The chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House and some of his colleagues have done what virtually nobody, not even they, expected in January when lawmakers began gathering for another session in Austin.
They put together a credible plan for sharp changes in the way Texas funds its public schools, tossing out a lot of old furniture that — to the surprise of many — maybe we can live without.
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-San Angelo, announced March 25 that he and a handful of other legislators, after discussing for months the problems of school finance and computer-testing various potential solutions, had decided to move ahead with an attempt to fix it.
On Tuesday they rolled out several details of their plan and, although there is still much to do and plenty of fine print to be filled in, the results so far are quite hopeful.
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Aycock’s committee is expected to hear public comments on the proposal, House Bill 1759, next week.
Already, there are people who don’t want the proposal to become public policy, at least not yet.
Kent Grusendorf, a former Education Committee chairman and longtime state representative from Arlington who now directs the Center for Education Freedom at the influential Texas Public Policy Foundation, is one of the skeptics.
He praised those who undertook “the Herculean task of school-finance reform,” but said he “would urge caution until a final decision on school finance is delivered by the Texas Supreme Court.”
That’s the way the Legislature usually works — wait for a court order.
A state district judge in Austin ruled last year that the current school finance plan violates the state constitution in various ways (funding is inadequate and is distributed inequitably, and the system creates an unconstitutional state property tax).
The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on the state’s appeal this fall and to issue a ruling late in the year or early next year.
“Legislators have been surprised many times over the past three decades by the decisions of that body,” Grusendorf said.
That’s true, but there’s no harm in seeing where proposed solutions could take us right now.
Probably of greater consequence to the immediate effort is that even if the House passes Aycock’s bill, the Senate and its leader, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have focused their education efforts in other directions (property tax cuts, tax-supported vouchers for private schools) this session.
Aycock’s plan would devote an extra $3 billion to schools beyond what it takes to address inflation and enrollment growth. That’s affordable in this cash-flush session, he says, without endangering other priorities or House-proposed tax cuts.
With that money, his plan would increase funding for most districts (including 94 percent of Texas students), by an average of $226 per student in 2016.
For, say, an elementary school with 400 students, that’s a meaningful $90,400.
Aycock would eliminate various special provisions (old furniture) that funnel money to specific categories of districts and specific purposes within districts.
He puts districts with 98 percent of the state’s students into a formula-driven finance plan. That’s exceptional — only 87 percent are financed that way now — and it’s a huge step toward removing complexity.
And Aycock has kept a pledge that, at least for the next two years, no district would lose money under his plan.
To do that, he created a new “Transitional Stop-Loss Provision” that takes some of the $3 billion and gives it to districts that otherwise would lose money.
Over the next two fiscal years, that “stop-loss” cost is $157 million. That’s a lot of money, but it’s remarkably little as far as special provisions usually go.
After two years, as the plan currently is written, that provision goes away. Count on pressure to continue it.
Finally, Aycock reduces by about 17 percent the number of districts subject to the “Robin Hood” provisions that take tax revenue from property-wealthy districts and distribute it to property-poor districts.
That will be popular in those districts that would keep more tax money at home, but it will get close scrutiny by advocates of school finance equity.
If nothing else, Aycock’s efforts are a very good start on inevitable new round of school funding change.