DALLAS — Opponents seeking to overturn the way Texas finances its public schools said the current funding mechanism is inequitable and inadequate during opening arguments Monday in a trial challenging the constitutionality of the system.
Suits filed by six plaintiff groups have been combined into a single case being heard by District Judge John Dietz in Austin. Testimony is expected to last at least six weeks, with no ruling likely before the Legislature convenes in January for its biannua1 140-day session.
More than two-thirds of the 1,024 local school districts in the state, along with the Texas Charter School Association and the Texas Association of Business, are parties to the suits against the state and the Texas Education Agency.
Each group has its complaints against the school financing system but all want the Legislature to make significant changes in the funding method that relies mostly on local property tax revenues. State aid accounts for about a third of district budgets.
The Texas Constitution requires the state to ensure the "general diffusion of knowledge" through "an efficient system of public free schools." There are more than 5 million students enrolled in Texas public schools.
The trial is the sixth focusing on Texas school finances since 1984. Dietz also presided over the most recent case in 2004.
Attorney Rich Gray, who represents more than 400 school districts with low to medium property valuations, said the 2011 Legislature cut state funding for education by $5.4 billion over two years while adopting strict statewide testing standards.
"The bar has been raised, yet the hands of school administrators have been tied behind their backs," he said. "Rich districts can't get the job done any more than the poor districts I represent."
The school funding system in Texas is "hopelessly broken," Gray said.
"It is not only inadequate, it is irrational, it's unfair, and most importantly, it's unconstitutional."
In a pretrial filing, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said local districts should be held responsible for the education they provide. Discrepancies among districts are not a sign the statewide system is a failure, he said.
"Given the fact that the public education system is founded on local control, success or failure of a school district is necessarily linked to the school district's own leadership, polices and operations," Abbott said. "If a local school district fails to provide its students a general diffusion of knowledge, such a result, while unacceptable, does not render the entire public school system unsuitable."
The Texas Supreme Court said in 2005 that the school funding system was approaching constitutional inadequacy, but Assistant Attorney General Shelley Dahlberg said that has yet to occur.
"We might have an impending crisis today, but it is not a crisis," Dahlberg said during the opening session. She asked Dietz to look at whether districts are spending money on classroom education or "wish lists of superintendents" and extra-curricular amenities such as football stadiums.
"Ask yourself or the witnesses whether a district can provide for the general diffusion of knowledge without iPads or teacher aides or brand-new facilities," she said.