Senate panel okays stingy substitute for house school-funding plan–our take

Speaking in “optimistic opposition” today before the Senate Education Committee, Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro testified against a stingy Senate substitute for the substantial, $1.8-billion school-funding bill passed by the Texas House, HB 21. Malfaro noted that committee chair Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) acknowledged there’s room to negotiate up from the meager $311 million in the Senate substitute. Taylor specifically cited some potential for reinstating House-passed funding increases for bilingual education and for services to students with dyslexia. The Senate substitute could be considered tomorrow by the full Senate in a rare Saturday evening session starting at 5 p.m. (You can expect to receive special weekend editions of the Hotline to report on this and other issues coming to the Senate and House floor Saturday.)

You can still contact your senator in support of a sensible compromise on school funding that helps Texas schoolchildren–send your letter via this link.

On the plus side, the Senate substitute for HB 21 does not include any voucher provision. On the minus side, it would entitle charter holders for the first time ever to receive state facilities funding, even though the state share of facilities funding for school districts has shrunk from 30 percent to less than 10 percent over the past 16 years. Our position is that we need equitable state funding of school districts’ facilities before the state takes on a new obligation to increase funding for charter schools. Charters already enjoy on average a $700-plus per-pupil advantage in maintenance and operations funds that substantially offsets their lack of state facilities aid.

Texas AFT President Malfaro also submitted written testimony in support of the House-passed funding bill, stating the case for a House-Senate compromise in the special session before time runs out on August 16:

I urge you to support a House-Senate school-finance deal embracing the House funding package of more than $1.8 billion for the next two years and the Senate’s proposal for a commission to plan a full redesign of school finance for consideration in the 2019 legislative session. The building blocks for this deal are contained in HB 21, related House bills, and SB 16.

HB 21 as passed by the House provides for a vital increase in state-guaranteed formula funding for school districts, averaging $210 per pupil (to $5,350 from $5,140). This level of increase in the basic allotment will increase the ability of school districts to  make needed investments in educational programs and personnel. HB 21 would take specific measures as well to increase aid for English Language Learners, students with dyslexia, and eighth-graders in career and technology courses. It provides districts with the wherewithal to increase services for students with autism and other disabilities. In addition, HB 21 delivers significant relief for districts subject to recapture, gives small districts a fairer shake, and gives hardship grants to districts facing the loss of expiring hold-harmless funding they have come to depend on.

The legislation eases the pressure on local school property-tax payers, who have had to bear a disproportionate share of the cost of public education. Without HB 21 or equivalent relief for local property-tax payers, the state share of funding for school districts (not including charter schools) is on course to shrink to about 31 percent in fiscal 2018-2019.

The method of finance for this package–an FSP payment delay of a few days, contained in a related House-passed bill–is well-precedented and not all that different from the sort of deferral the Senate already has proposed to use for limited school-finance changes and for TRS-Care cost relief in this special session.

While this House-passed package increases school funding for the next two fiscal years, SB 16 addresses the need for a long-term fix for school finance.  The Senate’s proposed school-finance study incidentally offers an opportunity to address among other issues a long-term solution for the problem of rising health-care costs for active and retired school employees, while other legislation pending in this special session can provide some health-care cost relief for TRS retirees for 2018-2019.

The makings of a deal regarding school funding therefore are on the table:  The Senate should accept the House package as the short-term fix we need for the next two years. The House should accept the Senate’s call for a school-finance commission to develop a long-term redesign of school finance before the 2019 legislative session.

The House already has expressed its willingness to accept this compromise. A deal between the two chambers is still possible before the special legislative session ends on August 16. Please support this sensible House-Senate compromise. The kids in our public schools are worth it!

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