Texas Senate leaders pan House’s school-finance bill as ‘Band-Aid’

March 2017 File Photo/Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — Senate Republicans on Tuesday belittled the House’s school funding bill as a "Band-Aid" that would further bloat the finances of Texas’ public schools.

Speaking for the Senate GOP caucus, Friendswood Sen. Larry Taylor said a $1.8 billion bill passed by the House Monday wouldn’t make schools more efficient.

"Adding one-time money for what are obvious continuing expenses to this system is a political fix," Taylor, who heads the Senate Education Committee, said at a news conference. "It may feel good and be well-intentioned but it is not a long-term solution."

Before the current special session ends next week, the House should pass a bill creating a blue-ribbon panel to review current school funding formulas "from the ground up," he said.

Rep. Dan Huberty, Taylor’s House counterpart, though, responded that the Senate is ignoring an urgent need "to do something on reform this session too."

The bare minimum

Huberty, a Friendswood Republican who is the House’s chief schools policy writer, said he would advance a bill creating a study commission if the Senate passes some funding changes that go beyond a bare minimum of keeping some school districts open this fall.

He was referring to the looming cutoff of "hold harmless" money known as Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR.

Before the special session began July 18, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed that lawmakers provide $150 million to cushion districts most affected, such as Prosper in Collin County. In 2006, when lawmakers cut school property taxes by one-third, they created ASATR program to assure districts they wouldn’t lose any operating money. In 2011, the Legislature said the program would end this year.

Taylor conceded ASATR’s an emergency item that lawmakers should quickly pass, as the Senate already did late last month.

But he said the rest of the House’s proposed changes to school funding formulas — which range from a bump in basic aid per pupil to eliminating antiquated provisions — should be delayed. He noted that under his Senate-passed bill, the proposed study commission would render its recommendations in December 2018, a month before the next regular session.

Gov. Greg Abbott also supports the idea, Taylor noted.

‘Paid lobbyists’ decried

"The type of reformation the governor and the Senate is looking for will take more than a couple of meetings and will involve more than legislators and paid lobbyists in Austin," Taylor said.

He aimed several barbs at education and teacher groups that support the House’s approach.

The Texas Constitution requires an efficient system of public schools, but discussions generally focus on whether lawmakers have provided adequate funds in a way that diminishes inequities between rich and poor districts, Taylor said.

"With today’s — and future — budget challenges, we must seek out improved efficiencies and higher productivity out of every dollar we spend," he said.

Monty Exter, government relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said GOP senators at their press conference didn’t mention their desire for a voucher-type program that would use state money to subsidize private-school tuition.

Taylor’s school finance included "code" for vouchers, even though the House repeatedly has rejected "school choice" proposals, Exter said.

"They’re studying how to tear down the current school finance system in order to create a new system that costs less money and is ‘more efficient,’" he said. "That is code for use of vouchers. No thanks."

School groups and some House leaders fear the proposed study commission would be dominated by Patrick and Abbott appointees and simply rubber-stamp their support for vouchers.

Huberty, who heads House Public Education, said that although he’s skeptical a new study panel will come up with original ideas, he’s willing to advance a bill creating one. But he added one condition.

Huberty’s condition

"I’m OK with having a commission provided that we’re going to do something on reform this session too. You know, just plugging a hole for ASATR is not reform," Huberty said.

Taylor said his Senate panel soon would have a hearing on Huberty’s bill on school finance. However, he suggested the Senate would not accept most of the bill’s provisions.

Disabled students

On the related topic of voucher-type assistance for disabled students, Taylor rejected Friday’s House proposal that would empower parents while keeping the disabled students enrolled in public schools.

"Obviously it’s not what we had passed and families are asking us for," he said.

Taylor was referring to New Boston GOP Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s plan for $30 million in grants to allow parents to purchase privately provided after-school therapies and services.

Huberty’s panel gutted Taylor’s school finance bill, which included $75 million for "tax credit scholarships" and other assistance for disabled students. It substituted VanDeaver’s plan instead.

The special session is scheduled to end Aug. 16.

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