Sunday, July 24, 2005

Take two: State Tackles School Funding

Debate starts this week on sticking points

11:15 PM CDT on Sunday, July 24, 2005

Associated Press

AUSTIN – With a new special session under way, Texas lawmakers plan to plunge into the school funding debate this week to move legislation along and perhaps get out of town soon.

That's their intent, anyway.

As past sessions have proved, reaching an agreement in the Legislature on the complex and sweeping question of how to pay for Texas' public schools isn't easy. The $33 billion system educates 4.3 million children.

Both the House and Senate are meeting today, when the Senate may take up the education spending portion of a school finance package. The two chambers in large part are working from the education and tax proposals they crafted in the previous 30-day special session, which ended in failure Wednesday night.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry ordered the next session to begin Thursday.

School finance is one of the most important items the Legislature tackles, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican who presides over the Senate. He said "whether it takes four weeks or six weeks, the objective is to get it right, and that's what we're dedicated to doing."

Lawmakers came close to approving a $2.4 billion education spending plan last week. But because they waited until the final hours of the special session to wrap up the matter, a Senate Democrat had time to kill the measure with a filibuster.

The measure would have provided more money for bilingual education and transportation and given districts enough money to pay teachers about $2,000 more in 2006 and an additional $500 in 2007. The pay raise calculation included the full restoration of a $1,000 health-care stipend that was cut in half two years ago.

Some of the raise included incentive pay, which teachers' groups criticized because they say it's not clear how many teachers would even be eligible.

"As we begin another special session on public education, we hope state leaders take the time to listen to educators," said Melodye Pinson, president of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Texas is under court pressure to change its funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes. State District Judge John Dietz ruled the system inadequate and unconstitutional last year and ordered the state to change it.

Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick said a House-Senate panel that was trying to reach a tax bill compromise had whittled the massive plan down to just a few disagreements.

Disputes remained over how much to raise the state sales tax from the current 6.25 percent and how much to cut property taxes.

Both the House and Senate wanted to raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack from 41 cents.

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