Bench Memos

Sticking with Edgewood

On the subject of school finance, the Texas Supreme Court doggedly refuses to overturn an activist precedent from a prior era.

In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) challenging spending disparities among school districts in Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court astutely refused to become embroiled in disputes involving the adequacy or equity of public-school funding, correctly acknowledging that the justices on the Court lacked the expertise “so necessary to the making of wise decisions with respect to the raising and disposition of public revenues.” Further, the Court in Rodriguez conceded it lacked “specialized knowledge and experience” in matters of educational policy, counseling deference to the legislature. Thus, concluded Justice Powell’s opinion for the majority, “We are unwilling to assume for ourselves a level of wisdom superior to that of legislators. . . . [T]he ultimate solutions must come from the lawmakers and from the democratic pressures of those who elect them.”

MALDEF did not give up, turning its attentions to state-court litigation, a familiar tactic for interest groups whose claims were spurned in federal court. Unfortunately, the Texas Supreme Court, in the 1989 decision Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, ruled in favor of MALDEF, finding that the 1876 Texas Constitution confers a right to equitable funding, launching Texas courts on a nearly non-stop 27-year odyssey of school-finance litigation. The Edgewood decision, written by one-term Justice Oscar Mauzy (a former state senator described by one scholar as “one of the most liberal members of that body”), allowed disgruntled school districts to file lawsuits in liberal Travis County challenging the Legislature’s K–12 funding decisions, which (of course) the districts did with tiresome frequency. Even though Texas politics have shifted dramatically to the right since 1989 (as has the composition of the Texas Supreme Court), Edgewood was never overruled, despite the advocacy of then-Texas attorney general Greg Abbott (with the assistance of then-Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz).

The latest school-finance appeal in the ongoing Edgewood saga was decided by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court on May 13. The decision, in Morath v. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, was unanimous. Once again, the Texas Supreme Court declined to overrule Edgewood. While the decision reversed an atrocious trial-court ruling by now-retired Travis County district judge John Dietz, and upheld the constitutionality of the current school-finance regime, it left open the possibility of future lawsuits.

I discuss Morath in a post today on Empower Texans’s Texas Scorecard, concluding that “Morath offers a respite, not a final solution. School finance litigation is over, for now, but it will not go away for good until Edgewood is overruled.”

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