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Lots of Reform, No Money

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 8, 2009

Ever since Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, briefed lawmakers back in January about his theory on the importance of arts education, his name has been dropped regularly under the dome. So when Senate Bill 3 – the school accountability bill – turned up, heads were scratching as to why it strips out the fine-arts requirement for graduation and leaves it up to kids to use their electives instead. That could also explain why Senate Educa­tion Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, shared the stage (well, the lieutenant governor's pressroom) on May 1 with Asleep at the Wheel bandleader Ray Benson: to sing the praises of creativity in schools and allay fears that this is a backdoor attack on poorer districts that will slash nonessential programs.

SB 3 is the biggest rewrite of public school rules in Texas since No Child Left Behind, so while lawmakers worry which kids these reforms will fail, there's the slightly more pressing problem of how to pay for schools. With a paltry $1.9 billion in the kitty, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, wants to move closer to full-formula funding: Significantly for Aus­tin­ites, her SB 982 would limit recapture (better known as "Robin Hood") to districts wealthier than Austin Independent School District. Van de Putte said she hopes at least some of this makes it into SB 2392, the main bill authored by Shapiro and Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

As for college, legislators have tackled the two constant targets of complaint – high costs and admissions restrictions. The Senate unanimously approved SB 1443 by Senate Higher Education Chair Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, limiting tuition increases for bigger universities to 5% a year (she also has in the wings a slate of tuition exemptions for groups such as former foster kids). It heads to the House, where it will meet Shapiro's SB 175, capping admissions under the top 10% rule at 50% of an incoming freshman class. On the institutional side, with Galveston's hurricane-ravaged University of Texas Medical Branch spared from the chopping block for the time being, attention has turned to House Bill 51, boosting the number of Tier One research universities in the state from three to 10 by establishing the Texas Research Incentive Program. With a $500 million price tag for the first two years, that could become a decades-long financial commitment.

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