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WENTWORTH: Texas school funding in court again

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AUSTIN - Eleven years ago this month, I wrote about the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance hearing to discuss the state’s controversial “Robin Hood” school funding plan in Austin.

Some things never change. Once again, a joint Texas Senate-House Committee on Public School Finance has been meeting this year to see if they can find a better way to fund public education. The committee will report its findings and recommendations to the Texas Legislature when it convenes in January.

This time, however, the state is back in court defending current funding methods.

The lawsuit includes more than 600 school districts contending that the state does not provide adequate funding for our five million students. Some districts also allege that funding disparities of more than $2,000 per child make our system unconstitutionally inequitable and inefficient.

This district court case is expected to last until January, when the Legislature will be meeting in Austin. But, regardless of how the court ruling goes, the losing party may file an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. All of this takes time, and it is quite possible that the Legislature will take a "wait and see" attitude rather than tackle the subject of education funding before a final court ruling.

If the court eventually rules that the state is not putting enough money into public education, the Legislature will be forced to increase funding and will be able to blame it on the court.

The Texas Supreme Court, in the 1989 landmark Edgewood case, declared the then-existing finance plan for public education unconstitutional. The Legislature subsequently passed three new plans to fund public education, each of which in turn was declared unconstitutional. Finally, in 2006, the Legislature passed the current funding plan, and the 2005 Supreme Court case was dissolved by agreement in response to the legislation.

The Texas Constitution states that it is the "duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."

Select committees past and present have conducted comprehensive reviews of Texas’ public school finance system’s structure. In an attempt to keep funding equitable, the resulting formulas in the Texas Education Code are mind-boggling.
The Joint Committee on Education Funding has heard testimony regarding alternate methods of financing public education. One method would expand the sales tax base by taxing the sale of property and services, while reducing or eliminating local property taxes.

Another proposal is to move from local property taxes to a statewide property tax. The argument for this proposal says that with more than one thousand districts assessing property taxes at different rates and on different property values, we have an unwieldy, complex system that directly contributes to inequity in the system.
Education funding reform has always been a complicated and controversial issue.

And once again, lawsuits will add to the pressure on the Legislature to come up with a system that local school districts can live with. 

This column was written by State Sen. Jeff Wentworth.


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