For over 40 years, parents and school districts, occasionally joined by non-profit
organizations, have filed lawsuits in state courts seeking better educational opportunities
for students in under-resourced schools. In trials across the country, they
have provided convincing evidence of:
- inadequate "inputs," including overcrowded and crumbling school buildings,
uncertified teachers, and the absence of art and music programs and books
- troubling "outcomes," including low graduation rates in under-resourced
districts and the lack of strong skills needed to be capable citizens and
The information amassed during these trials also shows that state funding
systems violate their state constitutions and relegate many low-wealth communities
to higher taxes but lower spending in their schools. As a result, these schools
cannot afford the most important educational resources, such as experienced,
Parent and school district plaintiffs generally ask the courts to order states
to enact fairer funding systems so their children have a legitimate Opportunity
to Learn and can ultimately become productive members of society.
In Texas, two such cases resulted in court orders to bring the State's school
funding system into compliance with the Texas constitution. The State did so
in 1994 and again---after major backsliding---in 2005.
In 2011, Texas cut funding for its K-12 schools by $5.4 billion. As a result,
coalitions including over 500 school districts have filed
court claims against the State. They are asking the court to declare the
current funding system unconstitutional and order the State to remedy this violation.
The Equity Center,
the Mexican American Legal
Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and others are leading this effort.
An education reform group named TREE (Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity
in Education) is now intervening in this litigation.
TREE was founded by a Texas entrepreneur,
who says he was inspired by Waiting
for Superman, a movie that misstates the real issues in K-12 education
while it portrays public schools as failures, bashes teachers and unions, and
offers charters as a panacea. TREE is represented by a former Texas Supreme Court
justice and a Houston law firm. The founder of TREE's public relations firm is
a former deputy chief of staff for Governor Rick Perry.
Self-declared poorly-informed education reformers typically want to lower teacher
qualifications, pay, and benefits. They usually advocate for more novices and
fewer well-prepared and experienced teachers and principals, and they want to
make it easier to fire teachers, sometimes for any reason or no reason at all.
Reformers often also want to close local schools and privatize them, turning
them over to for-profit
management companies and usurping the role of locally elected school boards.
They offer vouchers or charter
schools as silver bullets for the challenges of providing quality K-12 education
in high poverty communities.
In Texas, the TREE "reformers" want the court to find that the state's cap
on the number of charter schools violates the constitution because it "breeds
inefficiency." They argue that the State should repeal many provisions in its
education laws, pointing to those that: require educators to be trained and
certified; establish certain parameters for compensation; and, allow teachers
and other school personnel to request a hearing if they are being fired. TREE
argues that these state laws make schooling "inefficient and therefore are
unconstitutional." In fact, these provisions are basic supports for retaining
qualified, experienced professional staff and sustaining high quality educational
TREE's requests to the court are bigger and broader than the plaintiffs' requests
because TREE wants the court to declare the "entire system of public ... schools" unconstitutional.
In other ways, TREE's petition is similar to the plaintiffs' court papers,
agreeing with some of the identified problems and challenges in Texas K-12
education, such as the need to improve graduation rates and update the Cost
of Education Index (CEI). TREE also acknowledges one of the issues plaintiffs
raise regarding the state's education finance system. However, TREE wants a
very expansive court-ordered remedy that could undermine both democratic oversight
and constitutional guarantees of access to adequate public education.
In recent years, education "reform" has come to dominate media coverage of
K-12 education. It will be interesting and important to see whether the courts
hearing these Texas cases are persuaded to endorse the "reform" agenda or not.
Will the courts order adequate state funding equitably distributed, as the
plaintiff school districts and parents request, or will they order unlimited
charters and lower requirements for teaching?