Here We Go Again—Supplemental Trial in School-Finance Case Set for January 2014

State district judge John Dietz today ordered a supplemental trial in the case brought by hundreds of school districts challenging the constitutionality of the state system of school finance. Dietz already has held the system unconstitutional in a ruling from the bench in February after the first trial. But now, before issuing a final written decision, the judge wants to hear evidence on what the legislature did to restore school funding and to alter the testing and accountability system during the regular legislative session that ended May 27. Dietz said the new trial will start in January 2014 and could take up to six weeks. The goal, he said, will be to determine whether legislative changes have changed the situation enough since the first trial to have an impact on his decision.

A final decision from Judge Dietz originally had been expected this spring. Based on that assumption, the prevailing view was that the state supreme court might issue a ruling on the inevitable appeal of Judge Dietz’s decision by the end of this year, setting the menu for a possible special legislative session on school finance in the spring of 2014. With a new trial now scheduled for January, that whole scenario can be tossed out the window. It seems highly likely that a definitive ruling by the supreme court will not occur much before the 2015 legislature convenes. Even that projected timeline may be optimistic.

Ironically, while the point of the supplemental trial is to assess whether legislative changes have made any difference to the proper legal outcome on claims of inadequate and inequitable school funding, some of the parties to the case are likely to argue that it is too soon to tell by next January what impact the legislation will have. Attorneys representing the state have stressed that much of the legislation at issue will not have been fully implemented for some while, and they do not want “any hypothetical or speculative evidence regarding the actual impact of the legislation on students or district outputs or results” to be admitted.

Nonetheless, the main reason for going ahead and taking new evidence in district court now is that the supreme court eventually could well send the case back to Judge Dietz for new fact-finding anyway to determine whether the legislature’s actions would alter his findings. So the judge evidently has concluded that he might as well get the new fact-finding done before the case goes up to the supreme court in the first place.

Texas AFT will continue to monitor the case on your behalf. Ultimately it could have a big impact on the resources available for the education of some five million Texas schoolchildren. Despite the partial restoration of state aid to school districts for the 2014-2015 biennium, average per-pupil funding for Texas schools will remain far below the level reached before the Great Recession of 2008 and the ensuing deep budget cuts. Likewise, despite some improvements in the equity of distribution of state aid, students’ access to educational opportunities will still vary markedly on the basis of local funding disparities.