School finance system passes Texas Supreme Court review

The Texas Supreme Court on May 13 said the state’s school finance system meets the minimum requirements in the Texas Constitution for an efficient, free public school system and does not function as an unconstitutional statewide property tax. This ruling overturned a trial court’s 2014 finding that the system is constitutionally deficient.

Noting that the framers of the Texas Constitution “placed the responsibility for education policymaking squarely with the Legislature,” the court said the “judicial role is not to second-guess whether our system is optimal.” The justices, in a unanimous opinion, said there is “immense room” for improving the system, but that the authority to act rests with the Texas Legislature.

Constitutional issues. The Supreme Court’s ruling said the trial judge had erred in finding the state in violation of two provisions of the state constitution  – a provision that prohibits a state property tax and a provision known as the “education clause,” which charges the Legislature with establishing and supporting an efficient, free public school system.

State property tax. The court said there is sufficient “meaningful discretion” for school districts to determine their tax rates, noting that about 24 percent of districts with only about 13 percent of students tax at the maximum maintenance and operations (M&O) rate of $1.17 per $100 assessed valuation.

Education clause. The court overturned the trial court’s finding that the school funding system was in violation of Tex. Const., Art. 7, sec. 1, which calls for a “general diffusion of knowledge” and which charges the Legislature with establishing and providing suitable support for and maintenance of an efficient, free public school system. The Supreme Court said:

  • It is not clear that spending a specific amount correlates with student achievement to allow arrival at a minimum dollar amount as constitutionally necessary for a general diffusion of knowledge.
  • Equality of educational achievement among student subgroups is a worthy goal of government but not a constitutional requirement.
  • The system is not unconstitutional simply because the state is demanding more of schools and teachers, and they predictably are facing a transitional period of adjusting to more difficult state assessments.
  • Ratios that measure differences between wealthier and poorer districts are similar to ratios in previous rulings where no violation of the financial efficiency requirement was found.

Other claims. The Supreme Court also rejected claims raised by a charter school association and a coalition of business interests and school choice advocates.

The charter school operators had objected to funding adjustments and the lack of facilities funding for charter schools compared to school districts. The Supreme Court, agreeing with the trial court, said the charter school plaintiffs had not shown funding differences that were “so arbitrary as to rise to a constitutional violation.”

The court agreed with the trial court in responding to a coalition of business interests and school choice advocates that had intervened in the case and argued that greater “qualitative efficiency” could be achieved with changes such as eliminating the statutory cap on charter schools, increasing school choice, and revising teacher employment rules. The court said the Legislature had broad discretion in determining qualitative efficiency and it could not interfere unless the Legislature acted arbitrarily and unreasonably.

The state’s case. The court rejected the state’s argument that claims related to the education clause of the Texas Constitution are non-justiciable political questions. The court said it had rejected that argument in an earlier school finance case, explaining that the education clause requirements indicate the framers did not intend to give the Legislature absolute discretion.

For more on the school finance case, see previous post State seeking review of school finance ruling.

by Janet Elliott

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