Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Schools bill passes House committee

March 2, 2005, 12:58AM
Proposed changes include teacher rewards and start dates
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - A bill loaded with major changes for Texas schools, from when they start classes in the fall to how they test students and reward teachers, was passed by a House committee Tuesday.

House Bill 2 also lowers local school property taxes for maintenance and operations by one-third.

The Committee on Public Education voted 6-3 in favor of the bill. The committee's three Democrats, Houston Reps. Harold Dutton and Scott Hochberg along with Brownsville Rep. Rene Oliveira, cast the "no" votes.

Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, said he expects the bill to be debated by the full House on Monday.

"House Bill 2 provides more money — not as much as some people would like — but it provides more money to our schools," said Grusendorf.

The bill would add new spending of $3 billion to the $60 billion spent during the biennium on public schools in Texas. Grusendorf said the money will be appropriated during the regular state budget process.

Every school district would be guaranteed a 3 percent increase for the 2005-06 school year, an amount many critics said would barely cover inflation.

Hochberg said the bill doesn't target spending to the lowest-achieving students, those living in poverty, with limited English skills and at risk of dropping out.

"We know where our biggest areas of need are, and this bill spends a lot of money without addressing those needs," he said.

Hochberg also criticized the House leadership for writing a major tax bill but using all of the money to lower property taxes.

"Absolutely none of that is going to go to the schools in Houston. It's a tremendously missed opportunity," he said.

The bill would set a uniform school-start date after Labor Day. It would replace the high-school Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with a series of end-of-course exams. The state would pay for students to take college-readiness tests such as the SAT.

By spring 2006, all student testing would be done on computers.

The bill would restore a $1,000 health care stipend for teachers that was cut in half during the last legislative session. Districts would be required to set aside 1 percent of their budget for locally designed teacher pay incentives, and a separate provision would provide funding to reward teachers in low-performing schools whose students show test gains.

The tax bill, HB 3, may be unveiled today. Speaker Tom Craddick said it includes a hike in the state sales tax, a new business tax based on a company's payroll and an increase in the cigarette tax. The bill will need to raise about $11 billion during the biennium to replace property taxes cut by HB 2.

Kathy Walt, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor "still has concerns" about a payroll tax. His opposition to a House committee-proposed payroll tax contributed to the failure last year of a special session on school finance.

But Walt also noted that it is still early in the session and the governor will continue to work with the House and Senate on a revenue bill.

Bill Allaway, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, a business group, said he believed House leaders were still trying to figure out how to deal with large employers' concerns about a payroll tax.

Before approving the education bill, the committee adopted an amendment to phase-in a provision allowing property-wealthy districts to keep local tax money they are required to share with other districts. Grusendorf said the amendment was designed to address criticism that his rollback of the "Robin Hood" funding system provided a financial windfall to Highland Park and a few other wealthy districts.

More than 330 school districts are suing the state for better funding. A trial judge ruled last year that the current finance system fails to meet a constitutional requirement to provide a "general diffusion of knowledge."

Education committee member Bill Keffer, R-Dallas, withdrew a proposed amendment that would have had the Legislature define a "general diffusion of knowledge" as schools teaching the state curriculum. He said such a definition could have helped the state fight a judicial ruling that gave the Legislature until Oct. 1 to pump more money into education.

Keffer said he withdrew the amendment to avoid a floor fight about the language.

The committee vote came several hours after school groups expressed their united opposition to HB 2.

"This bill fails students, teachers, parents and our communities because it does not provide a long-term solution to the funding crisis facing Texas public schools," said Dawson Orr, superintendent of Wichita Falls ISD.

"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," Dawson said.
House Bill 2 proposes a number of school district changes, including:
• Funding: Guarantees every district at least 3 percent more in per-student funding for total new spending of $3 billion for the 2006-07 biennium.
• Incentives: Requires districts to spend 1 percent of their budgets on locally designed teacher incentives such as merit raises or pay for mentoring other teachers. Teachers of at-risk students who show achievement gains could qualify for a separate bonus program.
• First day: Classes could not start until after Labor Day.

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