Texas House deepens battle lines with Senate on education priorities

Texas House members dug in Friday in their battle with Senate Republicans over education funding, reprising positions they took during the regular legislative session earlier this year.

In a 130-12 vote, the House gave preliminary approval to House Bill 21 by House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, which would give almost all school districts extra money. Hours later, a House committee dismantled a Senate proposal to indirectly use taxpayer money to help students with disabilities pay for private school tuition.

The $1.8 billion price tag of HB 21 would be paid for by delaying some payments to school districts in the upcoming budget cycle until the 2020-21 biennium.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has called the House’s proposal to fund HB 21 a “Ponzi scheme.”

Huberty dismissed that characterization Friday and said that the Legislature has approved such a funding mechanism before and that his bill would give Texans property tax relief.

“It’s indisputable that we’re funding education at the lowest level the state’s ever funded it before and we’re doing it on the back of the taxpayers,” Huberty said.

Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, who voted against HB 21, suggested from the House floor that the state hasn’t shirked its responsibility because the state continues to pump money each year into the public education system. But according to the Legislative Budget Board, the state’s share of public education funding is slated to decrease from 42 percent this year to 38 percent by 2019, leaving school districts to pick up the rest.

Huberty said that if the Senate doesn’t approve HB 21, he will spike a bill that would create a state commission to study the state’s school finance system, one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20 priority bills for the special session. Huberty said one bill doesn’t work without the other and the state has already studied the school finance system multiple times.

Recapture payments

HB 21 would increase the per-student basic allotment to $5,350 from $5,140. Increasing the basic allotment would reduce recapture payments that property-wealthy school districts must pay to the state to help property-poor school districts by approximately $389 million over the next two years.

The Austin school district pays more than any other school district in the state — an estimated $534 million next school year — in such payments, often called Robin Hood payments.

“Especially with the amount that Austin has to pay to the state under Robin Hood, (HB 21) is just a drop in the bucket unfortunately, but I appreciate we’re moving in the right direction,” Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austinwho is the past Austin school board president, told the American-Statesman.

HB 21 would increase funding to Austin by $25 million over the next two years. The Pflugerville school district would receive $6 million over the next two years, Round Rock $22 million, Leander $9 million and Hays $2 million.

READ: Special legislative session: Why Joe Straus might have the upper hand

Other parts of HB 21 include:

• A $200 million hardship grant program for about 200 school districts slated to lose Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction in September.

• New funding to help schools educate children with dyslexia and related disorders and more money to help schools educate non-native-English speakers.

• Removing outdated funding formula elements and giving a boost to small school districts.

• Expanding high school career and technology funding to eighth grade.

“With House Bill 21, we have a great opportunity to help schools and address the biggest cause of higher property tax bills,” said House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

If the state’s rainy day fund exceeds $10 billion, the excess money would be used toward paying for the HB 21 provisions in the long run, Huberty said. Voters would need to approve this funding mechanism through a constitutional amendment that the Legislature would also have to approve.

Tax credit scholarships

In a move that threatens to derail the Senate’s education agenda, the House Public Education Committee on Friday scrubbed provisions from Senate Bill 2, including one that would have created a tax credit scholarship for students with disabilities.

“I’m not surprised, but disappointed that some in the House chose to ignore and deny several thousand families with special needs children the opportunity to choose an educational opportunity for their child that works best for them,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the original author of SB 2.

Under the original bill, public school students who have disabilities could have qualified for up to $10,000 in tax credit scholarships to attend a private school. Students with disabilities who want to stay in public school would have gotten some money, too — up to $500 in 2019 and increasing 5 percent every year after that.

The tax credit scholarships and education assistance programs would have been funded by donations from insurance companies, who in return would receive a tax credit from the state, capped at $75 million each fiscal year.

Proponents of the tax credit scholarship have said that it would have given a small number of students an opportunity to leave public schools that weren’t serving their needs.

Opponents saw the scholarships as a threat to public school funding and have said that families might not understand that they would lose legal protections under federal education law if they go to private schools.

READ: Texas House looks to rainy day fund for teacher retirement funding

During the regular session that ended in May, rural House Republicans along with Democrats sank an effort to offer public money for private school tuition, an idea popular among Senate Republicans.

The new version of SB 2 would create a $30 million grant program over the next two years for parents of public school students with disabilities to use on private services, like therapies and tutoring. Private providers would have to report on students’ progress.

“I hope they will see this as doing exactly what they wanted to do — provide services for these special needs students,” said Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, who offered the revised version of SB 2.

Abbott, who has directed the Legislature during the special session to address school finance and improve educational choices to parents of special needs children, hasn’t publicly supported HB 21 but has done so for SB 2.

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