Friday, February 04, 2005

House Plan Ups District Funding

By R.A. Dyer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - Every school district in Texas would get more money and spending would increase for bilingual education and teacher bonuses under a school finance plan unveiled Thursday in the Texas House.

The preliminary House proposal calls for an overhaul of standardized testing in high schools, more regulatory freedom for exemplary districts and stiffer penalties for low-performing districts. It would also require a uniform school start date after Labor Day.

The proposed legislation represents the House's response to what has been declared the No. 1 issue of the 79th Texas Legislature: school finance reform. The Senate unveiled a separate plan last month.

All told, House Bill 2 would increase statewide spending on public schools by about $1.5 billion annually -- even after accounting for normal budget growth related to enrollment gains.

For individual districts, that means funding increases of 3 percent to 8 percent, according to an analysis by House leaders. And because the plan allows for the continued collection of local property taxes, some property-wealthy districts would see even greater gains.

"No longer will local school districts bear a majority of education costs," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who filed the legislation Thursday. "The state will dramatically increase its share of funding from 38 percent to 60 percent -- the greatest contribution the state has made in more than two decades."

But teacher groups, some Democrats and others assailed the legislation, saying it won't solve serious school funding problems. A state district judge has ruled the current system unconstitutional, declaring that it does not provide enough money for schoolchildren and robs districts of meaningful control over their tax rates.

"The plan laid out today does not meet Texans' priorities," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco. "There appears to be no new funding for pre-K programs. There appears to be no new funding for [low-income student] education programs. The current gap between the haves and the have-nots is not reduced."

Like the Senate plan, the House plan raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, HB 2 is predicated on a reduction in local property taxes, but it does not spell out how the state would make up for that lost revenue or pay for increases in education funding.

All told, lawmakers would have to come up with about $7 billion per year from other sources. House Speaker Tom Craddick said that revenue would come from a combination of sales tax adjustments, changes in the business tax and cost-saving measures -- all of which would be handled through separate legislation.

Likewise, Craddick said lawmakers can find more money through an expansion of gambling or possibly by creating a statewide property tax. Both measures would require a two-thirds vote in the House.

"We're going to have [committee] hearings and [the bill] may change," said Craddick, who added that HB 2 would probably make it to the House floor by the second week of March. Lawmakers "may add things and they may take things out. But we wanted to introduce a bill today that members of the Legislature could look at ... and so the school districts know where they are and so the people of Texas know where they are."

The 137-page bill covers several broad areas, including teacher pay, the accountability system and academic changes.

Among the highlights:

o The legislation does not call for an across-the-board teacher pay increase but would allocate $200 million to $300 million for incentive bonuses or teacher mentoring.

The response from teacher groups? Thanks, but no thanks.

"Incentive pay alone fails to address our most fundamental challenge: Without a meaningful across-the-board pay raise for Texas teachers, we cannot attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession and keep them in our classrooms," said Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

o A $1,000 stipend that teachers can use to pay for health care would be restored. That stipend was cut in half two years ago.

o High school students would be required to pass a series of end-of-course exams. The current standardized testing system, which requires students to pass exit exams to graduate, would be abandoned.

o Schools would begin administering state-mandated standardized tests through an online computer system beginning in spring 2006.

o In a weakening of the "Robin Hood" school finance system, the amount of property tax dollars surrendered by property-wealthy districts for distribution to property-poor districts would drop by 88 percent -- from $1.2 billion per year to $145 million.

o Schools and districts rated "exemplary" under the current accountability system could operate under the less-stringent regulatory guidelines enjoyed by the state's charter schools. However, low-performing districts would face a mandatory management overhaul after two years, and low-performing charter schools would be closed.

o Classes would start on the same day after Labor Day at all schools, giving some students a longer summer break. According to information provided by the House leadership, the change would save taxpayers nearly $90 million related to air-conditioning expenses and the hiring of temporary workers.

o Funding for bilingual education would increase and new accountability guidelines would be enacted for bilingual educators.

o The state would provide funding for college-readiness tests, such as the SAT.

The Legislature is under an Oct. 1 deadline to revamp the $30-billion-a-year school finance system or face a possible shutdown of its education system. About 4.3 million students attend schools in more than 1,000 districts in Texas.
R.A. Dyer, (512) 476-4294

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