Revision lighter on tax relief, funding; teachers could get bigger raises
11:14 PM CDT on Monday, April 25, 2005
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Senate leaders revised their school finance and education reform plan Monday, offering slightly less property tax relief and new funding for education – but proposing a bigger raise for teachers if a new statewide property tax is created.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, say the revised school finance bill addresses concerns about taxes and adequate funding and teacher salaries. Teachers would receive a $3,000 increase by fall 2006 if the bill passed.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Florence Shapiro, who heads the Senate Education Committee, said the rewritten plan would still accomplish Senate leaders' goals: overhauling the troubled finance system and paying for needed reforms to improve student achievement.
"This is a permanent bill that would have lasting effect," Mr. Dewhurst said. "It provides broad reform and raises standards."
Mr. Dewhurst also emphasized that the legislation is a "work in progress" and could be revised further in the next week or two. The bill is supposed to go before the full Senate next week.
Details of the plan outlined by the Senate diverge widely from a bill passed by the House in March, meaning lawmakers face the prospect of tough negotiations in the final month of the legislative session. A state judge has ordered that the $30 billion-a-year school finance system be retooled this year; the state has appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.
The pay boost for teachers is among the most significant changes in the Senate bill, although the extra money is contingent on passage of a constitutional amendment to create the statewide tax. Approval would require a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and voter approval in a statewide election.
By fall 2006, teachers would receive a total increase of $3,000; the earlier version of the Senate plan included a $1,500 raise for teachers this fall. Teachers could earn more if they qualify for bonuses under a new incentive pay program based mostly on student test scores.
"This puts Texas on the map of the national average for teacher compensation," Ms. Shapiro said.
Teacher groups were skeptical.
"We're still not happy with the salary plan in this bill," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association, citing the contingencies for the raises and teacher opposition to the merit play plan.
In terms of funding, the bill is scaled back slightly to $2.8 billion in new money over the next two years. The earlier version of the measure called for additional funding of $3.2 billion; the House approved $3 billion. Those amounts are far less than what a state judge indicated was necessary to fix the school finance system.
Further, senators trimmed the amount of proposed school property tax relief. While the Senate for several months stood behind a 33 percent cut in the maximum school property tax rate – from $1.50 to $1 per $100 valuation – the new plan envisions a two-step reduction of 20 cents next year and 20 cents the following year – down to a new maximum rate of $1.10.
Mr. Dewhurst said the $1 tax rate will be reached, but it may require a third or fourth year.
In addition, the property tax rate would be split between a statewide rate of 85 cents and a local rate of 25 cents. Previously, the Senate plan proposed only a state property tax for funding of schools.
"Many school superintendents and school board members feared a full-blown state property tax, so we are proposing a mix" of state and local taxes, Ms. Shapiro said. The practical effect is negligible, as the state would guarantee that all districts would still receive the same basic level of funding per student at the combined rate of $1.10.
Districts could also add another 5 cents every two years – or up to 15 cents over six years – for local programs. The extra levy could not be imposed before the 2006-07 school year, however.
HOW BILLS DIFFER
HOUSE: Would cut tax rate a third in 2006-07 and retain local property tax for schools with rate of $1 per $100 valuation
SENATE: Would cut tax rate by 27 percent and shift to combined local and state property tax of $1.10, but would give an initial 20-cent tax reduction this fall.
HOUSE: Would raise pay $2,500 and create a $385 million incentive pay program.
SENATE: Pay raise of $3,000 over two years – contingent on a new state property tax – and create a $100 million merit pay program.
HOUSE: Classes begn in all schools the Tuesday after Labor Day.
SENATE: Leaves current optional starting date in the third week of August.
HOUSE: Elminate Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills for high school students and switch to end-of-course exams in core subject areas.
SENATE: Retain the current TAKS test for high school students in grades nine to 11.