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Texas School Finance Trial Restarts, With a Political Backdrop

With the Texas school finance trial reopening Tuesday, state district court Judge John Dietz is set to consider how changes made during the 2013 legislative session could affect his February ruling that the state has underfunded its public schools.
With the Texas school finance trial reopening Tuesday, state district court Judge John Dietz is set to consider how changes made during the 2013 legislative session could affect his February ruling that the state has underfunded its public schools.

Attorneys for the state will spend the next four weeks arguing that new high school graduation requirements and the $3.4 billion lawmakers added back to the public education budget in 2013 should change his mind. But the most prominent player in the state’s defense of the lawsuit could remain outside the courtroom, where the trial has become a political football in the state’s heated 2014 gubernatorial contest.

The leading Republican candidate for governor, Greg Abbott, is also the state’s attorney general. His office is responsible for the state’s defense against the more than two-thirds of Texas school districts that are suing over what they say is an inadequate and unfair funding system in a case that is expected to travel to the state Supreme Court.

He said last week that he does not plan to appear in court during the latest hearings. That has not stopped his expected Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, from lobbing attacks based on his role in the litigation. Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, has her own connection to the school finance lawsuit. In 2011, she filibustered the 2011 budget bill that enacted the $5.4 billion in cuts that led to the litigation that arose two summers ago.

The Davis campaign, which says Abbott’s focus is on the courtroom rather than the classroom, has also sought to tie his office’s defense of the budget cuts to an alleged support of private school vouchers.

"This isn't just about Greg Abbott defending $5 billion in cuts to neighborhood schools, this is about dishonesty and a total lack of leadership," Davis said in a December news release. "This is about Greg Abbott refusing time and time again to be honest about whether he supports vouchers, a shift that would further drain our neighborhood schools and put Texas' future at risk."

Audio: Kate McGee of KUT News Previews the School Finance Lawsuit Hearings

In a series of education-related campaign stops at schools across the state, Abbott has directed his attention to policies in other areas like charter schools and virtual education. When asked for his position on vouchers, Abbott has said they are not his focus “at all right now.” He has also repeatedly declined to comment on the Legislature's actions, often saying his position as attorney general prevents him from speaking about the lawsuit. He instead has emphasized that as governor he would "ensure that we adequately fund public education."

The timing of Dietz’s decision to revisit evidence has highlighted the case’s political backdrop. But it is not expected to change the final conclusion of the judge, who also found the system unconstitutional in 2004 litigation.

Dietz made his initial ruling in the case in February, when after a three-month trial he issued an oral ruling that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional both because of inadequate school funding and flaws in the way the state distributes money to districts.

A more detailed, written decision was expected in March, but that did not come — by that time it had become apparent the ongoing legislative session could have an effect on the details of his decision, which would have to explain how and why the state has failed to adequately fund its public schools. Lawmakers began adding money back into public education. It also became clear they would probably make changes to charter school policy and high school graduation and testing requirements, all of which were covered in testimony during the trial.

By the end of the session, lawmakers had restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Along with an updated charter school law, changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as to the state’s accountability system, also passed.

At a June hearing on whether to continue the trial, state lawyer Shelley Dahlberg said that “at least five bills” affected issues that were “hotly litigated” in the case. Many more, she said, of the more than 100 education bills lawmakers had approved in the 2013 session at least touched on areas covered by the lawsuit.

Dietz consolidated six lawsuits — four from varying coalitions of school districts grouped by their interests, one from the Texas Charter School Association and one from a newly formed taxpayer advocacy organization — into a single case at the trial's start. In June, all except lawyers representing two parties in the case — the Texas Charter School Association and school districts with a high proportion of English-language-learning students, which both argued that it would be impossible to measure the outcome of legislative changes in a timely manner — supported the additional trial days.

The judge ultimately decided to consider evidence on the legislative changes for four weeks, beginning in January.

"The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial," Dietz said in June.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/21/school-finance-trial-reopens-political-backdrop/.

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