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Reform about more than money

Why were we not surprised? The ruling Monday by state District Judge John Dietz that Texas’ method of funding public schools is unconstitutional is the second time in less than a decade that the judicial system has found fault with our state’s system of funding public schools.

The system does not provide enough money to school districts and fails to distribute it fairly, Dietz ruled. Basically, he said, the funding mechanism does not meet the Texas Constitution’s requirements for a fair and efficient system that provides a “general diffusion of knowledge.”

Dietz issued a similar ruling in 2004, so like we said, this latest decision was not a surprise. But just because the decision was expected, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t significant.

Dietz declared that funding was inadequate and that there were wide discrepancies in state support received by school districts in wealthy parts of Texas versus those in poorer areas. He also said the system prevents school districts from exercising meaningful discretion in setting tax rates to fund local operations, as required by the constitution.

Dietz said he would issue a written ruling elaborating on his announcement in about a month. The state can then appeal the case directly to the state Supreme Court, which could order the Legislature to remake the system.

But a ruling from the high court is not likely to come until the end of the legislative session in May, meaning Gov. Rick Perry would need to call a special session in 2014. In the interval, the state’s school finance system remains unchanged.

This was the sixth case of its kind since 1984. During a round of litigation eight years ago, Dietz issued a similar ruling, but the all-Republican Supreme Court reversed his findings on funding — while still declaring the system unconstitutional.

This time around, more than 600 school districts across Texas responsible for educating three-quarters of the state’s 5 million-plus public school students sued. At issue were $5.4 billion in cuts to schools and education grant programs the Legislature imposed in 2011 — but the districts said simply restoring that funding won’t be enough to fix a fundamentally flawed system.

The districts contend that the state can’t keep underfunding schools while expecting educators to prepare students for standardized tests that are getting more difficult. Plus, district officials pointed out, they have to deal with a statewide boom in the number of low-income students and those who need extra instruction to learn English.

“There is no free lunch,” Dietz said while issuing his ruling. “We either want increased standards and are willing to pay the price, or we don’t.”

It is clear there are serious problems with our state’s education system, as the judicial system has pointed out again and again. But it is equally clear — to us at least — that legislators aren’t willing to fund a fix.

We believe that the people of Texas want all children to have the best possible education — our state’s future prosperity depends on it. But inadequacies in the current funding system have resulted in an achievement gap between affluent and less-affluent students and are making it more and more difficult for educators to do their jobs.

We can understand lawmakers’ reluctance to spend money, and in many cases, we applaud their conservative spending habits.

But there is much more than money involved here, and the cost to each of us continues to mount.