Friday, February 04, 2005

House Leaders Want to Spend $3 Billion More on Schools

House Leaders Want to Spend $3 Billion More on Schools
Teacher pay raises not included; later start date, online testing proposed.

By Jason Embry
Friday, February 04, 2005

Texas House leaders filed a sweeping education bill Thursday that would require schools to start after Labor Day, students to take state tests online and board members to run for office in November instead of May.

The plan calls for the state to increase the total $30 billion spent annually on education by more than $3 billion over two years, on top of new money it will spend to support student enrollment growth. It assumes that lawmakers will cut property taxes for school maintenance and operation by about one-third.

It does not, however, prescribe how lawmakers will make up for the property tax cut or where they will get the $3 billion.

The bill is House leaders' first substantive crack at school finance reform, the dominant issue of the young legislative session.

"Every district will receive at least 3 percent more through the state funding formula," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the Public Education Committee. "That money will be available this fall."

The bill does not provide an across-the-board pay raise for teachers but would provide about $270 million a year statewide for teacher incentive programs. Districts would develop their own programs and could reward teachers for improving student test scores or for serving as faculty mentors.

Two teacher groups quickly assailed the plan because it does not mandate wage increases, but House aides said districts could pay for across-the-board raises with their additional money.

Four years ago, lawmakers created a $1,000 pay supplement to help teachers pay for their health insurance, but that amount was cut in half when state revenues dried up in 2003. The House plan would restore the supplement.

The plan aims to save $85 million a year by requiring districts to start school after Labor Day, when the cost to cool classrooms drops. That could push the end of the school year of 180 instructional days into the middle of June.

It also calls for school board elections in November instead of May so districts would bear less of the cost. All trustees would serve four-year terms.

The current share-the-wealth system would be altered but still based on a district's property wealth per student. The Austin district no longer would have its localproperty tax money redistributed throughout the state. The amount of local property tax money that the Eanes district sends elsewhere would decrease from $50.4 million this year to $22 million next year, according to state projections. The plan calls for major changes in testing and accountability. Students would take state tests online beginning next year, and high schools would give end-of-course tests, also online, instead of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

State ratings would be based partly on how well students who speak limited English learn the language, and a high school would need high marks for college readiness to be tagged exemplary. The state would close charter schools that earn low ratings for two straight years, and teachers and administrators at traditional schools with two years of low ratings could be fired. Their students could transfer more easily.

"We're dropping the hammer on low-performing schools," Grusendorf said.

The bill does not call for private-school vouchers, but vouchers likely will get heavy consideration later in the session. It also does not address new money for construction and renovation.

Lawmakers estimate that state spending per student on maintenance and operations for the Austin school district would increase from $6,325 this year to $6,515 next year and $6,702 in 2007. Those figures do not include federal funds or separate allotments for technology or instructional materials.

"There are still some major issues that are unresolved: inadequate funding for poor children and children with English problems, no equitable classroom construction funding, inadequate pay of Texas teachers," said Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, the vice chairman of the education committee. "I hope we can improve the plan's shortcomings."

The House plan is similar in many ways to the goals for school finance reform endorsed by all senators last month, but there are differences.

The House plan would allow local voters to add 10 cents per $100 property valuation to their tax rates over five years. The Senate plan would let voters add 15 cents over six years.

The Senate outline, unlike the House bill, calls for the local school property tax to become a state tax. A state tax would need a constitutional amendment, meaning it would need approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate and a simple majority among the public.

The House could increase the budget by more than $3 billion by cutting other parts of the state budget or by tapping new revenue sources, such as video lottery terminals, which are similar to slot machines.

Gov. Rick Perry called the bill a strong starting point.

"It devotes new resources to schools, improves teachers' compensation and focuses the debate on achievement," Perry said.


•Adds more than $3 billion to budget

•Calls for school districts to develop incentive-pay plans to reward teachers who mentor teachers or whose students perform well

•Calls for the reorganization of schools that post low ratings for two straight years

•Aims to save money by starting school year after Labor Day

•Calls for the state to pay college-entrance exam fees

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