By Betsy Dolan
Just after the new year, a judge will decide if state lawmakers did enough to fix Texas’ public school funding issues during the last legislative session.
The battle between the state and more than 600 school districts — including Fort Bend ISD, Lamar CISD and Stafford MSD— initially resulted in a Feb. 4 ruling by state District Judge John Dietz that the current funding system is unconstitutional.
In January, Judge Dietz will update the court record before issuing a final ruling and sending the case to the Texas Supreme Court. Testimony about 83rd Legislative Session bills that made changes in graduation requirements and the impact of the partial restoration of funding for public schools will be heard.
State lawmakers restored almost $4 billion dollars in public school funding–$5.2 billion was cut in 2011– and reduced the number of high stakes tests from 15 to 5.
Attorney David Thompson, who represents several school districts including Fort Bend ISD, Lamar CISD and Stafford MSD, said the Legislature fell far short of what is needed to get the state out of its legal troubles.
“What they did this session was very significant and commendable,” he said. “But you have to remember, it doesn’t restore what was cut in 2011, not to mention increased costs for schools in the two years since then.”
The original public school funding distribution formula was created in the 1980s and has been changed numerous times to comply with legislative changes and previous school finance lawsuits. In the most recent lawsuit in 2005, the Court found that the Texas Legislature over-relied on local property taxes, left local school districts without meaningful discretion over local tax rates, and was operating a state property tax in violation of the Texas Constitution.
“At the time Fort Bend ISD made the decision to enter the School Finance lawsuit, the district’s funding per student had remained flat for several years, and the overall budget was reduced substantially by $50 million in legislative budgets cuts,” said Dr. Tracy Ginsburg, FBISD Chief Financial Officer. “Eighty six % of the district’s budget is comprised of salaries and benefits, and the reduction of 1,000 employees impacted programs and class sizes suffered, all at a time when accountability standards increased.”
According to Moak, Casey and Associates, Texas school finance and accountability experts, lawyers representing the plaintiff groups had mixed reactions on whether or not Judge Dietz should re-open the case.
Phillip Fraissinet, attorney for the Fort Bend plaintiffs, argued that the legislature did not update the funding formulas and that the latest STAAR test scores (especially for economically disadvantaged students) confirm that districts continue to have major problems with a lack of available resources.