Finally, a plan to put real money into Texas schools
Public education advocates march to the state Capitol for the Texas PTA's Rally Day on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, in Austin. Photo: Michael Minasi

Finally, a plan to put real money into Texas schools

Texans, we have a school finance plan. It’s a good plan, not a perfect one. It emerged in the House, not the Senate. Its chances of passing intact largely depend on the intestinal fortitude of Speaker Dennis Bonnen and vocal support from regular Texans. But first, let’s just celebrate the mere existence of a plan in a state where lawmakers for decades have paid little more than lip-service to the troubles of our woefully underfunded public schools.

This article was originally posted on the Houston Chronicle.

For years, they’ve watched our rankings — in funding and student performance — lag nationally. They’ve shrugged at a Texas Supreme Court ruling that found the school finance system just barely constitutional and in dire need of overhaul. They’ve wasted time on divisive social issues such as adult bathroom choices. While they spent liberally on other pet projects — gratuitous border security funding and tax relief for businesses, for example — they neglected investment in our greatest resource: our children.

Now, finally, Republican House leaders have a school finance plan that puts money where the promises were.

The plan, announced by state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs the House public finance committee, provides $9 billion in more state money for public schools and lowering school property taxes statewide.

The figure is all the more impressive — and all the more audacious — when you consider that the last time the House tried and failed to get the Senate to pump more money into schools, the bill in question boosted funding a mere $1.8 billion.

Things feel different this session as nearly everybody in Austin is pledging to finally address school funding. But the devil — and the votes — is in the details.

And the details, at this point, show the House and Senate are a high school football field apart on their approach to school reform.

The House plan directs $6 billion toward school reform and $3 billion more to allow school districts to lower property tax rates by 4 cents without reducing money for schools. That drop would save the owner of a home with $200,000 taxable value about $80 a year.

The bill does what education advocates have long pleaded for: It boosts the basic allotment for each student by $890, from $5,140 to $6,030. That’s the first change to the base number in four years. It funds free full-day prekindergarten to eligible students. It also recognizes and accounts for the higher cost of educating low-income students and those learning English — and sends more money to districts with higher concentrations of those students.

And the bill provides relief to districts that complain of being unfairly penalized by the so-called Robin Hood system of funding distribution designed to ensure equity. If the legislation passes, Houston ISD, among the districts deemed property wealthy, will pay smaller “recapture” payments to poorer schools — with Huberty estimating a drop from around $304 million to around $34 million.

So far, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, have offered muted praise for the House’s plan. But it’s clear that a major sticking point between the House and Senate will be teacher raises.

The House plan provides $140 million for a program to help school districts recruit and retain teachers. But that’s a far cry from the Senate’s much ballyhooed $5,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers and librarians.

The House plan lets local districts decide how they want to distribute raises and to whom, a scenario that would allow schools to reward top performers and provide incentives for them to teach in low-performing schools.

But that will be a tough sell among teachers and their unions because who doesn’t want a guaranteed payout when you can get it?

The Senate may still come back with more comprehensive legislation.

But for right now, the real plan and the real leadership on education are in the House. The Senate’s right to seek raises for the teachers, but pretending that raises by themselves will accomplish meaningful reform is disingenuous.

We agree with Bonnen: “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise, clearly nothing else, no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of absolutely incentivizing a teacher to go into a tougher school to teach,” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” the speaker said.

And that’s a great place to start. After all these years of inaction, it’s also something to celebrate. We hope Senate leaders seize the opportunity to work with their House colleagues to improve the bill in ways that ensure equity and put students first.

The time is now. The schoolchildren of Texas have waited long enough.

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