DALLAS -- The Texas Supreme Court is scheduled today to hear oral arguments from attorneys representing dozens of rich and poor school districts challenging the state's latest share-the-wealth education finance law.
This is the fourth time the state's highest court has considered the constitutionality of Texas school finance laws during the past five years, and the case is being widely watched by the state's 1,050 school districts and the public finance industry.
At issue is a December ruling by state District Judge Scott McCown, who upheld the school finance law that was approved by the state legislature last year and that redistributes property taxes from wealthy to poor districts.
While McCown upheld the state law as far as it went in equalizing maintenance and operations funding, he said the legislature needed to find a more equitable system for school construction by Sept. 1, 1995, or district bond issuance would be halted.
At the hearing today, state attorneys will support McCown's decision, except for his order calling for equalized school construction funding.
"That is the only part we are asking the court to reverse," said Ron Dusek, a spokesman for state Attorney General Dan Morales. "We are going to argue that the Texas legislature has equalized funding for 98.5% of the school children in Texas.
"The Texas legislature has done the absolute best that it can, and it is probably one of the most equalized school funding systems in the country," Dusek said.
However, both rich and poor school districts will argue that the new "Robin Hood" school finance law is still far from equitable.
The poor districts contend that a $600-per-student funding gap still exists between high- and low-wealth schools. "We will be saying that gap between the rich and the poor districts still does not meet the Supreme Court requirements for substantially equal revenue for similar tax effort," said Craig Foster, director of the Equity Center and a spokesman for low-wealth districts.
As a result, the low-wealth districts will appeal McCown's decision to uphold the school finance law for operations and maintenance budgets, but support his order to equalize school construction funding. "Most of the existing facilities in low-wealth districts are inadequate," Foster said.
The high-wealth districts will challenge the law because it shifts some of their local property taxes to poorer districts. Attorneys have estimated that about $450 million is being taken from nearly 100 high-wealth districts that have $280,000 or more in assessed valuation per pupil.
Attorneys for high-wealth districts could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in the past, Dallas attorney Earl Luna, who is representing 18 rich districts, has said he does not think Judge McCown's ruling will stand up in the Supreme Court. "We think it is unconstitutional," he said.
The Texas Supreme Court will make a ruling in coming weeks after today's hearing, which is scheduled to last two hours.
Foster said speculation on when the Supreme Court will rule runs anywhere from a few weeks to January 1995, when the state legislature convenes.
The Texas Supreme Court has overturned the lower court rulings on the constitutionality of the state's school finance laws three times since 1989. The original lawsuit that started the legal battle was filed in May 1984.