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February 4, 2013

Judge: Texas school finance is unconstitutional

(Continued)

The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Attorneys representing around 600 public school districts argued Monday that the way Texas funds its schools is “woefully inadequate and hopelessly broken,” wrapping up 12 weeks of testimony in the case.

Texas does not have a state income tax, meaning it relies on local property taxes to fund its schools. But attorneys for the school districts said the bottom 15 percent of the state’s poorest districts tax average 8 cents more than the wealthiest 15 percent of districts but receive about $43,000 less per classroom.

Rick Gray, a lawyer representing districts mostly in poorer areas of the state, said during closing arguments that Texas must begin producing better educated college graduates, or it would see its tax base shrink and needs for social services swell due to a workforce not properly prepared for the jobs of the future.

“The system today, as we see it, is failing Texas children,” he said, later adding: “Texas should be ashamed.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office countered that the system is adequately funded and that school districts don’t always spend their money wisely.

In all, the case involves six lawsuits filed on behalf of about two-thirds of Texas school districts, which educate around 75 percent of the state’s roughly 5 million public school students.

Districts in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side. Texas’ funding system relies heavily on property taxes and a “Robin Hood” scheme where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money they raise to poorer districts.

Many “property wealthy” districts say that while they are in better shape than their poorer counterparts, the system still starves them of funding since local voters who would otherwise support property tax increases to bolster funding for their schools refuse to do so, knowing that most of the money would be sent somewhere else.

All the school districts involved argued that funding levels were inadequate, regardless of what level of funding they received.

Also suing were charter schools, which want state funding for their facilities and Texas to ease or a remove a cap allowing only 215 licenses to operate charter schools statewide. Dietz said they had not made their case and ruled in favor of the state.

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