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Robin Hood Lives! MALDEF Declares Victory

by Greg Moses Wednesday, Dec. 01, 2004 at 5:14 PM

The trial judge in the Texas School Funding Trial released final docs today. Here is a MALDEF press release and a selection of key passages from the court's findings, with commentary from the Texas Civil Rights Review.

(SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS) MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) welcomed the court order released this afternoon by Travis County Judge John K. Dietz following his declaration that the Texas school finance system is inadequate and inefficient.

Judge Dietz granted final judgment in favor of MALDEF’s clients and found specifically that the current school finance system violates the Texas Constitution because property-poor districts do not have substantially equal access to facilities funding and do not receive sufficient funding to educate their students, particularly when taking into account the larger proportion of limited English proficient and low-income students in districts like the Edgewood Intervenors.

Because Texas continues to rely primarily on local property taxes to fund public schools, and the property wealth of school districts varies widely around the State, Judge Dietz concluded that the State must equalize school funding with provisions similar to those in place today.

MALDEF celebrated this victory for fair school funding with its clients, known as the Edgewood Intervenors in this case. The Edgewood Intervenors are twenty-two property-poor and predominantly Latino school districts that joined this latest round of litigation to remedy the continued inequality in school funding and ensure that they would have the funds necessary to educate their students. Many of these districts were plaintiffs in the original Edgewood school finance cases that led to the current funding system.

The latest lawsuit, West Orange-Cove CISD v. Neeley, (“Edgewood V”) was brought by both property-rich districts and property-poor districts, with neither party calling for the end of the equalization measures known as “Robin Hood.” Dietz, the Chief Judge of the District Court in Travis County, issued 655 findings of fact and 24 conclusions of law based upon the evidence in a five week trial held in August and September of this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the basic notion that every schoolchild in Texas deserves a fighting chance and that educational opportunity depends on the fair funding of schools,” said MALDEF President and General Counsel Ann Marie Tallman.

MALDEF Regional Counsel Nina Perales added: “Property-poor school districts have continued to suffer from underfunding, even after our victories in the Edgewood cases. Judge Dietz’s ruling recognizes the persistent inequality in school finance and sends a strong message to the Texas Legislature that Latino students deserve better resources and a meaningful opportunity to learn.”

David Hinojosa, MALDEF Staff Attorney and co-lead Counsel for the Edgewood Intervenors commented further: “Judge Dietz recognizes that our superintendents are doing all they can with the resources they have, but that in the end, money does matter. The State of Texas erred by raising academic standards for all Texas children yet only providing funding for a less-than-adequate education.”

ROBIN HOOD LIVES! Key Passages from the Court's Rulings, with Commentary from the Texas Civil Rights Review.

A key question in the school funding trial revolved around the definition of an adequate education, with state's attorneys arguing that minimal funds could only be demanded for a narrow range of instructional purposes. In the following Conclusion of Law, Texas District Judge John Dietz says that education is a more expansive concept:

(COL 10) This Court rejects the notion that the general diffusion of knowledge requires expenditures only in the instructional program described in Section 39.023 of the Education Code and that other expenditures are merely “extraneous.” A district cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education without a sufficient support network, which may include, but is not limited to, (a) adequate and well-maintained facilities; (b) remedial and literacy programs to help Limited English proficiency, economically disadvantaged, and other special needs students, (c) sufficient numbers of qualified teachers; (d) small class sizes, (e) preschool programs to give a “head start” to special needs students; (f) dropout prevention programs; (g) extracurricular activities to keep students in school and assist them with getting into colleges; (h) nurses to keep students healthy; (i) security guards in certain schools to keep students safe; and (j) guidance counselors to help students with course selection and with planning for college or careers.

What does it mean to have enough local money or "meaningful discretion" in a school budget? For Judge Dietz, it means that local districts can dedicate ten percent of their available tax revenues toward "enrichment."

(COL 14) The Texas Supreme Court has held that a district must have “meaningful discretion” in setting its property tax rates for a local ad valorem tax to remain constitutional under Article VIII, section 1-e of the Texas Constitution. The Court concludes that a district has meaningful discretion only when it can devote, at a minimum, 10% of its taxing capacity, or approximately 15 cents of tax effort to raise additional revenues to enrich its programs beyond what is required to provide a “general diffusion of knowledge” and comply with state and federal mandates.

Adding together the broad definition of education and the ten percent test for "enrichment" funding, Judge Dietz rules that schools cannot systematically raise enough money under the tax limit imposed by the state of .50 per 0 of taxable property.

(COL 17) Because the West Orange Cove Plaintiffs have also established a systemic/statewide violation, this Court declares that the Texas school finance system is presently in violation of Article VIII, section 1-e of the Texas Constitution

(COL 20) Because the West Orange Cove Plaintiffs have established that the school finance system fails to recognize or cover the costs of meeting the constitutional mandate of adequacy, or the Legislature’s statutory definition of a comprehensive adequate program, this Court declares that the State’s school finance system is financially inefficient, inadequate and unsuitable, in violation of Article VII, section 1 of the Texas Constitution.

"Robin Hood" lives.

(COL 22) The disparate property values among Texas public school districts, coupled with the State’s continued reliance on local property taxes for the majority of funding for the Texas school finance system, requires the State to maintain equalization provisions similar to those at present, in order to ensure an efficient system among public free schools.

In fact "Robin Hood" needs to do a better job equalizing funds, especially to pay for facilities.

(COL 23) The prohibition on the use of Tier 2 funds for facilities, combined with the Legislature’s failure to make the IFA and/or EDA programs statutorily permanent and the Legislature’s inadequate funding of the IFA program, means that property-poor districts do not have substantially equal access to facilities funding in violation of the efficiency and suitability provisions of article VII § 1 of the Texas Constitution.

And the state needs to increase its financial support for districts that serve bilingual, impoverished, and other special needs students.

(COL 24) The current funding capacity of the Texas school finance system fails to provide Intervenor districts with sufficient access to revenue to provide for a general diffusion of knowledge to their students, in violation of the efficiency, suitability and adequacy provisions of Article VII § 1 of the Texas Constitution, particularly when taking into account (1) the inadequacy of the weight adjustments for bilingual, economically disadvantaged, and other special needs students and (2) the greater burden borne by Intervenor districts of the inadequacy of those weights, given their student populations, which are disproportionately LEP and economically disadvantaged.

The Legislature has until Oct. 1, 2005 to fix the system.

1. In addition to the declaratory relief described ... above, this Court hereby enjoins the State Defendants from giving any force and effect to the sections of the Education Code relating to the financing of public school education (Chapters 41 and 42 of the Education Code) and from distributing any money under the current Texas school financing system until the constitutional violations are remedied. The effect of this injunction shall be stayed until October 1, 2005, in order to give the Legislature a reasonable opportunity to cure the constitutional deficiencies in the finance system before the foregoing prohibitions take effect.

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