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Texas House Attempts Ambitious School Funding Fix

Flickr user Phil Ostroff

AUSTIN — An ambitious House proposal to fix the much-criticized way Texas pays for its public schools seeks to pour $3 billion extra into classrooms and reduce the state’s reliance on the so-called “Robin Hood” funding mechanism — even as a multiyear court battle continues to rage.

Unveiled Tuesday by the lower chamber’s leading schools expert, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the sweeping bill would increase per-pupil funding for 94 percent of the state’s 5.2 million public school students — with some school districts in wealthy areas, or those not currently collecting local property taxes at high enough rates, virtually the only ones left out.

No district would see current funding levels decline over the first two years of the plan. Education advocacy groups have for weeks cheered Aycock’s attempted school finance overhaul — but all sides also agree it’s still a long way from becoming law.

Texas has no state income tax, meaning public education funding relies heavily on local property taxes and a “Robin Hood” system under which school districts in wealthier parts of the state share funding with those in poorer areas. Aycock’s plan would scrap a series of “outdated” funding formulas and de-emphasize the share-the-wealth plan by ensuring that Texas’ poor school districts get more new funding than their wealthier counterparts.

“I think it does what's right for kids,” said Aycock, a Killeen Republican who spent months building bipartisan support for a proposal he says he can shepherd through the lower chamber.

The problem may lie in the Senate, which has focused more on advancing school voucher plans than freeing up additional money for classrooms. While both chambers have called for property and business tax cuts, the Senate has made “tax relief” a higher priority than education funding.

In their draft state budgets, both the Senate and House increased school funding by $2-plus billion to cover public school enrollment that grows by 80,000 students per year amid a statewide population boom.

The House approved its budget plan after an all-night debate last week and included an extra $2.2 billion in new funding beyond enrollment growth costs — money that's largely available because of rising property values statewide that have increased tax revenues. An additional $800 million to fully fund Aycock's plan can come via a rider.

The Senate has yet to approve its budget, but hasn't yet earmarked extra money above enrollment growth costs.

Aycock said he hadn't spoken to Senate budget writers or Gov. Greg Abbott's office and when asked about the possibility of closing the $3 billion gap, only smiled. “We’re hoping they’ll see it our way,” he said.

Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse was non-committal Monday, saying only, “Governor Abbott will consider any proposal passed by the legislature that aims to make Texas better.”

Public sentiment may build for Aycock’s plan because attempting it defies conventional legislative wisdom — that lawmakers shouldn't touch school finance policy while the courts are still involved.

The current case began in 2011, when the GOP-controlled Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education funding. That prompted more than 600 school districts statewide to sue — triggering Texas’ sixth major school finance legal fight since 1984.

Lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in funding in 2013. Last year, a district judge in Austin declared the school finance system unconstitutional, saying funding was inadequate and unfairly distributed among school districts.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on appeal, but won’t do so until the current legislative session is over. If it agrees with the previous decision, it would order lawmakers to remake the school finance system and could wipe out Aycock’s plan or any other actions lawmakers take this summer.

But Aycock said he believes that if his plan comes to fruition it will be enough to resolve the court case. “I’m not a lawyer, I'd hate to speculate,” he said, “but I think so.” (AP)