A coalition of school districts that educate more than 1.5 million Texas children filed a fourth lawsuit against the state Thursday over school funding, alleging that the current system doesn’t provide schools enough money and distributes it unfairly.
The suit was brought by 63 public school districts and has the financial backing of two more, which collectively represent about a third of the state’s public school enrollment, according to Thompson & Horton, the Houston-based law firm handling the suit.
It will be “the most broad and diverse group of school districts ever to jointly challenge the school finance system,” the firm said in a statement. “The plaintiff group includes the largest and some of the smallest school districts in the state, and many in between.”
Filed in Travis County, which includes Austin, the suit is the fourth of its kind since the Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion from education funding when devising the state’s two-year budget this summer. In all, more than 500 Texas school districts representing about 3.3 million children are now suing the state.
Thompson & Horton says Texas is expected to grow by 170,000 students in the next two years and much of that growth will be among economically disadvantaged students who “now make up almost 60 percent of total student enrollment.” Its suit says that for the first time since World War II, Texas lawmakers failed to provide enough funding to cover the costs of student growth, while also eliminating or severely cutting funding for programs designed to help at-risk students.
Paying for public schools has been a battle in Texas for much of the last century. Most recently, lawmakers implemented a new tax structure, reducing reliance on property taxes and creating a new business tax.
The Legislature adopted the overhaul during a 2006 special session, under court threat of closing public schools. At the time, the Texas Supreme Court warned that the plan would only be a temporary fix.
The suit filed Thursday says, “unfortunately, the Texas Legislature has failed repeatedly to heed the Supreme Court’s warnings.
Instead of true structural change, the state has fallen back on temporary fixes that ultimately fail to support the increasing expectations Texas has set for a student population that is rapidly growing and disadvantaged.”
The suit also alleges that the current funding system has effectively violated a Texas constitutional ban on property tax because of the Legislature’s previously approved a cap on how much districts can raise local property taxes without voter approval. Continued lack of state funding has since forced many districts to continually tax at the highest rate possible.
“Over time, increased state requirements coupled with reduced state financial support have stripped school districts of any meaningful discretion over local tax rates. Districts have no other choice than to tax at high rates in order to meet state requirements,” the suit says. “Consequently . . . the system now operates as a state property tax.”
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