The Texas Supreme Court’s finding that the state’s deeply flawed public school finance system is constitutional is disappointing and a blow to Texas public school education.
But the court’s long-awaited decision in what the court described as “the most far-reaching funding challenge in Texas history” should not be interpreted by state officials as a victory.
The system is far from perfect, and its many problems were duly noted in the high court’s ruling against the 600-plus school districts that were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in 2013.
The all-Republican court found that despite its imperfections, the current school funding system — serving more than 1,000 schools with an enrollment topping 5 million students — meets minimum requirements set out in the state constitution.
“It is safe to say that the current Texas school system leaves much to be desired. Few would argue that the state cannot do better,” wrote Justice Don Willett in a 100-page opinion handed down Friday.
He’s right. Working to resolve the school funding woes should not wait until the 85th Legislature convenes in January, when the issue will be competing with other hot-button items for lawmakers’ attention.
Lawmakers have been waiting three years for direction from the judiciary before moving forward with any public school finance reforms. There is no longer any reason to wait.
This important issue merits its own special session, and we urge Gov. Greg Abbott to call one.
The Supreme Court makes clear in its ruling that the power to affect change in the public school finance arena is within the sole purview of the Legislature.
“Our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy,” the court said.
It added, “Texas’ more than 5 million school children deserve better than serial litigation over the increasingly Daedalean system. They deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Eva Guzman writes, “The court holds Texas’ school-finance system passes the threshold of constitutionality. But this is not an endorsement of the system.”
Guzman explains that though she fully joins in the court’s opinion, she chose to write separately “to further emphasize that there is much work to be done, particularly with respect to the population that represents the majority of the students base — economically disadvantaged students.”
We agree. Texas children deserve more than the bare minimum education that those entrusted with setting the state budget are willing to fund. Regrettably, the Texas Legislature has a history of balancing its budget on the backs of its schoolchildren.
The state is still trying to recover from massive public education cuts in 2011. It comes in at 38 on a list ranking the states and the District of Columbia on annual per-student education funding.
This was the seventh lawsuit school districts have brought against the state over public school financing. The courts ruled against the state in five of those lawsuits. If state lawmakers had the best interest of schoolchildren at heart, they would not have to be taken to court repeatedly to get them to do right by them.
There are some tough public school finance decisions ahead that will have major impact on Texas’ economic future. Given lack of a mandate from the court and Austin’s political climate, those decisions may not be in the best interest of the state’s children.
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