Friday, January 14, 2005

Groups React Cautiously to Senate School Plan


Business, school organizations waiting to hear more about proposed Senate reforms to education, tax systems.

By Jason Embry

Representatives of schools and businesses weren't quite sure Thursday how enthusiastically — if at all — they should support the goals for school finance reform laid out by the Texas Senate this week.

Led by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, all 31 senators signed on to a five-page outline calling for more education spending, a property tax cut and teacher pay raises, among other objectives.

But no bill has been filed, making it difficult for the people who will feel the effects of the reforms to know whether they should sing the praises of Dewhurst and the senators or start looking for candidates to replace them.

"At this point, it's a little bit like apple pie and motherhood," Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said when asked about the Senate proposal to expand the corporate franchise tax and lower its rate. "We've got to see more detail."

Hammond's group would rather see a one-sixth cut in property taxes and the elimination of the franchise tax, but leaders of the House and Senate have said they want to cut property taxes by a third.

The plan calls for new taxes and nontax revenue to raise $1.6 billion in the first year after the cut in property taxes. Overall, the Senate aims to increase education spending by as much as $6.7 billion over two years.

Clayton Downing of the Texas School Coalition, a group of more than 100 school districts with relatively high property values, said the districts he represents do not like the proposal for a state property tax instead of locally set property taxes for school maintenance and operations.

A statewide tax would be the "granddaddy of all recapture," Downing said, using the term for the plank in the current system that requires the districts with the highest per-student property values in the state to share their tax money with districts who have smaller property rolls.

Overall, however, Downing said he needed more information about the plan to fully evaluate it.

Wayne Pierce of the Equity Center, which represents districts with low- and moderate-wealth districts, said he's encouraged that the plan calls for more money for teachers and pre-kindergarten.

But the details of the plan released so far leave him unsure that the system is going to be as fair as he would like.

"We don't have enough details right now to make a good judgment," he said. "There are things in it that look promising; there are things in it that cause concern."

Teachers groups were cautiously optimistic after hearing that senators want teacher pay to reach the national average.

But senators did not spell out how they would make that happen.

John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, applauded Dewhurst and the Senate for putting teacher pay in the outline. But he said the group will continue to push for across-the-board raises.

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