Tuesday, March 08, 2005

House Gets Crack at School Funding Bill

03/08/2005 12:00 AM CST

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
San Antonio Express-News Staff Writer

The proposal to overhaul the way schools are funded in Texas goes to the full House today, but a final vote may take several days.

The plan, dubbed "Roadmap to Results," aims to boost education funding by $3 billion over the next two years while decreasing local property taxes by one-third.

It also includes strict school reform measures — increasing the number of tests high school students take and implementing sanctions for chronically low-performing schools, such as replacing faculty.

Those ideas have brought praise from organizations such as Texas Businesses for Educational Excellence, a coalition of business leaders.

But education groups say the plan is flawed and underfunded. Lawmakers have proposed 155 amendments.

"Instruction in Texas is already, in many places, test-driven," said Angela Valenzuela, education committee chairwoman for Texas League of United Latin American Citizens.

"The curriculum is being narrowed. The subject areas are being marginalized. We're on the wrong track here," she said.

Curtis Culwell, superintendent at Garland School District, near Dallas, and president of the Texas School Alliance, said the bill does not give schools enough money to provide the level of education demanded in the state constitution.

Lawmakers are under a court order to fix the state's education finance system by October or face a cut-off of state funding.

House Democrats plan to offer an alternate plan that would increase education spending by $5 billion over the next two years.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, one of the authors of the plan, dubbed "Learn and Live," said it would cost the state no more than House Bill 2 but would distribute the money differently, with more ending up in the classroom.

"Our bill is true equity," Martinez Fischer said. "Otherwise, you're just looking at 3 percent growth for most districts."

The plan also calls for raising teacher pay by $4,800 over the next two years and restoring health care benefits cut in 2003.

On the property tax front, the plan would triple the homestead exemption to $45,000 and reduce the local maintenance-and-operations property tax rate to a maximum of $1.25 per $100 valuation, compared with House Bill 2's proposal of cutting local property tax to $1 per $100 valuation.

"By in large we achieve more property tax savings because of that exemption," Martinez Fischer said.

House Republicans scored a victory Monday when a number of rural members said they now are fully behind the House bill.

Many rural Republicans protested the formula for transportation funding, saying it doesn't meet the needs of vast districts.

Led by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the rural lawmakers said they will vote for the bill now that House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said he will accept an amendment allowing for a $1.50 per mile reimbursement to rural districts for school buses.

The amendment would allocate $126 million from the Texas Department of Transportation's gas fund to cover the cost.

Staff writer Guillermo X. Garcia contributed to this report.

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