Education: Dialing for Dollars
School funding remains unconstitutional: Will the Lege act?
When the subject is public schools and the Texas Legislature, it's less about what bills have been pre-filed, and more about what everyone knows is coming. First, there's the fallout from Judge John Dietz's ruling that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional. Second, with Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick dominating the Senate, there will almost inevitably be another conservative push for vouchers and charters. However, those fights may in fact provide more light than heat. Last session, Patrick's plans ran afoul of both urban Democrats and rural Republicans, who see both charters and vouchers as fiscal bear traps for their districts, getting fat by raiding their already-limited property tax coffers. In a Dec. 2 education symposium at the Capitol, Raise Your Hand Texas CEO David Anthony warned, "There won't be a public school fund and a voucher fund." However, the expectation remains that Patrick and his allies will submit stealth bills – for example, a pilot program for kids in special ed programs or students with disabilities.
On the budget, with the state currently appealing Dietz's ruling, the suspicion is that serious discussion will wait until special sessions – or potentially 2017. However, there's still room for tinkering around the edges. Two Senate Democrats – Laredo's Judith Zaffirini and Houston's Rodney Ellis – have filed bills to increase pre-K provision (Senate Bills 23 and 72 respectively), while Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has drafted a stack of bills allowing struggling districts to keep more of their property taxes.
As for two- and four-year colleges, there is broad discussion about adding more Tier One research universities, but affordability and student debt remain key issues. According to House Higher Education Committee Member Donna Howard, D-Austin, there is serious discussion about increasing tuition assistance, or potentially even re-regulating college fees, but, she noted, "There is no consensus so far." However, she does see an easier path for building and upgrading college campuses. "Every last rep. and senator last session backed the tuition revenue bonds," she said, but they failed due to "political fumbling at the last minute." Zaffirini has already filed SB 21, which could provide billions in construction bonds for Texas' aging and overcrowded campuses.