By Ben Velderman
AUSTIN, Texas – A state judge ruled Monday that Texas’ approach to funding public education is unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide adequate financial assistance to hundreds of school districts.
While the ruling is seen as a big win for the education establishment, the state is expected to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, which could hear the case later this year, reports The Dallas Morning News.
“Texas does not have a state income tax, and relies heavily on local property taxes to fund schools,” reports National Public Radio.
That means richer school districts have more resources than poorer districts to educate students and meet the state’s tougher academic standards.
After a 12-week trial, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that approach to funding K-12 education is inequitable and unconstitutional.
“There is no free lunch. We either want increased standards (in schools) and are willing to pay the price or we don’t,” Dietz said in an oral ruling, according to The Dallas Morning News. “There is a cost to act, namely a tax increase. There is also a cost not to act, the loss of our competitive position as a state.”
Michael Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, agrees that Texas’ classrooms could use more money, but he’s not convinced school districts are underfunded.
“We see school districts building a multimillion dollar stadium; we’ve got math teachers being fired while superintendents are taking home record salaries,” Sullivan told NPR. “We have a superintendent with a press secretary making more that the White House press secretary. You know, you have to scratch your head and say wait a minute, there are screwy priorities. Let’s redirect those dollars into the classroom.”
It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will use Monday’s ruling to make changes to the school funding system, or if they’ll wait to see if – and how – the Texas Supreme Court rules on the issue.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican, appears ready to resolve the problem.
“The judge said [the current system] was unconstitutional, but he did not prescribe any remedies,” Seliger told NPR. “We’re just going to have to come up with a remedy that may not be a preferred one, but that is constitutional.”
The Texas school funding case may inspire similar lawsuits in other states.
According to Reuters, “Similar battles are playing out across the country. Active school finance lawsuits are pending in 16 states, including Texas, according to the National Education Access Network, which tracks such court action across the country.”
A three-judge panel in Kanas recently ruled “that the state was unconstitutionally short-changing its students by underfunding education needs and must increase spending by about $400 million,” Reuters reports.
We echo Sullivan’s concerns: Additional K-12 spending that results in more student programs and better teachers might be a good thing. But if court-ordered infusions of cash are simply used to prop up the current dysfunctional public education system – which is rife with waste and misplaced priorities – that would be a disgrace.