DALLAS - State District Judge John Dietz reopened testimony on Texas school funding in Austin Tuesday, nearly a year after his ruling that the state's formula was unconstitutional.
The new hearings are set to consider what impact the 2013 Texas Legislature's increase in school funding will have on the previous ruling. Testimony is expected to take about three weeks.
In his ruling in February 2013, Dietz agreed with The Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition (TTSFC) that the school finance system violates the "efficiency" provision of the state constitution by failing to provide equal access to revenues per pupil.
The ruling declared that the current system has created a state ad valorem tax in violation of the constitution because many school districts tax at or near the $1.17 tax rate cap set by the legislature.
At the time of the ruling, leaders of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature were seeking funds to compensate for massive cuts to balance the budget in the 2011 session.
After lawmakers restored about $4.5 billion in general revenue for public schools, Dietz agreed to consider whether the new money had any effect on arguments during the trial.
Ray Freeman, deputy executive director with the Equity Center in Austin, said recently that the judge is not considering the upcoming proceedings a trial, but just a review of the original documents.
"The Equity Center has done some analysis on the new data and while there is an increase in funding, the numbers prove so huge the gap is still inequitable," Freeman said.
The Equity Center estimates the difference in per pupil spending between districts at about $1,700 to $1,800 before the 2013 legislative session. With the additional funding from the legislature, the gap may have been reduced $100 to $150 by legislators, but the system is still not equitable, according to Freeman.
Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education (TREEE), which intervened in the case, tried unsuccessfully to stop this week's proceedings.
TREEE wanted Deitz's original ruling to be appealed to the Supreme Court where new numbers could be presented.
Dietz, however, has not issued a final finding of facts that would have served as the basis for appeal because he was waiting to see what action the legislature would take.
More than 600 school districts responsible for educating two-thirds of the state's 5 million public school students filed suit after the 2011 cuts, claiming the funding reductions violated the Texas Constitution's guarantees to an adequate education. The cuts from the Republican-controlled legislature were the first in the state's history.
The districts argued that the "Robin Hood" finance system — where school districts in wealthy areas share their local property-tax revenue with those in poorer parts — meant funding was distributed unfairly.