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Texas School Districts File Third Lawsuit Against State Over School Funding

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A third group of Texas schools filed suit against the state Tuesday over education funding, alleging that the system of financing public education is inadequate and unfair to low-income and English-learning students. One more lawsuit against the state is expected from another portion of Texas' more than 1,100 school districts.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed the suit on behalf of four Texas school districts and three parents, alleging that the current state system of using property taxes for more than half of public school funding is unfair. The method creates a revenue and funding gap between schools zoned to higher-income neighborhoods and those in lower-income communities -- a gap as large as $1,000 per student, MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel David Hinojosa said at a news conference, KSAT reports.

Hinojosa says that as a result, property-poor districts have been forced to tax at or near the maximum permitted rate just to meet minimum state mandates, according to the Associated Press.

"We're asking the court to level up the low-wealth districts, we're not asking them to level down property-wealthy districts," Hinojosa told AP. "We're also asking them to adequately fund the education for English language learners and low-income students."

The complaint also seeks a declaration of necessity for the so-called Robin Hood state system that redistributes property tax revenue more equitably across districts if the state is to continue relying heavily on property taxes to fund education. There are also other options for the state to more equitably fund school districts, Hinojosa says.

"Don't be fooled by the cuts they've been putting in, they have substantial funds in the rainy day fund, that they could use," Hinojosa told KSAT. "They could close business loopholes, they could have a soda tax. There's all sorts of different sources of revenue out there."

Tuesday's suit follows a complaint filed last week by a coalition of about 120 wealthy Texas school districts, alleging that the current school funding system is unconstitutional because it doesn't adequately finance schools and imposes an illegal statewide property tax. The Texas School Coalition, made up of districts that gave up tax money under the Robin Hood plan, is handling the lawsuit.

"The Texas school finance system is in crisis again," Mark Trachtenberg, one of the attorneys representing the districts, told the Austin American-Statesman. "The current system does not meet the constitutional definition of adequacy and denies local districts the ability to address that adequacy."

The inadequacy that the plaintiffs allege is seen in the state's failure to pay for $4 billion in enrollment growth as the Texas K-12 student population expands at an estimated 80,000 annually, AP reports, leading to larger class sizes and educator layoffs. Lawmakers also slashed about $1.4 billion last year that went to grant initiatives like dropout prevention programs and after-school tutoring.

To offset a $27 billion budget gap, state lawmakers cut public education funding by $537 per student over the next two years, marking the first slash to per-student spending in the state since World War II.

In October, a group of more than 150 school districts filed the first suit against the state, saying the funding system is unfair, inefficient and unconstitutional by taking an "arbitrary hodgepodge" approach, exacerbating flaws in the system by slashing resources for schools but at the same time upping performance standards.

The state's $4 billion cuts to public education over the summer led to an unprecedented loss of 900 school jobs in August. Consequently, class sizes surged for the current school year, resulting in massive overcrowding when schools opened for the fall.

Teachers are pointing fingers at Republican Gov. Rick Perry for teacher shortages, funding cuts and class size increases. Despite the presidential candidate's touting job creation on the campaign trail, analysts estimate a total 49,000 education-related job cuts over the next two years.

Texas ranks 47th nationally in what the state pays for each student's education, underfunding Texas's schools by a reported $5.5 billion this legislative session, despite access to a $9.4 billion rainy-day fund.

"If students are in underfunded schools, they'll never get ahead," Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst at Texas's Center for Public Policy Priorities, told The Huffington Post in August. "When they grow up, they'll be unable to pay taxes, too. It's a cycle. You've got to prepare them for that."

All of the lawsuits filed against the state are expected to be consolidated for a single trial next fall.

The Texas complaints also come as Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled last week that Colorado's education funding is "irrational and inadequate" and violates the state constitution's pledge to provide a "thorough and uniform" education system.

"There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded," Rappaport writes in the report. "This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system."

Still, the debate over funding, class sizes and the perhaps consequent student achievement remains complex. A study from the 1980s showed that smaller class sizes were more effective in early years, but less so in later grades.

"Where you're dramatically reducing class size, in low-advantage communities in lower grades when kids are learning things like how to read, that's been beneficial," Duncan told The Huffington Post in October. "We've done it elsewhere, spent billions of dollars on class size without any demonstrable benefit. We need to talk about class size, and quality."

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