House approves flagship school funding bill; faces uncertain future in the Senate

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AUSTIN — Lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved changes to how the state funds public education, marking the first attempt to revamp a formula the state Supreme Court said was in desperate need of fixing.

The changes would inject some $1.8 billion into the state school system comprised of more than 1,200 school districts, according to Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty. However, it faces possible opposition in the Senate which has its own ideas about how and when to edit the state’s school funding formula and whether to spend new money in education this session.

“This is the first time in 30 years we have had an opportunity to vote on school finance, to make a holistic change. This is the first time we have as policy makers to help our 5.3 million children,” said Huberty, a Republican from Humble and sponsor of the bill.

The House voted 134 to 16 to give initial approval to the bill.

Nearly every school district would receive more money per student. The bill would erase several outdated provisions in the funding formula, known as the Foundation School Program, and add $120 million statewide for students with dyslexia and $100 million for bilingual students. The changes would also revise how the state funds transportation, allocate an additional $150 million to expand career and technology initiative, delete archaic provisions in the old formula and offer certain school districts a hardship grant.

The proposal, which is the leading school reform bill in the House, would also reduce local taxpayer-funded payments to the state, known as “recapture,” by $380 million in the next biennium, said Huberty.

Several lawmakers said the bill fails to go far enough.

The measure puts a new coat of paint “on a car that does not run,” said Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston.

The Republican-led House of Representatives spent four hours debating the bill and amendments offered by members of both parties ranging from increasing the amount of money schools should receive for each English language learner or adding money for students in prekindergarten.

Lawmakers successfully added several amendments, including one to remove a financial penalty for small districts.

The Senate is pushing a complete overhaul of the school funding formula in Senate Bill 2145, although education experts say that measure might be too weighty for the Legislature to pass in one legislative session. That bill was discussed by the Senate Education Committee Tuesday and was left pending in committee. Other Senate bills would change basic allotment used to calculate funding or require a committee spend the legislative off-season studying how to best reconstruct the complex formula.

The House’s school finance revisions are the first to face a full floor vote in the Texas Legislature following a critical ruling by the Texas Supreme Court last spring calling the state funding formula “Byzantine,” “undeniably imperfect and with immense room for improvement.”

Texas students “deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid. They deserve a revamped, nonsclerotic system fit for the 21st century,” Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the ruling in May of 2016.

Lawmakers in both parties and experts agree the state’s funding formula needs an overhaul that will likely take years to accomplish.

“Day by day I’m getting more and more worried that school finance will just be one of those things they can’t overcome. It’s a big issue,” said Chandra Villanueva, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “It is a first step, but it’s up to parents to really make sure that there is a second step. If the Legislature doesn’t hear from parents of school kids and from school officials about what they’re really trying to accomplish and their hardships and barriers, the Legislature’s going to think everything’s fine.”

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