Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Proposal reduces money planned for education

Bill would cut up to $500 million for new programs, teacher pay

08:53 PM CDT on Wednesday, July 13, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Lawmakers apparently will have up to half a billion dollars less than previously announced to fund new education programs and teacher salaries in the school finance bill being hammered out by House and Senate negotiators.

Several legislators confirmed Wednesday that the proposed amount of new money for schools over the next two years – not counting additional funds for enrollment growth – will be about $2.4 billion. That figure, representing an increase of about 3.5 percent, is $400 million to $500 million less than originally proposed for schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the reduced figure probably means that the Legislature will have to put off some education improvements for one year and possibly scale back other proposals in the school finance bill. One proposed change is a new merit pay program for teachers.

"We may have to wait until the 2006-07 school year to start a lot of these programs," Ms. Shapiro said. "When this much money has been cut out of what you were intending to use, it doesn't leave us much choice."

The senator also noted that lawmakers are under a time crunch as many school districts will be starting their school year in a month. This could be the last year that classes begin in August as both the House and Senate approved a new, mandatory starting date – the Tuesday after Labor Day – effective in fall 2006.

The drop in funding stems from a disagreement between House and Senate leaders over potential sources of new revenue for schools. While the Senate wanted to temporarily use money from the state's multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement to free up revenue for education, House leaders objected.

"All you're doing is smoke and mirrors. ... The House is not for using one-time funding mechanisms," said House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

He also said the overall funding increase is really more than Senate leaders estimate since there is additional money for schools in the education appropriations bill passed by the House. That money is in addition to adjustments for enrollment growth, he added.

It was unclear Wednesday how much individual school districts would be guaranteed over the next two years with the revised funding level for the school finance legislation. Previously, lawmakers had said no district would receive less than a 3 percent increase – or an average of 1.5 percent each year.

By contrast, testimony in the state's school finance lawsuit last year indicated that school districts needed $4 billion to $5 billion a year in new money to meet an array of state and federal requirements.

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