Donnis Baggett

Publisher & Editor

Ray Wilkerson

Executive Editor

Robert C. Borden

Opinions Editor

September 19, 2004

Lawmakers must fix school finance

Gov. Rick Perry says he would rather school finance reform be done by the Legislature rather than the courts. So would we and so would most Texans. There’s only one problem: The Legislature doesn’t seem capable of getting the job done.

In fact, lawmakers seem capable of acting only when the courts tell them to do so. Last week, District Judge John Dietz of Austin did just that. He will give the Legislature just one year to bring school finance into compliance with state law or he will cut off state funding to the more than 1,000 Texas school districts until they do.

Legislators cannot — must not — allow that to happen.

Unfortunately, Texans can’t have much confidence that lawmakers will do what they should. At the most recent regular session starting in January 2003, legislators decided the issue of adequately and equitably funding public education was too important to be rushed through the session. Instead, they said, let’s meet in special session to deal with the problem.

Well, they did meet three times in special session last year — but not to address the inadequacies of school funding, but to haggle over the totally unnecessary congressional redistricting.

When they did get around to taking up the issue in a special session earlier this year they couldn’t agree on a plan — which isn’t surprising since they couldn’t even come up with much of a plan.

Now, the governor, who has provided absolutely no leadership on the issue, says he wants another special session to deal with school finance, possibly in November after the general election.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick have said they would rather wait until the next regular session in January, declaring school finance an emergency so it can be dealt with quickly at that time.

Lawmakers have known for at least two years that the decade-old Robin Hood plan for funding public education isn’t working. Too many Texas school districts, including those in College Station and Bryan, have reached the state maximum tax rate and still are having to make drastic cuts to continue operating. It is the children of Texas — and ultimately our future — who are suffering.

Texas currently spends some $28 billion a year on public education, 62 percent of which is paid in property taxes by local homeowners and businesses. The Robin Hood plan takes money raised in local property taxes from so-called wealthy school districts and distributes it to poorer districts.

Last week, after a six-week trial, Judge Dietz ruled the present method of financing education unconstitutional. The state has said it will file an expedited appeal straight to the Supreme Court of Texas.

The governor said, “The Legislature is where this needs to be addressed, not in the courts.” Of course, but if the governor and the Legislature fail to act responsibly, then the courts do have to step in. Using the governor’s logic, 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental Brown v. Board of Education ruling, we’d still have segregated, unequal schools in this country.

Further, the governor says, he has presented his plan for school finance, although it wasn’t much of a plan. He says he is waiting for the Legislature to present its own plan to him. The Texas governor doesn’t have much power, but one thing the governor can do is show leadership, and that Rick Perry isn’t doing.

We hope Judge Dietz’ ruling sends a wake-up call to the governor and the Legislature. It is time to put aside partisan and intra-party bickering and devise a fair way to fund a good public education for every child in Texas. That shouldn’t be much to ask, even from our Legislature.

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