AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Months of testimony in the sweeping school finance trial concluded Wednesday, with a leading advocate arguing that courts should compel the Texas Legislature to ease a cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide while increasing the amount of funding such schools receive.
David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, was the case's last witness. Closing arguments will be Monday, and state District Judge John Dietz has promised to issue a ruling immediately after that. Testimony began Oct. 22, though the case took a three-week holiday hiatus in December.
More than 600 school districts responsible for educating three-quarters of the state's 5 million-plus public school students have sued, claiming financial support provided by the state Legislature is inadequate and unfairly distributed after lawmakers voted in 2011 to slash public education funding and educational grant programs by $5.4 billion.
Joining those lawsuits are charter school operators, who say their campuses should receive additional state support to cover facilities costs, something they are not entitled to currently. They also want a state law capping the number of licenses to operate charters statewide at 215 to be increased or eliminated.
Dunn said that, to his knowledge, if Dietz finds that Texas is obligated to provide facilities funding, it will be the first such decision of its kind in the country.
Legal battles over school funding are nothing new in Texas — this case is the sixth of its kind since 1984, and Dietz ruled on a separate set of legal challenges in 2004. But charter schools have not been involved in previous litigation.
Whatever Dietz decides will likely be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. But if the courts eventually side with school districts, it will be up to the Legislature to overhaul its funding mechanisms.
About 200 charter operators run more than 500 campuses statewide. They are privately operated but are considered public schools and educate about 3 percent of Texas students. It is legal to open more than one campus under a single charter school license.
Dunn acknowledged that it will be up to the Legislature to soften the cap and allow money for charter school facilities. He argued, however, that charter schools' past lobbying efforts on both fronts have been unsuccessful, but the courts could order lawmakers to act.
Dunn said the number of students on waitlists for charter schools around the state has jumped from about 56,000 in 2010 to about 101,000.
"We're not asking for a perfect system," he said. "We're asking for a fair system."
During cross-examination, Dunn was asked if he could identify specific operators who want to open charter schools but have been unable to do so due to the state's cap. He replied the he couldn't right now, but would be able to soon since about 100 operators are vying for the state's six remaining available charter school licenses.