Oral Arguments Heard in Texas School Funding Case

Published September 30, 2015

Oral arguments in an education-funding lawsuit involving six groups representing school districts, parents, and other groups in Texas took place on September 1.

Attorneys for more than 600 districts suing the state told the state’s Supreme Court schools are underfunded and the distribution of funding is unfair. According to the lawsuit, the inequity in funding has been a problem across school districts since a 2011 cut to education funding. The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of how schools are funded in the state.

The Fort Bend Independent School Districts is a group consisting of 81 school districts, including Texas’ eight largest. The Texas Taxpayers and Student Fairness Coalition, organized by the Equity Center, represented more than 400 mostly mid- to low-property wealth school districts, which together account for about 1.3 million students.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund represented districts with many low-income families and English Language Learning students. The Texas School Coalition represented about 60 property-wealthy districts, known as Chapter 41 districts, meaning they give money back to the state under the state’s Robin Hood Laws.

The Texas Charter Schools Association was also represented, along with five charter school students. Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education represented six parents and a newly formed coalition, which includes the Texas Association of Business, school choice advocates, and former state House Public Education Chair Kent Grusendorf.  

Questions About Efficiency

Although most of the groups were requesting more state education funding, Grusendorf’s group argued Texas education funding is unconstitutional because it is inefficient. The coalition argues efficiency does not necessarily mean more funding, and it wants the court to order a study to determine the true cost of educating a student in Texas. It also wants the state’s charter school cap lifted, regulations on public schools decreased, and the way property taxes work in the state reexamined.

Michael Barba, a policy analyst at the Center for Education Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says this lawsuit could make a real difference in how Texas funds education.

“We are very hopeful,” Barba said. “School finance litigation has been ongoing for 30 years now, and it’s time to implement the fundamental reform the Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly asked for. While the Supreme Court cannot tell the legislature what this change will look like—because the Court honors the principle of the separation of powers—the justices can tell the legislature that the system is in need of some type of fundamental, structural reform. If this happened, the justices would conclude that the current system is unconstitutional.

“The legislature would then need to look closely at our current system, understand it, and fundamentally reform it,” Barba explained. “The fact is that Texas is a very conservative state; our government does not tend to chase after the newest and latest policies. We stick to what’s worked for us. The problem is that we are slow to realize our education system is not working.”

Saving Money Through Choice

John Merrifield, a professor of economics at the University of Texas-San Antonio, says meaningful legislation to change school funding is long overdue, and efforts such as the Taxpayers’ Savings Grant Program (TSGP) legislation have unfortunately not passed into law. TSGP would reimburse parents for a portion of tuition costs or part of the child’s allotted state average per-pupil spending, effectively saving the state money every time a child moved from a public school to a private school. 

“The Taxpayer Savings Grant legislation[, Senate Bill 276 in the 2015 session,] substantially levels the playing field between the public school system and current and potential private schools of choice,” said Merrifield. “SB 276 provides for fiscal savings, which is politically critical, and it wisely phases in eligibility for a savings grant to those school taxpayers that already use private schools—meaning, as [the late economist and school choice advocate] Milton Friedman said, families that now pay twice. Passage of SB 276 gradually eliminates the injustice of paying private school tuition after having paid the taxes that support the public school system.

“Passage of SB 276 would have been great, but we can do even better with a comparably funded approach to school choice expansion through tuition tax credits or education savings accounts,” said Merrifield.

Concern for Future

The court, which heard more than two and a half hours of testimony, may not rule for several weeks.

“Texas leads the way on so many issues, and it has resulted in fantastic prosperity for our people,” said Barba. “But this litigation isn’t about our prosperity today. It’s about what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. Will they have the same opportunities as we did? As our parents did?

“The District Court looked at the current state of Texas public education and wrote that it is a ‘dismal’ failure to ‘hundreds of thousands’ of Texas students,” Barba said. “There are children today who have greater potential, ambition, and intelligence than even the greatest of Texas’ current leaders. Our system is failing their genius. We cannot claim to be a state of freedom and opportunity and then defend laws which determine children’s destiny based on the zip code they are born into.”

Lennie Jarratt ([email protected]) is the project manager for school reform at The Heartland Institute.

Image by 401(K) 2012.