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School finance reform bills on tap

Whether you look at the House budget or the slightly less drastic Senate version, public schools will not get the funding they are due under the current defined formulas. That means that how the funds are distributed needs to be redone as well. The first bills to tackle this highly sensitive issue have been laid out, with more to come.

On the heels of a newly approved House budget that leaves public schools $7.8 billion short of what they’re entitled to under current funding formulas, the House Public Education Committee [Tuesday] considered a round of school finance bills.

Two of the bills came from the lower chamber’s veteran school finance wonk, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. One came from freshman state Rep. James White, R-Woodville, who made his first appearance before the committee.

During seven hours of testimony — and in sometimes tense exchanges that revealed the frayed nerves of committee members and witnesses alike — representatives from districts across the state spoke repeatedly about the dire consequences of the House’s budget cuts. At one point, as Alamo Heights Superintendent Kevin Brown urged the Legislature to provide its fair share of funding, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, emphasized the strain lawmakers have felt attempting to fund essential programs and meet voters’ demands for no new taxes.

“We’ve seen HB1; we don’t have the money … We’re trying to create a system that is reasonable and equitable under some parameters,” he said. “Obviously, as you can tell, the past couple of weeks have been very frustrating for us, and we’re getting a little short on temper.”

Cry me a river, Dan. To say “we don’t have the money” is a copout that absolves the House’s Republican majority of its responsibility for its penurious budget. There’s still $6 billion left in the Rainy Day Fund. There’s still the structural deficit caused by the 2006 property tax cut, which the Senate is willing to address but the House isn’t. You guys know damn well that HB1 is a steaming pile of failure. You deserve all the strain you’re feeling.

It’s too early to say what will happen here. The budget isn’t finalized. House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler has a bill of his own in the works, as I believe does Sen. Florence Shapiro. At least one group, the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented, has come out strongly against the latter of Hochberg’s bills on the grounds that it “would eliminate weighted funding for the majority of special programs, including gifted education”. I’m sure other groups will weigh in as well. This wouldn’t be a problem if education were adequately funded, but the House has already spoken on that subject. The ultimate endgame of all this is still likely to be litigation, as everyone acknowledges the basic unfairness of how public education funding is currently done. The main question that a school finance reform bill is likely to answer is what form that litigation will take.

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