Increased funding for Texas public schools as well as across-the-board raises for the state’s teachers are close to becoming reality.
After months of discussion and lobbying, the sweeping school finance legislation named House Bill 3 is being hashed out by a conference committee made up of House- and Senate-appointed members. The 10-member committee has until May 26 to produce its final report to the Texas Legislature, at which point it will either be passed or rejected before the session ends the following day.
Passed first by the House, the Senate passed its own amended version of the bill in early May. There are still significant differences between the two plans.
One is the amount each body has allocated for schools’ basic per-student allotment, which hasn’t been raised for four years. The Senate increased it from $5,140 to $5,880, while the House increased it to $6,030.
The raises for school employees also differ. The Senate has put forth a $5,000 raise for teachers and librarians, while the House has offered an estimated $1,388 raise to school employees, funded by 25 percent of the per-student allotment, administrators not included. In the House plan there is discretion at the district level for who receives raises and how much.
“The House plan prioritizes kid needs and the Senate plan prioritizes teacher needs,” said Houston ISD parent Heather Golden, who is also a member of HEAR, an HISD advocacy group. “My concern is whether the $5,000 raise would be funded long-term or not. Some people are calling it a bonus.”
Both versions of the school finance legislation provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-kindergarten for eligible students.
The Senate plan is significantly more expensive, estimated at $14 billion as opposed to the House bill’s projected $9 billion price tag.
How to pay for any plan is another sticking point, and especially how to fund it without raising taxes. The Texas Tribune reported that an earlier proposal called for using an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes. Now, the idea is to create a Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund to fund school district tax relief.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, told the Texas Tribune there was also a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.
There are no members of the conference committee from Houston, but some are from surrounding areas. The committee members are state Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Humble), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Ken King (R-Canadian) and Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint); and state Sens. Watson, Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), Royce West (D-Dallas) and Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).
HISD trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she is grateful both the House and Senate see school finance as a priority this session.
“I hope in conference, the intent of best outcomes for students and educators remains the focus and there are no alternate interests attached and that funding does not become tied to partisan issues,” she said. “The Texas Constitution mandates the state provide for adequate and sufficient education. This is not predicated on any other factors like testing, and is not subject to deal-making.”
Skillern-Jones said it’s ironic that three years ago, the Texas Supreme Court declared the state’s current system “essentially lawful but awful.”
“It meets the minimum constitution standards while education requirements are far from minimum as they should be,” Skillern-Jones said. “Our students and teachers deserve the fidelity of honest and transparent action to correct a long-broken system.”
Golden said if the issue is not resolved this session, she thinks it will be a while before the legislature takes it up again.
“In two years the focus will be on redistricting because it’s a census year,” she said. “It honestly won’t get another good look for four years.”