AUSTIN — After five years of battling the state in court for more funding, the Lewisville school district will receive $133 less per student in the coming school year than it did when the dispute began in 2011.

AUSTIN — After five years of battling the state in court for more funding, the Lewisville school district will receive $133 less per student in the coming school year than it did when the dispute began in 2011.

The Frisco school district will get $168 less per student this fall than in the 2010-11 school year. And Dallas will receive $55 less per student.

At least six other districts in North Texas are still at or below their funding levels from five years ago, and those that gained money added little. Statewide, the average increase for the five-year period is just 5.3 percent — barely more than 1 percent a year.

The lingering effect of the cuts will be a key issue in the lawsuit appeal the Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear Sept. 1. The state is counting on the funding hikes to bolster its case against a lower court ruling last year that found the school finance system unfair, inadequate and unconstitutional.

While the state maintains that school finance is complex, making it difficult to determine how much should be spent per student, districts suing the state said that funding levels for the past five years speak volumes.

"I don’t think attorneys for the state will spend a lot of time talking about [the small funding increases] at the Sept. 1 hearing," said David Thompson, attorney for the Dallas and Fort Worth school districts, as well as 82 other districts that make up one group of plaintiffs in the case. Other North Texas districts that are part of the group are Allen, Coppell, Denton, Duncanville and McKinney.

Standards raised

State officials say that there’s enough money in the system.

"Once again, a small army of litigants, lawyers, experts and interest groups is asking the courts to close Texas schools in hopes of spurring the Legislature to craft a public education system more to their liking," Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a recent brief to the Supreme Court. The remarks were aimed at more than 600 school districts — including Dallas and several others from North Texas — that are pitted against Paxton and the state in the case.

"Most of them want more money, many would prefer that money be raised and distributed differently," the attorney general said, arguing that current funding approved by the Legislature is enough. "Nothing about the current system’s structure, operation or funding is preventing [public schools] from achieving the Legislature’s goals for Texas students."

Thompson said that the annual increases haven’t even covered the cost of inflation and other expense factors. And he noted that while funding has been flat, "the state raised standards, imposed a new battery of student tests and emphasized college and career readiness for all students. They have continued to ask more of school districts while giving them less to work with."

Wayne Pierce, director of the Equity Center and former superintendent of the Kaufman school district in North Texas, said larger class sizes, deferred building improvements and staff cutbacks are among the effects of inadequate funding from the state.

"We definitely have not kept pace with what parents expect their public schools to offer," said Pierce, whose organization represents 704 medium-size and small school districts in Texas. Two-thirds of those districts are among the plaintiffs in the school finance case.

He said while lawmakers took some steps to decrease inequities between higher-wealth and lower-wealth school districts back in 2013, the funding gaps are again increasing.

Pierce predicted the average funding increase of around 1 percent over the past five years would be a red flag for the Supreme Court.

"I don’t see how the state can expect the court to be impressed with that number," he said, adding that school superintendents and school boards across the state were discouraged that the Legislature did so little for public schools in the 2015 session.

Calls for change

Some lawmakers tried to address the suit.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, urged lawmakers earlier this year to step up and fix the troubled school finance system without being ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. His proposal to boost state aid and make key improvements in the system drew support in the House, but Senate leaders said they would take their chances with the high court.

"Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around trying to play lawyer and outguess the courts?" Aycock asked lawmakers. His comments have been cited by school districts as evidence that dramatic change is needed.

Other Republican leaders have contended that extra money is not the key to improving schools.

"We just can’t give them more money and let them keep doing the same things they’ve been doing," Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said. Patrick has pointed to the $1.5 billion in new money that the Legislature approved for the coming two school years — an amount he says will provide "quality public education."

During the session, the Republican was more interested in touting the modest school property tax cut lawmakers approved this year, which amounts to about $125 for the typical homeowner — about a 3.75 percent decrease on the average tax bill.

Patrick has also taken issue with claims that schools are still reeling from the unprecedented $5.4 billion in funding cuts enacted by the Legislature in 2011. Those reductions, which prompted school districts to sue the state, were partially restored in 2013.

"Our schools survived, and we did fine," Patrick said.

Democratic leaders noted that the state is flush with cash, even after writing the next two-year budget.

"Our public schools will be no better off than they are today even as billions of available dollars were left untouched," said Senate Democratic leader Kirk Watson of Austin, referring to funds that were left on the table by lawmakers.

Texas has moved up several spots in spending per pupil in the U.S. thanks to rising property values and more state funding, but its ranking in the bottom third of states in a study earlier this year still undercuts its position in the school finance case.

Figures compiled by the National Education Association showed that Texas ranked 38th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2014-15 school year.

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