AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) — A state district judge on Monday ruled that the way Texas finances its public schools does not pass constitutional muster.
State District Judge John Dietz made the ruling after a trial that lasted 12 weeks. In his ruling, Dietz said that the state fails to provide local school districts equal access to revenue. It also has effectively established a statewide property tax system, which is unconstitutional.
Dietz, who was presiding over his second trial over the constitutionality of the school funding system, strongly suggested in his explanation from the bench that Texas is short-changing its students.
"Eight years ago, at the conclusion of a previous school finance case, I said that education costs money but ignorance costs more money," he said. "I also said that it is the people of Texas who set the standards, make the sacrifice, and give direction to their leaders as to what kind of education system they want."
The state is likely to appeal the judge's ruling -- a point driven home by state Education Commissioner Michael Williams.
“Today’s bench ruling is simply one step on this litigation’s path," Williams said. "All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court.
"I’m appreciative of the strong case presented by the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the state. The Texas Education Agency will continue to carry out its mission of serving the students and educators across our state.”
During closing arguments earlier Monday, attorneys representing around 600 public school districts told the judge that the way Texas funds its schools is "woefully inadequate and hopelessly broken."
Reaction from school districts started coming in moments after Dietz announced his ruling. Pflugereville school Superintendent Charles E. Dupre called it a win "for all Texas school children.”
“We recognize that we still have a long way to go with the appeals process, as well as the slow-churning wheels of the Texas Legislature," Dupre said. "But we have passed the first hurdle and we will continue fighting on behalf of all students for their right to a quality education.”
At issue are $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and education grant programs imposed in 2011 by the state Legislature, but the districts say simply restoring that funding won't be enough to fix a fundamentally flawed system.
They point out the cuts have come even as the state requires schools to prepare students for standardized tests that are getting more difficult and amid a statewide boom in the number of low-income students and those who need extra instruction to learn English, both of whom are more costly to educate.
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 does not have a state income tax, meaning it relies on local property taxes to fund its schools. But Gray 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.
"This system of public education in Texas has been woefully underfunded for years," Gray said. "This crisis is finally knocking on the door, and if we don't solve it all of us, all Texans, will pay the price and most of all the kids will pay."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office counters that the system is adequately funded and that school districts don't always spend their money wisely.
But the cuts came as the state implemented a new and far more-difficult standardized testing regime known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, exam. David Thompson, who represents districts in both wealthy and poor parts of Texas, told Dietz districts that had more students pass the STAAR exam had higher state funding than those with lower scores.
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