Legislators on Wednesday embarked on a lofty first step to fixing Texas’ troubled school finance system that has vexed school district leaders across the state for the last couple of decades.
The Texas House voted 134 to 16 to give preliminary approval to a $1.6 billion school finance bill after four hours of debating a slew of amendments that would determine how much public schools would get in extra funding over the next two years. The measure will still need a procedural final vote but it will likely move to the Senate.
The extra boost in funding stands in stark contrast to the Senate spending plan, which doesn’t propose any extra money beyond what is dictated by enrollment growth and cuts $1.4 billion in state support for public education.
UnderHouse Bill 21filed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, most school districts would see a boost in funding. The Austin school district would receive an additional $11.5 million in fiscal 2018 and $12.3 million in fiscal 2019.
While he was presenting his bill, Huberty said that it is the first major step to addressing a floundering school finance system, which the Texas Supreme Court in 2016 ruled was minimally constitutional. He said that under his bill, the state’s share in public school funding will be 39 percent, still a far cry from the 48 percent state share about a decade ago.
“We hear from people all the time and we saw some notes from people that were not supportive of this bill that we’re just putting more money into the system without making holistic changes. They clearly did not read the bill. If we do not pass this bill … we will have school districts that will close,” Huberty said.
The bill would, among other things:
• Increase the basic amount of money that school districts receive by $210 per student to $5,350.
• Establish extra funding to educate students with dyslexia and increase funding to educate students who are learning English as a second language.
• Expand funding for career and technology education courses from high school to include eighth grade.
• Roll the transportation allotment into the basic allotment
Because the bill increases the basic allotment, the amount that property-wealthy school districts like Austin must pay to the state would be reduced by $174 million in 2018, $205 million in 2019 and $319 million by 2022, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
The bill also would create a $200 million “hardship provision grant” that helps school districts slated to lose so-called hold harmless funding starting next school year. Hold harmless funding has helped more than 1,000 districts since 2006, when the state decreased property tax rates by a third and provided the money to compensate for that loss.
Shortly after Huberty presented the bill, Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, attempted to derail it by raising a point of order over how the bill is funded. He said that he was afraid that the measure would mean that the state of Texas would be writing a “hot check” for public education. Schaefer’s attempt failed.
By 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, the House had heard about 30 of the 46 amendments, including one that would increase the amount of money school districts would receive to educate students whose first language is not English. The multiplier that is used to determine that amount of money hasn’t been changed in more than three decades, and the amendment’s author Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso wanted it doubled.
“Not only are there more ELL (English language learner) students in Texas schools, but ELL students are making up a greater share of students in our schools. So shouldn’t our formula funding reflect that change in demographics?” Blanco said.
Like other large amendments by early evening, Blanco’s failed.
Some of the most heated exchanges over amendments, however, centered on charter schools — public schools that receive state funding but are privately operated.
Rep. Tomas Uresti, D-San Antonio, proposed a couple of amendments that would strip public funding from charter schools, leaving them to charge tuition instead. He said that he doesn’t consider charter schools to be public schools and alleged that charter school teachers were inferior.
“You are aware that there are literally tens of thousands of kids who receive a great education in charter schools right now?” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who asked Uresti to withdraw his amendment.
“I wouldn’t say a great education. I say they receive an education,” Uresti responded.
The discussion was punctuated by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, a former charter school director, shouting at Uresti to withdraw his amendment.
He didn’t, and his amendment failed.
At least three amendments to direct more money at prekindergarten programs also failed.
Some members also had problems with rolling the transportation allotment into the basic allotment. Amendments to bar public schools like charters from receiving transportation money through the basic allotment failed. So did one to do a cost study on public schools’ transportation costs and another that would eliminate a fee that a school district could charge to bus students who live within two miles of the school.
Other smaller amendments that passed included increasing the basic allotment in statute, wording changes, expanding access to a pot of money set aside for school districts to pay for start-up costs of opening a new school, and studies to examine outdated elements of the school funding formula. Small school districts also got a boost in funding through an amendment.