Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Senate OKs school finance plan

Ok, so now this goes to the House. -Angela

But spending proposal remains a long shot.
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Senate kept the special legislative session alive Tuesday by approving a $2.8 billion school finance plan.

Senators also approved a plan late Tuesday that would allow voters to change the Texas Constitution to reduce school property taxes.

The odds remain stacked against the school spending proposal's winning final passage because it has been coolly received by House Speaker Tom Craddick. But Tuesday's votes, if nothing else, will allow senators and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to say on the campaign trail that they did their part by sending plans for school finance reform to the House, which has struggled to approve school and tax measures.

The Senate vote on the school plan also prolonged a session that has teetered on the brink of collapse for two weeks.

The plan would boost teacher pay, toughen penalties for low-performing schools and require that the school year start after Labor Day. It does not include some controversial reforms preferred by House leaders, such as a limit on the percentage of local tax dollars that property wealthy school districts must share with property poor districts.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, described her plan as "an honest and a good attempt at what we consider to be reasonable and meaningful education reform and property tax reduction."

But it also has been widely criticized by school officials who say it provides too little money to keep up with the state's changing population while meeting growing demands from the state and federal governments.

The Senate tax proposal, which would require approval by voters, would put language in the Constitution capping the maximum tax rate for school operations at $1.25 per $100 of assessed value, down from the current $1.50. The tax cut would not take effect for two years, forcing the 2007 Legislature to raise other taxes to replace the reduced property tax revenue.

Also Tuesday, the House tentatively passed a plan to spend $291 million this year to pay for textbooks in foreign languages, health and fine arts. The new books, which have been ordered and are sitting in warehouses unused, would replace books that could be as much as 14 years old.

There is an apparent consensus that the Legislature needs to pay for the textbooks that have been held up, but state leaders have different ideas about how to do that. The Senate included money for the textbooks in the larger school finance plan that it passed Tuesday.

The House measure would allocate $35 million in federal money to expand a pilot program that brings technology such as laptop computers and educational software into the classroom.

"It is 2005, a full two sessions later, six special sessions later and we're talking about things we should have paid for (two) years ago," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.

"That's the best we can do? No wonder the people of Texas are saying the Legislature is a disgrace and not able to solve this problem."

Also Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry approved more than $30 billion in education spending, replacing the Texas Education Agency budget that he vetoed when he called the first special session on school finance in June. His move guarantees that public schools can open this month.

He also added for consideration in the session a measure to limit government's ability to seize property for private development. The session will end next week. The Senate approved the measure, which has yet to be considered by the House.

Additional material from The Associated Press

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