Friday, June 24, 2005

Education Plans Moving to House, Senate floors

The bills are out of committee and will be on the House and Senate floors by Tuesday of next week. No consensus. It's clear though that according to the House plan, poorer Texans will get the least property tax relief according to current iterations. -Angela

06/24/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Gary Scharrer
Express-News Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — The fight over public school funding will move to the House and Senate chambers next week after legislative committees Thursday approved different versions of a bill that lawmakers will try to reconcile in coming weeks.

Education groups still vehemently oppose both proposals, although the Senate Education Committee sweetened the deal with a $3,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers. The House version would give teachers up to a $2,000 pay raise.

Legislators face court pressures to change the way Texas pays for public education.

Most Republican lawmakers favor the reform ideas, although House and Senate GOP leaders disagree on the details. Education groups and most Democrats blast the proposal for falling short of what they believe is needed to educate 4.4 million Texas children adequately.

The bill is scheduled for debate Tuesday in both chambers.

House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, called the House plan "a significant improvement for education. ... All of the changes are designed to put more resources into the classroom and provide greater efficiency."

But Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, vice chairman of the public education committee, said he hopes the House and Senate will deadlock again — as they did in the regular session — "if the (final) bill comes out as bad as this one."

The House plan does not provide funding for school construction, which the courts have already warned lawmakers to do.

Oliveira also complained that the House bill would create a larger gap between rich and poor school districts than currently exists and that it does not adequately help those schools with large populations of low-income and English-deficient students. Those children are considered more costly to educate.

Only Republican House members voted to move the bill out of committee. In the Senate education panel, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, voted against the bill. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, missed the vote.

A separate House bill is designed to raise the state sales tax and other taxes to pay for a school property tax cut that would amount to less than $20 a month for half of Bexar County homeowners.

Zaffirini said the combination of spending plan and tax changes could have a negative impact on public education.

"While homeowners will be happy to have a few more dollars in their pocket, the quality of education their children receive will be hurt as a result of that small rebate," she said.

The proposed tax shift would end up with low-income Texans paying more, and only the richest 1.7 million households — those with annual incomes of more than $100,000 — paying less, according to a study by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board.

Senate Education Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she doubts school reform can pass without tax reform.

"I don't believe my colleagues in the Senate will do that. They have always said they are inextricably linked," Shapiro said.

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