Political News

House OKs major school finance fix; Senate's plans uncertain

Posted April 19

— The Texas House late Wednesday night approved a sweeping, bipartisan school finance plan that pumps an extra $1.6 billion into classrooms and begins overhauling the troubled way the state pays for public education.

Sponsored by Houston Republican Rep. Dan Huberty, the much-watched proposal seeks to increase annual, per-student funding about $210 to $5,350 while raising funding for school district transportation and educating dyslexic students. It also could mean more state money for children who need extra instruction to learn English in a state where many youngsters speak Spanish at home.

Passage came after lawmakers worked their way through hours of proposed small changes — many unsuccessfully backed by Democrats who called for an even larger dose of extra school funding. The bill needs only a final, largely procedural vote Thursday to be sent to the Texas Senate.

It could face a tougher road there, however. The Senate has been more focused on voucher plans that would offer state funding to students attending private and religious schools. Those have been repeatedly rejected by the House, and that could make the chamber's school finance fixes less palatable in the Senate. Both chambers are Republican-controlled.

Huberty said a full remaking of the school finance system will take several legislative sessions, but he called his bill a strong "first step." He is also seeking to tweak the current "Robin Hood" system, gradually decreasing some local property tax revenue that school districts in wealthy areas share with those in poorer parts of the state.

Texas has no state income tax, meaning schools rely heavily on local property tax revenue. The vast majority of school districts would see funding increases under the plan, though some would get less.

"Funding the public schools is one of the most important things that we do. It's the foundation of our state," Huberty said. "It basically comes down to one thing, that our school finance system needs help."

State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee, has proposed his own series of bills to modify the funding formula for public education. It works to equalize how much state money school districts across Texas receive.

Texas educates 5.3 million-plus public school students, more than any state except California, but has endured nearly 50 years of legal battles, with the Legislature frequently cutting classroom budgets and school districts responding with a series of lawsuits. No school finance fix is required this session, though, since Texas' Supreme Court ruled last summer that the system was flawed and in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul, but nonetheless barely constitutional.

"While our system is lawful, it is awful," Huberty said Wednesday.

The bill also drew the ire of some tea party-backed Republicans. They worried it creates policy when there is no guarantee the Legislature will pass adequate funding to cover it as the House and Senate continue to hammer out the 2018-2019 state budget before the legislative session ends next month.

"We promised our taxpayers not to write a hot check for school finance," said Rep Matt Schaefer of Tyler. He tried to derail the entire bill using a House legislative maneuver, but was unsuccessful.

Still, not everything debated before final approval was defeated. Rep. Drew Darby, a San Angelo Republican, introduced an amendment that would reserve decades-old policy and boost funding for small school districts. It drew support from rural Republicans and Democrats, even though it would require the Legislature to pump tens of millions of additional dollars into schools beginning in the years after this session's budget is approved.

Houston Democratic Rep. Harold Dutton said Darby's change would only exacerbate the larger problems of a fundamentally flawed system.

"It essentially puts new paint on a car that doesn't run," Dutton said. The amendment passed 86-59.

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