its state constitutional requirements to provide an equitable and adequate education to all students.
"There has never been a more-expeditious trial of a school finance case anywhere in the United States than what has occurred here," Dietz said. Still, it took more than 240 hours in court and 10,000 exhibits to get this far.
At issue are $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and education grant programs imposed in 2011 by the state Legislature, but the districts say simply restoring that funding won't be enough to fix a fundamentally flawed system.
They point out the cuts have come even as the state requires schools to prepare students for standardized tests that are getting more difficult and amid a statewide boom in the number of low-income students and those who need extra instruction to learn English, both of whom are more costly to educate.
Rick Gray, a lawyer representing districts mostly in poorer areas of the state, said during closing arguments that Texas must begin producing better educated college graduates, or it would see its tax base shrink and needs for social services swell due to a workforce not properly prepared for the jobs of the future.
"The system today, as we see it, is failing Texas children," he said, later adding: "Texas should be ashamed."
Texas does not have a state income tax, meaning it relies on local property taxes to fund its schools. But Gray said the bottom 15 percent of the state's poorest districts tax average 8 cents more than the wealthiest 15 percent of districts but receive about $43,000 less per classroom.
"This system of public education in Texas has been woefully underfunded for years," Gray said. "This crisis is finally knocking on the door, and if we don't solve it all of us, all Texans, will pay the price and most of all the kids will pay."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office counters that the system is adequately funded and that school districts don't always spend their money wisely.
But the cuts came as the state implemented a new and far more-difficult standardized testing regime known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam. David Thompson, who represents districts in both wealthy and poor parts of Texas, told Dietz districts that had more students pass the STAAR exam had higher state funding than those with lower scores.
In all, the case involves six lawsuits filed on behalf of about two-thirds of Texas school districts, which educate around 75 percent of the state's roughly 5 million public school students.
Districts in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side. Texas' funding system relies heavily on property taxes and a "Robin Hood" scheme where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money they raise to poorer districts.
Many "property wealthy" districts say that while they are in better shape than their poorer counterparts, the system still starves them of funding since local voters who would otherwise support property tax increases to bolster funding for their schools refuse to do so, knowing that most of the money would be sent somewhere else.
Also suing are charter schools, which want state funding for their facilities and Texas to ease or a remove a cap allowing only 215 licenses to operate charter schools statewide.
Attorney John Turner, arguing on behalf of "property-wealthy" districts, said 18 superintendents and five experts on school finance all testified that schools in Texas are now underfunded but that not a single witness defended the 2011 cuts.
"To live up to its own standards," he said, "Texas must do more and Texas must do better."
This was the sixth case of its kind since 1984. In 2005, Dietz found the previous funding system unconstitutional and directed the Legislature to devise a new one. The judge joked Monday that it felt like "Groundhog Day."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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