When Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott visited a Dallas-area school district, the leading Democratic aspirant cried foul.
"As Greg Abbott visits a Plano ISD school today it’s unlikely that he will apologize to students for defending school budget cuts and fighting against their school district in court," state Sen. Wendy Davis said in a Dec. 3, 2013, post on her campaign website.
"Greg Abbott’s actions speak louder than his words. While I fought against over $5 billion in unconstitutional budget cuts to our public schools," Davis said, Abbott "wasted taxpayer funds to defend those cuts in court."
Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, helped force a special legislative session in 2011 by filibustering, and temporarily delaying, a decision by the revenue-strapped Republican-majority Legislature to reduce education funding by more than $5 billion through 2012-13.
And did Abbott, the state’s attorney general, defend the cuts in court?
That’s been acknowledged. Abbott was quoted during his Dec. 3, 2013, Plano visit as telling the Dallas Morning News the reason he’s defending the cuts is because the Legislature passed them and it’s his job to defend them. "The attorney general in Texas takes an oath of office to defend the laws passed by the legislature," Abbott said, according to the News. "I’m fulfilling that duty."
That news story came to our attention in an email from Davis’ campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña, who responded to our request for the basis of Davis’ statement with a document listing web links to additional news stories as well as legal filings by Abbott’s office in defending the school funding system in the latest round of litigation likely headed to the Texas Supreme Court. In February 2013, a Travis County state district judge, John Dietz, ruled the system unconstitutional, though he later reacted to legislative actions restoring $3.4 billion in spending cuts and easing mandated high-school tests by scheduling fresh hearings for early 2014, the Austin American-Statesman reported in a news story posted online June 19, 2013.
A vital issue in the original trial, the Statesman said in a news story posted online Oct. 20, 2012, was the charge by two-thirds of the state’s school districts accounting for three-quarters of Texas students that the state was failing to ensure that districts had adequate resources to bring students up to what lawmakers handed down in tougher academic expectations.
Texas districts have litigated how the state funds the schools for decades. Each time, expert lawyers told us, the state attorney general has defended the existing law just as Abbott has in the latest legal battle, which is expected to resume in early 2014.
That’s in keeping with the duties of the attorney general as specified in the Texas Constitution, which says the attorney general "shall represent the state in all suits and pleas in the Supreme Court of the state in which the state may be a party."
Lawyers representing groups of districts in the latest lawsuits each said it would be unusual for an attorney general not to defend a state law and related legislative decisions.
Buck Wood of Austin, who has long represented property-poor districts in school finance suits, said deputies to Abbott "vigorously defended" the law during the latest trial before Dietz.
Austin lawyer Rick Gray, representing some 400 districts in the latest litigation, said he could not recall any attorney general backing down from defending the school finance system through the decades of court battles.
David Thompson of Houston, who represents districts (including the Austin one) serving more than 1.8 million children, stressed that Abbott’s office has defended the constitutionality of the funding system and the legislated cuts, not necessarily speaking to whether the spending reductions were good policy. "The attorney general’s office is actively and I would say vigorously defending the state’s actions," Thompson said. "That would include specifically the cuts to funding as well as just the overall design and structure of the (funding) system."
The lawyers each added that while it’s an attorney general’s duty to defend the state and actions taken on behalf of the state, he or she also has discretion to settle cases.
Our search of news stories and Abbott-issued press releases yielded no sign of Abbott personally appearing in the courtroom during the latest school funding trial. At our request, Catherine Clark, an administrator for the Texas Association of School Boards, reviewed her notes from the trial. By telephone, Clark said she found no instances of state attorneys defending the 2011 cuts in education aid except to elicit testimony that the reductions were less dramatic than other state budget cuts that year. "I don’t see them standing up there and saying, gosh, we needed to" make those cuts, Clark said. "But they did admit there were cuts."
We asked a spokeswoman for the attorney general, Lauren Bean, if Davis is correct that Abbott has defended the 2011 cuts in the school funding lawsuits. By email, Bean said yes, Abbott’s "office defended the law in court." In a follow-up email, she listed court rulings specifying the attorney general has an exclusive role in representing state agencies.
Davis said Abbott defended more than $5 billion in cuts in public school funding in fighting hundreds of school districts in court.
That’s factually correct as far as it goes, but this claim is missing important details and context in that the state attorney general has a legal duty to represent the state in challenges reaching the Texas Supreme Court, which the latest school finance lawsuits are expected to do. It would be unusual for an attorney general not to defend a law and legislative actions in such a suit.
We rate this partly accurate claim as Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
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