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Judge rules in favor of school districts

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Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 7:17 pm

AUSTIN--A judge made a ruling on Monday in favor of more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that claim funding is unequal and inadequate. The verbal ruling came as a disappointment to the state which has argued since the trial began on Oct. 22, that state funding does not violate the Texas Constitution—which guarantees free and efficient public schools—and that the problem is how schools spend their money rather than what the amount is.

“Eight years ago I said that education costs money but that ignorance costs more money. I also said that it is the people of Texas who must set the standards, make the sacrifice and give direction to their leaders as to what kind of education system they want. I said that the problems only get worse the longer we wait. I said that then and I repeat today the time to speak is now,” said Judge John Dietz, just before announcing his ruling for each of the six consolidated lawsuits.

Before making his ruling, Dietz told the audience school finance is a complex system and that lawyers on both sides took hours to prepare for trial: more than 240 hours spent in court alone and 10,000 exhibits introduced.

"There has never been a more expeditious trial of a school finance case anywhere in the United States than what has occurred here," he said.

During closing arguments, the plaintiffs reiterated the points they made throughout the entire trial. As lead attorney for TREE (education group led by Texas entrepreneurs called Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education) put it, “We’re not suing for money, we’re suing for efficiency in the system. Lawsuits are just a reality in the system.”

School districts, including local districts such as Taylor, Granger, Hutto and Thrall ISDs, joined forces and sued the state after a $5.4 billion cut in state funding for schools amid the new standardized test that many argue is moving the focus away from classroom learning to teaching to the test and comes at a high cost. Many experts and parents argue that money used for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test would be better spent in other areas of education.

Rick Gray, lead attorney for Gray & Becker, P.C. representing mostly poor school districts, said an inefficient school finance system will have a domino effect in other areas.

He said the state must begin producing better educated college graduates or it would be in danger of a shrunken tax base and overburdened social service programs due to a workforce lacking in skills for future jobs.

The state argued plaintiffs did not offer sufficient evidence that school districts are not adequately funded. The state’s lawyers claimed students have shown academic improvement over the last eight years despite funding cuts.

“How much is enough? Enough money is the amount of money required to provide an academically acceptable and credible education in Texas,” a state lawyer said.

She said there is no link between “academically unacceptable” schools and state funding. State attorneys also pointed out that scores for the TAKS test, the previous state standardized test, improved over time and the same should be expected with the STAAR test.

The Texas Constitution, the state continued, requires an efficient education system, not a perfect one. In addition, the plaintiffs did not provide a specific amount of funding required to provide a “general diffusion of knowledge,” shifting that burden onto the state, the state claimed.

Once both sides were done with their closing arguments and rebuttals, Dietz informed his courtroom of his ruling.

Monday’s closing arguments and ruling resulted in a packed courtroom at the Travis County Courthouse; many of the attendees were school administrators who anxiously awaited the judge’s ruling. Taylor and Granger ISD administrators were among those in attendance.

They expressed relief about trial results and described it as a first step in more equal school funding as the ruling will likely now be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

“We’re very pleased with the rulings. Of course we know it’ll probably be appealed but it certainly feels good to have this part of the lawsuit behind us knowing that the court has ruled the way it did--especially the part of the lawsuit that Taylor ISD was involved with the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition. Hopefully the legislature will take a look at this and say, ‘We have to do something’ and get equalized a little bit to benefit our kids. That’s the reason we did it. It’s all about our kids making sure we have opportunities for our kids so I feel very good about it,” said Taylor ISD superintendent Jerry Vaughn.

Granger ISD superintendent Randy Willis echoed his sentiments.

“It’s a wonderful start. Each child should get the same amount of money regardless of zip code. [The ruling] will likely be appealed to Texas Supreme Court. I think everyone in this courtroom who was part of this lawsuit, we’re very thrilled with the results. It’s been coming for a number of years. We’re excited, it’s a good start.”

Legislators have said they will likely not tackle school funding during the current legislative session due to the trial, which was going on at the same time. School funding will likely be an action item during a special session next year or during the next legislative session.

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