Se­nate panel strips $1.5B from House’s school fi­nance bill,

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Chang jchang@states­man.com

The Texas Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee on Fri­day gut­ted a House bill that would have in­jected $1.8 bil­lion into the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.

The Se­nate ver­sion of House Bill 21 would spend $311 mil­lion — in­stead of the orig­i­nal $1.8 bil­lion pro­posed — over the next two years, fur­ther high­light­ing the mount­ing dis­cord be­tween the leg­isla­tive cham­bers over how to ad­dress the state’s be­lea­guered school-fund­ing sys­tem.

“We’ve got to seek out ef­fi­cien­cies ... things that we can do bet­ter with the same amount of money, not just a mat­ter of throw­ing more money into the sys­tem,” Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Chair­man Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said dur­ing the hear­ing.

Taylor said that the Se­nate is ex­pected to vote Satur­day on HB 21 and re­turn it to the House, which is un­likely to ap­prove the Se­nate’s changes.

The House has been push­ing the orig­i­nal ver­sion of HB 21 filed by House Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Chair­man Dan Hu­berty, R-Hous­ton, as the first step in help­ing cash­strapped school dis­tricts.

About 1,500 su­per­in­ten­dents and school board trustees, in­clud­ing from the ma­jor Cen­tral Texas school dis­tricts, signed a let­ter to the Se­nate com­mit­tee sup­port­ing the orig­i­nal ver­sion of HB 21.

“The House’s ver­sion ... was go­ing to be able to keep our district afloat over the next cou­ple of years,” Austin school district Trustee Julie Cowan told the com­mit­tee Fri­day. “I’m happy for our friends in other parts of the state to re­ceive the re­lief that they need. I’m afraid that there will be more dis­tricts like ours that per­haps you all want to think about as well.”

A ma­jor­ity of the Se­nate supports cre­at­ing a com­mis­sion to study the school fi­nance sys­tem and make rec­om­men­da­tions to the Leg­is­la­ture for the next reg­u­lar ses­sion. Gov. Greg Ab­bott has in­cluded such a com­mis­sion in his spe­cial ses­sion in­struc­tions for law­mak­ers.

In a news con­fer­ence this week, Se­nate Repub­li­cans crit­i­cized HB 21 as a BandAid fix and po­lit­i­cal gim­mick.

The Se­nate’s ver­sion of HB 21 elim­i­nates a ma­jor pro­vi­sion that would have in­creased the base amount of money schools get per stu­dent from $5,140 to $5,350. The boost would have re­duced the amount of lo­cally raised tax dol­lars prop­erty-wealthy school dis­tricts must send to the state by $389 mil­lion over the next two years. Prop­erty-wealthy school dis­tricts must make the so-called re­cap­ture pay­ments to the state to be re­dis­tributed to prop­erty-poor school dis­tricts.

The Austin school district pays more in re­cap­ture than any other district in Texas — an es­ti­mated $534 mil­lion next school year.

The Se­nate also re­moved from HB 21 ex­tra fund­ing to help schools ed­u­cate stu­dents with dys­lexia and stu­dents who are learn­ing English as a sec­ond lan­guage. It also re­moved fund­ing for ca­reer and tech­nol­ogy pro­grams in the eighth grade.

Taylor said he’s will­ing to re­store some el­e­ments of the orig­i­nal bill.

The Se­nate’s ver­sion of HB 21 keeps a pro­vi­sion to cre­ate a fi­nan­cial hard­ship grant for cer­tain school dis­tricts, but trims the amount by 25 per­cent to $150 mil­lion.

The Se­nate ver­sion would also boost spend­ing for small school dis­tricts by $41 mil­lion and di­rect $120 mil­lion to help school dis­tricts and pub­lic char­ter schools pay for con­struc­tion. Char­ter schools, which are pri­vately run pub­lic schools, have been push­ing for such fund­ing for years.

The House had pro­posed pay­ing the $1.8 bil­lion price tag for HB 21 by de­lay­ing cer­tain pay­ments to school dis­tricts in the up­com­ing bud­get cy­cle to the fol­low­ing 2020-21 bi­en­nium.

The Se­nate wants to pay for HB 21 by de­lay­ing pay­ments to Med­i­caid man­aged-care or­ga­ni­za­tions in the up­com­ing bud­get cy­cle to the fol­low­ing bi­en­nium. The state’s Med­i­caid pro­gram is un­der­funded by $1.2 bil­lion.

The Texas Health and Human Ser­vices Com­mis­sion has said de­lay­ing pay­ments to Med­i­caid shouldn’t hurt ser­vices.

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