House passes GOP's school finance plan
Critics say plan is inadequate, unfair.
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
The Texas House narrowly approved legislation Wednesday that would reduce school property taxes, slightly increase school funding and trigger major changes in the state's system of testing students and rating schools.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 2 with a 76-71 vote that fell largely along party lines. The vote was the first of two steps to push the dominant issue of this year's legislative session to the Senate.
The second step could come Thursday, when the House debates shifting about $5.4 billion a year in property taxes to, among other things, higher sales taxes and a new payroll tax.
The Senate is expected to debate a significantly different version of school and tax reform that, if passed, would set up a showdown between the two chambers in a conference committee.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst hinted at the changes coming in the Senate on Wednesday, when he said he was looking forward to receiving the House's plans for school finance.
"Then, with all due respect, we'll make them better," Dewhurst said.
The House bill calls for about $3 billion in additional spending on education over two years, giving many school districts what roughly amounts to an inflationary adjustment. Texas currently spends about $33 billion in local, state and federal money a year on public schools.
It requires schools to start after Labor Day, allows private companies to take over low-performing schools, toughens the state rating system and requires schools to give state tests on computers instead of paper.
"The genius of this bill is, the finance is inexorably linked to the reform, and the reform will deliver results," said Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple.
It shifts several costs onto local school districts, such as paying for textbooks, and requires new systems for tracking financial and academic data. It also requires schools to develop incentive pay programs for teachers.
"This bill is just plain old junk food," said Rep. Bob Griggs of North Richland Hills, one of a few Republicans to oppose the bill. "It's junk food for school finance. It provides that sugar rush immediately, but the funding falls apart after a very short period of time."
Locally, GOP Reps. Mike Krusee of Williamson County, Dan Gattis of Georgetown and Terry Keel and Todd Baxter of Austin voted for the bill. Democratic Reps. Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs and Austin's Elliott Naishtat, Mark Strama, Eddie Rodriguez and Dawnna Dukes voted against it.
House leaders say the $3 billion in new education spending will come from savings in other parts of the state budget. But, foreshadowing another potential legislative battle, the head of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee said Wednesday that the House will have to expand gambling in the state if members want to spend more on education.
"That's the only way we're going to get more money for our schools," said Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.
School and teacher groups rushed to analyze new language in the bill that would require higher salaries for teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.
House aides say the language will require districts to give raises that average $3,000 or that account for 44 percent of the funding increases they see, whichever costs less. The raises will include the $500 that the state currently provides to help school employees pay for health insurance, so the actual average increase would be $2,500.
Critics point out that lawmakers do not plan to put more money into the bill to pay for the raises.
"We're trying to say this is new money to education to increase the level of funding that goes to directly impact academic achievement," said Rep. Vilma Luna, D-Corpus Christi. "Then we turn right around and say we're going to divert some of these funds into a pay raise. If we were really committed to a pay raise, we would be doing the first part of funding to impact student achievement and separate funding for the pay raise. We wouldn't be continuing to dip out of the same pool."
Rep. Scott Hochberg of Houston, one of the Democrats' experts on school finance, said the pay raises would be far below $3,000 for most teachers in the state. He also said the provision would hurt fast-growing districts in particular because they would have to divert much of the money intended to pay for enrollment growth to the pay raises.
But House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said the raises make sense because districts spend roughly 80 percent of their budgets on payrolls.
"Really that money is going to go for salaries anyway," Craddick said. "I think it was a great compromise they put together because it assures that it's there."
Critics assailed the GOP bill for weeks because it did not give teachers an across-the-board raise. Republicans hoped to quiet those attacks by adding the salary provision late Tuesday.
Some education groups, however, remained unconvinced that teachers would see meaningful pay increases because lawmakers have not spelled out how to pay for them. Rob D'Amico of the Texas Federation of Teachers pointed out that previous efforts to trim the state budget have left teachers with reduced health benefits.
Teachers "are understandably skeptical about a promised 'pay raise' to be funded from such 'savings,' " D'Amico said. "Taking money out of one pocket and, at best, putting it back in another is not a pay raise."
Thursday's tax debate is expected to be hot as well. But Krusee said he believes that Craddick will round up the votes he needs to pass it.
"Tom will get us there," Krusee said. "He always does when he wants it."