By Derek Black
May 17, 2016
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court rejected plaintiffs' claim that the state's schools funding system is unconstitutional. In doing so, it reversed a trial court that had found in plaintiffs' favor based on extensive evidence of inequality and underfunding in the state's schools.
Plaintiffs have lost constitutional challenges to states' school funding systems before, but the Texas decision is truly remarkable.
First, the Texas decision may be but the newest signal of a troubling trend that has been developing since the recession. During the recession, courts began rejecting plaintiffs' substantive claims at a higher rate. Even with state revenues now above pre-recession levels, the new judicial approach lingers on.
As analyzed here, this new approach (if it is one) is unjustified, and places the future of education rights in serious jeopardy.
Texas fits well within this shift. The state supreme court had consistently accepted adequacy and equity challenges in the past. In fact, plaintiffs had been before the Texas Supreme Court on at least six prior occasions in the attempt to force the state to comply with both new and previously articulated requirements, winning several times.
This last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court seemed to set a new course in the litigation.
Second, the facts in Texas are more egregious than most. In 2005, the Texas Supreme Court in Neely v. W. Orange-Cove Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist., 176 S.W.3d 746 (Tex. 2005), acknowledged substantial evidence "that the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible without significant change," and that "it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”
The court also held that that the statewide property tax supporting education in the state was unconstitutional. Since that time, education funding in the state has fallen by approximately 11% in real dollar terms, according to a national report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The trial court tagged this as a $3.6 billion shortfall below what students need.
Third, those students who need the most get the least. As this newest national Funding Fairness Report shows, Texas funds its high-need districts at only 95% of the rate of its low-need districts.
One could slice and dice the trial court's facts and the Texas Supreme Court's assessment of them anyway you want to, but it is hard to understand how a school system that the court said needed improvement a decade ago is now constitutional when it spends 10% less money than before, and does not provide extra resources for the students at the highest risk of education failure.
Sounds like magic.
Fourth, the court tries to argue away the relevance of inequality and inadequacy in the state. Several other Supreme Court's have rejected funding challenges under the rationale of separation of powers. In short, they have argued that either funding issues are reserved entirely to the discretion of legislatures, or courts' lack the standards to evaluate education quality questions.
While there is a lot of room to disagree with those rationales, they are not per se unreasonable. More important, those rationales do not attempt to argue away the facts of inequality. They accept them but say courts are powerless or incompetent to deal with them. Texas has never taken that route.
Like most other courts, the Texas Supreme Court has traditionally taken the position that it has both the power and competence to deal with this issue. And this newest decision did not dare reverse itself on the past legal doctrines. Instead, it decided to mangle and manipulate the facts, sometimes in the name of a new wiser view of social science. What follows is a sampling.
After acknowledging the trial court's finding of a $3.66 billion budget shortfall in one year, the court wrote:
- "We do not question that a school system must spend money to accomplish a general diffusion of knowledge. Common sense says as much, as have we. Our financial efficiency doctrine presupposes that some good comes from equalizing access to funding. But here the trial court went much further, embarking on a quest to calculate the statewide dollar cost of an adequate education, and declaring the system unconstitutional because the Legislature had not provided funds to meet that threshold. What is not clear, given the current state of knowledge in the social sciences, is that spending a specific amount of additional money necessarily correlates to a better education as measured by objective outcomes. Nor is it clear that the specific cost of a constitutionally adequate education for the entire State can reasonably be determined by a court and therefore justifiably imposed on the Legislature as a constitutional mandate."
- "By focusing so heavily on the input of spending, attempting to decide a fundamental question that remains unresolved in the social sciences, relying on a misinterpretation of this Court’s jurisprudence, and relying on what the court deemed 'best practices,' the trial court erred in assigning a minimum dollar figure as constitutionally necessary to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge. This error infected the entire adequacy analysis, influencing the trial court over and over, and rendering its ultimate conclusion that the school system is constitutionally inadequate hopelessly flawed."
- "Plaintiffs argue that the educational system is inadequate because the State has failed to make its own calculations of the funds needed to meet its performance standards or to obtain a general diffusion of knowledge. . . .The State does not deny that the Legislative Budget Board has failed for years to comply with section 42.007. But even assuming that section 42.007 is a statutory mandate for the Legislature to calculate the level of funding needed to provide for a general diffusion of knowledge, this failure does not establish a constitutional violation of the adequacy requirement. . . . To be sure, the better practice might be for the Legislature to regularly calculate the cost of a general diffusion of knowledge, or components thereof, particularly in light of section 42.007. But complaining that the State has not come up with its own dollar figures for meeting legal mandates for public education does not render the system constitutionally inadequate, because the Plaintiffs bear the burden of proving the system does not achieve a general diffusion of knowledge."
What is striking in these above quotes is that the court has recognized a constitutional claim based on inadequate funding can be made, but here the plaintiffs' evidence is apparently misdirected. But how can evidence of a $3.6 billion dollar shortfall and the state's random guesses at adequate funding be misdirected or insufficient?
The answer seems to be that those facts do not matter. But if those facts do not matter, which ones would? The court comes close to saying money does not matter, an assertion that social science simply will not support, no matter how much a court might wish it.
The court also engages in what appears to be wishful thinking about how much better educational outcomes have gotten in recent years. It makes much of the fact that the overall 2015 end-of-course pass rates on Texas standardized exams reached 92%. The numbers were even more "impressive" when looking at individual subjects and subgroups. For instance, white students' pass rate for Biology I was 99.2%. African Americans passed at 98.8%.
Unfortunately, students' scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress suggest that Texas is grossly manipulating the cut off scores for passing (so as to comply with NCLB's old mandates or paint a good picture for the court). On NAEP, students' scores did not really budge. "From 2005 to 2011, the results are described as flat except for the eighth grade math score."
The court's biggest idea, however, may be that inequality, as a general matter, is not a constitutional concern:
- "[T]his Court has never squarely held that a separate, cognizable adequacy claim can be asserted by a student subpopulation such as economically disadvantaged or ELL students. . . .The State also points out that article VII, 170 section 1 only requires a 'general diffusion of knowledge,' not a diffusion of knowledge to particular groups. We do not today foreclose completely a ruling of constitutional inadequacy as to subgroups, but conclude that the showing necessary for such a ruling would have to be truly exceptional, for several reasons."
The notion that a claim on behave of low-income students would be "truly exceptional" is truly and undeniably exceptional one. That is what five decades of school finance litigation and wins in over half of the states has been all about. If claims on behalf of disadvantaged students in Texas are presumptively invalid, then school finance litigation is presumptively invalid.
Again, this is dangerously close to an explicit statement of a new era of school quality and funding, as described here.
Finally, the court attempts to transform additional support for low-income students into class warfare, inequitable funding itself, or reverse discrimination. The court characterizes plaintiffs' claims for additional funding for low-income students as a claim that:
- "... at any level of total funding, certain groups deserve a larger piece of the pie. The Plaintiffs are hard put to justify this result as necessary to improve 'the system as a whole' unless they can show that the achievement gains to the allegedly underfunded subgroup will more than offset the losses that other students will sustain if they receive less funding."
Get the full opinion here.