Texas Senate moves forward on education funding plan

By Richard Lee
For the Fort Bend Star

The Texas Senate approved its proposal for increasing education spending before a possible school finance overhaul next session.

The bill, passed late Monday night, would add more than half a billion dollars to districts and teacher retirement programs, much less than the $1.8 billion proposed by the House in its proposal. The chambers have just two more days to work out a compromise before the session ends Wednesday.

Bill author and Friendswood Senator Larry Taylor said the two sides have reached an agreement on how to pay for the increase. The Legislature would defer payments to Medicaid managed care organizations at the end of fiscal year 2019, leaving more money on the books for this biennium. The delay is not expected to affect healthcare service delivery.

What is not agreed on is how much to spend. The Senate’s version includes $150 million to help school districts still depending on a hold-harmless provision from 2006, when the Legislature voted to compress local school property taxes by a third. It was hoped that rising property values would eventually make up this loss of revenue, but some districts still rely on state aid. With that provision set to end in September, these districts would face severe hardship and steep cuts.

Also in the Senate plan is $120 million for new facilities funding for public education. The money would be split equally between traditional and charter public schools. The plan would also spend $41 million to phase out the small-district adjustment penalty.

The Legislature passed that adjustment more than 30 years ago to encourage smaller rural districts to consolidate, but it means that many still-existing small districts get less per-capita funding than their larger counterparts. The Senate plan would phase that penalty out over the next six years. An amendment added by Houston Senator Joan Huffman would create a $40 million grant program for students with dyslexia and autism.

The final provision in the bill would add $212 million to help lower healthcare costs for retired teachers. Teacher Retirement System beneficiaries who are under 65 would see their deductibles cut in half, while those over 65 would see a savings of about $120 year in premiums. Like school finance, TRS reform is likely to be a major issue when the Legislature reconvenes in 2019.

Now the House and Senate will begin negotiating a final measure to present to both chambers. Five members of each chamber will hash out an agreement to present to both chambers, where majority approval will send the bill to the governor for his signature. Time is running out though; lawmakers will have less than 48 hours to come to a compromise before the special session ends.

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