Texas schools sue state, saying funding is unfair

A coalition of more than 150 Texas school districts said Tuesday it has filed a lawsuit against the state over a school funding system it says is unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional.

The coalition represents more than one in 10 Texas districts. It accuses lawmakers of turning a blind eye to the state's troubled school financing system for years and exacerbating the flaws this summer when they slashed public school spending by more than $4 billion to close a massive budget gap.

"Some districts really wanted us to file last year, but we thought, 'We'll give the Legislature one more chance to do the right thing, to fix this broken system we have and fund schools properly,'" said Lauren Cook, a spokeswoman for the Austin-based Equity Center, which organized the lawsuit. "But they didn't. They cut $4 billion in core funding. As a result of that action they took, there's really just no other option for schools at this point."

The Texas Education Agency and the Texas comptroller are among the defendants named in the lawsuit filed Monday. Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for president and signed the state budget that included the education cuts, is not.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the agency was still reviewing the lawsuit.

"We will work with the (attorney general's) office to prepare an official response," she said. "Obviously, this is an issue that the courts and the Legislature will ultimately have to resolve."

The lawsuit was filed by the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, which represents more than 150 of Texas' more than 1,100 school districts. Its members include a wide range of school districts in rural areas, middle-class suburbs and poorer cities such as San Antonio. Along with the coalition, seven school districts, two taxpayers and a parent are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The schools claim the state has taken an "arbitrary hodge-podge" approach to public funding for schools that has resulted in significant inequities among districts.

The complaint is based on a 2006 school finance overhaul, which included a provision that froze state aid to some districts without allowing for the costs of changing demographics or inflation. It was intended to keep wealthier school districts from taking a hit in the amount of state aid they receive under revised funding formulas.

But the overhaul "gave property-wealthy districts unconstitutionally greater access to educational dollars," the lawsuit says.

One example is Nacogdoches ISD, which is among the plaintiffs. Homeowners in the East Texas school district are taxed at the rate of $1.17 per $100 of property value, the maximum rate allowed under state law. Schools there got about $5,487 per student last year, according to the lawsuit.

The Eanes district in Austin, meanwhile, taxes property owners at $1.04 per $100 of property value, but schools got about $6,881 per student because of the provision freezing state aid, the lawsuit said.

Cook said plaintiffs hope a trial court rules before lawmakers meet for the next regular legislative session in 2013.

"Succeeding in this lawsuit and attaining an equitable school finance system would enhance our ability to close the achievement gap and offer more educational opportunities for our students," said Robert Duron, superintendent of San Antonio's school district. "There is still debate about how to measure the adequacy of the system, but I have no doubt that our current funding system is inequitable."

Along with Nacogdoches and San Antonio, the districts that brought the suit were Hillsboro, Hutto, Pflugerville, Taylor and Van.