AUSTIN, Texas — Attorneys on Wednesday asked a judge who presided over Texas' sweeping school finance trial — and ruled that the way the state funds public education is inadequate and inequitable — to consider as new evidence the Legislature's decision to restore $4 billion to classrooms and reduce standardized testing requirements.
Mark Trachtenberg, an attorney who sued the state on behalf of school districts in wealthier areas of Texas, asked state District Judge John Dietz to reopen evidence in the case that was tried for 45 days from October to February.
The Legislature voted to cut $5.4 billion from public schools in 2011, prompting more than 600 school districts statewide to sue and culminating in the case before Dietz.
But state lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in funding this session, which ended May 27. They also slashed from 15 to five the number of state-mandated exams high school students are required to pass to graduate, likely meaning school districts won't have to spend as much on extra instruction for kids who fail some tests.
Gov. Rick Perry can still veto changes lawmakers approved to school funding and policy through June 16, so Dietz asked the attorneys to return to his courtroom three days after the veto period ends. He then plans to rule on whether a hearing on new school funding and policy changes is necessary, and exactly what such a hearing would cover.
Districts in rich and poor parts of the state were largely on the same side of the case since the state funding system relies on a "Robin Hood" recapture scheme where districts with high property values or abundant tax revenue from oil or natural gas resources turn over part of the money to the state for distribution to poorer districts.
Dietz already issued a verbal decision Feb. 4, finding that Texas' current school finance system was unconstitutional. But the case has largely been on hold since Dietz's initial decision, as the judge compiles a more detailed ruling that will then almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Dietz said Wednesday that he's still scrutinizing 285 "densely packed" pages of briefs from the case, and gave no timetable on when his written decision may be ready.
That process may now get more complicated by the request from Trachtenberg, a lead lawyer for the Texas School Coalition that represents wealthy school districts. He argued that a hearing on what the Legislature approved was necessary since the Supreme Court would likely want to know the effects of lawmakers' actions once it gets the case on appeal.
Dietz said he had no interest in retrying the case and that any such hearing wouldn't be a chance for attorneys "to make stronger" their arguments for why the system was unconstitutional. But he said he was open to the idea if there's "substantial agreement" among all the attorneys that a hearing is necessary.
That could be a tall order, though, since lawyers representing school districts other than Trachtenberg's suggested they may not favor a hearing on new evidence. David Hinojosa, an attorney representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and school districts in low-income corners of South Texas, said his clients potentially could lose some of the gains from Dietz's initial decision.
"It's remarkable," Hinojosa said. "You prevail in a case and your clients get a great victory after a three-month trial record, and then you say, 'Oh well, judge, don't issue your findings or conclusions yet, don't issue your judgment in our clients' favor.'"
David Thompson, who represents districts in both wealthy and poor parts of the state, said his clients would decide whether to support a hearing once they see what bills approved by the Legislature make it through Perry's veto period unscathed.
"We know the Legislature passed quite a bit," Thompson said, "we don't know what's actually going to become law."