School districts score preliminary win in school finance lawsuit


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

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Posted on February 4, 2013 at 9:29 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 4 at 9:41 PM

AUSTIN -- In a courtroom packed to the brim, months of testimony came down to one moment Monday afternoon. The trial that began in October concluded with Judge John Dietz ruling in favor of some 600 school districts suing the state over an "inadequate and inequitable" finance system.

"We're extremely excited," said David Hinojosa, Southwest Regional Council for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

"This is a great civil rights victory for the children who are learning English in our schools and not being able to achieve the standards the state has put in place, as well as for the students who are economically disadvantaged and the students who are attending schools in the low property wealth districts that we represent," said Hinojosa. "Of course this victory isn't just for them, but I think it's especially for those students."

"We feel the judge made very clear that we have increased our expectations of school districts in this state, but we haven't increased our resources to match," said John Turner, attorney for the Calhoun County ISD coalition. "I think that principle is at the heart of this ruling. If we really expect to do better as a state, we have to make sure we provide school districts with the means to do that."

The court declined to rule on a separate request by charter school advocates and business leaders to raise the public charter cap, the groups arguing that the cap results in unconstitutional inefficiency under the school funding system. Dietz credited the "efficiency intervenors" with raising important questions, but said the future role of charter schools is one best left to the Texas Legislature.

"We felt like we put on a strong case," said Chris Diamond, who offered the closing argument for the efficiency intervenors. "We do hope that in spite of the ruling, they will take note of much of the evidence that we brought."

"I disagree with today’s school finance ruling by the district court in Austin, but I expect an immediate appeal to the Texas Supreme Court," Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (R-TX) said in a statement. "While we await their final ruling, I will continue to work with Governor Perry, Speaker Straus, and the Legislature to continue to support our students and improve public education. Together we will ensure that Texas continues to have an accountable, efficient system of public education that produces graduates ready to compete in college and in our global economy."

The case is expected to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, where the final decision will be made. Those who argued on the behalf of the petitioners say the trial court's ruling gives them a leg up heading into the state's highest court.

At the same time, they hope to send a message to state lawmakers anxiously watching the lawsuit's proceedings.

"We're hoping that it will give the legislature a little push to do what is needed in the schools for these students," said Hinojosa.

"We know the Supreme Court will have the final say," said Turner. "We also know the Supreme Court has to grant a great deal of deference to the trial court's factual findings. If the ruling in the trial court today can ultimately be upheld, it should mean a major difference for the resources provided schools and education in Texas."