It Just Doesn't Add Up

As the session winds down, school finance reform recedes once again

It Just Doesn't Add Up
Illustration By Doug Potter

Now that educator groups and a recent opinion poll have weighed in on the Legislature's handling of school finance, it appears that House and Senate leaders have yet to convince Texans of their abilities to craft a sound education package. No number of self-congratulatory speeches will convince us that they've solved the big mystery this time.

Not only are teachers and school districts unhappy with what the two chambers have thus far designed, but a new Scripps Research Institute poll shows that Texans have little or no confidence in the Lege following through on a court order to develop a defensible plan. Worse, 70% of those polled said they doubt lawmakers will be able to finalize a package by May 30, the last day of the session. (On that score, many legislators are inclined to agree; negotiating a single school finance plan out of two different versions – one from the House and the other from the Senate – presents extraordinary political challenges.)

Last week, the Senate passed its take on House bills 2 and 3, a pair of soup-to-nuts measures that would add $2.8 billion to the school fund over two years, trim the property tax rate, create a uniform school calendar that begins after Labor Day, and hand each teacher a $3,000 raise over the next biennium. The vote was 27-4, with Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos voting no with three other Democrats.

By most accounts, teachers and school administrators are more stridently opposed to the House plan than to the Senate proposal, which softens the lower chamber's off-putting "reform" zeal and raises the academic bar for charter schools. Both versions would give the state education commissioner the authority to hire private companies to run low-performing schools. Teams from both chambers have their work cut out for them as they begin negotiations that will, in the end, evolve into a political pissing match between House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Gov. Rick Perry, whose political future is riding in part on an education package, will have the last word. If worse comes to worst, Perry can still hope for a favorable outcome from the Texas Supreme Court, which is expected to take up the state's appeal of the district court's ruling come July.

Between now and the last day of the session, anything can happen on school finance – a nerve-wracking prospect for any stakeholder. John Cole, director of Texas Federation of Teachers, issued this statement: "The public recognizes that the Legislature is in a muddle over school finance, because providing the money to improve education has always been an afterthought to lawmakers wrangling over property tax reductions."

The Usual (Anglo) Suspects

The anti-tax sentiment is especially strong among members of Craddick's negotiating team. The speaker appointed an all-white, Republican cast of men (save for one woman) to do his bidding on the pair of school bills. The HB 2 team includes Kent Grusendorf of Arlington, Dianne White Delisi of Temple, Rob Eissler of the Woodlands, and Bill Keffer and Dan Branch, both of Dallas. For HB 3, Craddick assembled Jim Keffer of Eastland, Warren Chisum of Pampa, John Otto of Dayton, David Swinford of Amarillo, and Charlie Geren of Fort Worth. Craddick defended the narrowness of his choices by saying they were confined to those who voted for the bill; more than one observer (and newspaper editorial) noted that if the bill's support is that narrow, perhaps it wasn't particularly good legislation in the first place.

Dewhurst added a dash of gender and color to the Senate conference mix, although his committees will also be dominated by senators from wealthy suburban districts. Batting for HB 2: Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas; Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria; Royce West, D-Dallas; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; and Kyle Janek, R-Houston. For HB 3, Dewhurst called on Steve Ogden, R-Bryan; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; Todd Staples, R-Palestine; Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; and Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth.

Reshuffling the Deck

The Senate doesn't go as far as the House in cutting the property tax rate, proposing $1.10 per $100 valuation by the end of 2007 – a 40-cent reduction from the existing $1.50 cap. (The House version would cap taxes at $1 while allowing 10 cents in local enrichment.) The Senate's remake of HB 3 – the funding component of the education plan – would increase the state sales tax by half a penny, raise alcohol and tobacco taxes, and create a business tax on company payrolls.

After ditching its statewide property tax plan – Craddick had made it clear that the House would never buy it – the Senate ended up with the very funding system that it had sought to avoid, a variation on the existing "Robin Hood" method of property-wealthy districts sharing their tax revenue with economically disadvantaged districts. The bill would reduce from 135 to 102 the number of school districts required to share their wealth, and shave the "recapture" amount from $1.15 billion to $607 million.

The uniform dissatisfaction that teachers and administrators have with the plan crosses political, economic, and ethnic boundaries. The common denominator is, as always, money, says Eanes ISD Superintendent Nola Wellman. "The bill didn't do what we hoped it would do, which is, first and foremost, raise the amount of money going to education," she said. "The Legislature can't convince us that $2.8 billion is sufficient because it isn't – it doesn't even come close."

Eanes, a designated "property-rich" district covering just 31 square miles of Austin's wealthier neighborhoods west of MoPac, consistently ranks among the top academic districts in the country. Wellman points out that students in her district have some built-in advantages over other districts – such as highly educated and actively involved parents. But Eanes, which shares 59% of its tax revenue with other districts, faces the same agonizing slicing-and-dicing rituals as other districts, Wellman said. Robin Hood isn't the problem, she observed, but the Legislature's reluctance to invest in public education. "You have the lobby forces of the business community influencing the Legislature because they're concerned about taxes," she said. "Our taxpayers don't mind sharing with other districts, but they do mind having to constantly cut programs. Our community is very upset about that. Plus," she added, "there's a mindset that there is a lot of waste in education, but I challenge any of them to come over here and look at our budget. I don't know where they think the waste is, but I don't see it." end story

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educationTexas Legislature, school finance, House bill 2, House Bill 3, Rick Perry, Tom Craddick, David Dewhurst, Kent Grusendorf, Dianne White Delisi, Rob Eissler, Bill Keffer, Dan Branch, Jim Keffer, Warren Chisum, John Otto, David Swinford, Charlie Geren, Florence Shapiro, Ken Armbrister, Royce West

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