AUSTIN - Members of the Texas House of Representatives dubbed the 18th day of the Special Session "School Finance Friday" as they took votes on bills related to reforming the school finance system.
The states funding of public education has come under fire and is often described as "lawful but awful." That phrase refers to a 2016 Texas Supreme Court ruling that declared the state is meeting its legal obligation to fund public schools, but is deeply flawed.
At the time of the ruling, the State of Texas was putting in 38 percent of what it costs to educate a student. That’s a stark decrease from 2006, when the state was footing 50 percent of the bill. Now, Texas funds 37 percent of the cost.
Texas Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston), a former school superintendent who chairs the House Committee on Public Education, said his bill will start to reform the system.
"The voters want us to fund education," Huberty said. "The constituents want us to pay for their schools."
House Bill 21 (HB21) would add $1.8 billion into the public school system. HB21 would increase the basic allotment the state puts in to educate students from $5,140 to $5,350 per child. According to Rep. Donna Howard's (D-Austin) office, if the bill becomes law, Austin Independent School District will see an increase in funding from the state of $252 more per student. Pflugerville Independent School District would receive $205 more per student and Del Valle Independent School District would get $130 more.
HB21 also adjust the weights, or additional funding schools get to educate students with disabilities or barriers to education. For the first time, schools would get more money to educate students with dyslexia. The bill adds $200 million for that.
It also increases the weight for English Second Language students, career and technical education and transportation. HB21 allocates $200 million for an Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) hardship grant to help schools at risk of closing due to decreasing property taxes.The ASATR program is set to expire and many schools are at risk of closing.
To fund HB21, the state would defer a payment to the Foundation Schools Program, a tactic Huberty said the legislature used in 2003 and 2011. The House voted to tentatively pass House Bill 30, which would implement the deferral. Huberty said HB30 also adds $30 million for the education of special needs students.
To fund the bill long-term, Huberty said he plans to lay out a House Joint Resolution next week to add an item to the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would mandate that once the Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, reaches $10 billion, the additional money that would go into the fund would be used for public education. Voters approved a similar measure that directs the money into a transportation fund to pay for roads. Huberty said that proposition will expire in 2023.
He added he's prepared to vote for the allocation now, but understands some of his colleagues and members of the Senate are not and that's why he wants to let the voters decide.
"Isn't it democratic to allow the citizens of the State of Texas to be able to say what we'd like to fund," Huberty said.
If HB21 sounds familiar, that's because it is. It's the same bill, with the same bill number, that Representatives passed during the regular session. The House passed the bill in April, but the Senate didn't take it up until May. The version passed by the Senate took out the funding mechanism and added education savings accounts, referred to by opponents as vouchers, for special needs students. Huberty wanted to go to conference to see if the House and Senate could work out it's differences, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) did not appoint confreres, killing the bill.
This time around, Huberty has some leverage. He said if the Senate doesn't hear his bill and have meaningful conversations about education reform, he will block the senate bill to establish a commission to study school finance. Huberty added lawmakers don't need to do another study on the issue, they need to take action to fix the school finance system.
"You can't get tax reform unless you have education reform. That really is our goal," Huberty said. "And the goal of HB21 is to be able to have a conversation with the senate to say, 'Look, we're going to have $13 billion in our back account and we're continuing to fund less of our share of the cost of education.' Today we're funding at about 37 percent of the share of the cost of education. Yet we're adding 160,000 new children a year. Those funding costs are being borne by the local taxpayers. That's just a fact."
Huberty said if HB21 becomes law, the state will be funding about 40 percent of what it costs to educate students.
The representatives voted 130 to 12 to tentatively pass HB21. They also tentatively approved House Bill 23 which will create a grant program for schools with innovative programs for autistic students.
The representatives are expected to take final votes on HB21, HB23 and HB30 on Monday.
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