School Finance Reform Dead

House Bill 1759 disappears, taking $800 million with it

Down in a hole: Austin ISD was counting on House Bill 1759 to provide some Robin Hood relief, but now the numbers look worse than ever.
Down in a hole: Austin ISD was counting on House Bill 1759 to provide some Robin Hood relief, but now the numbers look worse than ever.

Success has many parents, but failure has none, the saying goes. But as House Bill 1759 slowly curled up and died on the House floor today, there was more than enough blame to go around for the failure of school finance reform.

It was a murmur of a debate. House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, brought up his bill with a miasma of defeat already in the air. His laying out sounded more like last rites. Finally a point of order by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, sounded the death knell, and put everyone out of their misery.

So down go the limited reforms intended to give school districts two years of relief, and provide particular succor to Chapter 41 districts, the ones shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in local property taxes to state coffers under the "Robin Hood" recapture system. With it went the extra $800 million that Aycock had attached as a rider to make his plan work. The disturbing corollary of this is that, as the House crumbled, it seems more likely that the Senate will get its way on additional school investment in the final budget – $1.2 billion, rather than the House's proposed $2.2 billion boost. That means a pittance to all districts in the next budget cycle and, for Chapter 41 ISDs like Austin, a massive increase in recapture payments.

So who killed the bill? Aycock arguably let it die, even if the dagger was technically in the hands of Martinez Fischer. The final cut came in a point of order, which severed the last dangling hope. HB 1759 had to pass today, the final day for a non-local or consent bill to get a second reading and get voted to a third. That's another sore point for Democrats, who hoped to drag out the HB 1759 debate to derail HB 4105, the massively unpopular anti-gay marriage bill. But then Aycock had his own timing intentions, telling Brian Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle that he wanted to make sure HB 2804, grading schools and school districts on an A-F scale, got a debate before the midnight cut-off.

But the real blame may lie with the Senate. It had become clear that, if they even bothered hearing the measure (something Senate Public Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Galveston, saw as doubtful), then it would be loaded up with voucher amendments, sent to conference committee, and die there.

So this leaves the issue back with the lawyers. Judge John Dietz has already ruled the current system in violation of the Texas Constitution on multiple grounds, and the case is now awaiting a trial date with the Texas Supreme Court. With the Legislature punting on even this first pass at reform, the question is whether the Supremes will come down heavier than they would have if it passed.

Some groups are actually counting on that. With the questionable hashtag #dragonslayingisntforsissies, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund legal counsel Marisa Bono (and one-time putative successor to his seat) praised Martinez Fischer for killing the bill. That makes sense, since MALDEF and the Equity Center are part of the lawsuit that forced the Legislature's hand. A legislative fail now only strengthens their hand during appeals.

However, not everyone is so ebullient. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is a former board member of Eanes ISD, and noted that staff there have been tweeting that part of the library staff is about to be laid off. What has historically been one of the state's exemplary districts is going to face cuts because of the Robin Hood system, and there's little evidence that it will benefit anyone else.

The Equity Center argued against HB 1759, saying it increased the gap between rich and poor districts. But the counter-argument is that Aycock's plan ensured everyone gained a little, at least for the next biennium. Now Austin ISD faces a $300 million recapture, while Houston ISD, which has avoided payments due to now-expiring tax revisions, will be $100 million in the hole.

Of course, lawmakers can just blame the ticking clock, and say that this can all be left for the 85th Legislature (coming to you in 2017) or a special session, if Gov. Greg Abbott so chooses. The political reality is that the Legislature could have gotten this bill passed on the regular timetable if they wanted to do it. It's happened with abortion restrictions, budget cuts, and voter ID, where down-to-the-wire pushes got the measure through.

What this makes clear is that the Legislature just wasn't that committed. So now it remains to be seen how badly the Texas Supreme Court will look upon their inaction.

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