AUSTIN -- Emerging from Austin Community College's downtown campus, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) took the podium in support of some 600 school districts awaiting an Austin judge's decision concerning the lawsuit over school finance.
"School districts across Texas said, 'We're fed up,'" Davis told a small crowd of media and supporters Monday morning in Austin.
Despite the cold, Davis issued a heated challenge to her gubernatorial opponent and Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office leads the state's defense.
"He needs to stop defending the indefensible," said Davis. "He needs to settle this case. It's time to quit defending and start leading, and as a candidate for governor he needs to tell us what he'd do to improve our public schools."
Last February, 250th Civil District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the state's school finance system unconstitutional. Dietz suggested public schools were underfunded by $10 billion, forcing local districts to try and pick up the tab. After the 83rd Texas Legislature restored $3.4 billion in funding and passed sweeping changes to public school graduation requirements, Dietz ordered all parties to present the impact of the 2013 legislative session on the lawsuit.
Weeks of testimony concluded with final arguments Friday, and Dietz announced a decision would be issued in the following weeks. The original lawsuit was filed after the 82nd Texas Legislature slashed education funds by $5.4 billion in 2011, and Davis recalled her role during that session again Monday.
"As you know, I opposed these cuts from the very beginning," said Davis. "I took to the senate floor determined to block the bill the only way that I could: By filibuster. And though the cuts were not fully restored, we were able working very hard together this session to undo $3.4 billion in damage to our schools. But it was a temporary fix, not a long term solution."
Criticizing Abbott for defending the lawsuit in court, Davis argues Abbott could have chosen to settle the lawsuit out of court at any point while remaining faithful to his role as the state's chief legal counsel.
"As our lawyer, it was Greg Abbott's job to come and work with the Legislature to stave off yet another lawsuit," said Davis. "We know that this lawsuit was coming, and Judge Dietz of course telegraphed that that would be the case, that he would be waiting to see what the Legislature would do and whether it would resolve the constitutional problems with the way that we're funding our schools."
Pressed what such a settlement would look like, Davis said one priority would be restoring programs that were halted or discontinued due to the 2011 budget cuts. Without providing a specific dollar figure, Davis suggested the state has the finances to meet Dietz's recommended $10 billion increase.
"It is a matter of the legislature exhibiting its priorities," said Davis. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate said a settlement from her Republican opponent should also include a recommendation for the Legislature to reconvene and solve the school finance system once and for all.
"I believe a special session is likely needed in order for us to meet our obligations, and it would not at all surprise me for Judge Dietz to come forward with such a recommendation depending on the timing of his opinion," said Davis.
As the state's attorney general, Greg Abbott is constitutionally obligated to defend the laws of the state. At the same time, he has a fair amount of discretion as to how far and how effectively he does so. Most assume the lawsuit will eventually land in the Texas Supreme Court.
For his part, Abbott has been campaigning on education as well. The attorney general has scheduled numerous campaign stops to meet with educators and discuss issues such as charter schools and classroom technology. In a statement released Monday, Abbott brushed off Davis' challenge and offered a different focus on the issue of education.
"While Sen. Davis remains fixated on the past, I'm focused on making education better for the future of our children," Abbott wrote. "My goal is to make the Texas education system number one in the country, and I've been talking with Texans and educators about a plan to achieve this objective. That means more than ensuring the Texas education system is adequately funded. It means empowering teachers, principals and parents with the tools to truly educate our children. It means returning genuine local control to school districts rather than continuing with the centralized control by bureaucrats in Austin."
“Local control by school districts is the key for empowering students, parents and teachers and positioning Texas' education system to be number one in the nation," continued Abbott. "It also means using more online and digital learning tools that help students advance even faster. As Governor, I will assemble the tools, techniques and resources we need to make the Texas education system the very best in the country.”
Part of Abbott's policy platform also includes prohibiting local school boards and districts from employing lobbyists through the use of local and state tax dollars. After surprising many with her support of "open carry" handgun laws last week, Davis offered an explanation Monday that also offered a glimpse into her stance on "campus carry" laws.
"My position on [open carry] is consistent with the position that I've taken as it relates to guns on campus," said Davis. "You may know that I was a key vote in keeping guns on campus from passing, and yet I did offer an amendment in the 2011 session to provide the opportunity for our college systems to make that decision for themselves. My position on open carry mirrors that position, that our communities should answer this question themselves."
"Obviously in Texas we have a culture that respects the Second Amendment right and privilege of owning and carrying guns," Davis continued. "But we also of course have respect and understand the rights and privileges of property owners to make decisions about what's right for them. My position on open carry reflects my respect for both of those principals, and I believe that municipalities, school districts, hospitals, private property owners should be the ones that ultimately have a say over whether this is right for them and their facilities."
Davis also addressed a question concerning her reaction to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's weekend announcement that the Justice Department would begin to legally recognize same-sex marriages from states in which the practice is permitted.
"I believe that what he's requesting is right," said Davis.