Some School Finance Common Sense from Deep in the Heart of Texas
Last week, the Supreme Court of Texas handed down its decision in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Lone Star State’s school funding system. (I filed an Amicus Curae letter in the case that can be found here).
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state’s funding system was, in fact, constitutional, and the decision, written by Chief Justice and twitter fiend Don Willet goes into great length explaining why. Giving the funding case pending in Kansas and the perpetual threats that are levied at Missouri’s funding system, Justice Willet’s opinion is well worth reading.
On page two, Chief Justice Willet writes (emphasis mine):
“But our judicial responsibility is not to second-guess or micromanage Texas education policy or to issue edicts from on high increasing financial inputs in hopes of increasing educational outputs. There doubtless exist innovative reform measures to make Texas schools more accountable and efficient, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Judicial review, however, does not license second guessing the political branches’ policy choices, or substituting the wisdom of nine judges for that of 181 lawmakers. Our role is much more limited, as is our holding: Despite the imperfections of the current school funding regime, it meets minimum constitutional requirements.”
Advocates often want to replace the legislative process and the decisions of our duly elected representatives with the opinions of judges. They want the court to tell the legislature how much to spend and to force them to spend it. This is terribly problematic. If courts are going to tell the state how much money they have to spend per pupil, what is the point of even having a legislature?
Chief Justice Willet was just getting warmed up. He continues later (again, emphasis mine):
“Second, the trial court’s “fact” findings as to the specific amount of funding needed to achieve a general diffusion of knowledge are, we think, beyond the current state of science in this field. We have warned that in school finance cases where we must decide constitutional questions, the trial court’s findings play a “limited role.” This case demonstrates why. To determine as a matter of fact that specific funding levels are required to achieve the constitutional threshold of a general diffusion of knowledge, a court not only must find that a cost-quality relationship exists, but also must assign specific quantitative measures to that relationship…We have never sanctioned a trial court’s ordering the Legislature to spend a specific amount of money on the schools to achieve constitutional adequacy, as doing so would deprive the Legislature of the broad discretion the Constitution provides for such inherently political decisions.”
Even if we wanted to give judges the power to set spending levels, we do not know how much it costs to educate a child adequately—in Texas, in Missouri, or anywhere else. There is absolutely no guarantee that spending X amount of dollars will yield Y level of student achievement. As a result, we rely on our elected representatives to determine how much money we should spend on our schools, and how to spend it. They have to make the difficult tradeoffs between dollars going to schools and to healthcare, to roads and to prisons.
The Texas Supreme Court made the right decision. The legislature has the power to set funding levels where they think they should be and are empowered to make the difficult tradeoffs between the various causes that the state supports. Not everyone will agree with the decisions the legislature makes, but that’s why we have elections.