Texas House mulls school finance overhaul, but tax fight may loom

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Republican-led Texas House is debating a bipartisan school finance bill that would pour $9 billion into the state’s public education system — lawmakers’ latest attempt to revamp a funding structure the state Supreme Court has deemed barely constitutional.

Houston Republican Rep. Dan Huberty’s proposal would pump $6.3 billion into the state’s public education system and send another $2.7 billion to schools to tamp down ever-growing property taxes. Texas has no state income tax, meaning schools rely heavily on local property tax revenue. But lawmakers have promised to increase classroom funding while cutting property taxes.

“We are finally reforming public education in the state of Texas and not by court order, so that’s a pretty important thing,” Huberty said when introducing the bill. “A lot of provisions in this bill reflect your ideas, your priorities, and frankly compromises that we worked out together.”

Texas educates 5.3 million-plus public school students, more than any state except California, but has endured nearly 50 years of legal battles, with the Legislature frequently cutting classroom budgets and school districts responding with a series of lawsuits that worked their way through state courts.

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No school finance fix is required this session since Texas’ Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the system was deeply flawed but also minimally constitutional, despite budget cuts approved by the Legislature in 2011 that removed $5.4 billion in classroom funding and educational grant programs.

School finance is so complicated that, in the past, the Legislature was loath to tackle it unless ordered to do so by the courts. Yet lawmakers are vowing to do it this time regardless.

The measure would increase annual, per student funding by nearly $900 to $6,030 while boosting funds for children who need extra instruction to learn English. It would fund full-day pre-kindergarten for low-income students and provide further funding to better educate dyslexic students.

A portion of the bill that would have given school districts discretion over how to allocate their funding was changed to mandate across-the-board raises for teachers and school employees. That could quash a previous sticking point with the state Senate, where lawmakers have promised educators a $5,000 pay hike that ranks among the biggest in the U.S. since a wave of teacher protests began in other states last year.

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The amendment offered by Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic leader in the Texas House, would mandate that school districts earmark at least 25% of their added funding to provide wage increases to all full-time employees.

Turner said his amendment would guarantee that at least $2.4 billion included in the bill will go toward a pay raise for every teacher and support staff member.

“It starts with a recognition that every person who has a positive effect on a child’s life, for our schools that means our teachers, it means our nurses, our counselors, educational aids, custodial workers, bus drivers, every full time employee should get and deserves a raise,” Turner said.

Though the measure is expected to pass the House, it could face hurdles in the Senate, as the two chambers will likely spar over how to properly take action on heavily sought property tax cuts.

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The House’s measure would look to lower school property tax rates by 4 cents statewide and adjust the current “Robin Hood” system, reducing recapture payments by more than 38% over the next two years. That system is meant to force school districts in wealthy areas to share some local property tax revenue with those in poorer parts of the state.

Disagreements over both issues during the 2017 legislative session left lawmakers unable to pass a measure that would have pumped $1.6 billion into state classrooms — despite bipartisan support.