DALLAS — A coalition of school districts and taxpayers has filed suit in a Travis County state court to overturn Texas’ system for funding public education.
The suit was filed in the 200th District Court late Monday by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which represents more than 150 of the 1,265 public school districts in the state.
In the suit, the plaintiffs said the current financial system, based on local property tax revenues limited by rate ceilings imposed by the Legislature, is “inadequate, unfair and lacking in local control.”
The coalition is asking the court to find that the educational funding system violates Article 7 of the Texas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to “establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
Lead plaintiffs are the San Antonio Independent School District, Hillsboro ISD, Hutto ISD, Nacogdoches ISD, Pflugerville ISD, Taylor ISD and Van ISD. The list of plaintiffs includes two individual taxpayers and a parent with three children in Van schools.
Defendants are the State Board of Education, Texas Education Agency director Robert Scott, and state Comptroller Susan Combs.
The TEA said it was working with Attorney General Greg Abbott to prepare an official response to the lawsuit.
In the filing, attorneys for the coalition called Texas’ method of funding public schools “an arbitrary hodge-podge of approaches rather than a coherent system.”
The Equity Center, an Austin-based nonprofit that coordinated the lawsuit, said per-student funding ranges from less than $5,000 a year in some districts to more than $10,000 in others.
Equity Center spokeswoman Lauren Cook said the legal process could be lengthy.
“We do expect a favorable ruling from the district court by the end of 2012, but this case will undoubtedly be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court,” she said. “We might not get a ruling from the Supreme Court before the Legislature meets in January 2013.”
In 2006, the Legislature capped the local school property tax for operations at $1.17 per $100 of assessed value. More than 200 districts are at the maximum level.
Lawmakers promised to make up the difference with revenue from a revised business tax. However, the tax is bringing in $2 billion a year less than expected.
The current two-year state budget provides $4 billion less for public education than would have been required if the 2011 Legislature had not amended the funding formula.
The suit contends that 546 Texas districts with low property values could impose the maximum $1.17 tax rate for operations without generating the per-student revenue that 91 property-rich districts can obtain with a $1.04 rate.
The 2006 tax reform plan “gave property-wealthy districts unconstitutionally greater access to educational dollars,” the plaintiffs said.
Charles Dupre, superintendent at Pflugerville ISD in suburban Austin, said the state has ignored pleas from educators to fix its school funding problem.
“We’ve spent the last several years trying to work with state leaders to find an equitable solution to the school finance mess,” he said. “Instead they cut billions of dollars from an already unfair system.”
At least two school groups, including an association of property-rich districts, have announced intentions to file similar lawsuits challenging the current funding system. The district court is likely to combine them into a single action.