Case keeps lawmakers from tackling school finance


Efforts to ease the state's tough and getting-tougher academic accountability standards, meanwhile, may draw support from portions of both camps.

But what likely won't come up after lawmakers descend on the State Capitol on Jan. 8 is the case unfolding in a courtroom three blocks away, where school districts responsible for educating three quarters of Texas' more than 5 million public-school students have sued, claiming the underlying formula used to fund schools is unconstitutional.

That's because, while an initial ruling may come quickly, it will surely get appealed to the Texas Supreme Court -- which won't rule until the Legislature has adjourned for the summer.

If the courts find that the state is underfunding schools or distributing funding in unfair ways, it will be up to the Legislature to craft a new formula. But that's expected to require a special session called late next year or in 2014.

That makes it the Legislature's fight next time. Or perhaps not at all -- depending on what the courts decide.

"We know funding levels aren't adequate. We also know that we have a distribution problem," said state Rep. Mark Strama, an Austin Democrat. "So knowing we have a problem, it would be better to address it now rather than later. But we won't."

And, in a Legislature where both parties won't see eye-to-eye on that much, everyone agrees on this.

"The Legislature isn't known for making any changes to the school finance system until the courts tell them to," said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst for the progressive Austin think tank the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "Their hands are going to be put to fire before they do anything."

Similar sentiment came from JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the Tea Party Advisory Committee, a group of activists that counsels conservative state lawmakers. "I don't see the political will for anybody to do anything," she said.

Testimony in the case will go until late January, when State District Judge John Dietz will rule. Dietz says he'd like to decide "in time for somebody to still do something" during the legislative session.

But Strama noted that lawmakers know from past experience not to tackle major reform until the courts have had their full say. He was a staffer in the state Senate when the Legislature reformed school finance laws to create county education district tax rates in response to previous lawsuits and a 1991 state Supreme Court ruling.

Less than nine months later, however, the Texas high court issued another ruling declaring county education districts unconstitutional too.

"You could spend a lot of time creating a new system that, when the court ruling finally comes down, turns out to violate one of its aspects," he said. "So there's a rational explanation for the attitude of delay, even as it it's totally unsatisfying."

Sen. Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, agreed that "the specter of a court decision hanging over both districts and the Legislature makes the task to find answers through the proper legislative process that much more difficult."

The Houston Republican vowed instead to focus on "how we spend our education dollars with the same attention and priority as how much we spend."

Patrick supports lifting a cap of 215 charter schools licensed to operate in Texas, and a school choice program -- others call it a voucher system -- allowing students to use public money to attend private schools.

A tea party favorite, Patrick has frequently clashed with fellow Republican and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who controls the flow of legislation in the Senate. But Patrick endorsed Dewhurst's failed run for U.S. Senate this year, forming an alliance that has now allowed the pair to team up on proposed school-choice legislation.

Democrats who oppose diverting state money to private schools are hoping to win allies among conservative lawmakers in rural districts, where public schools are often the only schools available, rendering moot any expansion of educational choice.

An issue that could bring together both tea party supporters and Democrats may be reducing the importance of high-stakes standardized tests when measuring student performance. Even the influential Texas Association of Business --which has long called for tough academic accountability standards to ensure a properly educated state workforce -- is supporting a proposal to reduce the number of standardized tests high school students are required to take.

On the possibility of restoring some of the $4 billion in cuts to public education and $1.4 billion to grant programs the Legislature approved in 2011, House Speaker Joe Straus has promised lawmakers will at least increase funding $2 billion -- enough to keep up with the state's booming population, which has seen statewide enrollment grow by 80,000 public-school students per year.

But the San Antonio Republican, like many of his GOP colleagues, has refused to commit to rolling back the cuts more than that -- even though the improving Texas economy will give the Legislature more revenue to work with than in 2011.

"How far we can go in restoring certain decisions that we made last time remains to be seen," Straus said. "I hope we can."

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