Texas House bill targets school finance, tax relief. But teachers groups are not happy

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Roanoke Elementary is offering tuition-paying preschool for a limited amount of students. The district is among North Texas schools that have started offering tuition-based preschool as an option for families.

Texas House leaders on Tuesday unveiled a long-anticipated school finance plan to pump billions of additional dollars into public schools but the absence of a guaranteed across-the-board pay raise for teachers and other school employees drew swift criticism from teachers groups.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen hailed the legislation as a “monumental” step to overhaul the constitutionally flawed school finance system, addressing what has been widely described as the top priority in the 86th Legislature. Nearly two-thirds of the 150-member House have embraced the plan.

House Bill 3 calls for $9 billion above enrollment growth for the upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal biennium, increases per-student allotments and provides full-day pre-K for low-income students.

It also includes a commitment for “substantial” but unspecified increases in the minimum teachers salary schedule but teachers groups expressed a clear preference for a proposed $5,000 teachers pay raise in a Senate-passed bill championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer.

“What we want is a guaranteed state-paid across-the-board pay raise for all teachers,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for the 65,000-member Texas State Teachers Association.

Bonnen and other House leaders defended their proposal as a broad-based attempt to correct a multitude of flaws in the state school finance system, noting that the salary issue is only one element in that effort.

The pay bill that unanimously passed the Senate on Monday dealt only with the across-board-salary proposal but senators are close to taking up more comprehensive legislation to deal with school finance. The ultimate goal is to resolve differences between the two chambers and produce a potentially historic school finance overhaul before the Legislature adjourns on May 27.

Patrick, in a statement, acknowledged that the two chambers are pursuing “different approaches” on the issue but he added: “The good news is that both the House and the Senate remain focused on property tax reform, increasing pay and school finance reform, and we look forward to working with the House on these issues this session.”

In unveiling HB3 at a press conference attended by scores of House members, Bonnen described the bill as the “first major rewrite” of the school finance system without the threat of a court order,” saying that lawmakers “can no longer kick the can down the road” on the issue.

The Angleton Republican targeted school finance reform as the state’s biggest challenge even before becoming speaker at the outset of the Legislature in mid-January.

“We must get it done and it’s going to happen,” Bonnen said.

Bonnen bristled when asked about the omission of across-the-board raises, saying that a “$5,000-across-the-board teacher pay raise” in a bill that doesn’t include elements such as property tax reduction, childhood education and teacher incentives doesn’t constitute a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he said. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.“

House Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the bill’s chief architect, said the bill commits the Legislature to providing raises in the minimum salary schedule for teachers and other school employees but he noted that the responsibility for carrying out those raises would be left to individual districts.

“The teachers and those employees that work there are not employees of the State of Texas and not employees of Dan Huberty and the Legislature,” he said. “They’re employees of an independent school district … and its important for them (school boards) to be able to make those decisions.”

But Robison, of the Texas State Teachers Association, said a cursory analysis by his organization determined that roughly only about a fourth of the teachers would get raises under the House plan, and most of those would be toward the lower end of the pay scale.

“We believe all employees need a pay raise and we’re going to continue to push for an across-the-board pay raise for teachers,” he said “That’s where our problem arises with HB3.”

Monty Exter, senior lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, also spoke in favor of across-the-board raises, saying there are “many parts of the state where teachers are underpaid. “Traditionally, the only time teachers salaries really go up in a significant way (is) if there is an across-the-board pay raise,” he said.

Lonnie Hollingsworth, general counsel for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said his organization will be working with House and Senate leaders to press for a “blend” of the differing approaches to “guarantee” significant salary increases along with addressing other elements of the school finance system.

“The House bill is primarily a school finance plan,” he said. “We would like to see an across-the-board pay raise in the House plan. It doesn’t have one at this point.”

The bill makes major changes across the school finance system, including raising per-student funding and reducing school district tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of taxable value. It also calls for a $3 billion reduction in “recapture” payments, the amount wealthy districts pay to assist low-income districts under the state’s so-called “Robin Hood” arrangement, which is designed to provide equitable school funding across the state.

Other elements of the plan target money to schools with higher concentrations of underserved students, provide an additional $140 million for recruiting and re-training teachers, and create grants for training teachers to combine e-learning and traditional classroom instruction. It also boosts funding for building and equipping new facilities.

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