A surprising decision by the Texas Supreme Court is the talk of Austin policymakers and observers. The court ruled the current system constitutional, declaring, “Despite the imperfections of the current school funding regime, it meets minimum constitutional requirements.”
In an 9-0 ruling Friday, May 13, 2016, the court reversed a lower judge's decision in 2013 that sided with schools in a lawsuit filed by more than 600 districts after state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education funding in 2011.
Since earlier decisions that the system was unconstitutional have resulted in significantly increased state funding for public education, many fiscally conservative lawmakers are undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief. Lower-than-anticipated oil prices and the threat of other potentially costly lawsuits have made legislators very nervous about how to take care of all of the state’s needs without raising taxes in the 2017 legislative session (many even hope to decrease taxes).
The court noted, however, that declaring the system constitutional did not imply that it was a particularly good method for funding public schools, and the opinion authored by Justice Don R. Willett encouraged the Legislature to take the opportunity to make much-needed improvements.
Throughout the opinion, the court maintained deference to the Legislature, and noted the role of Texas citizens in the process: “While Texans may desire a public education system that produces even ‘better’ results or better results more quickly, their remedy lies in the Legislature and thus in the privilege and duty that all Texans have to elect the legislators who will implement the policy choices they desire.”
The ruling did not specify that additional funding was needed, and in fact the opinion noted the court’s “uncertainty as to the correlation between more money and better education.” Texas students “deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.” This comment could be ominous in light of the types of “reforms” that have been in favor at the Capitol in recent years, including private school vouchers, charter expansion and deregulation that eliminates state protections of student and teacher rights and benefits.
"Our Byzantine school funding 'system' is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements," the court found in its ruling. "Accordingly, we decline to usurp legislative authority."
TCTA responded: “We believe it is clear that our public school system is underfunded and inequitable. The tension between performance expectations and inadequate resources for schools is not going to go away because of this decision. For the millions of Texas schoolchildren, parents and teachers who deserve better, we hope legislators will heed the court’s suggestion to ‘seize this urgent challenge.’
“When the Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers must make significantly improving education funding a priority, so that schools have the resources to match the increasing expectations and challenges of educating this state's diverse population.”
Click here for excerpts from the written judicial opinions and reaction from state leaders.