Texas Senate panel cut $1.5 billion from House school finance proposal


Senate Republicans want to study the school finance system further before allocating big dollars.

Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he’s willing to work on a compromise on HB 21.

School districts opposed the Senate’s changes, while public charter schools supported them.

The Texas Senate Education Committee Friday gutted a House bill that would have injected $1.8 billion into the public education system.

The Senate version of House Bill 21 would spend $311 million — instead of the original $1.8 billion proposed — over the next two years, further highlighting the mounting discord between the Legislative chambers over how to address the state’s beleaguered school funding system.

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“We’ve got to seek out efficiencies … things that we can do better with the same amount of money, not just a matter of throwing more money into the system,” Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood said during the hearing.

Taylor said that the Senate is expected to vote on HB 21 Saturday and return it to the House which is unlikely to approve the Senate’s changes.

The House has been pushing the original version of HB 21 filed by House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, as the first step in helping cash-strapped school districts.

About 1,500 superintendents and school board trustees, including from the major Central Texas school districts, signed a letter to the Senate committee supporting the original version of HB 21.

“The House’s version … was going to be able to keep our district afloat over the next couple of years,” Austin school district Trustee Julie Cowan told the committee Friday. “I’m happy for our friends in other parts of the state to receive the relief that they need. I’m afraid that there will be more districts like ours that perhaps you all want to think about as well.”

A majority of the Senate supports creating a commission to study the school finance system and make recommendations to the Legislature for the next regular session. Gov. Greg Abbott has included such a commission in his special session instructions for lawmakers.

In a news conference earlier this week, Senate Republicans criticized HB 21 as a Band-aid fix and political gimmick.

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The Senate’s version of HB 21 eliminates a major provision that would have increased the base amount of money schools get per student from $5,140 to $5,350. The boost would have reduced the amount of locally raised tax dollars property-wealthy school districts must send to the state by $389 million over the next two years. Property-wealthy school districts must make the so-called recapture payments to the state to be redistributed to property-poor school districts.

The Austin school district pays more in recapture than any other district in Texas — an estimated $534 million next school year.

The Senate also removed from HB 21 extra funding to help schools educate students with dyslexia and students who are learning English as a second language. It also removed funding for career and technology programs in the eighth grade.

Taylor said that he’s willing to restore some elements of the original bill.

The Senate’s version of HB 21 keeps a provision to create a financial hardship grant for certain school districts, but trims it the amount by 25 percent to $150 million.

The Senate version would also boost spending for small school districts by $41 million and direct $120 million to help school districts and public charter schools pay for construction. Charter schools, which are privately run public schools, have been pushing for such funding for years.

The House had proposed paying the $1.8 billion price tag for HB 21 by delaying certain payments to school districts in the upcoming budget cycle to the following 2020-21 biennium.

The Senate wants to pay for HB 21 by delaying payments to Medicaid managed care organizations in the upcoming budget cycle to the following biennium. The state’s Medicaid program is underfunded by $1.2 billion.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has told Senate lawmakers that delaying payments to Medicaid shouldn’t hurt services.

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