Attorney in school finance lawsuit hopeful change is coming soon

By Betsy Dolan

Attorney David Thompson has knocked around public education and Texas’ school funding issue too long to be pie-in-the-sky about changes in the near future.  But at a recent Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce luncheon he was optimistic that, for the first time in over 30 years, fixing Texas’s school finance issue may be gaining momentum.

“The legislature is working very productively this session since the ruling came down.  I think they have heard your voices,” Thompson told the audience of community leaders and educators on April 4.

Thompson is the lead attorney for 84 school districts including Fort Bend ISD who joined three other school districts to successfully challenge the constitutionality of the current school funding system.

“We have many kids that are getting great educations, but not all kids,” Thompson said.  “In Texas we see a relationship between performance level and funding.  Districts that have a high number of commended kids generally have more money.”

On February 4, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that Texas’s school-finance system was unconstitutional because it falls short of the state’s obligation to provide an adequate and equitable public education to all children.

“The court found that in the seven school finance lawsuits since the 1980′s, the state’s performance now is the worst,” Thompson said, citing the decline in state spending per student to $6,293 this year from $7,128 in 2004, the last time the state’s school funding system wound up in court.

The school districts also maintained that they lacked “meaningful discretion” under the property tax structure, which violates a state constitutional prohibition against a statewide property tax. Some argued that wide disparities had emerged between school districts that are considered property poor and their wealthier peers.

“In Texas, sixty percent of all school age children are low income,” Thompson said. “As the concentration of more needy kids increases, funding should be going up. But in Texas, the money actually declines. I think the court found that significant.”

Texas ranks 49th in the nation in spending per student, according to research compiled by the National Education Association. Forty seven percent of low-income ninth graders in Texas failed at least one of their end-of-course exams and 122,680 low income kids were not on track to graduate last year.

“Last session’s $5.4 billion cut in funding at the same time the state raised academic standards was really at the heart of this lawsuit,” Thompson said.

While an appeal of Dietz’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court is inevitable, the final solution will be up to state lawmakers.

“They will restore some of the funding they cut in 2011,” Thompson said.  “And I believe that before the session is over, it will go up even more.  When the dust settles, we’ll see something we’ve never seen before:  a significant response to the funding issue at the trial court level.”

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