AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A complaint by charter school backers affiliated with a powerful business group will be allowed to join five other lawsuits challenging the way Texas funds its public schools, a state district judge ruled Tuesday.
Six parents and a new organization called Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education filed a lawsuit in February that the influential Texas Association of Business subsequently joined. Unlike other complaints that center on whether the state adequately funds schools, this one argues that the way Texas distributes funding is inefficient and unfair.
It also calls for doing away with a cap on the number of charter schools statewide at 215 — suggesting that charter schools are more efficient and cost-effective than traditional public schools.
Another plaintiff that has sued over school funding, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed a motion to dismiss the efficiency complaint, arguing that the effort to remove the charter school cap is political not judicial.
MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa argued that the groups behind the suit were "cherry-picking" past statues in an effort to promote charter schools without proving any real harm to students or parents.
"It's about making public schools more like public charter schools," Hinojosa said.
But state District Judge John Dietz ruled that the complaint should go forward and allowed it to become part of the state's sweeping school finance case, which is set to go to trial Oct. 22 in his Austin courtroom.
The judge also instructed Texans for Real Efficiency lawyer Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, to beef up his complaint to better show how his clients were injured by existing school funding levels.
Afterward, Enoch said that while Texas school districts have repeatedly sued to secure more funding, no one has ever attempted to discern just how much funding per pupil would be enough to provide a quality education. He said his clients, known as "intervenors" in the other lawsuits, seek to do just that.
"The efficiency intervenors are not claiming that the school districts do not need more money," he said. "But the issue is there's not a good measure of results."
Enoch continued: "Until we put in place the way to measure that, and tie funding to the results, we really don't know what it takes."
The Texas Legislature approved $50.8 billion for public education for last school year and this one, but lawmakers rewrote the funding formula to cut $4 billion and remove $1.4 billion in grant programs, even though statewide enrollment has been growing.
That caused the amount of money Texas spends per student to fall to $8,908 per pupil, down about $538 from last year and well below the current national average of $11,463, according to the National Education Association.
The cuts prompted four lawsuits from school districts representing about 70 percent of the 5 million students enrolled in Texas schools. The districts claim the funding reductions violated state constitutional guarantees to a proper education. Then, in June, the Texas Charter Schools Association, the largest organization of its kind in the state, filed another suit. It argued that charter schools face unfair restrictions and are therefore shortchanged in funding.
School districts suing to secure more state funding are nothing new in Texas — but this year's is shaping up to be the largest of its kind. Dietz said Tuesday: "It looks like this is the granddaddy of all these cases. It's got a little bit of everything."