Posted: Oct 28, 2012 8:50 AM
Updated: Oct 28, 2012 9:08 AM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Judge John Dietz has some deceptively simple questions to answer about how Texas finances public schools.
Article 7 of the Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to "make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." The Travis County district judge must decide what amount of money is suitable, and how to define efficient.
The trial that began last week will likely last into January when the Legislature returns to Austin for its biennial, 140-day session. The last time lawmakers met they discovered they didn't have enough revenue to give schools what the school finance law's formula said they deserved, based on daily attendance.
So the Republican-controlled House rewrote the formula and gave them $4.8 billion less than the previous law required. The Republican-led Senate approved those cuts and slashed grants to schools by another $600,000. Republican leaders then announced that from then on, they will decide school budgets based on what funds are available, not what a formula says schools need.
Speaker of the House Joe Straus insists it was the best they could do, and that public education in 2012 comprised a larger proportion of state spending than ever before. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst argues that actual dollars spent on schools went up, even if per student spending went down. Both claims are true.
Yet for 615 out of Texas' more than 1,200 school districts, the cuts broke the camel's back. Now they are in court arguing the Legislature failed its constitutional duty.
A key part of their complaint is that lawmakers have raised standards by requiring students to pass ever-more difficult standardized tests, while cutting teachers' resources to teach. The cuts also come as an increasing percentage of Texas school children are disadvantaged.
Lawyers for the schools will point to disappointing scores on the new STAAR test to illustrate the point.
Last week former state demographer Steve Murdoch explained that more children are entering school from poor, non-English speaking households where parents are not teaching them basic skills needed to start school. That means schools spend more time and money catching those children up to the level of wealthier, English-speaking children whose parents can afford pre-K and other opportunities.
An attorney for the schools, Rick Gray, told Dietz that when lawmakers raise standards and then cut per student spending for less-prepared children, they set the schools up for failure.
"The bar has been raised and yet one hand has been tied behind school administrators' backs," Gray said.
Conservatives reject this argument, insisting that public schools waste money and could do more with less. The assistant attorney general representing the state, Shelly Dahlberg, echoed this argument in court and insisted that the system is not bad enough to warrant Dietz's intervention.
"I would suggest that we might have an impending crisis, but today it is not a crisis," Dahlberg said.
The schools will spend the next five weeks trying to prove otherwise.
Based on Dietz's comments and questions so far, most observers expect he will rule the school finance system inadequate. The only question is how he will do it, and how much he will expect lawmakers to change it.
Whatever the outcome, the losing side will certainly appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. In the meantime, lawmakers will spend this spring drafting a new budget for public schools. Conservatives have already drawn a line in the sand, insisting that more money is not the answer, while Democrats have made the issue the cornerstone of their campaign to rally support and regain relevance in Texas politics.
Lawmakers may also find that by spring, parents will be angrier than ever. Most of the cuts made in 2011 did not kick in until the 2012-13 school year and parents are just now seeing them. Democrats and moderates will try to use that anger to bring change, but many observers warn not to count on it immediately.
The Republican leadership will likely delay any major changes until Dietz's ruling winds its way through the courts and only attempt to fix the system in a special session later this year or in early 2014. But one thing is certain, the system will change; the only question is in what direction and how much.,
Chris Tomlinson is the AP's supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for government and political reporting in Texas.