Monday, April 20, 2015

Robbing the rich to fund public education?

Growing up, I attended public schools in Dallas, Texas. Dallas is a huge city, and within it lies Highland Park , a wealthy enclave that had much higher property taxes than the surrounding Dallas area. We liked to joke about how “Robin Hood” took money from Highland Park schools and gave it to Dallas schools, but it has only been recently that I’ve really understood what that meant.

Back in the 1970s, a group of parents from the Edgewood Independent School District sued the state of Texas, claiming that education was a fundamental right and that the state was violating the equal protection clause by discriminating against districts that were “poor” (because they had less property wealth). Because the major source of school funding was local property taxes, communities with high property values didn’t have to tax their citizens at as high a rate to get the same amount of revenue as communities with low property values. This severely limited the amount of money per-pupil that some districts could raise.

This case, known as Rodriguez , made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Court decided that education was not a fundamental right (it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the federal constitution), so the financing system was not subject to strict scrutiny.

In 1984, Edgewood brought a suit against the state Commissioner of Education, William Kirby, this time alleging that the funding system for public education violated the state constitution because it was not efficient. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the funding scheme was unconstitutional and told the legislature to fix it. It took the legislature until 1993 to find a formula that the court approved. That solution was to “recapture” money from property wealthy areas of the state and give it to those that were property poor. The public called it the “Robin Hood” law.

You may have guessed that this plan wasn’t very popular with wealthy districts. It actually wasn’t very popular with the property poor districts, either. Wealthy districts didn’t like losing revenue, and poor districts claimed the plan still wasn’t efficient or adequate. Houston has claimed that if recapture continues, they'll have to give the state $101 million in 2018, despite having high levels of poverty in some areas of the city where that money could be used. 

Several lawsuits have been brought against the plan over the years. A lawsuit filed in 2011 by both rich districts, poor districts, and a charter school has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Chair of the House Public Education committee is attempting to get a bill passed that could help make funding more equitable, while others would like to wait-and-see on what happens with the state supreme court.

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