Thursday, February 17, 2005

Hispanic Caucus Flunks House Education Plan

Hispanic Caucus Flunks House Education Plan
Members say education bill is unfair and spends too little.

By Jason Embry
Thursday, February 17, 2005

Texas House leaders' plan to reform the state's education system is unfair and inadequate, members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus said Wednesday.

About 35 members of the House, almost all of them Democrats, gathered to denounce the bill in the loudest statement of opposition since Republicans filed it two weeks ago.

"What we're really doing is in essence rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and really not making any substantive changes or substantive improvements in our education system," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, the caucus chairman.

Backers of the bill say it would increase overall education spending by more than $3 billion over two years, which would be in addition to the estimated $1.2 billion needed just to cover enrollment growth. But caucus members say that they've run their own numbers and that the bill would not provide enough money even to make up for the cuts that lawmakers made two years ago, which included reductions in spending on teacher health insurance, technology and textbooks.

"It's disingenuous to say we're going to get more money when, in fact, we're just going to go back to zero," said Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

The Public Education Committee has heard testimony on the bill for the better part of two weeks. House Speaker Tom Craddick, who hopes to have a bill to the floor of the House by early March, defended the amount of money it puts into education.

"I don't know that the school districts are ever going to think that there's enough money in there," he said. "But the state's got to look at what they can afford to do and what takes care of us at the courthouse."

The Mexican American caucus attacked the bill for not including an across-the-board pay increase for teachers and for spending too little money to help economically disadvantaged students. Gallego said the group does not have its own proposal for how much new money should go into education because members first want to determine how much the schools need.

The group also pounced on a Republican proposal to put a 35 percent cap on how much of its local property tax money a school district with high property values must send to the state. About two dozen districts would be likely to see significant funding increases because they would be able to keep more of their money with the cap in place.

The group pointed to the Highland Park district, a wealthy Dallas-area enclave that stands to see its state and local funds increase by as much as 52 percent under the House proposal. The Austin, Houston and San Antonio districts would each see increases of less than 5 percent.

Most of the other districts affected by the 35 percent cap, though, have fewer than 500 students but have high property values because they include oil fields, power plants or other features that drive up values. In 13 of these 23 property-wealthy districts, more than half of the students were considered economically disadvantaged last year, according to Texas Education Agency data.

Bill supporters have defended the cap by saying it would affect roughly $30 million in a statewide education system that costs $33 billion annually. They also say districts that have been sending as much as 70 percent of their local money to other parts of the state deserve to keep more.

The 40 members of the Mexican American caucus — or the 63 Democrats in the 150-member House, for that matter — do not have the votes to stop the bill. One Republican who is a member of the caucus, Rep. Pat Haggerty of El Paso, spoke out against the House plan Wednesday.

Democrats also hope to corral support from rural Republicans who do not think the system will give their schools enough new money.

Craddick said supporters of the bill have met with all but about five members of the Legislature.

"Overall, I'd say the bill is very acceptable to most members of the House from both parties," he said.

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