The Texas school system is in for a long, bumpy road.
On Monday, after a 12-week court case, a judge ruled that the Texas system of funding public schools violates the state’s constitution.
The glaring issue at hand, according to the court ruling, is that the system is not adequately funded, and it does not provide equal resources for all students.
In turn, the state legislature may have to revise the entire funding system.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 650 of the state's 1,000-plus school districts and accounts for about 3.7 million of Texas' five million school children.
The lawsuit was filed by both wealthy and poor districts, and the state plans to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. But it only needs to look at Arkansas to know that such a battle could take years—and millions of dollars—to settle.
The Arkansas court case Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee scrutinized the funding of Arkansas schools for 15 years. In the end, the system had to overhaul its funding in order to benefit all Arkansas students equally.
Then, last December, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that districts can now keep excessive funds for their own districts. That ruling essentially overturned the Lake View decision.
The National Education Access Network (NEAN) reports that school finance lawsuits are pending in 16 states. Often, says Villanova School of Business professor David Fiorenza, states use rainy-day funds for the purpose of funding various programs. But they shouldn’t.
“States, such as Texas, run the risk of depleting the rainy day fund,” Fiorenza told TakePart. “Other sources should be probed for the funds for school districts. Texas has the unfortunate task of having not enough revenue sources for their programs. That is, without a personal income tax in a state, and a relatively modest sales tax of 6.25 percent, there is one less source to draw on for schools and other programs.”
Since the beginning of the recession, states have experienced steady budget cuts to education. Anticipating such funding issues, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. It provided more than $100 billion in education aid to offset budget cuts and promote his “Race to the Top” program.
But as the funding stopped, state legislatures had to make drastic cuts. In turn, court cases have risen.
In January, a three-judge panel in Kansas ruled that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding the educational needs of its students and must increase spending by about $400 million. The legislature has for the last several years voted for an extensive series of reductions in state aid. The panel found that the state’s current per-pupil foundation funding base of $3,838 is below what is required to provide a basic education.
According to NEAN, the Kansas decision is “the sixth in a series of state court decisions since 2008 that have held that students’ constitutional rights to adequate educational services cannot be set aside because of budget constraints.”
The Texas lawsuit came after the legislature granted $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and education grant programs in 2011. The state, however, argued that districts had to do more with less, but it still meets state requirements.
“Our system did not collapse; it did not fall off the bridge,” Nicole Bunker-Henderson, a lawyer for the state, said during closing arguments.
In Washington, the legislature has been ordered by the court “to develop a more concrete plan for how it will provide ample funds for basic education.” By the end of its 2013 session, the legislature must outline reforms to every area of K-12 education, including transportation, classroom supplies, full-time kindergarten, and class size.
Funding critics in Texas say that many districts have enough money, but mismanage it in areas other than the classroom.
“We see school districts building a multimillion dollar football stadium; we've got math teachers being fired while superintendents are taking home record salaries,” Michael Sullivan of anti-tax lobbying group Empower Texans, told NPR. “We have a superintendent with a press secretary making more than the White House press secretary.”
But still, Texas faces a severe funding crunch and needs to quickly find a solution.
“There is a large source of income in the form of oil and gas severance taxes in Texas which can be reevaluated to see if that can be tapped further,” Fiorenza said. “Some states have used their casino gambling revenue as a source for school district funding as well. Texas lawmakers are still divided on bringing gambling into the state full force as a way to stimulate the economy with jobs and tax revenues.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com