Issuing its seventh ruling since 1989 on the constitutionality of the state’s education finance system, the Texas Supreme Court late last month unanimously reversed a strongly-worded lower court decision that had held that the system “does not provide for the constitutionally mandated “general diffusion of knowledge.’” The high court’s ruling, Morath v. The Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition et al, re-iterated that school funding suits are justifiable and that there are judicially manageable standards for determining these constitutional claims, but it applied an “arbitrariness” standard that provided a broad degree of discretion to the legislature: legislative actions that meet a “reasonableness” test will be upheld. The Court held that the current system met that test.
Rejecting cost studies and cost analyses presented by a number of expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, the Court cited language from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez in stating that the social science research on the “cost-quality link” between increased funding and greater student performance was still unsettled. It further held that, in its view, adequacy depends not on inputs but on outputs — i.e. results. Although a Texas statute required the legislature to undertake an annual cost analysis —- a practice which the legislature had not followed in recent years —- and the court agreed that annual cost analyses “might be a better practice,” it held that they are not constitutionally required.
Analyzing “results,” the Court first emphasized that the overwhelming majority of school districts and individual campuses met state accountability and accreditation standards. Looking at student test scores, the Court discounted low scores on newly-instituted state achievement tests, as a possible phase-in phenomenon, especially since the scores had risen slightly in more recent years. It also cited high passage rates on end of course exams and the state’s high graduation rates, that tied for second highest in the nation.
The Court strongly rejected plaintiffs’ claims regarding the need to provide extra resources for certain subgroups such as English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, holding that the constitutional standard relates to “the system as a whole.” Referring repeatedly to the 50- year old Coleman report, in addition to other sources, it stated that family-related factors matter more for student achievement than per-pupil expenditures.
In addition to reversing the trial court’s holdings on plaintiffs’ adequacy claims that were based on the “general diffusion of learning” clause of the state constitution, the Court also rejected claims based on the constitutional “suitability” and “efficiency” requirements. The Court indicated that both of these constitutional concepts, though constitutionally distinct, are also related to the general diffusion requirements and that the Court’s findings on the latter issue do influence its position on the former. Nevertheless, it indicated that the system could be found to be constitutionally “unsuitable” if “Texas school children were denied access to that education needed to participate fully in the social, economic, and educational opportunities available in Texas.” Wide disparities in access to similar revenues per pupil at similar levels of tax effort would violate the financial efficiency requirements, but the Court held that the existing disparities among Texas school districts did not substantially exceed the levels that were deemed acceptable by the Court in prior litigations.
The Court also rejected intervenors’ position that the “efficiency” clause should be interpreted to require the state to provide funding for vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools at public expense, to lift caps on the number of charter schools permitted in the state, and to equalize per-pupil allocations for charter schools.