Cypress-Fairbanks ISD to challenge Texas school finance system

December 21, 2011

Dec. 21, 2011—Less than six years ago, the Texas Supreme Court struck down the state school funding system. In November 2005, the Court found that the Texas Legislature had over-relied on local property taxes, left local school districts without meaningful discretion over local tax rates and was operating a state property tax in violation of the Texas Constitution. The Supreme Court also cautioned that the school funding system was on the verge of resulting in a constitutionally inadequate education system. The Court warned that structural change was needed and stated that it “remain[ed] to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy [would] be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”

Six years later, it is evident that the Texas Legislature has failed to answer the call for needed change, and Texas is once again operating under an unconstitutional school funding system. Revenue added after the Supreme Court’s last decision has now been significantly reduced by the most recent legislative cuts of more than $5 billion. The business tax created to bring down local property taxes has failed to generate revenue sufficient to replace lost property tax revenue. And the “temporary” target revenue system adopted by the Legislature in 2006 has become a permanent funding system that assigns different levels of money to students in different school districts without regard for the actual costs of educating a growing and increasingly diverse and poor student population.

Texas has added an average of more than 80,000 students every year since the Court’s decision. It will add about 170,000 students in the next two years. In 2011, for the first time since WWII, the Texas Legislature failed to provide funding to cover the costs of student growth at current formulas in the next biennium.

Despite these cuts, the Texas Legislature has continued to add requirements for school districts and students and to increase accountability standards and testing requirements. Increased standards and a shift in emphasis to postsecondary readiness for all students is a good thing. But the state’s funding commitment no longer matches its plans, and the Legislature has failed to fundamentally change the system in a way that will rationally connect resources to the requirements the state has set.

Because of these failings, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD has agreed to join a coalition of school districts to challenge the constitutionality of the current school funding system. This will be a broad and diverse coalition of school districts that will stand together and raise common concerns to seek a ruling to compel the Legislature to adequately fund public education, provide local discretion and tie funding to the standards and requirements set by the state.

The coalition will be represented by David Thompson and Philip Fraissinet of Thompson & Horton LLP. Thompson and Fraissinet were part of the legal team that successfully argued the state property tax claim in 2005. Thompson also represented Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Legal Assistance Fund in Edgewood IV in 1995 on behalf of 263 diverse school districts to raise the adequacy claim for the first time in Texas. Moak Casey and Associates will assist the coalition as experts.

According to CFISD Superintendent Mark Henry, Ed. D., “CFISD has a multi-year history of reducing its budget as a result of inequitable state funding. After the recent reduction in state funding and the district's continued rapid student growth, a decision was made to join other school districts in requiring the Texas Legislature to establish a rational and understandable funding system tied to the high standards it set for all students, rather than perpetually reducing the budget and leveling down to correspond to the funds available."

In taking this action, CFISD and all school districts involved are keenly aware of the economic challenges that have faced our country, state and local communities. Many Texas families have had to do more with less, and Texas school districts and their students, families and employees have done the same. The answers are not easy. But our state can not use the difficulty of these challenges as an excuse to fail to live up to the constitutional duty placed on our Legislature to provide an adequate and understandable school funding system that is not funded by a state property tax.

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