Mandating Egalitarian Education Funding (Part Two)

My first post underscored how state courts became the next stronghold of judicial activism after the Warren Court. This has been particularly true with regard to school funding measures. In Texas, the school funding fiasco was unleashed by judicial creativity in order to get an egalitarian result.

Edgewood was a ridiculous decision when it was issued.  The term “efficient” in Article 7, section 1 of the Texas Constitution plainly does not mean “equal.”  Using any reasonable technique of interpretation, “efficient” means cost-effective, economical, or inexpensive.  Despite clear legislative history of the term, Mauzy rejected the obvious meaning, stating that the Texas Constitution is “an organic document to govern society and institutions as they evolve through time.”  In other words, to Mauzy and his activist colleagues, the Texas Constitution is a “living” document—the ultimate refuge of activist judges.

Mauzy was voted off the court in 1992, and by the mid-1990’s—around the time that Texas turned “Red”—the court was (and has remained) under the control of conservative justices.  Yet for 26 years, despite numerous opportunities to overrule Edgewood, and abundant evidence that Edgewood created a quagmire of endless litigation, the Texas Supreme Court has unaccountably persisted with Mauzy’s folly.

Actually, the court, in a mind-numbing series of subsequent decisions (Edgewood I-IV, West Orange-Cove I & II) has doubled (and even tripled) down and strayed even further from the language of Article 7, section 1.  John Cornyn, who is now a U.S. Senator from Texas, was previously a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.  As the author of the majority opinion in Edgewood IV in 1995, Cornyn had the dubious distinction of making a bad precedent even worse.  In order to soften the “parity of funding” holding of Edgewood, Cornyn introduced two other elements supposedly contained in the text of Article 7, section 1: public schools have to be funded adequately to achieve a “general diffusion of knowledge,” and the Legislature is obligated to ensure that instruction provided by each of the state’s thousand-plus districts is “suitable.”

The words “general diffusion of knowledge” and “suitable” do appear in Article 7, section 1, but prior to Edgewood IV had never been assigned any substantive meaning.   That is, for 119 years, from the time the Texas Constitution was ratified in 1876 until Cornyn and his colleagues put on their magic goggles (the ones that allow judges to see what is hidden from the rest of us) in 1995, the true meaning of this innocuous boilerplate language lay undetected.

What is the legacy of Edgewood?  For 26 years (even more, when you consider that the Edgewood case—filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which previously lost the Rodriguez case in the U.S. Supreme Court–commenced in 1987), school funding in Texas has been the subject of nearly-constant  litigation.  The lawsuits have all been heard in Travis County District Court, a solidly-Blue bastion in which every single judge is a Democrat.

In the latest chapter, styled Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition v. Williams, Judge John Dietz conducted a marathon bench trial in 2012-13 and 2014 (interrupted by the Legislature’s biennial session).  Hundreds of school districts—eager to get more money than the Legislature appropriated—participated in the trial.   After 12 weeks of testimony, Dietz issued a 404 page decision that—in addition to awarding $8.5 million in attorneys’ fees to the disgruntled school districts (with more to come on appeal)–predictably concluded that Texas’ school finance system is unconstitutional under all three of the Edgewood prongs:  efficiency, suitability, and adequacy.  Ever the micro-manager, Dietz concluded that the state was not spending enough, that the funds were not allocated fairly, and that the entire K-12 school finance system should be enjoined until the constitutional “infirmities” are corrected.

The state appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court, which will hear the case on September 1, 2015. This appeal, with its massive record, marks the seventh time the court has embroiled itself in a quintessentially legislative matter, based on an erroneous interpretation of the state constitution.  Will this madness ever end?