In a decision certain to be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, state district Judge John Dietz ruled Monday in favor of more than 600 school districts on all of their major claims against the state's school finance system. With a swift ruling issued from the bench shortly after the state finished its closing arguments, Dietz said that the state does not adequately or efficiently fund public schools -- and that it has created an unconstitutional de-facto property tax in shifting the burden of paying for them to the local level.
"There is no free lunch," he said. "We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don't."
Dietz said that issues raised by another party in the lawsuit, Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education -- a group representing parents, school choice advocates and the business community that argued the current system was inefficient and overregulated -- were better solved by the Legislature. He also declined to find the state cap on charter school contracts, or the charters' lack of access to facilities funding, unconstitutional.
Moments after Dietz spoke, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams issued a statement emphasizing that the ruling is "simply one step on this litigation’s path."
“All sides have known that, regardless of the outcome at the district level, final resolution will not come until this case reaches the Texas Supreme Court," he said. "I’m appreciative of the strong case presented by the Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the state. The Texas Education Agency will continue to carry out its mission of serving the students and educators across our state.”
As he presented his ruling, Dietz discussed what he called the "civic, altruistic and economic" reasons for supporting public education.
"We realize that others provided for us when we were children. We realize that children are without means to secure their education. Just as others provided for us when we were in school, now is the time when we provide for others," he said, going on to describe the societal benefits of a well-educated population: lower crime rates, fewer people who need public assistance and a greater state income.
Though he did not rule in favor of TREEE's claims, which challenged the statutory cap on charters, the alleged overregulation of public schools and the state's system for rating for financial accountability, Dietz said that they should "bear the Legislature's scrutiny."
The judge, who is expected to issue a more detailed decision in several weeks, did not elaborate further on his ruling against the charter school plaintiffs. He said that it was within the Legislature's discretion to fund charter schools differently than traditional public schools, and that any disparities in funding "do not rise to the level" of unconstitutionality.
The executive director of the Texas Charter School Association, David Dunn, issued a statement in response to the ruling Monday evening.
“We are disappointed that Judge Dietz ruled against charter school students and their parents, denying them constitutional protections,” he said. “They have the same constitutional right to facilities funding as every other Texas public school student. Parents and students do not give up their right to facilities funding by choosing the best public school option for their child. However, we are thrilled that the judge ruled the overall public education system, of which charters are an integral part, inadequate.”