Monday, July 04, 2005

Senate Passes Schools Plan in Record Time

Senate passes schools plan in record time
Proposal includes teacher raises, property tax cuts.
Friday, July 01, 2005

In record time, as it quickly waived rule after rule Thursday, the Texas Senate approved an education reform package that differs greatly from the plan approved Tuesday by the House.

In just over three hours, the 418-page House Bill 2 was received, referred, amended, debated and approved 27-4.

The measure, a near copy of the plan passed by the Senate during the regular legislative session, would lower property taxes, raise teacher salaries and earmark more money for bilingual education.

It does not address the politically difficult questions of how to pay for education reform or which taxes to raise to offset the property tax cuts. Those questions are addressed in another bill that still is working its way through the House.

After the vote, Senate leaders made it clear that the fast vote for the plan was designed to send a strong message of solidarity.

"I think we will be able to come to a timely agreement with the House," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst predicted. "I think we're seeing more flexibility" in the House position.

As early as Wednesday, a committee of senators and House members is expected to begin work to merge the two chambers' bills into one: a final version that must then be approved by both chambers before it can go to Gov. Rick Perry.

House leaders were not immediately available for comment Thursday, but Perry applauded the Senate for "demonstrating a strong commitment to education reform by passing legislation that will improve teacher pay, put more money in the classroom and bring greater accountability and reform to Texas schools."

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, stopped short of predicting that House and Senate leaders can come to an agreement on a compromise version of HB 2 next week.

"I wouldn't say we can knock it out in 30 minutes, but I think we're close" Shapiro said.

Significant gaps exist between the two plans, mostly in funding methods and formulas that would give some school districts more money and some less.

Shapiro said the Senate plan provides an additional $2.9 billion in funding for schools during the next two years, along with the teacher pay raises.

During debate, senators lamented that they were not able to provide bigger pay raises for teachers and that additional money could not be pumped into facilities and programs that will benefit students.

"But this bill makes a strong statement about equity, and that is extremely important for Texas," said Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville. "This bill is better than the House version. If we can't stick to our guns, then no bill is better than a bad bill."

Earlier in the day, Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, an organization that tracks school finance equity issues on behalf of districts with low- and mid-range property values relative to enrollment, echoed that sentiment.

Testifying before the Senate Education Committee, Pierce strongly endorsed the Senate version.

"To do otherwise turns your back on 90 percent of the schoolchildren of Texas," Pierce said, noting that when the House version passed Tuesday, "I felt like I was in a mine shaft and the canary just died."

After a brief hearing, the committee approved the Senate version 7-0. Within an hour, the full Senate followed suit.

Despite the broad Senate support, Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, said the message he got from school superintendents in his district "was a big no. . . . They'd rather have no bill."

Sens. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin; Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso; Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Gallegos voted against the bill.

Barrientos said he voted against the measure because it comes up short on funding for teacher pay raises and school improvements, among other areas.

"The bottom line is, it was not enough. I even thought there was a spin put on it ," Barrientos said. "But it's much, much better than the House version."; 445-1712

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