Texas Schools Sue State for Funding Reform

School districts suing the state over Texas' share-the-wealth school funding system said Monday that another way must be found to pay for education.

"Texas can and must do better; that's why we're here, Your Honor," attorney David Thompson, one of the attorneys for the districts, told state District Judge John Dietz in opening statements as the trial began.

Hundreds of Texas districts rich and poor have joined the lawsuit. The suit alleges the funding system prevents districts from meeting the Texas constitutional requirement that all students have equal educational opportunities.

Another plaintiffs attorney, George Bramblett, said several factors keep the system from working: Many districts are taxing at the legal limit, population has exploded and academic standards have gone up.

Attorneys for the state contend that Texas has met and exceeded the basic minimum educational requirements set forth in the Constitution.

The trial could last more than a month.

At the center of the trial is the fairness of the school finance plan, which depends on property taxes to pay for schools' maintenance and operations costs. The plan uses money from property-wealthy districts to fund poorer districts.

Whatever Dietz's final ruling, the decision is expected to be appealed to a higher court.

"We just look forward to the opportunity to put forth the state's case and to put on evidence of the progress and achievement that Texas public education has made," Assistant Attorney General Jeff Rose said earlier.

But Hector Villagra, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents several poor districts, had a different view: "Texas must invest the resources in these children today. Otherwise, not only will we fail these children but we will also fail the future of Texas."

The total state and local budget for Texas schools is $28 billion, of which more than 60 percent is provided by local money. There are 4.3 million students in Texas' public schools.

The districts argue that schools in Texas are underfunded and that a local property tax cap limits their ability to raise money. At the same time, state sales taxes have decreased and state aid to schools have decreased with them, making local funds more necessary.

This, combined with the state's share-the-wealth system that has richer districts paying for poorer ones, amounts to an illegal statewide property tax, the districts content. The Texas constitution bars statewide property taxes.

The share-the-wealth system was put in place a decade ago to satisfy court rulings that schools be funded equitably. But wealthy districts complain that state property tax limits prevent them from getting additional money they need, while poor districts say they need more money.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the districts should be allowed to argue their case. About one-third of all Texas school districts have since signed on as plaintiffs.

The state Legislature has tried unsuccessfully to find an alternative that will give homeowners property tax relief while ensuring that all schools have enough money. Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick has said he believes it would be best for lawmakers to take up the issue after the court rules.

The funding system was passed by the Legislature in the early 1990s. Since then, schools have been subject to new curriculum standards, the federal No Child Left Behind Act and growing student populations.