This month in an Austin courtroom, two-thirds of the school districts in Texas will resume their argument that the state’s school-financing system is inadequate and inequitable and that it creates a de facto statewide property tax, forbidden by the state constitution.
The school districts filed their lawsuit in October 2011, but Texas has been here before: Since 1984, the state’s school-funding system has been challenged six times, most recently in 2005. In that case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, but schools have won earlier rounds of litigation.
Lynn Moak, a lobbyist for school districts and former executive deputy commissioner at the Texas Department of Education, has been a witness in all six trials.
“It’s sort of a personal history of my last 30 years,” he joked.
While the arguments in the current case aren’t new, Moak says that the case — which is actually the combination of six lawsuits — represents a broader coalition of plaintiffs than in the past.
“It’s a relatively united public education community,” he said, “which has been rare.”
Texas isn’t the only state facing a legal challenge to its school-funding system. Also in January, a three-judge panel in a Kansas District Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit arguing that the state isn’t spending enough on education. And this spring, the Colorado Supreme Court will review last year’s District Court ruling that the state’s funding system is “unconscionable” and does not meet the state constitution’s requirements for a “thorough and uniform” education system. If they lose in court, Colorado and Kansas might have to spend billions more on education.
Overall, 10 states have school-finance challenges working their way through the courts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Four other states recently wrapped up legal challenges.
But school-funding advocates have found that winning a lawsuit doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of education — or even boost funding over the long term, as funding formula changes and budget cuts can eat into court-mandated increases.
“Some argue that the status quo before the litigation eventually comes back into place,” said Dan Thatcher, an education finance expert at the NCSL.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held that San Antonio’s financing system was not an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause because education is not a constitutional right. But a footnote in Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in the case made clear that there was no obstacle to challenging school finance plans at the state level. Since then, all but five states — Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah — have experienced school-funding lawsuits.
Broadly speaking, the legal arguments in school-funding cases have evolved from equal protection claims in the 1960s and 1970s to lawsuits that focus on the states’ responsibilities under the education clauses in their constitutions. “All states have a provision for education as a positive right,” said Molly Hunter, director of Education Justice, the national arm of the Education Law Center, which has successfully argued cases for more funding in New Jersey.