A closer look at Senate school finance and property tax plans

Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) filed Senate Bill (SB) 4 at the end of last week, which was the deadline to file most bills for consideration during the 2019 legislative session.

The Senate has focused on property taxes early on this session and also quickly passed SB 3 on March 4, proposing to give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise across-the-board. For its part, the House spent most of the first half of the session preparing to unveil its comprehensive school finance reform plan. After the House released its major school finance bill, House Bill (HB) 3, many were waiting to see how the Senate would respond. SB 4 represents the Senate’s stab at a similar school finance plan.

In its current form, SB 4 is a rough draft with many portions left incomplete. As with the original version of HB 3 as filed, ATPE believes SB 4 as filed includes a mix of favorable and unfavorable proposals. Among its positive aspects, SB 4 would create a full-day pre-K program and allow educators’ children to participate in that. It would also provide professional development materials for implementing blended learning. Below are some additional details on the Senate’s school finance proposal:

SB 4: OUTCOMES FUNDING

The Senate’s bill includes a controversial outcomes-based funding model that would provide school districts additional money for students who perform well on standardized tests. Specifically, SB 4 would create a new third-grade reading allotment that would give districts an unspecified amount of funding for each “educationally disadvantaged” student who performs well on a third-grade reading test chosen by the commissioner of education. The commissioner would determine what it means to be educationally disadvantaged for purposes of this bill.

ATPE and other education stakeholders have continuously pointed out the consensus view of the education community: outcomes-based funding rewards schools that are already performing well, while denying resources to poorly performing schools that need those resources in order to improve. The third-grade reading allotment under SB 4 would likewise leave poorly performing schools to fend for themselves, while sending the resources they need in order to improve to districts that are already doing well.

SB 4: MERIT PAY

Regarding teacher compensation, SB 4 would create an “educator effectiveness” merit pay program. The program would require participating districts to provide merit salary increases based upon the educator’s performance under a new evaluation system that must include student surveys and student academic growth, which is generally measured through standardized test scores. The number of educators who can participate would be restricted to a small percentage of the statewide teaching population, and salary increases under this program would be higher for educators who are assigned to campuses with poor overall or domain performance ratings under the A-F accountability system. While districts would be given a degree of flexibility in designing these programs, the commissioner of education would ultimately have the sole discretion to determine what sort of program meets the criteria.

Research shows that student performance on standardized tests is not a scientifically valid measure of educator effectiveness, especially since the tests were not designed for that purpose. ATPE continues to warn that tying educator pay to student test scores will create a perverse set of incentives that only increases concerns about “teaching to the test.” ATPE supports programs that offer higher pay to educators who volunteer to serve at struggling campuses, take on campus leadership roles above and beyond their classroom duties, or who obtain advanced or high-needs training and certifications. Recognizing that what works for one district doesn’t necessarily work for every district, ATPE recommends that these differentiated pay programs be designed at the local level with input from educators, and not be tied to a single set of agency-approved criteria.

SB 4: OTHER CHANGES

The Senate’s school finance bill also includes school district funding for each student in kindergarten through grade three who is educationally disadvantaged or in a bilingual or special language program. It would create a new allotment to provide district funding for each educationally disadvantaged student who demonstrates college, career, or military readiness.

SB 4 would make the following additional changes:

  • Create new weighted funding for dual language instruction and students with dyslexia.
  • Expand career and technology education (CTE) program funding to the eighth grade.
  • Convert transportation funding to mileage-based from a linear density-based formula.
  • Order a study of the new instructional facilities allotment (NIFA).
  • Create new small and midsize and fast growth allotments.
  • Codify the state’s 60×30 graduation goal and order a biennial progress report.
  • Require students to fill out a FAFSA before graduation.
  • Eliminate intensive summer programs for students at risk of dropping out.
  • Adjust the equalized wealth level under Chapter 41.

The bill would eliminate the high school allotment, gifted and talented allotment, and outdated cost of education index (CEI), presumably to roll them into the basic allotment. Placeholder language in the bill indicates Sen. Taylor intends changes to other formula weights as well, but an estimate of the bill’s cost cannot be completed until those numbers are included.

SENATE PRIORITY BILLS

In the Senate, bills that are important to the lieutenant governor receive the lowest bill numbers. As one of the first five bills in numerical order, SB 4 is considered a major priority bill. The top five includes SB 1, which is the Senate budget that includes $3.7 billion to cover the $5,000 raise proposed in SB 3 — another priority bill. The addition of librarians to SB 3 raised the price tag of that pay raise bill to $3.9 billion.

The Senate’s property tax relief program consists of SB 2 and SB 5. Filed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), SB 5 would increase the amount of state funding to local school districts in order to raise the individual homestead exemption from $25,000 up to $35,000. This would ease some of the burden on homeowners, who have paid for an increasing share of the cost of public education as property values have risen and the current funding formulas have allowed the state to decrease its contributions.

Also filed by Sen. Bettencourt, SB 2 would cap the annual revenue growth of local taxing entities, including school districts, at 2.5 percent. If local tax collections increase more than 2.5 percent due to an increase in property values, then the local taxing unit most lower the tax rate or hold an election asking voters if they can exceed the 2.5 percent cap. Cities and counties have argued that this could imperil their ability to provide basic services, including first responders.

The Senate has already passed SB 3, but an across-the-board teacher pay raise has faced a chilly reception in the Texas House. SB 2 faces an uncertain future, with members raising serious concerns over the impact the 2.5 percent cap would have on public safety and local services. At this time, SB 2 has yet to be scheduled for debate on the Senate floor. SB 4 and SB 5 are the most recently filed bills, and both await hearings in their respective committees. Keep checking back on here at TeachtheVote.org for updates.

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2 thoughts on “A closer look at Senate school finance and property tax plans

  1. Frances Wiese

    What about school districts like Franklin, who say if you don’t use it you lose it? Down the road are several school districts that do not have a great tax base to even provide the basics. While Franklin has a huge tax base and has state of the art everything, including an indoor practice football field, beautiful baseball facilities which contains four fields, etc. The districts nearby do not have the excessive tax base and some, like Calvert, the tax base is extremely low. They struggle to even have electives; like band, choir, assorted vocational and technology classes to help students develope skills to be ready to join the workforce after graduation. It’s really sad. By the way, Franklin does not allow outside district students into their programs. Wouldn’t it make sense that the wealthier districts help in busing and providing the training needed for those outside the district? If they have the facilities and money, why not have them offer to those districts that don’t? Then they can keep their money but help provide classes and means for transportation for those districts that do not have. Actually, in my opinion, our county really needs to have all the high schools combine and have a county high school, leaving the lower grades to stay in their districts, especially elementary. The districts would still be considered a small district using the money’s saved to update the lower grades facilities, technologies, etc. and have an incentive that would help get the certified teachers needed. I have said this for years. Our situation is not the only one. There are many small school districts that are struggling to even offer the basics. I wish the state would come up with a bill to cover this or something similar instead of pushing a testing system on all schools that really have lost its way, the true purpose of developing it many years ago.

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