In late December, Texas media headlined the State Attorney General's announcement that he would go directly to the Texas Supreme Court to overturn a trial-court order for reform in school funding. On that same day, the same media did not report on a motion filed in the trial court by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) asking for an even stronger ruling.
And this week, as well-fed Texans feted their first family in Washington, the pattern of selective perception continued. On Wednesday, as the high rollers of Texas power tightened their ties and buffed their boots for a pre-inaugural orgy of schmooze, the State Attorney General repeated his request for a fast track hearing before the Texas Supreme Court. And all those things made headlines.
But with the news agenda hijacked by inaugural or anti-inaugural activities on Thursday, the property-rich districts in the school funding trial broke ranks with their poorer cousins at MALDEF and asked the Texas Supreme Court to get double busy for them, too. As this story goes to press, there is no mention of this significant event in the usual places Texans look for hot buzz.
So that makes two times in two months that the State Attorney General was crowned king of the media battle against school funding reform in Texas, getting all His Majesty's Ink, without even a fair or balanced notice, not even in nine-point type, that something else is going on.
"I'm surprised altogether by the State and the West Orange Cove Plaintiffs efforts to circumvent the laws we have in place," says MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa, speaking by telephone from his San Antonio office Friday evening.
While MALDEF and other allies for equity were openly cheering the original trial-court ruling that ordered the state to reform its school funding during the upcoming legislative session in Austin, a closer reading revealed that the judge had written a small puzzle.
At one point in the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law handed down on Nov. 30, District Judge John Dietz found that the state fails to provide constitutionally guaranteed education to Texas children because "the current funding capacity of the Texas school finance system, in conjunction with the inequitable access to revenue in the system, does not provide property-poor districts with sufficient access to revenue" (FOF 294). This phrasing suggests that not only is the state funding too low to be constitutional overall, but also that the property-poor districts can't get their hands on their constitutionally equitable share.
About 20 pages later, however, the judge says that "a structural disparity in access to revenues, that, while not reaching the level of a constitutional violation at this time, still puts property-poor districts at a financial disadvantage when compared to Chapter 41 districts [the legal definition of a property-rich district under Texas law]" (FOF 435). Which is to say, what? That "inequitable access" to funds among property-poor districts is pretty bad, but not really a constitutional concern for Texas at this time? In its Dec. 28 motion to the trial court, MALDEF asks to have this language revised.
All through this latest round of the school funding trial, property-rich districts allied with property-poor districts because both sides said out loud in court that they supported each other's claims. The property poor districts agreed to the property-rich argument that Texas needed more money overall in absolute dollars. If this argument prevailed in court the property-rich districts would get to raise and spend more money from their gilded tax bases at home.
In return for this kind of support from the property-poor side, the property-rich districts gave lip service to the claim that inequities between rich and poor districts also deserved the court's attention. Any court-ordered increase in overall revenues should be accompanied by enough re-distribution of wealth to keep the tax bases equitable, so said the rich-district attorneys in court.
Smells like catfish bait in August when the property-rich districts suddenly join the state's effort to get inside the jurisdiction of the all-Republican Supreme Court, as MALDEF is trying to finish up its equity advocacy at the trial-court level. The rich districts already have the ruling they need from the trial court, don't they? They've got their constitutional issue in the pocket that mandates more overall funding at higher tax rates. Why do they suddenly need to speed up the appeal?
"The issue of equitable access to revenues for maintenance and operations funding has yet to be fully rendered by the trial court, yet the property-rich districts think certain issues should be yanked up by the Supreme Court?" asks Hinojosa in a question punctuated by 500 years of exasperation.
Hinojosa wears his tired voice like a black-tie tuxedo some days, and he was formally weary in tone and cadence as he talked about the one-two punch of Wednesday-Thursday motions filed by state attorneys and rich districts who are suddenly rushing into each other at the Supreme Court door.
It's plain as day to us lowly observers of Texas politics that a deal has been cut to enrich the richies and cut the poor folks out at the final buzzer. It's the only theory that makes sense. Only thing at this point for us know-nothings is to ask: is it a done deal yet? When everybody gets back from the parties in Washington, we'll see. But you won't get the headline from the usual media publishers, so please stay tuned.
Meanwhile the solidarity chant of the moment seems pretty clear to me: finish the trial court business you black-boot Texas lawyers, before you go the appeal.
Note: motions filed by the Texas Attorney General and the West Orange Cove Plaintiffs are available in pdf format at the Downloads section of the Texas Civil Rights Review.