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House will address school finance

Good.

Jimmie Don Aycock

With a plan that would add $3 billion to the state’s public education budget, the Texas House has decided to take on school finance reform this legislative session.

As he announced a deal Wednesday that would put $800 million on top of the $2.2 billion the chamber had already allocated to public schools, Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, called the decision a “significant change in direction.”

The topic of school finance was largely expected to go unaddressed this legislative session while a massive lawsuit involving more than two-thirds of the state’s school districts awaits a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

After months of private discussions and meetings, Aycock said House leaders no longer wanted to wait for a long-needed overhaul of the system. The proposal will be filed as House Bill 1759.

“We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what’s right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?” Aycock told reporters at a Capitol news conference.

The Observer fills in some details.

Aycock said his priority is to correct illogical and outdated features in Texas’ school finance formulas, like adjustments for higher salaries in expensive urban districts or the extra cost of educating students with limited English proficiency, which haven’t been updated in more than 25 years. Tinkering with any of those would upset the delicate equilibrium of a system that, despite its flaws, has been in place since 2006.

“The fact is that when you change these complicated formulas, some people win, some people win more than others, some people lose,” Aycock said. “In order to mitigate that pain politically, you can only do this sort of modification when there’s more money going into the system.”

Some, but not all, members of the crowd around Aycock this morning have been meeting since last fall in an informal working group on school finance reform. The group includes Republicans and Democrats from both urban and rural districts.

In an interview, Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said Aycock’s plan wouldn’t fix what’s wrong with Texas’ school finance system, but to Democrats who’ve been railing against the state’s chronic underfunding of schools, the extra money was welcome. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said.

Still, adding more money this session to Aycock’s plan wouldn’t address the system’s basic flaws, or allow for reforms like pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I think it’s a huge step toward addressing what the court said we need to address,” Howard said, but “I take Chairman Aycock at his word that this is not about trying to make the lawsuit go away.”

[…]

David Thompson, an attorney representing one group of school districts suing the state, told the Observer that without a bill to look at yet, it’s impossible to guess how the case might be affected. “I do very much appreciate the House’s willingness to spend some time to address the issue,” Thompson said, adding that the plans Aycock described include “some very positive features.” Thompson said he’s most interested in seeing a proposal that steers more money to districts that educate the state’s neediest children.

Had lawmakers completely punted on school finance reform—or if the House’s plan eventually falls through—a Supreme Court ruling against the state would likely prompt a special session in 2016 dedicated to fixing the system. If nothing else, the new reform effort could serve as a practice run for new members getting to know the arcane system for the first time.

Rep. Aycock had previously filed a different school finance bill, HB654, to simplify the school funding mechanism by grouping the state’s 1,026 regular school districts into at least 30 “school finance districts”. This is something else entirely, and it’s not clear to me what the status of that bill is. Regardless, considering that Rep. Aycock talked about “nibbling around the edges” back in December, it’s quite a step forward. Whether it can survive the tax-cuts-uber-alles mania that is gripping the Senate remains to be seen, but for now this is a hopeful sign.

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