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Davis calls for settlement in school finance suit


CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas should settle a school finance lawsuit brought by 600-plus districts and convene a special legislative session to find a permanent solution to funding public education, the Democratic candidate for governor Wendy Davis said Monday.

She said her Republican opponent Attorney General Greg Abbott has the power and an obligation to end the multimillion-dollar litigation after District Judge John Dietz declared Texas's school funding system unconstitutional last February.

"He needs to stop defending the indefensible," Davis told a press conference. "A settlement recommendation to the Legislature should be to reconvene, to look at these issues and to determine what we're going to do to fulfill our responsibility to the school children of Texas."

Abbott has the authority to settle the suit, but he would need the Legislature to implement any deal he reaches with the school districts. The Legislature does not meet again until January 2015, and the power to call a special session rests with Gov. Rick Perry.

Abbott's campaign did not answer questions about Davis' call for a settlement, instead promising only that, if elected, he would promote local efforts to improve Texas schools. In the past, he has said his job requires him to defend laws passed by the Legislature and that he has no intention to settle.

Courts have debated for the last 30 years over how Texas finances public schools, with the Legislature only acting when under court order. Once Dietz issues his written decision, Abbott could choose to accept the ruling, but he's expected to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court. That would take the issue out of the 2014 election, since the court is unlikely to issue a decision before November.

Davis said Texas has more than enough revenue to boost per student spending. She pointed to her history as a Fort Worth state senator filibustering school budget cuts in 2011 and then trying to pass fundamental school finance reform in 2013.

Since Texas does not have a state income tax like most states, schools are funded using property taxes, which creates inequalities between poor and wealthy school districts. To solve this, Texas uses what is called the Robin Hood system, taking some tax money from rich districts and give it to poor ones.

Facing a $27 billion budget shortfall in 2011, state lawmakers rewrote the school funding formula to cut $5.4 billion in education funding. Lawmakers restored $3.4 billion in 2013, but district lawyers told Dietz in arguments last week that the system still underfunds schools and creates a higher tax burden for residents living in poor communities.

Davis said Texas has the revenue to fund schools, and lawmakers need to prioritize it by using oil and gas revenues and the state's rainy day fund.

"We left $6 billion in the rainy day fund when we made these cuts, and at the same time we had a comptroller who misestimated what our revenue would be," Davis said.

Abbott said he would concentrate on giving more authority to parents, teachers and districts at the local level and offer better technology in classrooms to improve schools.

 

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