Thursday, June 2, 2016

School Finance – What’s Next?

In a New York Times article on May 15 (Few Solutions in Texas School Finance Ruling; click here to read the entire article), they correctly pointed out that the ruling offered little in the way of solutions to address the needs of those districts that had sued the State of Texas.  After reading the ruling a couple of times, what it really boils down to is that the Court chose not to mandate how the Legislature should address the ills of what even the Court called a “Byzantine” school finance system, deferring instead to what they defined as the constitutional obligation of the Legislature to act.

There are a couple of other phrases in the ruling that trouble me.  One is the notion that the current school finance system meets the “minimum constitutional requirements”, a concern that I have addressed on multiple occasions since the ruling.  It is particularly alarming to me that the State’s highest court is willing to acknowledge a dated system, one that meets minimum requirements, yet provides no real direction to the Legislature.  Doesn’t this lack of direction, and a consensus among the majority of districts that the Legislature is unwilling to act in a manner consistent with what they perceive as requirements, kind of set the stage for yet another lawsuit at some point in the future?  As even the Lt. Governor acknowledged, the issue “for now, has been resolved”. 

The Court’s ruling also noted that, “Texas’s more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Dacdalean “system”.  But who defines better?  The Court’s ruling went to great lengths to analyze the challenge of defining certain words in the Texas Education Code, including understanding what the phrase “quality education” means.  The ruling also commented on Article VII, section 1 of the Education code, noting that, “… the “imprecise” language of Article VII, section 1 necessarily grants the Legislature great discretion to determine what constitutes “suitable provision” for an “efficient system” to provide a “general diffusion of knowledge”.

Hearkening back to the Lt. Governor’s statement that the issue “for now, has been resolved”, the next legislative session should serve as an opportunity to eliminate the words “for now” from the discussion and to focus on how that might occur.  Admittedly, there are major fiscal challenges to be faced by the 85th Legislature but that does not absolve our elected officials of the responsibility to take steps to address the challenges in our current school finance funding model as outlined in the Court’s ruling. 

While I certainly do not agree with everything in the ruling, my real concern is the lack of direction provided to the Legislature and, more importantly, how it will choose to interpret and (hopefully) act upon the limited guidance outlined.  Absent that direction, it is up to all of us as public education advocates to Make Education a Priority to ensure that the needs of our students are not only met at the “minimum” but to provide the greatest opportunity we can for them to succeed.

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