Unsettled—No Final Decision Yet from District Judge in School-Finance Case

San Antonio AllianceUncategorized

In February State District Judge John Dietz found the Texas system of school finance unconstitutional on multiple grounds in a lawsuit filed by hundreds of school districts. They argued, and Judge Dietz agreed, that the state has failed to fund public schools adequately or equitably and has forced many districts to raise their local tax rates to the maximum allowed in a futile effort to make up for deficient state aid.

However, Judge Dietz has yet to issue a final written order in the case, and on June 5 both the state and some advocates for higher-wealth school districts asked the judge to take into account, before he rules, the actions taken by the legislature in the recently completed regular legislative session to restore state aid to school districts and to distribute that aid more equitably. The state’s lawyers also have noted that state academic standards would change under various bills passed by the legislature last month, including HB 5, which reduces the number of end-of-course exams for students in high school and alters graduation requirements.

Judge Dietz has told the contending parties he doesn’t want to have them relitigate the whole case but is willing to consider new evidence if warranted. Hence he has asked the parties to the case to return on June 19 to discuss the scope of any new evidentiary hearing.

Not coincidentally, that June 19 court date falls three days after the governor’s June 16 deadline to veto bills passed in the regular session, sign them, or let them become law without his signature. So by then we’ll know exactly how much remains intact of the legislature’s efforts to restore funding partially and to adjust testing and graduation standards.

Final action by Judge Dietz will be an important step, but only a step, on the longer road to resolution of the school-finance lawsuit. Ultimately the Texas Supreme Court will make the definitive decisions in this case, and then the legislature is expected to be called into special session by the governor to respond to the high court’s ruling. One argument for taking into account the legislature’s recent actions now at the district-court level is that the Supreme Court might well send the case back to Judge Dietz to hear this new evidence later anyway if he does not do so now.