School ruling demonstrates need for serious legislative action

Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz ruled Thursday that the current Texas public school finance system is unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution, calling the state’s recapture system a de facto statewide property tax. Through recapture, if a district raises revenue in excess of its basic allotment, it must send the surplus to the state for redistribution to poorer districts. The case was introduced in 2011 after Texas lawmakers cut state public education funding by roughly $5 billion.

It’s not the judge’s first time ruling on the state’s public education system. In 2004, Dietz ruled that the constitutionally set tax cap on local school maintenance of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value was also an unconstitutional statewide tax.

But an additional piece of both of Dietz’s rulings alleges that the state doesn’t fulfill its constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” In both cases, Dietz sides with the plaintiffs, calling the system both inadequate and inefficient.

The ruling by the Democratic judge will almost certainly be contested by the state and taken up by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. Though it would not be unprecedented for the court to uphold the unconstitutionality of recapture, the court will likely dismiss the provision concerning failure to meet constitutional obligations.

Dietz’s ruling is almost identical to his statements a decade ago. However, his current opinion goes a step further by alleging the current finance system has created inequality in education along wealth disparity lines. Since 2004, the gap between funding in property-rich versus property-poor districts has grown from $965 to almost $1,600 per student.

Though 60 percent of Austin Independent School District students are considered low-income, the district is designated as property-rich, and recapture will send $175 million back to the state this year. Sending such considerable funds back to the state while a majority of the student population is low-income seems contradictory. But if AISD is considered a property-rich district, we can only imagine the problems property-poor districts are facing.

The state has shifted its duty of funding free public education across the state to local taxes that should be going to local issues not under state jurisdiction. In light of this ruling, it is imperative that the legislature take up education finance reform this next session and restore in its budget the state’s contribution to its constitutionally mandated school funding.