School suit could force special session

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Texas’ school finance case will no doubt head to a higher court, the topic is one state lawmakers will likely leave alone this legislative session. Until then, the question of what level of education funding is necessary could plague the budget-writing process.

“I think there's going to be a lot of pushing it off until the end, until the courts make a decision,” said Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee. “It probably won't be until next year, because it will be appealed to the Supreme Court by the state from the actions that are presented by the school districts."

Dukes is joined on the committee by two other Austin-area members – Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. Gonzales said having one of the largest Central Texas contingencies among the budget-writing panel might be influential for local schools, parents and students.

“Central Texas has a very large voice in exactly what we're appropriating, exactly what we're prioritizing,” Gonzales said. “In this area, we do jobs and education very well. The fact that there's three of us there pays huge dividends for the region."

While Gonzales is pleased to see items such as funding for fast-growth schools like the Round Rock and Hutto Independent School Districts make it into the next biennium’s budget proposal, base funding for schools across the state is a gray area right now. Lawmakers are quietly arguing over which level to fund – what they passed last session or something closer to what school districts are seeking from a lawsuit.

On Monday, state District Judge John Dietz ruled in the trial involving more than 600 school districts – the sixth time districts have sued the state over school funding since 1984. The decision showed the state did not meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education. This followed a $5.4 billion education budget cut passed by lawmakers in 2011.

“If you take a certain amount of money and you provide the same amount of money but to 200,000 additional children to that pool, technically you've reduced what amount has gone to every child,” Dukes explained. “For instance, it should have been about $7,000 or more for every child. Only $5,000 per child was provided."

One view common among many members is that the cut was not as dramatic as previously predicted. Regardless, the idea of restoring those eliminated funds or how the state distributes money to districts likely will not be tackled this session.

While some lawmakers have predicted the next Legislature might have to take on the issue in 2015, Dukes and Gonzales said the governor could call a special session for that purpose in 2014.

“What we're told is a final decision, like a Supreme Court decision probably not being until January of 2014, which probably takes us into special session of May or June of '14,” Gonzales said.

Dukes said the committee’s conversation will eventually come down to student growth and an average daily attendance rate – something that is now up to the mercy of an expected appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. If school districts win in the end, the Legislature will have to once again restructure the system.

“It's pretty unlikely that the 27 members of the Appropriations Committee are going to make some major changes to the funding formulas until the courts make a decision,” Dukes added.

However, some lawmakers have ideas on sections of school funding to address ahead of a final court ruling. For instance, Howard suggested reinstituting programs like full-day pre-kindergarten and the Student Success Initiative now.

"Our children’s education should not be placed on hold while the Legislature waits for instruction from the courts," Howard said. "We have the ability and the responsibility to make the current funding system adequate and more equitable by restoring cuts now while also laying the groundwork for a permanent solution."


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