Education News

With New Ruling, Texas Supreme Court Steps Back From Past Role In School Finance

“The Supreme Court is telling us that they’re simply not going to get involved in any more school finance disputes,” said Al Kauffman, who is a law professor at St. Mary’s University.

In its recent ruling, the Texas Supreme Court called the state's school funding system "Byzantine" and "imperfect." But justices decided it met the minimum standards and is constitutional.

In the decades of Texas battles over school funding, state lawmakers have only made major changes when the Supreme Court has ruled the system unconstitutional.

And in the past the court has typically told lawmakers to step up. Attorney Marisa Bono said that this time is different.

“When I read this opinion, the first thought that comes into my head is that the Texas Supreme Court has abandoned its role to protect Texas children,” Bono told reporters on a conference call.

Bono, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that the state’s high court has retreated from its role to make sure other parts of government are doing their job.

“It does disrupt that system of checks and balances that has led to reform of the system in the past,” she said.

But it's not clear if the Republican-led Texas Legislature will make reforms. Gov. Greg Abbott, who was attorney general when the case was filed, called the ruling a “victory.” And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican, endorsed the court's position.

“Really it supports what all of us, or most of us, or many of us in the Legislature have said: ‘Our finance system does have flaws, it's not perfect, but it is constitutional,'” Patrick said.

The ruling also sends a signal about future litigation

“The Supreme Court is telling us that they're simply not going to get involved in any more school finance disputes,” said Al Kauffman, who is a law professor at St. Mary's University and previously litigated several school finance cases.

Kauffman said that that leaves schools and parents little choice.

“They have to work with the local legislators, with their state representatives and their state senators, to make sure they understand how important this problem is. They have to overcome the political forces on the Texas Legislature not to raise taxes,” he explained.

The Texas court's hands-off approach echoes another landmark school finance case. In fact, the Texas justices cited that case and some of its testimony in its latest ruling.

In 1973, with San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Texas system was imperfect, but that it was up to state lawmakers to fix it. That ruling eventually led to Texas state courts, and other state’s judicial systems, getting involved in how schools are paid for.

Patty Rodriguez is the daughter of the lead plaintiff in that historic case. She's also a veteran teacher in San Antonio. She said that the new ruling stirs a mix of anger, frustration and sadness.

“For us, it's not OK to have kids at minimum. Then why is it OK for the Texas Supreme Court to say minimum is good enough for Texas school children?” Rodriguez asked.

In this lawsuit, more than two thirds of Texas school districts demanded better funding, arguing that the system doesn't provide enough funding, especially for the most vulnerable children.

“It's just kind of saddening to see that nobody, nobody in the state, nobody in the legislature, nobody in the judicial system sees it for what it is and is willing to step in.”

Other educators and also students expressed similar disappointment. Zaakir Tameez, a Houston ISD graduate and co-author of an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court, said that students told justices that they need hope for a good education and a better life.

“When the Supreme Court read this, and they did write in their opinion that they did see our brief, and recognizing that students need hope, they crushed it,” Tameez said. “Because I think at the end of the day, they stuck to their legal technicalities that were prioritized over five million public school children.”

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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