The districts, which serve three-fourths of the state's 5 million public school students, argue that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education. They sued following a $5.4 billion state budget cut lawmakers passed in 2011, just before the state transitioned to a rigorous new student assessment and accountability system.
"Texas should be ashamed. These numbers don't lie, and yet this is the system that our kids are being educated in," said Rick Gray, an attorney for the districts. "The evidence is clear that money matters. Money spent wisely matters. Whether you look at SAT scores, ACT scores, dropout rates, those that have more, do better."
Along with the state, all six parties in the lawsuit --four groups of school districts, charter schools, and a coalition of business interests and school choice advocates -- are delivering their closing arguments Monday. Before the court broke for lunch, lawyers for the districts and charters reviewed key pieces of testimony presented by the long line of school finance experts, superintendents, parents, state education officials and national policy researchers who have served as witnessses over the past three months.
The court will reconvene at 1:30 Monday afternoon to hear from the state and the final group of plaintiffs.While school districts have sued the state over funding six times since 1984, there are new players in the courtroom this time. The interests of charter schools, which have existed in the state since 1995, and school choice advocates are represented in the litigation for the first time.Lawyers for the charter schools argue that they have been short-changed by the state because they do not have access to the same funding for facilities as traditional school districts. Their lawsuit also attacks the "arbitrary" limit of 215 charter contracts that the state may grant.
Dietz also served as the trial court judge during the most recent round of litigation in 2003. Whatever he decides will probably be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. If the final decision is in favor of the school districts, it will be up to the Legislature to restructure the system.
Lead budget writers in the House and Senate indicate that lawmakers are not inclined to tackle the question of whether to restore the eliminated funds -- or how the state delivers money to districts-- during the current legislative session. At a Texas Tribune forum last week, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said that they believed funding levels wouldn't be re-examined until a special session, likely in 2014. They expressed views common among many lawmakers that the consequences of last session's cuts have not been as dire as predicted.
"We've grown a little cottage industry here in Austin to sue the Legislature over school finance," said Williams, who accused attorneys involved in the lawsuit of "egging" the districts on.
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