STATE NEWS

House approves $1.8 billion package of school finance bills

The Texas House voted to approve a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools, increase funding for certain student groups and help out struggling small, rural schools.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from House Speaker Joe Straus.

The Texas House on Friday passed a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools and help out struggling small, rural school districts.

House members voted 130-12 to approve the lower chamber's main piece of school finance legislation, House Bill 21, just as they did during the regular session. The House also voted 131-11 to pass House Bill 30, which would fund the school finance bill by putting $1.8 billion into public schools. Once the House gives the measures final approval, they will head to the Senate.

The funds cited in the legislation would come from deferring a payment to public schools from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, and would allow an increase in the base funding per student from $5,140 to $5,350 statewide. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called this payment deferral mechanism a "Ponzi scheme." 

House Speaker Joe Straus lauded the House's vote.

"The Texas House voted Friday to support our schools, relieve the burden on local property taxes and begin fixing our broken education finance system," he said in a statement. "With House Bill 21, we have a great opportunity to help schools and address the biggest cause of higher property-tax bills."

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the school finance system was in need of serious reform, but ultimately constitutional. Gov. Greg Abbott added school finance reform to the agenda a few days into the special session in July.

The House Public Education Committee's chairman, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of HB 21, has pushed his bill as a preliminary step to fixing a beleaguered system for allocating money to public schools.

"You cannot have property tax reform unless you have school finance reform. That is just a fact," he said Friday. "We have the time to get this done. We just have to have the will to get this done."

HB 21 would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are dyslexic and bilingual. It would also gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

When Huberty brought HB 21 back in the special session, he added a controversial provision: funding to help charter schools build new facilities. Leaders of education associations opposed that decision, arguing legislators should look to fund traditional public schools before charter schools. Huberty removed that provision before bringing it to the House for Friday's vote.

Huberty’s bill would also create a transitional $200 million grant program over the next two years to help school districts that lose money under his bill. Many of those districts rely on a state aid program designed to offset a decade-old tax cut. Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR, is set to expire in September; about 250 small, rural school districts depend on it to keep their doors open.

The House voted 67-61 Friday against approving House Bill 22, a separate measure that would have continued ASATR for two years before letting it expire in September 2019. Some school districts have warned they might have to close without the program, which totaled about $400 million this year.

Meanwhile, the Senate has tucked a few provisions to increase funding for public schools into a larger "private school choice" bill, funded by deferring payments to health care companies that provide Medicaid. The House has repeatedly voted against subsidizing private school tuition with state funding.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/04/house-approves-school-finance-bills/.

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