TX Senate Committee strips House school finance bill, cuts funding

Gov. Abbott signed several bills Friday while the divide widened between the House and Senate over school finance.

AUSTIN - The divide is widening between the Texas House and Senate over a school finance reform bill. 

The Senate Committee on Education took up House Bill 21 (HB21) Friday. The Chairman, Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), offered a committee substitute with significant changes that strips the bill, spending less than one-sixth of what the House approved.

The House-approved version of Representative Dan Huberty's (R-Houston) bill pumps $1.8 billion into the public school system; providing additional dollars to every nearly every public school, and charter schools, in the state. The Senate version is significantly less at $311 million.

Both versions are funded by deferring payments to state agencies. The House wants to defer a payment to the Foundation Schools Program while the Senate opts to take the money from Health and Human Services for a Medicaid program. Texas is already facing a Medicaid shortfall of $1.2 billion. Either amount would have to be paid back to the agency the money is taken from, which is part of the reason Senator Taylor said he opted for a more modest amount. 

"That $1.8 billion would raise the expectations that we would continue the program in that excess," Taylor said during the public hearing. "There's $1.8 billion, plus you have to pay back the $1.8 billion that you deferred so it's actually a $3.6 billion dollar hit to the next budget. We don't know what the economy's gonna look like two years from now. We hope it's good but what if it's not?"

The House version also increases the base allotment, which is the money the state puts in to educate each student. The Senate version takes that out. And the Senate wants to spend $50 million less on ASATR districts, which are schools at risk of closing because of a drop in property taxes.   

The Senate version also allots $60 million for charter schools. Senator Taylor said the money would be for facilities, but nothing in his version of the bill specifies how the money will be spent. He said that will be corrected. The Senate version gives $41 million to "small sized" school districts for facilities and puts in $60 million for the public school Existing Debt Allotment Program.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities came out in support of HB21 but is firmly against the Senate version. 

"The House version of the bill, it really did a lot of positive things for cleaning up the formulas. It got rid of some of these outdated, inefficient things that have just been clogging up the system, sort of the cobwebs in the corners," said Chandra Villanueva, Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Senator Taylor said he is open to compromise and the allotments the House version has for dyslexia and bilingual students aren't off the table. Representative Huberty said he's open to working with Taylor.

Huberty previously said he will kill a Senate bill creating a commission to study school finance if the Senate doesn't have a meaningful conversation with him about HB21.

The Senate Committee voted it's version of HB21 out and the full Senate is set to vote on the bill Saturday. Taylor said he expects is to be passed on all three readings. Once that happens Huberty is expected to request a conference committee to see if lawmakers can hash out the differences between their versions. 

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