Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Grusendorf Rolls Out Revised Schools Bill

Members say education plan is unfair, still offers too little money

By Jason Embry
Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The head of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House unveiled an updated education reform bill Monday that, while shifting some dollars around, continued to face the complaint that it shortchanges schools.

Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, laid out a new version of House Bill 2, the major education reform plan backed by House leaders. The committee plans to vote on the new bill today, which should enable it to reach the full House within a week.

Grusendorf said the new bill, like the old version, will give schools about $3 billion more over two years after the state accounts for enrollment growth. It directs more money than the earlier version toward bilingual education and programs for students at risk of dropping out, while reducing the amount of money set aside for high schools.

House leaders did not immediately provide new projections Monday of how the bill would affect each district.

Representatives for several school groups said it provides too little new money for an education system that a judge has declared unconstitution- al because of underfunding. Critics also say the bill does not make up for cuts in state spending that lawmakers made in 2003.

Clayton Downing of the Texas School Coalition, a group of school districts with relatively high property values per student, said $5 billion over two years would better meet the needs of schools.

"It does not meet the court's challenge," Downing said of the new bill.

Lawmakers are trying to spend more on education without voting for a net tax increase. House leaders are crafting separate legislation to raise some taxes and install a new business tax, but their goal is to raise just enough money to offset a proposed one-third reduction in school property taxes.

They want to cut other parts of the state budget to produce the new money for schools. Republicans on the education panel lauded the $3 billion in light of those constraints and other budget demands, such as the growing cost of health care for low-income Texans.

"That $3 billion could be swallowed up by Medicaid in one bite," said Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple.

The education system in Texas now costs about $30 billion per year in state and local money. School representatives and some lawmakers say the new money will pay for little more than inflation, particularly because the bill dictates how schools will spend much of it.

"There's no room to go in years two, three, four and five," said Amy Beneski, associate executive director for governmental relations at the Texas Association of School Administrators. Michael Hinojosa, chairman of the Fast-Growth School Coalition and superintendent of the Spring district, near Houston, criticized the bill for not including money to help districts pay for the construction and renovation of school buildings. Grusendorf said separate legislation will address money for facilities, but Hinojosa said he worries there will be no money left at that point.

The new bill also would mandate that the state could hire an outside group, such as a private company, to run a school that performs poorly for two consecutive years. It also would toughen the state system for rating schools.

"They really beefed up the accountability in the (new version)," said Sandy Kress, an Austin lawyer who helped President Bush create the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Kress also applauded the bill's efforts to provide bonus money for teachers at schools that have high numbers of low-income students and that show significant improvement on state tests.

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