Wednesday, March 02, 2005

House Panel Passes School Bill

Vote splits along party lines: Debate likely on House floor next week

By Jason Embry
Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A Texas House committee approved major education legislation Tuesday despite overwhelming opposition from school groups.

The Public Education Committee approved House Bill 2 by a 6-3 vote, with every Republican on the panel voting for it and every Democrat against it. The full House is likely to debate the bill early next week.

It aims to increase education funding by about $1.5 billion each year, which would be in addition to new money needed to pay for rising enrollment. Proponents say it provides incentives for outstanding teachers, makes it easier for taxpayers to see how their money is spent and toughens penalties for failing schools.

"We've attempted to do what the voters sent us here to do, and that's adopt a plan that focuses on the children of our state," said Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, the chairman of the committee.

But groups representing school districts and teachers have lined up against the bill.

"It does not provide a long-term solution to the funding crisis facing Texas public schools," said Dawson Orr, superintendent of the Wichita Falls school district. "In addition, this bill fails because it does not restore the program cuts from last session and institutes a host of new requirements without providing adequate dollars."

Democrats on the committee have leveled similar complaints. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said the bill does too little to help students who come from low-income homes or speak limited English.

"It puts a lot of new money in places that aren't those with the greatest needs," Hochberg said. "And it leaves those with the greatest needs out of any improvements and makes it harder for money to be put into those areas in the future."

Several conservative groups, however, applauded the bill and questioned the need for large spending increases.

"It appears many in the education lobby want taxpayers to write a blank check," said Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity, a group that seeks lower taxes.

The bill calls for a one-third reduction in local property taxes for school operations. It still would require some districts with high property values per student to share revenue with districts that have lower values, but about 75 districts, including Austin, no longer would have to share their revenue.

Critics had assailed a provision in the bill that would cap at 35 percent the amount of local property tax money that the wealthiest districts would have to send elsewhere.

That provision would create major funding increases for about two dozen districts, most of which are extremely small but one of which is in Highland Park, a wealthy enclave near Dallas.

The committee agreed to phase in the cap over three years so that those districts will see smaller initial increases in their state and local funding. But those schools still will get larger revenue bumps than most.

House leaders hope to offset the property tax cuts with a combination of tax increases, including a new business tax. But the tax shift is not expected to produce additional revenue, meaning lawmakers will have to find the $3 billion in other parts of the state budget.

"The bill apparently is going to be balanced on the backs of the people that are served by our Texas budget: the sexually abused children that we've been trying to assist, the blind, the needy, the sick and all the other people that are served by our budget," said Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, the vice chairman of the education committee.


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