Legislature sends $563 million education bill to Abbott

Updated Aug 15, 2017
Jay Janner
State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, debates a school finance bill in the Senate on Monday. JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After hours of closed-door negotiations, the Texas House reluctantly agreed on Tuesday to a Senate plan to inject $351 million into the public education system over the next two years — a far less than House leaders had wanted to spend.

“To say I’m disappointed is an understatement,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of House Bill 21. “The biggest disappointment that all of us has is that we were unable to find the middle ground that would make sense. But I know for a fact that the things that are in here have to be fixed.”

The original version of HB 21 that passed out of the House would have pumped $1.8 billion into the public education system and given almost all public schools extra money, but the Senate voted to gut the bill early Tuesday. With the 94-46 vote in the House, the bill now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott, who Huberty said will sign it.

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“It’s meant as a bridge to get us to next session,” said Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, during consideration of HB 21 Monday night. “The $1.8 billion that came out of the House — that was an unrealistic number based on (the fact) that we’ve already done our budget.”

The Senate’s version of HB 21 creates a $150 million hardship grant program for school districts that are about to lose certain state funding in September. It also would spend $41 million on small school districts and $120 million for construction costs for charter schools and traditional public schools.

On Tuesday, the Senate added to the bill a provision to create a $40 million grant program for public schools that provide innovative services for students with dyslexia and autism.

In addition to what schools would receive, the Senate folded into the bill a $212 million to reduce health insurance costs for retired teachers. Retired teachers under 65 are expected to see a deductibles reduce by half of what they were expected to pay (from $3,000 to $1,500) and premiums for them and their children decrease by a $25 per month (from $433 to $408). Retired teachers over 65 are expected to see premiums reduce from $146 per month to $135.

“As I promised, this $563 million funding package will help our retired teachers and address some of the most critical issues facing our schools without tapping either the Rainy Day Fund or the Foundation School Program,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement.

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The Austin school district, which is expected to make $534 million in recapture payments back to the state next school year to help property-poor school districts, would get nothing under the bill sent to Abbott.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the House denounced the Senate’s version of HB 21 Tuesday afternoon. Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said the Senate was pitting school districts against school districts and retired teachers against students with its revisions to HB 21.

“Take back this crap and fix it,” she said. “I don’t like bullies.”

Senate Republicans were unwilling to spend large sums of extra money on public schools without first studying how to make wholesale fixes to the state’s beleaguered school finance system. A state commission to study and make recommendations on the system is a provision in HB 21.

HB 21’s $563 million price tag would be paid with dollars dedicated to Medicaid. The House, which had wanted to tap the $10 billion rainy day fund and education money, has opposed such a method because Medicaid is underfunded by more than a $1 billion.