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Lawmakers take up school finance while waiting for court to rule
By Lauren McGaughy
AUSTIN - For the past several weeks, state lawmakers have been meeting to discuss how to better fund public education in the wake of a court ruling calling Texas' school finance system inequitable, inefficient and illegal.
Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, confirmed he and 12 to 15 members of the state House have formed an ad hoc, informal group to discuss the state's method of funding public schools ahead of the 2015 session. The bipartisan group has held a few meetings since the system was declared unconstitutional by State District Judge John Dietz in late August, Aycock said. Attorney General Greg Abbott later appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
"I think our group is, basically, looking at what's practical and doable, independent of whatever the Supreme Court ruling is," Aycock told the Houston Chronicle on Friday. "And as you might expect in that group, there's a variety of opinions."
Nothing specific yet
Aycock said the group has not yet yielded any concrete ideas - no specific bills or funding amounts have been discussed - noting many of the most important funding decisions sat not with his panel but with the appropriations committees.
Ideally, however, he said he hoped the group would first tackle the issue of equity.
"That's my personal, biggest concern," said Aycock. "If I could solve anything, my priority would be the equity issue. I'm a big believer in we need to try to fund as equitably as possible. I don't think we'll ever achieve perfect equity."
In Dietz' August ruling, he said the current school finance system was inefficient, inequitable, inadequate and created a de facto statewide property tax in violation of state law. The decision, a reaffirmation of his 2013 ruling, was a victory for 600 school districts that sued the state after $5.4 billion was stripped from the education budget in 2011.
School district lawyer David Thompson called the formation of the working group "very smart and far-sighted," while Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center, an Austin-based education advocacy group, called it a "brilliant" first step toward fixing public education funding.
Pierce said starting such a discussion before the session - and opening it up to all House members and not just the education committee - was "somewhat unique" and drove home the focus lawmakers are likely to place on education next year.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to issue a ruling on the case until after the session gavels out in June, forcing lawmakers to convene a special session if the justices uphold any or all of Dietz' ruling.
Aycock warned the public not to expect a full fix until after the court issues a final decision: "Until we know what the Supreme Court ruling is, we don't know what constitutes the task that's even before the House and Senate."
Waiting for ruling
Thompson said although educators hoped for the earliest possible solution to the school finance funding problem, he understood the difficult task ahead of lawmakers.
"I'm a realist," said Thompson. "I can very much understand the Legislature wanting to get all the guidance they can from the Supreme Court."