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The Associated Press December 13, 2011, 4:11PM ET

Poor Texas schools file 3rd lawsuit against state

A group of Texas schools filed the third lawsuit against the state over school funding Tuesday, alleging that the system of paying for public education is inequitable for all students and inadequate for those who are low-income or still learning English.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in Travis County on behalf of four property-poor school districts and three parents. Local property taxes make up more than half of the money that goes to public schools in Texas.

"We're asking the court to level up the low-wealth districts, we're not asking them to level down property-wealthy districts," said MALDEF attorney David Hinojosa. "We're also asking them to adequately fund the education for English language learners and low-income students."

Among the complaints, the lawsuit claims that a state funding allotment for bilingual programs to allow for such additional costs as student evaluation, teacher training and equipment was arbitrarily set in 1984 and falls far short of its purpose.

The plaintiffs also allege that many property-poor districts must tax at the maximum possible rate just to meet minimum state requirements.

"The current funding capacity of the Texas school finance system, in conjunction with the inequitable access to revenue in the system, has forced lower-wealth school districts ... to tax at or near the $1.17 (per $100 of property value) cap, causing those districts to lose meaningful discretion in setting their tax rates," the lawsuit contends.

The tax cap has, in effect, become a statewide property tax, which is unconstitutional in Texas, attorneys argue.

The lawsuit also asks the court to declare Texas' so-called Robin Hood system -- in which property-wealthy school districts give money to the state to be redistributed to districts with lower property wealth -- essential as long as the state relies on local property taxes for funding public education.

Four school districts -- Edgewood, McAllen, San Benito and La Feria -- are named as plaintiffs. Three parents also are plaintiffs.

The lawsuit will likely be consolidated with others, including a similar challenge filed last week from property-wealthy school districts.

The state has "raised the bar for college readiness for all students," Hinojosa said. "But they have not provided the funds to help those students reach those goals."

Paying for public schools has been a battle in Texas for much of the last century. Most recently, lawmakers implemented a new tax structure, reducing reliance on property taxes and creating a new business tax. Lawmakers adopted the overhaul during a 2006 special legislative session, under court threat of closing public schools. At the time, the Texas Supreme Court warned that the plan would only be a temporary fix.

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