updated 9:52 PM EDT, Mar 26, 2015
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Texas News Service

A Crowded Courtroom for Day One of TX School Funding Lawsuit

Chris Thomas

Texas News Service

AUSTIN, Texas - More than a dozen attorneys representing about 600 Texas school districts laid out their case on Monday that the state education funding system is inefficient, outmoded and favors wealthy districts over poor ones. They contend that over time, the system has eroded many students' chances of getting a good education. Five other cases have alleged as much since the 1980s. 

Marisa Bono is a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), which represents some of the state's poorest districts. This time, she says, tougher achievement tests and graduation requirements are shedding new light on long-time problems.

"The difference with this case is that we're really at an unprecedented point in terms of rigor and standards that are set by the state for our school districts. We're really talking about some high-stakes testing that's going to be very expensive for school districts."

One school superintendent in the courtroom was Dr. Nabor Cortez, of the small La Feria School District near Harlingen. In response to budget cuts, he says, they've laid off teachers and aides although their student population continues to grow. The state allocates some dollars based on numbers of lower-income, special-education and English-language learners. Cortez says those formulas are outdated.

"The Weighted Average Daily Attendance, which is based on formulas, they have not been updated in ages - for 20 to 30 years. We know that there's something called 'inflation,' and it doesn't forgive anybody."

Plaintiffs' attorneys said wealthy districts collect about $2,000 more per student per year than poor districts. Cortez says that, combined with the state's education budget cuts, means many districts are struggling.

A common theme in opening arguments was that the court fights would not be necessary if the Legislature had fixed the school funding problems. Bono says the districts are asking the court to declare the system unconstitutional, so state lawmakers will have to act.

"That's really what we're seeking in this case. We're not looking for any special benefits or anything else. We just want to give them the opportunity to succeed and make their dreams a reality."

Bono says the districts and students welcome the new challenges, but the funding inequities set them up to fail. The Texas Attorney General's office counters that money is not directly linked to students' success, and that the school funding system may be flawed but is not unconstitutional.