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What Does the Recent Ruling on Texas School Finance Mean for Lamar County School Districts?

Judge John Dietz
Judge John Dietz

What does the ruling last week State District Judge John Dietz’s  on  Texas’ school finance case really mean for Texas public schools and the school districts in Lamar County?

Certainly the ruling from Judge Dietz, who sided with more than two thirds of Texas school districts that sued the state claiming that our school funding system is unconstitutional, will not be the final word on the matter. The Texas Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case.

And its unlikely that  the Texas State Legislature will take real action next year to fix the system without a directive from the Supreme Court.

But Dietz’s ruling  in the case is important not only because it could potentially be a first step towards a better school system, but also because the 383 page opinion covers so many aspects of public education in Texas.  From the makeup of the student body to where Texas gets its teachers, from full-day bilingual learning to standardized test scores, Dietz’s ruling covers all the hot topics concerning Texas public schools.

Dietz found that the current system violates the Texas Constitution. For years, lawmakers in Texas have imposed “unfunded mandates” forcing all schools to implement change and required programs, without increased funding. For poorer school districts, this has been devastating to their budgets.  Add to that the cuts made to education in 2011 and it’s no wonder a lawsuit was filed.

The Legislature has been raising the standards for Texas students and requiring schools to provide more elaborate programs—talking big in the Capitol about the state’s high expectations—all while refusing to give schools the resources needed to meet those standards. It’s time, Dietz writes, that the state put its money where its mouth is.

Texas spent an average of  $7,128 student a decade ago, peaked at $7,415 in 2009 (thanks to federal stimulus money), and bottomed out in 2013. Texas spends about $300 less per student than it did a decade ago.  Compare that to New York State, the state which spends the most per student, at $19,552.

Schools are funded primarily by property tax revenue. As a result, high-income districts get a lot more money because of the difference in property tax wealth.

Today a greater share of Texas students are economically disadvantaged. Of Texas’ five million public school students, more than 3 million are in this category. According to the Texas Tribune, approximately 72.9% of Paris ISD are considered “economically disadvantaged. This group costs more to educate, since they need smaller class size or extra programs, but these programs aren’t free and the state doesn’t pay for them.

Combine lack of fair funding with more stringent testing and the result is “do more with less.”  Judge Dietz seemed concerned about the low pass rates on the new STAAR test in his ruling he stated, The failure rates on STAAR constitute a current crisis in the education system,” he writes. Dietz also draws a comparison between the flat scores on STAAR, and the lack of new funding for schools, suggesting that classrooms haven’t been given adequate resources prepare students for the required testing..

In his original ruling, the judge suggested it could take an extra $2,000 per child to meet all state standards – a total price tag of $10 billion to $11 billion a year.

“Education costs money, but ignorance costs more money,” he summed up. “It is the people of Texas who must set the standards, make sacrifices and give direction to their leaders about what kind of education system they want. The longer we wait, the worse it gets.”

Dietz further writes,  “Waiting for school districts to make slow progress on improving the passing rate is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of ninth and tenth graders who are no longer on track to graduate because of their performance on [end of course] exams.”

Dietz says: “Texas’s future depends heavily on whether it meets the constitutional obligation to provide a general diffusion of knowledge such that all students have a meaningful opportunity to graduate college and career ready.”  The conclusion is that Texas needs a properly funded public education system for all students, those living in areas with high property taxes like Highland Park or those living in low property tax areas like in Lamar County.

Of Texas’ 1,020 school districts, only the 259 richest ones can cover the cost of an adequate education with just legal tax rates and collection of property taxes. The underlying problem is the funding formula used to determine how much money school districts receive from the state.

Now school districts, parents, teachers and students will wait for the Texas Supreme Court to either uphold Judge Dietz’s ruling and force the state legislature to make real, significant changes to how Texas public schools are funded… or not.

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