Debate Over School Finance Heads Back to Texas Supreme Court

Last week was back to the classroom. This week it's back to the courtroom. It's been four years since more than 600 school districts sued the state over how it funds public education. On Tuesday, attorneys for both sides square off again, but this time should be the decisive round because it's before the state's highest court. Our Karina Kling takes a look at how we got here and what the stakes are moving forward.

The first day of school is always an important day for students and parents, but this year, one week after the school year begins will mark the beginning of another critical time.

The Texas Supreme Court will start the process of trying to decide if enough money is spent on schools and if each district is getting its fair share. Justices will hear about two and a half hours of arguments from the state and various plaintiff groups Tuesday.

The groups that sued will argue the way the state currently funds schools is inadequate and unfair. They're hoping for relief from the justices after lawmakers decided not to make any major changes this past session.

"The system is massively inequitable and inadequate," said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Texas Equity Center.

That's what the attorneys for the more than 600 plaintiff school districts will argue. So far, they're 2-0 against the state in the current legal fight that began in 2011.

A state district judge has sided with the school districts twice, saying the way the state funds public education is unconstitutional.

"Our children will compete on a world stage -- a global stage -- and they must be educated at that level, and quality does take money," Pierce said.

But the state's Republican leaders have pointed to favorable test scores compared to other states and have repeatedly argued more money is not the end-all to improving public education.

"Our first goal has to be on creating an educational system that will advance students the best way possible and then funding that program," Gov. Greg Abbott said.

However, schools and public education advocates say the effects of the $5.4 billion lawmakers cut from public education in 2011 still linger today, despite some of that money being restored.

They point out another flaw: The unfair gap that exists between the top quarter of districts with high property wealth and poorer districts in the bottom quarter.

"At maximum tax rate, the higher funded districts have $50,000 more per typical elementary classroom of 22 children," said Pierce.

It's unclear when the high court might make a decision, but plaintiffs say it's a must-win situation for most districts.

"This isn't something we go back in a year or two. So, we're talking about an entire generation of students going through the system either funded adequately and given a true bite of the apple, or we're talking about another decade of mediocre," said Pierce.

This is the state's sixth school finance case since 1984.

When the Supreme Court does render its decision, the result could set up the potential for a special session of the Texas Legislature to overhaul school finance.

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