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Schools: Texas’ public ed funding still ‘broken’

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – An extra $3.4-plus billion in funding is a mere Band-Aid that leaves classrooms still hurting and hasn’t fixed fundamental flaws in the balance for students in rich and poor parts of Texas, attorneys representing 600-plus school districts statewide argued Friday.

The state countered that funding levels were always adequate and fair _ and that the extra money makes them even more so.

Closing arguments from both sides before state District Judge John Dietz wrapped up a sweeping case that began in October 2012 and put school finance in Texas on trial. But a final ruling isn’t expected until at least next month.

Dietz declared in February 2013 that $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools imposed by the Legislature two years earlier violated the Texas Constitution’s guarantees of a “general diffusion of knowledge” with an “efficient system of public free schools.” He also ruled that the “Robin Hood” system, where districts in wealthy areas share a portion of the local property taxes they collect with those in poorer parts of Texas, meant funding was unfairly distributed.

Last summer, though, lawmakers restored more than $3.4 billion in classroom funding and cut the number of standardized tests high students must pass from 15 to five _ easing tough graduation standards that school districts argued they no longer had the resources to prepare students to meet.

Dietz reopened the case for three weeks to hear evidence on how the funding increase and testing shake-up would affect his initial ruling. He plans to issue a final ruling after mid-March.

Richard Gray, a lawyer representing about 400 school districts, many of them in poor areas of Texas, said “all the Legislature did was appropriate money into the system and, unfortunately, it did not even appropriate as much money as it stripped.”

“The Legislature, for whatever reason, has faced this issue time and time again,” Gray said. “They have put a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid.”

Schools in Texas rely heavily on property taxes, and Gray said the poorest 25 percent of districts collect an average of nine cents more per $100 of property valuation in taxes than the wealthiest 10 percent of districts statewide _ and yet they receive $30,000 less per classroom.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office has defended the school finance system as constitutional, though Abbott himself is running for governor and hasn’t argued the case.

Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg told Dietz that his “ruling from early 2013 was incorrect and that the system today is as constitutional as it was then.”

“Despite receiving much of what they asked for, the plaintiff (school districts) still claim that those changes don’t matter,” Dahlberg said.

During the trial’s second phase, a key state education official testified that average per-student funding has increased this school year and that gaps between school districts in wealthy and poor areas has actually declined since 2006 _ though that doesn’t fully account for inflation.

The plaintiffs say funding has actually declined overall, even though Texas’ population has boomed and the number of low-income students has skyrocketed. Students from poor families generally cost more to educate because many require instruction to learn English or participate in remedial programs outside the classroom.

“Things only got tougher,” said David Hinojosa, an attorney representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and low-income school districts. He added that the Legislature’s changes were “not even close” to meeting constitutional standards.

The school districts that filed suit are responsible for educating around three-quarters of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students.

Schools in rich and poor parts of the state are on the same side in the case because those in economically disadvantaged areas say “Robin Hood” shortchanges them. Meanwhile, wealthier districts note local voters who would otherwise support property tax increases fail to do so since they know much of the revenue raised will be sent to schools elsewhere.

John Turner, arguing on behalf of school districts in wealthier areas, said funding rates for 2014-2015 were still below per-student levels in 2004 when adjusted for inflation.

Turner called the Legislature’s adding funding and reducing testing a “step in the right direction.” But he added: “The emphasis should be on bringing up all school districts.”

Legal battles over school finance in Texas have been raging for decades: This case is the sixth of its kind since 1984. If the state Supreme Court ultimately declares the system unconstitutional, it will be up to the Legislature to devise a new funding plan.

Dietz closed the case by telling the attorneys he’d see them again when his ruling is ready, but “not any time soon.”

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