Texas Senate panel OKs $1.5 billion cut from House school finance bill

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

House Bill 21 would now spend $311 million over the next two years.

“We’ve got to get more productivity out of every dollar we spend in education. 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.

HB 21 passed the Senate Education Committee Friday 9-1. Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, voted against it.

Taylor said that the Senate is expected to vote on HB 21 on Saturday and that he and House lawmakers will work on a compromise.

The trimmed down version of the bill further highlights the discord between both chambers of the Legislature over how to address the state’s beleaguered school finance system.

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.

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A majority of the Senate supports studying the school finance system through a commission which would then make recommendations to the Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott has included such a commission in his special legislative session agenda.

In a news conference earlier this week, Senate Republicans criticized the House for trying to throw money at the school finance problem without a long term plan in place and characterized the HB 21 as a Band-aid fix and political gimmick.

“I talk about doing a basic analysis with a clean sheet … and ask the question what does it cost to educate the child,” said Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, on Friday.

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. Some of them comprised the 15 people who signed up to testify during Friday’s hearing.

“It provides immediate help to schools across Texas that have been coping with the state’s diminishing role in funding education,” the letter read. “It also serves as a down payment on the larger process of overhauling the troubled school finance system. The school finance reforms in House Bill 21 are significant, and if made now, they can be built upon in the next legislative session.”

The Senate’s version of HB 21 keeps a provision to create a financial hardship grant for school districts that will lose Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction in September, but trims the appropriations from $200 million to $150 million.

It also boosts spending for small school districts by $41 million and directs $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.

A similar provision was taken out of the original version of HB 21 after traditional school districts and their supporters opposed the idea; they have said that charter schools should not receive such funding because they are held to different standards than traditional public schools.

Officials from Austin charter schools Austin Achieve and NYOS told lawmakers that they need the facilities funding to alleviate waiting lists and improve services for students.

“There’s no space for science labs, athletic fields, no theater or music space. Our guitar class practices outside,” said Kathleen Zimmermann, executive director of NYOS.

IN REVIEW: School finance reform in the 85th Texas Legislature

The Senate’s version of HB 21 eliminates a major provision that would have given almost all public schools a boost by increasing the base amount of money schools get per student from $5,140 to $5,350. The increase would have dropped recapture payments by $389 million over the next two years. Property-wealthy school districts must make recapture payments back to the state to be redistributed to property-poor school districts.

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

“We’re dipping into our fund balance,” said Austin school district trustee Julie Cowan. “In three years we’ll be down 3 percent of our fund balance and the year after that, I don’t know what will happen.”

HB 21 would have increased funding to Austin by $25 million over the next two years. The Pflugerville school district would have received $6 million over the next two years, Round Rock $22 million, Leander $9 million and Hays $2 million.

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

“Parents move to different districts, a few pay for private school but many helplessly watch their children struggle for years. Cash strapped districts have to decide where to take their money from if they’re going to do a dyslexia program,” said Alice Marsel, an Austin dyslexia specialist, opposing the Senate’s changes.

Taylor said that some funding for dyslexia and students learning English as a second language could be put back in the bill.

Both chambers also differ on how to pay for the school finance bill. The House had proposed delaying certain payments to school districts in the upcoming budget cycle to the following 2020-21 biennium.

The Senate instead wants to pay for HB 21 by delaying certain payments to Medicaid managed care organizations in the upcoming budget cycle to the following biennium.

“Plus you have to pay back the $1.8 billion that you deferred so it’s actually a $3.6 billion hit to the next budget,” Taylor said. “We don’t know what the economy is going to look like two years from now. We hope it’s good, but what if it’s not?”

Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst with the Austin-based think tank Center for Public Policy Priorities, told the committee on Friday the state shouldn’t be siphoning money off the Medicaid program, which is already underfunded by $1.2 billion.

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

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