With days left in special session, Senate committee makes major changes to House's school finance bill

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Senate Education Committee voting out House Bill 21.

The Senate Education Committee voted 9-1 to drastically alter the House’s primary piece of school finance legislation Friday by stripping out $1.5 billion in funding.

But with just days left in the special session, the committee’s chairman suggested compromise with the lower chamber was still possible.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the $1.8 billion originally included in the lower chamber’s bill, House Bill 21, set a “false expectation,” but added that he’d continue to work with his counterpart in the lower chamber, House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston. On Tuesday, Taylor had described the House proposal as “not a long-term solution” and said he would not concede on the bulk of it.

The House and Senate may be headed for a stalemate over how to improve the state’s beleaguered public school finance system. The special session that Gov. Greg Abbott convened on July 18 must end by Wednesday. While the Senate has pushed for passing legislation requiring the system to be studied in advance of major changes during the 2019 legislative session, the House wants to inject more money into state schools now and thinks the issue has been reviewed enough. 

Two days ago, Huberty said the lower chamber wouldn’t pass the Senate’s preferred measure – which would create a commission to study school finance – unless the Senate did the same with HB 21. And yesterday, nearly 1,500 local school superintendents and trustees urged the head of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to support HB 21 as approved by the House. 

The Senate committee swiftly laid out a substitute bill Friday morning that would put $311 million into public schools, with funding from the Health and Human Services Commission. Taylor said he hoped the committee’s version of the bill would be voted on by the full Senate tomorrow, and then quickly advance to a conference committee.

Though the substitute bill passed, several senators who voted in favor of the measure voiced reservations. State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said the legislation was “spending money we do not have.” State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, added he thought the bill was missing a school choice component. 

Before the committee’s revisions, the House bill would have used a $1.8 billion infusion to increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by upping how much money is allotted to students who are dyslexic and bilingual. The bill, authored by Huberty, also would have created a transitional $200 million grant program over the next two years to help out some school districts that would be hardest-hit by the upcoming loss of a state aid program. About 250 small, rural school districts depend on the program, Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, which is slated to expire in September.

A separate measure to extend the program for two years was voted out of a House committee Wednesday, after the lower chamber shot down similar legislation on the floor last week.

The committee’s substitute lessened or eliminated funding for nearly all of these items, including reducing by a quarter the amount of money dedicated to the transition grant program. It did leave largely intact a portion of the House bill that would gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, that was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

Though some of the educators and school administrators who testified at Friday’s committee hearing praised portions of the substitute bill, many asked that provisions from the House’s measure be restored. Celina Moreno, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for example, said not adding money for bilingual students ignored an “actual and urgent student need.” 

The substitute also brought back a provision, similar to one cut from the original House bill, that will allocate $120 million to school districts and charter schools, intended to pay for facilities. 

Along with dramatically different levels of funding, Huberty and Taylor also tap different sources for new education funds. When the House approved its version of HB 21 last Friday, it also okayed a companion piece of legislation to fund the measure. The two bills, HB 21 and House Bill 30, together would have found $1.8 billion for public schools by deferring a payment to them from fiscal year 2019 to 2020 – a mechanism Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has compared to a “Ponzi scheme.” 

Meanwhile, the Senate has tucked a few provisions to increase funding for public schools into a separate “private school choice” bill. The money for those provisions would come from delaying payments to health care companies that provide Medicaid. The House has repeatedly voted against subsidizing private school tuition with state funding, and its Public Education Committee last week struck that portion from the measure, Senate Bill 2 – essentially gutting it. 

On Tuesday, as Taylor publicly announced he could not abide by the House education plan, Patrick backed him, releasing a statement that described public education as “a top priority for the majority of Republican senators.” Patrick added that GOP senators were “absolutely right that simply adding more funding without a focus on teachers and educational outcomes, as is being proposed, accomplishes very little.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas House voted to approve a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools, increase funding for certain student groups and help out struggling small, rural schools. [Full story]

  • Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor said he would not accept the House’s proposal to put $1.8 billion into public schools, comparing it to driving a broken car into the ground. [Full story]

Via Texas Tribune

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