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Texas schools would get nearly $2B if House bills pass

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Robert T. Garrett, The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN -- The House on Friday advanced four school finance bills that would pump nearly $2 billion more into public schools over the next two years.

In a related action, the chamber's leaders also offered Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate a way to empower parents of disabled students that would be an alternative to a voucher-type program.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty said he wants to help end an impasse with senators that has blocked major action on school finance all year.

"I want to solve the problems. I don't want to be a roadblock," said Huberty, a Kingwood Republican.

Referring to senators, he said, "I hope they'll take our olive branch seriously so we can sit down and have meaningful discussions."

The four bills the full House approved in a preliminary vote mark "the first step toward fixing school finance," he said. They'd begin to reverse lawmakers' tendency in recent years to shift more of schools' cost to local property taxpayers, Huberty said.

"The state today is funding less of the cost of education than we ever have," he said.

Local effect

Bills by Huberty and chief House budget writer John Zerwas would increase the per-student basic allotment in the two-year cycle that begins Sept. 1 to $5,350, from $5,140.

That would reduce inequities among districts and slow a growing burden on property-wealthy districts such as Plano -- which are making bigger and bigger "Robin Hood" payments to poorer districts.

Huberty's bill would eliminate a 1993 provision favorable to school districts that at least then were very wealthy, such as Highland Park and Glen Rose, home to a nuclear power plant.

Dallas GOP Rep. Morgan Meyer, who represents Highland Park, joined the chamber's staunchest conservatives in opposing the bill. It advanced, 130-12.

By a vote of 67-61, House members defeated Canadian GOP Rep. Ken King's bill to extend by two years the life of a 2006 program known as Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction. His bill would have cost $356 million.

The program was designed to guarantee that no districts would lose state aid after lawmakers required a one-third cut in local property tax rates. In the Dallas area, Prosper is the biggest district affected by the program, which is scheduled to end Aug. 31.

However, Huberty's main school-finance bill would offer $200 million in "hardship" grants to some of the 166 affected districts.

Without any help, 10 of them might have to close, forcing students in small towns to be consolidated into nearby districts, King and Huberty said.

Voucher option

Before Patrick and the Senate will agree to major action on school finance, they have insisted the Legislature must pass their bill creating state subsidies for disabled students to attend private schools.

Senators have tied their "tax credit scholarships" for special education students to a more modest set of school-finance tweaks costing $270 million.

Huberty, though, stressed there is still time to negotiate an education deal in the current special session. It's expected to end Aug. 16.

He highlighted portions of the House bills that would help disabled students, short of a voucher-type program. One would create a $20 million, two-year pilot program of state grants to school districts to help students with autism. Another would fund for the first time a special education grant program established in 2009. It would receive $30 million.

After the House adjourned for the weekend, Huberty held a meeting of his panel. It gutted the Senate's voucher and school finance bill, instead attaching the provisions of a bill by Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston.

VanDeaver, a voucher opponent, said the bill would help parents who are dissatisfied with how districts are treating their children who are special education students or receive accommodations for their disabilities.

Such parents could apply to the Texas Education Agency for some of the $30 million in grant money. The children would stay in the public schools but outside of school hours, they could use grant money to pay for services from cooperatives, speech and occupational therapists and other private providers, he said.

"The school district does not have veto power of this program," VanDeaver said.

A former school superintendent, he called the House grants plan "the best of all worlds."

The providers would have to be approved by TEA, and the parents would retain their rights under federal law to appeal districts' decisions, he said.

"We are providing the parents the freedom they have asked for," he said. "We are providing the accountability that we as conservatives demand. And most of all, it's providing that child the services they need."

Support for study

Huberty offered another concession to Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott.

If the Senate accepts the House's finance bills, Huberty said he'll relent and help pass a bill to create a commission that would study school finance. In recent months, he has said it's unnecessary.

For a deal to work, though, the two chambers also would have to resolve their differences over how to fund school-finance tweaks. The House wants to delay by one month the state's main school-aid payment, while the Senate wants to delay a payment to Medicaid insurers.

The four House bills are expected to receive final approval on Monday.