Shared from the 3/6/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Texas House raises stakes on school funding

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Tom Reel / Staff photographer

“If we don’t do this, we’re failing our kids,” said the $9 billion school funding bill’s architect, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

AUSTIN — Jammed between the Texas seal and the podium, leaning over the railing of a side staircase and nearly flowing out the door, nearly 100 members of the House presented a show of force rarely seen at the Texas Capitol as they revealed a mammoth education overhaul Tuesday that sets the stage for a three-month debate with the Senate over how much to invest in public schools.

The House plan would pump $9 billion new dollars into education and school tax cuts over the next two years. It calls for full-day pre-kindergarten for low-income kids, invests more money in teaching students who don’t speak English at home and bakes in money for school districts to dole out merit raises for teachers and school staff.

“If we don’t do this, we’re failing our kids. We’re failing our kids,” said the bill’s architect, State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee.

The showy unveiling of House Bill 3 — complete with a website called “The Texas Plan” and a #TheTimeIsNow hashtag that matches coffee cups now offered in the legislators’ lounge — marks the beginning of a complicated negotiation between the two chambers on how to achieve the Legislature’s signature goals this year: easing skyrocketing property tax growth, reforming school funding and increasing teacher salaries.

Missing from the House plan is any mention of a $5,000 raise for every full-time teacher and school librarian, a starkly different and more limited education spending plan touted by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and passed unanimously by the Senate less than 24 hours earlier. That bill provides $3.9 billion in additional school funding over two years.

Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who has led the effort to make education funding a top priority, stressed the superiority of the House bill.

“What we laid out today is a school finance plan. I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise, clearly nothing else, no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of absolutely incentivizing a teacher to go into a tougher school to teach,” a school finance plan, he said. “What we have is a plan and I’m proud of our plan. And I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas and they are going to figure out the Texas House has a winning plan for teachers and students in Texas.” Members broke into cheers and applause.

House Bill 3 spends $6.3 billion in the classroom. That includes increasing per-student education spending by $890 a year to $6,030 and boosting how much money the state pays school districts for low-income students and those who are learning how to speak English in dual language programs. The plan also establishes a full-day pre-K program for children from low-income families and incentivizes school districts to extend the school year by as many as 30 days to ensure students are reading on grade level by third grade. The proposal also increases the minimum pay schedule for educators.

Sen. Larry Taylor, who chairs the Senate Education committee, declined to comment on the House bill because he had yet to read it. Asked how far apart the House and Senate might be, he said, “There are going to be some significant differences. Obviously, it’s all got to match at the end of the day.”

The last time the House tried to push the Senate to invest substantially more in education was in 2017, with a similar, albeit smaller, school funding bill that would have increased spending by $1.8 billion. But it dissolved amid disagreements between the Senate and the House. Asked about how sure he is that a school finance measure will pass this time, Taylor said he is confident.

“Everyone wants to get it done,” he said.

Bonnen, who was elected speaker this year, called the House bill “thoughtful,” “thorough” and a “meaningful investment” in the lives of students and teachers. The House will “not kick the can down the road” on this issue, he said.

The House plan also calls for $2.7 billion in property tax relief. The proposal offers to lower school property tax rates by 4 cents. The measure reduces recapture payments, also known as the “Robin Hood” program that is estimated to siphon $7 billion from property-wealthy school districts, like Houston Independent School District, to give to school districts with less property tax revenue. The move will reduce recapture payments by more than 38 percent this biennium to $4 billion, according to Huberty.

The plan would reduce some property tax rates. For example, Houston ISD currently charges a $1.04 maintenance and operations tax rate, which would drop to $1.00 under the plan — saving the owner of a $200,000 home $80 a year. The school district is on track to pay $304 million in recapture payments, but that would drop to $34 million, according to Huberty’s office.

Democrat Rep. Diego Bernal, vice chair of the education committee, said he began running for office six years ago for a moment like this, when the state would invest more money in teaching low-income students, in drawing teachers to schools with the greatest need and working to better teach students who speak another language at home.

“This absolutely represents the moment that we get to make decisions we’ve all talked about,” said Bernal, of San Antonio. “When in our lives, in our professional lives, do we have the opportunity to vote for something that will make such a big difference one year to the next in our public schools?”

The proposal won mixed praise from the state’s associations of teachers and school boards, saying the changes represent long-needed improvements to the state’s education system. But teachers itched for guaranteed raises instead of leaving it up to school districts.

“But we need an across-the-board, permanent pay raise for every teacher guaranteed in the law and an increase in funding to also assure pay raises for all school employees,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

Lawmakers have vowed to prioritize school finance reform and tamp down skyrocketing property taxes. The 186-page bill is the result of a year-long effort by a specialty commission to devise ways to improve Texas schools. The proposal pulls from much of the commission’s 2018 report that also found students struggled to read on grade-level in middle school and many students were unprepared for college-level work.

Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report from Austin. andrea.zelinski@chron.com

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