Category Archives: School Finance

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 21, 2017

Here’s a look at this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE lobby team:


Falling US MoneyThe Texas House of Representatives this week passed a comprehensive school finance bill, House Bill (HB) 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who chairs the House Public Education Committee. HB 21 is the House’s opening salvo in what the bill’s author calls a multi-session school finance reform effort. The bill is now on its way to the Senate where it is expected to receive a less than certain reception.

HB 21 picked up 10 floor amendments over the course of more than four hours of debate on Wednesday evening. The bill was approved on second reading by a vote of 134 to 16, and then the House passed HB 21 the following day on third reading by a vote of 132 to 15. Stay tuned later this week for a blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter describing the details of the bill as approved by the House.

The next steps will be for HB 21 to be accepted by the Senate and referred to the Senate Education Committee, where we hope that Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) will schedule it for a public hearing. Taylor’s committee heard his own school finance bill this week, Senate Bill (SB) 2145. A hearing on HB 21 would likely include a discussion of the differences and merits of the two school finance plans.

 


SBOE logoThe State Board of Education (SBOE) has been meeting this week, also. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote for our blog earlier this week, the board’s agenda includes high-profile reviews of some of the state’s curriculum standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).

This morning, the board held a final vote on proposed changes to the TEKS for science. The biology portion in particular has been the focus of debate over the discussion of evolution. Board members began the week seeking compromise language that would satisfy scientists as well as those wishing to allow for some discussion of creationism.

The board voted down an amendment this morning by member SBOE Marisa Perez-Diaz (D-San Antonio) that would have instructed teachers to “compare and contrast prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, including scientific explanations for their complexity.” The board then adopted an amendment by SBOE member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) instructing teachers “to compare and contrast prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, and compare and contrast scientific explanations for cellular complexity.” SBOE member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) assured the board that the compromise language still encourages criticism of the theory of evolution.

On revisions to the TEKS for English and Spanish language arts and reading, the board has opted to delay a final vote until May. For more on this week’s SBOE deliberations, check out the latest update from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here on our blog.

 


The two legislative committees that oversee education policy for the Texas House and Senate have been busy hearing numerous bills and voting a number of them through for floor consideration.

Yesterday, the Senate Education Committee heard bills that included such topics as charter school authorizations and educator certification. As ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reported on our blog, the committee heard both a bill that could restrict the expansion of charter schools in certain areas and a bill that would make it easier for charters to be approved. The committee also considered an educator certification bill that would make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become certified in Texas without necessarily passing an exam.

As ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reported on Twitter, the Senate Education Committee also voted yesterday to give favorable approval to several Senate bills, many of which have been changed from their original versions that were filed: SB 653, SB 754, SB 1122, SB 1267, SB 1398, SB 1882, SB 2142, SB 2143, SB 2188, and SB 2270.

The House Public Education Committee held a full hearing for several bills on Tuesday and then met again yesterday for the purpose of voting on pending bills. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote for our blog, Tuesday’s agenda included hearing HB 306, known as David’s Law, to prevent cyber-bullying and harassment that encourages youths to commit suicide. ATPE testified in support of the bill, as we similarly supported the Senate version, SB 179, during a prior hearing by the Senate State Affairs Committee. Read Mark’s blog post for more on the bills that were heard and voted upon by the committee on Tuesday. During Thursday’s formal meeting of the same committee, members voted to send 11 additional bills to the full House for consideration. For a list of those bills, check out Mark’s follow-up blog post on Teach the Vote.

Next week, the House Public Education Committee is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday for consideration of several bills. The agenda includes bills pertaining to testing, instructional materials, pre-K, and Districts of Innovation. ATPE will be there to testify and will provide updates next week on Teach the Vote and on Twitter.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-462761867Both the House and Senate have announced which of their members will serve on a conference committee for the state’s budget bill. The two chambers recently passed competing versions of Senate Bill (SB) 1, which necessitates a conference committee of 10 members to try to iron out the differences and forge a compromise to keep the government in operation for two more years and avoid the need for a special session.

Announced first this week were the Senate conferees for SB 1: Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), along with Sens. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen). On the House side, the conference committee appointees are House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), plus Reps. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Oscar Longoria (D-Mission), Sarah Davis (R-Houston), and Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock).

 


Football RefereeAlso this week, the Senate approved a measure known as the Tim Tebow bill, which requires the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to allow the participation of home-schooled students. SB 640 by Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) received the Senate’s approval on Wednesday by a vote of 23 to 8. The bill still has to be considered in the House.

ATPE has opposed SB 640 and similar legislation in previous sessions based on long-standing positions in the ATPE Legislative Program adopted each year by our members. Specifically, ATPE members object to letting home-schooled students participate in extracurricular activities without being held to the same standards as their public school counterparts, such as no pass/no play laws.

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Related: The ATPE Legislative Committee will be meeting in Austin this weekend to review the ATPE Legislative Program and make recommendations for any changes to the House of Delegates. Learn more about the ATPE Legislative Program and our member-owned, member-governed philosophy here.

 

 


Recapping school finance day in the Senate Education Committee

Piggy bank with glasses and blackboardThe Senate Education Committee met yesterday to hear a number of bills dealing with funding for public schools. Top of the agenda was Chairman Larry Taylor’s (R-Friendswood) version of a bill to fix school finance, a bill that differs in approach from the House’s school finance measure, which has already made it out of committee and is scheduled to be debated on the House floor this afternoon.

Considerable attention has been paid to what the 85th Texas Legislature will do to fix the Texas school finance system since last year when the Texas Supreme Court determined that the system meets minimal constitutional standards but “is undeniably imperfect.” The court called on the legislature to fix the “byzantine” school finance system for Texas students; SB 2145 is Chairman Taylor’s attempt to do just that.

The bill is one developed and promoted by the Equity Center, a research and advocacy organization that exclusively focuses on school finance issues. It would take a more simplistic approach to funding Texas public schools by eliminating the current layers of hold harmless provisions and funding mechanisms not based on educational costs, instead rolling funding through the basic allotment that is based on educational cost drivers. The Equity Center offers a more in depth explanation of the plan here. ATPE supported SB 2145, as well as SB 2144, which creates a commission to study school finance in depth over the interim.

Another bill that garnered a lot of attention in yesterday’s committee hearing was a bill by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), SB 419, which would extend ASATR funding for an additional six years. ASATR is targeted state school funding set to expire this year. At the same time the legislature required school districts to compress their tax rate in 2006, the state added targeted funding, known as ASATR, as a hold harmless provision to ensure districts and students weren’t hurt by the tax cut. Fewer districts now rely on ASATR funding, but many still depend on it heavily.

The testimony on SB 419 was mixed. Several districts explained why they need ASATR funding to continue operating, often referring to lost resources for hiring teachers. Others argued that the targeted funding reduces overall funding issued through the state funding formulas and that the continued need for ASATR by some districts is a reflection of issues with the overall funding system. ATPE understands both angles, and ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified that while we may need a short term fix to continue ASATR for those who depend upon it, lawmakers also need to focus on an overall fix that reduces the need of ASATR funded districts.

View the full agenda to see the list of bills heard in yesterday’s Senate Education Committee hearing.

School finance bill on its way to full House

The House Public Education Committee convened Tuesday morning with a focus on legislation concerning charters. At the outset, Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) vowed to advance House leadership’s priority school finance bill, HB 21. Members approved the bill during a brief break Tuesday morning by a vote of 10-1.

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Huberty hearkened back to his days as a school board member to explain his longstanding goal of finding a grand fix for the state’s troubled school finance system. The chair noted, “While we’re not there, this is a good first step.”

Casting the lone vote against the committee substitute to HB 21, state Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) noted HB 21 increases recapture payments by Highland Park ISD. According to model runs produced by the Legislative Budget Board (LBB), Highland Park ISD would lose $1.6 million in fiscal year 2018, worth $80 per student weighted average daily attendance (WADA).

HB 21 now heads to Calendars, where it will be scheduled for debate on the House floor. With the exception of state Rep. Harold Dutton casting a vote of “present” on HB 1291, the committee unanimously approved the following bills heard previously:

  • HB 1291, which would add a course on “American principles” to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
  • HB 657, which would allow ARD committees to advance a student in a special education program after a single exam.
  • HB 1469, which would allow charter schools to hire teachers without a baccalaureate degree for non-core CTE courses.
  • HB 2263, which would shrink the role of campus intervention teams.
  • HB 789, which would allow Highland Park ISD to raise acceleration exam cut scores.
  • HB 1731, which excludes students leaving a residential facility from dropout rate calculations.
  • HB 3075, which excludes students in juvenile facilities from charter school dropout rate calculations.

The first new bill heard was HB 1669 by Rep. Tracy King (D-Batesville), which would allow the Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner to charge legal fees to parents who the commissioner deems have filed a “frivolous” lawsuit. It would add language to the law regarding complaints that protects school districts from complaints concerning a student’s participation in an extracurricular activity that doesn’t involve a violation of parental rights.

HB 2611 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) would allow districts to list property with a realtor using a multiple-listing service for 30 days. VanDeaver argued the flexibility would allow districts to reach more potential buyers, and he noted that cities and counties are already allowed to do this.

HB 2051 by Chairman Huberty would raise the new instructional facilities allotment (NIFA) to $1,000 from $250. Huberty introduced a committee substitute that would allow the funds to go toward remodeling of facilities. Fast-growth districts and charters argue the funding is needed to keep up with the growing need for new instructional facilities. The allotment is funded off of a set number, and HB 2051 would not increase the total available in the fund. For that reason, HB 2051 has no fiscal note.

Similar to the committee substitute for HB 2051, HB 1081 by Rep. Diana Arévalo (D-San Antonio) would add renovated or repurposed facilities and leased facilities to the New Instructional Facility Allotment (NIFA) under the FSP. The bill makes no change to the amount of the allotment. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified neutrally on the bill. While ATPE supports the ability to use NIFA dollars for renovation and repurposing of buildings, Exter raised concern with the lease language of HB 1081 and allowing state dollars to pay for renovations to facilities that districts will not actually own.

HB 481 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) would prohibit TEA from collecting over-allocated state funds after seven years if they resulted from statutory changes.

HB 3722 by Rep. King would modify the funding formula for districts to which an academically unacceptable school district is annexed. Under HB 3722, TEA would be able to provide additional funding by allowing such districts to make use of the local fund assignment (LFA) adjustment for the annexed district.

HB 1039 by Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso) would change the funding calculation for open-enrollment charter schools from a calculation based on the state average adjustment and tax effort to the lesser of the state average adjustment and tax effort or that of the school district in which the charter’s largest campus is located. González argued that the bill is needed to reduce funding advantages for certain charter schools and bring funding more in line with local ISDs, with the goal of returning charter schools to the original mission of identifying innovative education practices. According to the fiscal note, HB 1039 would save $161 million in state funds over the next two years, which González suggested could be returned to school districts.

HB 2649 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) would require the governing bodies of charter schools to hold open meetings in the county in which the school is located and subject to the same requirements as regular government bodies. The bill would require charters to broadcast their governing meetings over the internet and provide archived audio/video recordings online. Capriglione argued the bill closes a loophole that allows charters to avoid open meetings laws. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 2298 by Rep. Tomas Uresti (D-San Antonio) would prohibit anyone associated with a charter school from serving on a local school board or the State Board of Education (SBOE). The prohibition would apply to an employee, officer, or member of a governing body of a charter school, as well as anyone who lobbies on a charter school’s behalf or has a business interest in a charter school. Uresti argued the rule is needed to prevent a board member’s financial interest in a charter school from creating a conflict of interest with the member’s responsibility to students. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 1059 by Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston) would allow for the reattachment of property that has been detached from one district and annexed to another for the purposes of meeting the equalized wealth level. Reattachment can occur if the original district’s wealth per student drops $10,000 or more below the equalized wealth level that applies to maintenance and operation tax effort. Houston ISD faces the detachment of property worth $17.4 billion in order to meet the equalized wealth level after the district decided not to make its first recapture payment. A majority of the board is reported to support an upcoming “second-chance” election to authorize the recapture payment in order to avoid detachment.

Rep. VanDeaver pointed out concerns regarding the effects of reattachment on districts to which property had been annexed. If a district were to issue bonds based on property annexed from another district, then later lost that property through reattachment, taxes on property remaining within that district would necessarily increase.

HB 1023 by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) would allow the TEA commissioner to grant more than one charter for an open-enrollment charter school to a charter holder if the additional charter is for an open-enrollment charter school that serves a distinct purpose or student population. This would allow a charter school operator to be granted an additional charter for programs such as a virtual open-enrollment charter school or an open-enrollment charter school for at-risk students. Current law restricts charter holders to a single charter for an open-enrollment charter school. Rep. Simmons noted there is plenty of room under the charter cap, which is scheduled to be set at 305 charters beginning September 1, 2019. Opponents of the bill voiced concerns regarding the ability of charter holders to skirt accountability through the use of multiple charters. According to the fiscal note, HB 1023 would cost the state roughly $20.7 million through 2019.

HB 2340 by Chairman Huberty would require school districts to maintain a minimum balance of undesignated funds that is no less than the district’s operating expenses for 90 days. The chairman explained the combined amount of money in undesignated school district fund balances across the state has grown to more than $20 billion and continues to increase. HB 2340 aims to encourage districts to spend down their fund balances by defining the balance in statute and outlining a list of acceptable uses for undesignated funds, such as paying off debt. Some indicated concern that cash-strapped Chapter 41 districts currently without a fund balance could face a problem building one up. Chairman Huberty acknowledged that some districts could have legitimate cash flow concerns, and pledged to continue the dialogue with stakeholders.

HB 852 by Rep. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) would remove the cap on the number of individuals who can enroll in the adult high school and industry certification charter school pilot program. The current cap limits the program to 150 individuals. According to Rep. VanDeaver, the bill directly affects the Goodwill Excel Center in Austin, which has graduated more than 205 students who would not otherwise have been able to obtain a high school diploma. After emotional testimony submitted by two adult students, a representative from the center testified the school would like to expand the program to additional locations in order to serve more adult students.

HB 171 by Rep. Dutton would require all school districts to lease or sell unused or underused facilities to charter schools. Current statute requires districts to allow charters an opportunity to purchase or lease underutilized facilities, but there is no requirement as outlined in Dutton’s bill. The bill would also require the TEA commissioner to produce a list each year of eligible facilities and post it on the agency website. Dutton said the bill’s committee substitute removes the requirement on districts and allows districts to determine what constitutes “unused” or “underutilized” facilities, which many stakeholders found objectionable. ATPE opposes this bill.

HB 2337 by Rep. Dutton would entitle open-enrollment charter schools to facilities funding equal to the number of students in average daily attendance (ADA) multiplied by the guaranteed level of state and local per-student funds provided to school districts, resulting in an additional $170 per pupil. According to the fiscal note, HB 2337 would cost the state $411 million over the next biennium in Foundation School Program (FSP) funds that would no longer be available to traditional public schools. Dutton argued that charter schools face a structural disadvantage when it comes to facilities funding, and announced that the committee substitute would reduce the program cost to $100 million. Opponents pointed out that traditional public schools also face funding challenges that HB 2337 would make worse. For example, 80 percent of the state’s enrollment growth is occurring in less than 100 school districts. Yet these fast-growth traditional public schools do not receive additional facilities funding from the state. ATPE opposes this bill.

HB 467 by Rep. Murphy would adjust the language regarding the capacity available to charter holders under the bond guarantee program to back bonds with the Permanent School Fund (PSF). It removes language that limits the calculation to capacity available after subtracting the total amount of outstanding guaranteed bonds. Murphy introduced a committee substitute that would move the distribution of funds to a period of five years instead of one year, increase by 50 percent the contributions charters make to the charter reserve fund and expand the TEA commissioner’s discretionary oversight to deny access. The bill would have the effect of increasing the amount available to charters to guarantee bonds using the PSF, which would increase access to better interest rates.

HB 1269 by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) would allow a charter school to be eligible for supplemental funding if its students perform better than the state average college readiness standard as measured by test performance. The supplemental funding would be capped by the maximum amount received by nearby districts. Participating charters would be prohibited from expelling students in most cases and would be required to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the local juvenile justice board to operate a juvenile justice alternative education program on behalf of the charter. Participating charters would also be allowed to contract with a local school board to operate a district campus, which would be immune to action by the commissioner against a failing campus for the first three years. The bill would also expand the scope of reporting for new charter schools to include superintendents, districts, and legislators within a three mile radius of proposed campus locations. Opponents pointed out that HB 1269 would increase facilities funding for charters without addressing charters’ existing advantage in maintenance and operation (M&O) funding provided by the state. According to the fiscal note, HB 1269 would cost the state $450 million through 2019. ATPE opposes this bill.

HB 480 by state Rep. Cindy Burkett (R-Sunnyvale) would allow the TEA commissioner to grant a charter for prekindergarten-only programs. These programs would be exempt from the annual charter cap. The cap limit beginning September 1, 2017, is 270 charters. According to the fiscal note, the cost of providing half-day pre-K to an additional 5,000 students would cost the state roughly $39.7 million over the next two years. TEA staff explained many existing private pre-K providers would likely opt to become charters instead.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified neutrally on the bill. While ATPE supports efforts to expand pre-K, Exter identified a number of concerns. If charters are limited to only serving the students who qualify for the funding they receive, they may be set up to fail. Additionally, if providers receive a subsidy for half-day pre-K and are allowed to “upcharge” for the remainder of the day, the program could begin to resemble a pre-K voucher. Finally, certain accountability factors – such as teacher certification requirements – don’t apply to charter schools, and that has been a point of contention about public-private partnerships to provide pre-K in the past.

HB 1560 by Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) would remove an obsolete reference regarding open-enrollment charter schools from the statute outlining the powers of the State Board of Education (SBOE). This bill would not change the law in any material way.

Concluding Tuesday’s hearing, Chairman Huberty indicated the committee will consider legislation related to special education and health and safety next week.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 10, 2017

Today is the deadline for filing bills this legislative session, making it an exceptionally busy week at the Texas State Capitol. Here are stories you may have missed:


Gallery_03-06-17More than 400 educators visited the Texas State Capitol Monday for ATPE at the Capitol. Resolutions honoring ATPE were read in the Texas House and Senate by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) and Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) respectively as legislators greeted ATPE at the Capitol attendees dressed in red attire who were seated throughout the galleries above the two chambers. House_03-06-17ATPE members spent the day visiting with legislators and their staffs to discuss legislative priorities such as reducing standardized testing, funding educators’ healthcare needs, preventing private school vouchers, and opposing bills that would needlessly take away educators’ rights to deduct association dues from their paychecks.

On Sunday, ATPE at the Capitol attendees prepared for their meetings with lawmakers by learning more about pending bills and major education issues being debated by the 85th Legislature. John Kuhn, Superintendent of Mineral Wells ISD, delivered an opening keynote address highlighting the need for educators to keep their focus on what’s best for students, even while many lawmakers and wealthy business interests are pursuing reforms aimed at dismantling the public education system. Kuhn_03-05-17A key topic of Kuhn’s speech was the ongoing push for vouchers, which despite being called by many different names such as “education savings accounts” and “opportunity scholarships” are a way to convert a public trust into a private enterprise. Countering Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s oft-cited claim that “school choice is the civil rights issue of our time,” Kuhn called vouchers a “civil wrongs movement” and akin to “fool’s gold.”

Panel_03-04-17ATPE at the Capitol attendees also heard a presentation by ATPE lobbyists on our organization’s legislative priorities with tips on communicating with lawmakers both in person and using tools such as ATPE’s Advocacy Central. Another highlight of the event was the closing general session, which featured a question-and-answer session with a panel of legislators moderated by TWC/Spectrum News television host Karina Kling. The panel featured Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) who chairs the Senate Education Committee, Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) who chairs the House Public Education Committee, and Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) who sits on the Article III Subcommittee for the House Committee on Appropriations. Their lively discussion covered topics ranging from the payroll deduction bills to the Teacher Retirement System and the state’s controversial new “A through F” accountability labeling system.

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ATPE state officers met with Speaker Straus Monday


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met last Friday, March 3, 2017. The board asked the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to step back on its interest in developing a new Pre-kindergarten through Grade 3 certificate for teachers. Learn more about the discussion and other SBEC items in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


The House Public Education Committee has begun hearing a number of bills that could change the state’s belabored school finance system. The legislation includes House Bill (HB) 21, a new bill filed Monday by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) who chairs the committee. HB 21 aimes to infuse an extra $1.6 billion into public education over the next two years. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill and a few others during a hearing on Tuesday. In a show of support for the House members’ effort to address the complicated issue of school finance, Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) stopped by the committee hearing. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was also there and provided a complete report on our blog earlier this week.

Also this week, Chairman Huberty filed HB 22, a bill to modify the state’s controversial “A through F” accountability ratings for schools. In addition to delaying implementation of A-F, the bill would compress the number of domains from five to three and prevent schools from receiving a single overall grade. No hearing has been set yet for the bill.

With the passage of today’s 60-day mark for the legislative session, more bills will be eligible for floor consideration now, which includes Sen. Joan Huffman’s anti-educator SB 13 that has already made it out of a Senate committee and could be placed on the Senate’s floor calendar at any time. ATPE members are urged to visit Advocacy Central and send messages to their lawmakers about this legislation and several other bad bills being considered this session.

 


The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a bill designed to curb inappropriate educator relationships with students and “passing the trash.” ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reports that among other things, Senate Bill (SB) 7 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) would prohibit educators who are dismissed from their positions in one school district due to sexual misconduct from being hired at another district, a practice sometimes referred to as “passing the trash.” (ATPE testified in support of SB 7 in committee and offered more on the contents of the bill here.)

SB 7 was amended on the Senate floor this week to add a requirement that educator preparation programs offer training on the topic of misconduct. ATPE supported the addition of the training provision because we hear from educators that too often the topic of appropriate student boundaries and relationships goes unaddressed with students training to enter the education profession.

The Senate also added two amendments by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), which clarify reporting language for principals and ensure educators know how to respond when inappropriately approached by a student. Another floor amendment by Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano) revokes the pensions of those educators convicted of certain felonies involving a student.

SB 7 passed the Senate unanimously, and all 31 senators signed on as co-authors of the legislation. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

 


Also this week, the Senate Committee on State Affairs held a marathon overnight hearing on Senate Bill (SB) 6 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), one of the session’s most controversial proposals to regulate bathroom usage policies of school districts, municipal governments, and other entities. The committee heard 13 hours of public testimony mostly from witnesses opposed to the bill, before voting 8-1 to send the measure to the full Senate. Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) was the only no vote. Those opposing the bill included all four of the state’s major teacher groups, the Texas Association of School Boards, and the Texas Association of School Administrators. Many education stakeholders believe the bill unnecessarily dictates policies that must be adopted by local school boards rather than providing for local control. SB 6 is another of Lt. Gov. Patrick’s top priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

 


Congress voted this week to freeze two ESSA regulations that had been finalized only recently by the Obama administration. The rules pertain to teacher preparation and accountability and are headed to President Trump’s desk for final repeal approval. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann has more on the anticipated repeal here.

 


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Texas House committee begins school finance discussion

The House Public Education Committee met Tuesday to discuss school finance legislation, including the House’s priority school finance bill announced Monday by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston). Underscoring the issue’s importance to the House, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) greeted committee members shortly before the hearing began.

Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) expresses support to House Public Education Committee members taking up priority school finance legislation

Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) expresses support to House Public Education Committee members taking up priority school finance legislation

Unveiled Monday, House Bill 21 would be funded by a budget rider that would allow the basic allotment to be increased to $5,350 from $5,140 per student. The bill is anticipated to create new transportation funding at $125 per student through the basic allotment that would be open to recapture districts. HB 21 would roll both the high school allotment and the additional state aid for non-professional staff into the basic allotment. The bill would lower recapture by approximately $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019, and create a hardship grant to assist districts that will lose money once ASATR expires. Additionally, HB 21 would add a 0.1 weight for students with dyslexia and repeal a hold harmless for districts identified as Chapter 41 in 1993. Model runs were posted Monday for 2018 and 2019.

With a fiscal note of $1.6 billion over the biennium, Huberty described the bill Tuesday as a “big lift.” If passed, it would mark the first time in decades that the Texas Legislature meaningfully addressed the school finance system without the threat of a court order.

Seven other bills were slated for hearing before HB 21. The first, HB 223 by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), would provide districts the option of providing childcare services or assistance with childcare expenses to students at risk of dropping out through the existing compensatory education allotment. Since the allotment provides a set amount of funding, the change would not fiscally impact the state.

HB 1245 by state Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) would allow students to take CTE courses beginning in the eighth grade. By extending weighted funding to the middle school level from the high school level, the bill carries a fiscal note estimating expenses to the state of $39.7 million in 2018 and $50.6 million in 2019.

HB 395 by state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) would include technology applications courses, such as computer science, in weighted funding for CTE courses. The bill as filed carries a fiscal note of $21 million in 2018 and $23.7 million in 2019, but Bell suggested the committee substitute delaying implementation could result in no fiscal impact in 2018. Supporters testified the inclusion would eliminate confusion and provide districts slightly more room and flexibility in their budgeting.

HB 186 by vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) would order the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to conduct a study regarding the costs of educating educationally disadvantaged students and students of limited English proficiency. The study would determine whether the compensatory allotment and bilingual education allotment provide adequate funding to accomplish their intended purposes, and if not, how much additional funding is needed. Bernal argued Tuesday that the weights for each have not been adjusted since the 1980s, and achievement gaps remain between 18 percent and 27 percent.

ATPE lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill, citing research confirming the importance of investing adequate resources in order to achieve the best educational outcomes for both groups. ATPE expressed a desire to work with the committee to take steps toward increasing the weights this session.

HB 587 by state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) would create a new technology applications course allotment weighted at the same 1.35 multiplier as the CTE allotment. The bill is aimed to accomplish the same goal as HB 395 by Bell, and carries a similar fiscal note estimating a cost of $44.7 million over the biennium.

HB 883 by state Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) would raise the adjusted basic allotment multiplier for CTE to 1.60 from 1.35. King explained funding has not caught up with expanded options for CTE courses and increasing technology expenses. According to the fiscal note, the change would cost the state an estimated $950 million over the biennium.

Huberty laid out HB 21 with a reference to the recent school finance lawsuit that reached the Texas Supreme Court, which upheld the current system despite heavily criticizing it. Regardless of the lawsuit, Huberty said, “Texans know that now is the time to help our students.”

After years of roughly splitting the cost of public education with local taxpayers, the state’s share of funding has dropped precipitously in recent years, and will sink to 39 percent in 2019 if nothing is done. Legislative budget writers have taken advantage of rising property values to decrease state spending. That means local taxpayers have shouldered an increasingly outsized share of the burden through increasingly burdensome property taxes.

Huberty explained HB 21 will reduce the need for higher property taxes and begin to reduce the amount of money taxpayers have to send away for recapture. The chairman described the hardship provision grant as a “glidepath” for districts that will lose ASATR funding. The grant would be capped at $100 million per school year for the state.

“We can’t fix the entire school finance system this year, but we can start trying,” Huberty said.

ATPE lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of HB 21, emphasizing it is a “first step” in a more sweeping reform. ATPE advocated in favor of including language to study the weights, as well as increasing support for educators, particularly in terms of health care. ATPE recommended finding ways to increase funding for some of the larger statewide programs established in statute, such as pre-K and bilingual education, and cautioned against potential unintended consequences stemming from the changes to transportation funding.

After hearing several hours of testimony, Huberty notified the committee his intention to take the day’s recommendations under advisement and present a committee substitute at next week’s hearing, at which point HB 21 could be taken up for a vote.

The last bill of the day focused on extending ASATR. With ASATR scheduled to expire this year, HB 811 by King (R-Canadian) would extend ASATR through 2021 at an estimated cost of $402 million over the next two years. The funding would benefit some 160 school districts that continue to receive varying levels of funding, many of which warn of serious financial problems once the funding runs out.

All bills were left pending. The committee will resume discussion of school finance and other bills next Tuesday, when possible action is expected.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 3, 2017

ATPE members are heading to Austin this weekend to advocate for their profession. Here’s a look at the current climate for education policy and politics in Texas:


With voucher interest on the rise in Washington, DC, all signs point to public opinion in Texas being mixed, at best, about the idea of privatizing education. More Texans seems to have insurmountable concerns about using public tax dollars to fund private or home schools, whether the objection is the lack of accountability on the part of those entities, the belief that public schools will suffer from a reduction in their funding, or the fear that vouchers will lead to government intrusion into private institutions that have not historically had to worry about being regulated.

This week on our blog, ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann shared information about two voucher bills filed at the federal level. Both the proposed “Choices in Education Act of 2017” (H.R. 610) and the “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act” or CHOICE Act (S. 235) have members of the Texas congressional delegation as cosponsors. Also, President Trump has voiced clear support for funding vouchers at the federal level.

Kuhlmann and Sampley at Tribune 02-28-17

ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann and Humble ATPE member Gayle Sampley attended Tuesday’s Texas Tribune interview with Rep. Dan Huberty.

In Texas, however, the outlook for vouchers is darker. On Tuesday, ATPE helped sponsor the Texas Tribune‘s interview with Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who chairs the House Public Education Committee. Asked about the likelihood of voucher bills being considered this session, Huberty expressed his belief that vouchers are a dead issue on the House side, as noted in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. (Click here for video of the exchange between Huberty and the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith.)

Huberty’s remark drew ire from supporters of the so-called “school choice” legislation that both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have prioritized this session. Pro-voucher groups like Texans for Education Opportunity have been using robo-calls and letters to try to urge House members to take a vote this session on vouchers, and now they are hoping to convince the state’s Republican Party to discipline Chairman Huberty over his anti-voucher sentiments.

Also this week, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) held a press conference with a gaggle of other state representatives to tout his House Bill 1335 that would fund vouchers for at-risk students or those with special needs through an Education Savings Account (ESA). That bill has already been referred to the House Public Education Committee, which Huberty chairs.

The voucher debate is one of several high-profile education issues being discussed today during another event hosted by the Texas Tribune. In Houston, both Chairman Huberty and Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) are participating in “A Symposium on Public Education,” where their differing views on vouchers are being showcased. Huberty and Taylor will have a chance to debate the issue again on Sunday when the two of them will sit on a panel of legislative leaders speaking during ATPE at the Capitol.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote next week for an update.

 


SBECThe State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is meeting today in Austin. The agenda includes a discussion of the possibility of adding a new certificate for teachers of early childhood education. As we reported on our blog recently, the Texas Education Agency solicited input from stakeholders about the idea and will share the results of those surveys at today’s meeting. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann is there and will have a detailed report for our blog after today’s SBEC meeting.

 


On Tuesday, the House Public Education Committee conducted an initial hearing on school finance. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote a summary of the hearing, which featured invited testimony from panelists representing several school districts. The committee will be meeting again next Tuesday, March 7, to hear a handful of bills pertaining to school funding mechanisms. Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) has also announced that he will introduce a new school finance bill on Monday. Huberty and Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) who chairs the Senate Education Committee report that they are working together to craft some ideas for improving the state’s school finance system, but they also concede that it will likely take multiple legislative sessions to solve the current problems.

 


Donna Bahorich

Donna Bahorich

This week, the Texas Senate Committee on Nominations had an opportunity to review the performance of Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and State Board of Education (SBOE) chairwoman Donna Bahorich. Bachorich is an elected member of the SBOE but has been appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to serve as the board’s chair. The commissioner is an appointed position.

Chairwoman Bahorich and Commissioner Morath both gave testimony before the Senate Nominations Committee yesterday in support of their respective confirmations. Both were fairly well received by the committee members.

Chairwoman Bahorich in particular, who has chaired the board through one of its least contentious periods in recent memory, received a warm reception with only short positive interactions from the senators and no opposition from public testifiers.

While receiving plenty of support from the committee members, Commissioner Morath drew tougher questions from multiple senators on the new A-F accountability system. Additionally, the commissioner drew much more criticism from the public on issues as diverse as special education, hiring decisions at the Texas Education Agency that he oversees, and his own qualifications and appointment process.

While both nominations were left pending in the committee, there is no indication that either appointee will face any serious opposition in the Senate to getting confirmed this session.

 


ATPE at the Capitol squreSunday and Monday, hundreds of ATPE members are traveling to Austin for ATPE at the Capitol, our biennial political involvement training and lobby day event. Sunday’s agenda includes networking opportunities and training sessions for ATPE members on legislative issues; an opening keynote presentation by Superintendent John Kuhn; and a panel discussion with Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), and Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) to be moderated by TWC/Spectrum News host Karina Kling. On Monday, ATPE members will visit the Texas State Capitol for meetings with their legislators to discuss issues such as education funding, testing and accountability, privatization, healthcare, and anti-educator bills prohibiting payroll deduction for association dues.

 


 

Huberty leads House committee in school finance talks, dismisses vouchers

The Texas House Public Education Committee met today, Feb. 28, to take up the weighty subject of school finance, which is a priority item for House leadership under Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio). The lengthy hearing featured invited testimony from 24 witnesses, including state agencies, school districts and organizations focused on school finance.

Dan_Huberty_HD127_2016pic

Dan Huberty

To kick off the hearing, Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) rattled off a number of statistics related to public education.

The state added 69,175 students in fiscal year 2016, and is projected to add 75,824 students in 2017 and another 81,796 students in 2018. Out of 320 charters awarded by the state, 176 remain active while 144 have closed. A total of 241,336 students are enrolled in charter schools and 228,774 are enrolled in private schools.

Of the state’s 1,024 public school districts, 241 paid recapture for 2015. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) estimates 229 will pay recapture for 2016, and the number is expected to increase to 264 by 2019. In fiscal year 2016, 249 districts received Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction (ASATR) at a cost of $340 million. If ASATR is allowed to remain in effect, TEA estimates 156 districts would receive payments in fiscal year 2018 at a cost of $200-250 million.

A total of 156 bills have been referred to the House Public Education Committee thus far this session, and the committee anticipates receiving another 131 bills that have been filed and are awaiting referral. The House budget, House Bill (HB) 1, includes $44 billion in all funds for the Foundation School Program (FSP) for fiscal year 2017-18, including a $1.5 billion increase in public education funding contingent upon school finance reform.

Huberty at Tribune interview 02-28-17Before presiding over today’s committee hearing, Chairman Huberty participated in an early morning discussion hosted by the Texas Tribune and sponsored in part by ATPE. There, Huberty told Texas Tribune executive director Evan Smith that school finance reform could take two to three sessions to complete. He also confirmed the Senate’s voucher proposals are dead in the House. Huberty pointed out that Texas already has robust “school choice” in the form of charters, magnet schools, public school transfers, and other options. The chairman emphasized that handing out public tax dollars to private ventures without any accountability is at odds with conservative principles.

Committee testimony began Tuesday afternoon with a brief rundown of the laws and legal decisions impacting public education funding. For example, the Cost of Education Index (CEI) has not been significantly changed since 1990. Of critical relevance to school finance discussions, the Texas Constitution prohibits a statewide property tax. TEA general counsel Von Byer testified that while the state can rely on local property taxes to help fund schools, it can’t set up a system where the state directly controls that property tax.

House leaders have wisely pointed out the see-saw relationship between state and local funding for schools. As the share of public education funding provided by the state has steadily declined over the years, local property taxes have risen in order to make up the difference. Chairman Huberty repeatedly pointed out that meaningful property tax relief is necessarily contingent upon the state taking the burden back from local districts.

The majority of testimony focused on districts representing a variety of financial challenges. The committee heard from Dallas ISD, which is about to enter recapture while facing a concurrent drop in enrollment. The state’s largest district, Houston ISD, faces a looming $160 million recapture payment, despite serving a historically impoverished student population. The district has already cut $40 million of that from classrooms, including cuts to teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, librarians, social workers, and counselors.

Houston ISD recommended the committee increase the basic allotment, count full-day pre-K students in weighted average daily attendance (WADA), restore the transportation allotment for all Chapter 41 districts, include the homestead exemption in the school funding formula, and allow districts a mechanism to reattach real property detached by TEA in order to meet wealth equalization requirements.

Austin ISD, which is scheduled to pay the state’s largest recapture payment of $536 million next year, noted that the state relies on district recapture payments to reduce its funding responsibility by $2 billion. As property values and inflationary costs increase, the state – not districts – benefits. Austin ISD suggested lawmakers tie property value increases to an increase in the basic allotment, update the CEI, allow Chapter 41 districts to receive the transportation allotment, include full-day pre-K in WADA, and increase the number of “golden pennies” of taxing capacity exempt from recapture available for local districts.

Other district administrators testified regarding the myriad issues facing public schools, including rapid growth that in many cases outpaces available facilities funding, growing populations of students with special needs and English Language Learners, and an increasing proportion of low-income students locked in generational poverty.

HPE02-28-17Representing fast-growth school districts, Denton ISD superintendent Jamie Wilson recommended increasing funding under the New Instructional Facilities Allotment (NIFA), as well as options to provide more flexibility when it comes to setting local tax rates. The South Texas Association of Schools advised against structural changes to the school finance system, but encouraged lawmakers to allocate the additional $1.5 billion under HB 1 toward the basic allotment and commit to educational cost studies during the interim.

KIPP Public Charter Schools co-founder Mike Feinberg testified that public charter schools receive less per-pupil funding than traditional schools, which is often offset by fundraising, financing, or both. Feinberg fielded questions regarding student due process, the accuracy of much-touted wait list numbers, and the state’s liability for charters that have accessed bonds backed by public tax dollars. Huberty notably inquired how quickly charters would be able to expand if additional facilities funding were made available, and hinted at a role for future charters focused on special needs populations.

Gary VanDeaver

Gary VanDeaver

Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) inquired several times as to the effect on state funding if a student who is new to Texas were to choose a charter school as opposed to a traditional public school. The question received varying answers, with witnesses noting that funding levels vary from district to district.

Among those working on an overall plan to simplify the system, Ray Freeman with the Equity Center outlined a proposal to stabilize and streamline funding through a single-sentence formula. Pursuant to a system overhaul, Freeman indicated lawmakers may desire a transition plan funded through a budget line item.

Vice-chairman Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) noted that as demographics shift and wealth inequality deepens, the “average student” of today looks different from that of years past. More than half of Texas students are Hispanic and 59 percent are economically disadvantaged. Considering these changes, Bernal suggested lawmakers may want to reassess some funding methods based on certain special populations in favor of reorienting the system as a whole.

The hearing concluded with testimony from organizations whose advocacy is not limited to the public education realm. Huberty sharply questioned a representative from the pro-voucher Texas Public Policy Foundation over why voucher supporters oppose any accountability for public tax dollars diverted to private institutions.

The committee will begin considering specific school finance-related legislation when it meets next Tuesday, March 7. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Senate Bill 1: The budget’s starting point

Background with money american hundred dollar billsThe Senate Finance Committee this week began a string of meetings to flesh out plans for a Texas state budget for the next two years. Following an organizational meeting on Monday, the committee began hearing testimony Tuesday on Article III of the budget, which includes public education. Both in her written statement and over and over again in comments during Monday’s and Tuesday’s hearings, committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) called Senate Bill (SB) 1 a “starting point” from which the senators on the finance committee, and eventually the entire Senate, can work to produce the Senate’s eventual budget proposal.

So where did Chairwoman Nelson and her colleagues start?

On Monday, Nelson began by laying out a budget that spends roughly $3 billion less in general revenue than its predecessor over the last biennium (House Bill 1 of 2015) and $4-6 billion less than would be needed to maintain the level of services funded during the current biennium considering inflation and population growth. She also started lowering expectations by laying out a budget proposal that spends about a billion dollars less than the revenue the state is projected to bring in, according to the comptroller.

While the numbers were not promising, the chairwoman also started the process by announcing two work groups that would be tasked with proposing solutions for two of the state’s most pressing budgetary and policy trouble areas, school finance and the out-of-control cost of health care. The two areas of the budget that these issues impact account for more than 85 percent of the state’s discretionary budget.

On Tuesday, the actual work of going through the budget one agency at a time began. First up; Texas Education Agency (TEA), which includes the $42 billion Foundation School Program (FSP), followed by the Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS), and Texas’s schools for the visually impaired and the deaf.

Several members of the committee spent the majority of Tuesday morning trying to prove, while convincing no one, several points: (1) That the state is not under-funding education; (2) thet neither local property taxes nor recapture dollars have been spent outside of the education budget; and (3) that high property taxes and the disparity between significant increases in local revenue dedicated to education versus much smaller increases in state revenue going to education should be blamed on local tax assessors and school boards, not the legislature. The committee also heard from TEA staff about spending on the various projects administered by the agency outside the Foundation School Program. Many of these standalone programs are funded at levels below the current biennium, and several have been zeroed out completely in the base budget.

Tuesday afternoon, the committee heard from the Commissioner of Education and from executive directors of TRS, the Texas School for the Visually Impaired, and the Texas School for the Deaf. Each presented their exceptional items, budget requests above and beyond the agencies’ base budget needs. Brian Guthrie, the executive director of TRS, had the most challenging reception from the senators, several of whom would like to abandon Texas’s defined benefit pension system and replace it with a defined contribution 401(k)-style system that would both reduce state liability and result in increased profits for wealthy campaign donors. Ultimately, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) redirected questioning away from the TRS pension trust fund, which is in reasonably good health, and toward the separate TRS-Care health insurance fund, which over the years has become unsustainable in its current form and will run out of money in the upcoming biennium without significant structural changes and increased funding.

After the committee concluded the testimony from the state agency heads, they heard public testimony, including from ATPE. In addition to a general plea for prioritizing education spending, we requested the committee’s consideration in three specific areas. First, we asked that the senate approve TEA’s full funding request of $236 million for the high quality pre-kindergarten grant created last session, for which the current draft of SB 1 provides only $150 million. Second, we asked that the legislature increase state funding for health insurance for active educators. The state has not increased its share of funding for TRS-ActiveCare since that program began in 2001, and funding that was once in line with what private employers provide is now far less than the private market and woefully inadequate. Finally, ATPE echoed much of the rest of the education community in requesting that additional school property tax revenue collected due to increased property values be used to increase the education budget instead of being used to replace state dollars that legislators want to spend elsewhere – in other words, the concepts of “supplement not supplant” and property tax transparency.

If this was the Senate’s starting point, what are the next steps?

Today, Jan. 27, the work group tasked with reimagining the school finance system will meet for the first of what will likely be several times. It is a joint meeting with the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). They will be taking invited testimony from several stakeholder and school finance experts. At some point in the coming weeks, the Article III (education) subcommittee will also meet and begin to negotiate potential changes from the base budget. The work of these two groups will eventually inform both the budget and a separate school finance bill that would then have to be negotiated with the House, before a final budget and possibly and school finance bill finally makes its way to the governor’s desk.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and atpe.org/advocacy for updates as the budget-writing process continues.

Education investment: The key to real tax relief

Mortgage calculator. House, noney and document.If there’s one thing most Texans can agree on, it’s that property taxes are too dang high.

What gets dicey is trying to sort through the myriad schemes put forth in the last few years by state lawmakers trying to cut local taxes over which they have little direct control. They’ve proposed tweaks to the rollback rate, increased the homestead exemption, and filed bills targeting local appraisal districts. That’s a lot of work by a lot of smart people you’ve sent to Austin with your tax dollars.

So.

Does your tax bill look any better?

In 2013, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy ranked Texas as having the 15th highest per capita property tax in the country. Despite our high property taxes, Texas ranks 45th in overall K-12 education spending and 49th in adjusted per-pupil expenditures, according to our performance on the “Quality Counts” state report card from Education Week.

Why is that?

Speaking to a joint hearing of the House Public Education and Appropriations Committees in September 2016, outgoing Appropriations Chairman John Otto (R-Dayton), put it simply. “The burden is shifting to the locals,” he said.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, local school spending, as approved by local voters and their elected school boards, increased 34 percent from 2008 to 2015. During the same period, the amount the state spent on local schools increased by just 4.8 percent.

The school finance relationship is like a see-saw, with state funds on one side and local tax dollars on the other. When state spending goes down, local school districts have to raise taxes in order to fund services at the same level. This year, the state will pay 38 percent of the cost to fund schools, while the burden that falls to local property owners will be 52 percent.

Under the state’s recapture rules for maintaining equity in our school finance system, those local taxes you pay are also tied to school districts all over the state. That means in cities with high property values such as Austin and now Houston, a significant chunk of local property tax revenue must be shipped out of town to help fulfill the state’s obligation to maintain funding equity in other districts.

The total amount of transfers under recapture – commonly referred to by some as “Robin Hood” – has grown to $2 billion, with Austin ISD accounting for $583 million of recaptured funds in 2016. The math works out to 28 percent of statewide recapture falling on the shoulders of local taxpayers in Austin alone.

This week, the House and Senate each submitted their proposals for the 2018-19 state budget, and financial wonks are still crunching the numbers to determine whether either plan would effectively fund school services at current levels. Both claim to do so.

What we do know is that in the House plan, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has proposed an additional $1.5 billion boost in education funding “contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system.”

If legislators are serious about reducing local property taxes, this is where it starts. It’s simple math.

Back to the see-saw: The only way to achieve meaningful property tax relief is for the state to assume more responsibility for the share of school funding it has passed on to you through local property taxes. Any other proposals you hear – and you will hear plenty – are empty measures meant to delay your outrage over your property tax bill for another two years.

In a December 2016 column, The Texas Tribune’s executive editor Ross Ramsey concluded, “Had the state kept its share of school funding constant for the past 10 years, voters might not be griping about rising property taxes.”

Tired of griping? Then let’s get serious. By boosting state investment along with taking a real shot at reforming the school finance system, the House is on the right track. We’ll find out if the rest of the legislature is serious as well.

85th Texas Legislature will face tight budget

Get ready to tighten your belts.

Before each session, legislative budget writers wait with bated breath to hear the state comptroller hand down from on high the magic number that will guide their spending for the next 140 days. That number comprises the core of the biennial revenue estimate (BRE).

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe comptroller is basically the state’s top accountant, and crafting the BRE is the office’s biggest responsibility. Divined from tax receipts and economic trends, the BRE is a best guess as to how much tax money will be available for lawmakers to spend over the next two years. The legislature is legally bound to keep spending within that number, which makes an austere forecast about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.

At a formal press conference this morning at the Texas Capitol, Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s BRE presentation for the 2018-19 biennium was marked by a subtle, yet unmistakably skunky fragrance.

Hegar announced the 85th Texas Legislature will have $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending, roughly $8 billion less than lawmakers got the green light to spend in 2015. Factors contributing to the pinch include sluggish growth in tax revenues – due in no small part to stubbornly low oil prices – and lawmakers’ decision last session to dedicate $5 billion in sales tax revenue to the highway fund.

According to the Texas Tribune, state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), who appears poised to chair the House Appropriations Committee, suggested the number is $5 billion to $6 billion less than it would take to fund state services at current levels. Combine that with the governor’s directive that each agency cut its budget by four percent, and a picture of a penny-pinching budget battle takes shape.

Girl showing bank notes

When money is tight, we find out what our priorities are. We at ATPE believe investing in future generations should be at the top of the list.

Public education still hasn’t fully covered the $5.4 billion cut by the legislature in 2011. With enrollment growth outpacing teacher hiring, class sizes continue to increase, to the detriment of students. Per-student funding still lags 2011 levels in some districts. To top it off, the state has steadily decreased its share of school spending, forcing school districts to rely more and more on local property taxes to make up the difference.

But there is still room for optimism.

Even without a court mandate, House leadership under Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has expressed a strong desire to fix the school finance system this session. There’s been growing talk of increasing the basic per-student allotment. If a friendly Republican administration in Washington, D.C. provides relief in previously disputed areas of the budget, such as health care and border security, the result could be more state money freed up for other priorities.

It’s a matter of deciding what’s important.

Our children deserve a world-class education that doesn’t cost parents their home. If lawmakers truly want to cut property taxes, there’s a simple fix: Shift the burden of education funding back to the state. It will require taking a hard look at the budget and making tough choices about public spending, but it can be done. We’re optimistic that Texans will keep their eye on the ball this session and not be distracted by repackaged voucher schemes, teacher bashing bills, and smoke and mirrors tax cuts.

If we can maintain that focus, then we’ll end up with a budget that reflects our values as Texans.