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March 4, 2013

Tarrant Democrat files bill to boost state education spending

A second bill filed by state Sen. Wendy Davis would repeal a formula change that would cost schools $1.05 billion over two years.

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AUSTIN -- State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth introduced legislation Monday that would boost per-student funding in Texas public schools, calling it a key first step toward addressing court-ordered reforms in the state's school finance system.

SB1047, one of two education bills that Davis filed Monday, would boost state school funding by $5.5 billion over the next two years by raising the per-pupil amount from $4,765 to $5,500. The bill would mark the first increase in per-student funding since 2009.

State District Judge John Dietz, in a much-anticipated ruling in early February, found that Texas violates the state constitution by failing to adequately fund public schools. Dietz also held that the state has effectively created an unconstitutional state property tax by shifting much of the public school finance burden to local school districts.

"SB1047 represents a down payment to meet the constitutional requirement for school funding under the court decision," Davis said. "This funding would show that the state is a partner with our public schools in preparing our students for achievement in higher education and the workplace."

Davis' second bill, SB1048, would repeal a formula change made during the 2011 Legislature that enabled legislative leaders to cut $5.4 billion in state aid to public school districts. If left in place, Davis said, the adjustment would cost schools an additional $1.05 billion over the next two years and would provide an artificially low starting point for budget writers each legislative session.

Davis, a Tarrant County Democrat who was re-elected to a second term in 2012, has made restoration of the funds one of her top priorities in the current legislative session.

The Senate Finance Committee has called for adding $1.5 billion to education beyond the amount needed to cover enrollment growth. Several education and teachers groups have called the proposal a good first step but say it doesn't go far enough in restoring cuts made in the last session.

Davis acknowledged that her proposed $5,500 per student funding falls short of Dietz's benchmark of $6,500 to obtain "adequate" funding under the state constitution. But she described it as an important first step toward that goal.

More than 600 school districts, including the Fort Worth district, filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the school finance system after the 2011 cuts in education. Dietz's ruling upheld all the key points in the school districts' suits, but plaintiffs are appealing the decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which will likely have the final say in the case.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471.

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