Action on Texas education bills is heating up

Posted Saturday, Apr. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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With just six weeks left in this year's regular session of the Texas Legislature, action on important state issues is picking up. That includes movement on important bills for the state's public schools.

The House and Senate have passed initial versions of the 2014-15 budget. The House would increase public school funding by $2.9 billion above what would be necessary to pay for annual enrollment growth. The House also inserted $500 million for schools in a bill to pay this year's expenses.

That's far more generous than the Senate's increase of $1.4 billion more than the enrollment growth funding level.

Those figures are crucial for local schools, considering that lawmakers trimmed a widely reported $5.4 billion from school funding two years ago when they faced an overall funding shortfall of $27 billion.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has a novel way of addressing the school funding cuts adopted in 2011. He says they mostly never happened.

When the money available for schools in the current budget is considered on "an all-funds basis," Williams said Thursday, the drop was only $800 million.

Of course, there are many ways to spin the numbers in a $173.5 billion budget. Williams adds back federal funds for schools.

But federal education funding can be used only for limited purposes and is designed to supplement state dollars, not substitute for them.

The Legislative Budget Board says the largest portion of the drop in school funding came because legislators simply rewrote state laws to say local districts weren't entitled to $4 billion they would have received under previous formulas. Williams should abandon his "it never happened" argument.

The Senate on Thursday passed SB2, a major redo of state charter school regulation from Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill would gradually lift the current limit of 215 charters in Texas. Charter holders can open more than one school, and about 500 charter campuses educate about 154,000 of the more than 5 million Texas public school students.

Charter advocates say there are long lists of students waiting for admission. They also say competition from charter schools can force regular public schools to improve.

Increasing the number of charters can be a very good thing, so long as lawmakers remember why the limit was established.

The Legislature first authorized charter schools in 1995. Early years included nightmare stories of poorly run schools closing in the dark of night, students left stranded and charter holders skipping out with state money in their pockets. The Texas Education Agency lacked resources for proper oversight.

The number of charters has been at or near the 215 limit since 2008. The charter industry since then has been quite successful, both educationally and to a certain extent financially. Still, the need for state oversight remains.

Finally, this year's version of school voucher legislation fortunately is in trouble. Patrick's SB23 would establish scholarships for students to leave poorly performing public schools for private or religious schools.

The scholarships would be financed by businesses that would in turn be able to deduct their contributions from the amount they otherwise would owe in state taxes.

A family of four earning as much as $85,000 a year would qualify. Individual scholarships would be around $7,000.

In the House, members voted 103-43 earlier this month for a budget amendment to block Patrick's plan.

The specific wording of the amendment banned use of state money, but debate clarified the intent to include forbidding the use of tax breaks like those in Patrick's bill.

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