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Compromise Reached on Texas" School-Finance Measure

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A conference committee of theTexas legislature worked out a compromise last week for overhaulingthe state's $14-billion school-financesystem before a court-imposed April1 deadline.

The compromise measure, developed by Representative ErnestineGlossbrenner, chairman of the House education committee, and Senator Carl A. Parker, chairman ofthe Senate education panel, was 3passed out of a House-Senate conference committee by an 8-to-2 vote last Thursday and was expected to be taken up by the House this week.

"No one is very excited about it.It's an ugly baby, but it's the only baby we've got," said Speaker of the house Gib Lewis.

The conference committee members removed a sticking point that stymied negotiations earlier last week by agreeing to study, rather than act on, the fate of the state's Cost of Education Index, which attempts to even out the buying power of districts.

A spokesman for Mr. Lewis said the index did not need to be changed to comply with the state supreme court ruling striking down the school-financing system, and the legislature probably will take up the issue next year after receiving the study it authorized last week.

The supreme court, which first declared the state school-finance system unconstitutional in 1989, in January vowed to cut off school aid if lawmakers did not pass an acceptable program by April. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

Equity Stumbling Block

House and Senate lawmakers met separately on and off last week with periodic exchanges between each group's leaders, observers said.

After lawmakers failed to resolve several differences, Senator Parkeron Monday canceled the meeting called to vote on the measure, and legislative leaders abandoned earlier plans to move the bill to the full house and Senate last Wednesday. After private talks between Mr.Parker and Ms. Glossbrenner, leaders called the conference committee back into session on Thursday, when the panel approved the agreement. Senator Parker and others had suggested last week that the underlying concept of the finance reform--that wealthy districts give up some of their locally generated revenue to nearby poor districts--was still a stumbling block to several conferees. Some of them are having a real hard time dealing with the concept that rich districts have to share their wealth with others," said Brad Ritter, communications director for the Texas State Teachers Association.

But legislative aides had noted that the conference panel had made substantial progress on the sticky question of unequalized enrichment, which would allow districts to keep half of their locally generated funds once they surpassed the minimum property-tax level required by the bill.

The panel also opted for the House bill's plan to create 183 taxing districts, with borders based largely on county lines. The new formula would redistribute some of the money generated by wealthy districts to poorer districts within the local tax unit.

The Senate bill would have carved the state into only 2 tax districts.

Calculating Education's Costs

Last Tuesday's meeting came to an end after disagreement over the fate of the cei, which next year would distribute an estimated $937 million to the state's 1,052 school districts in an effort to even their buying power.

Because the index is based solely on the salary of beginning teachers, critics contend it unfairly benefits wealthy and urban school districts that can afford larger payrolls.

Several legislators have recommended phasing out the program.

Fred G. Wilkerson, superintendent of the Cooper Independent School District in northeast Texas, said many rural educators are concerned that maintaining the index without changing its formula or increasing a similar aid program for small schools would only feed inequities by benefiting the state's largest and wealthiest school districts.

"If they're going to do it, let's do it fairly," said Mr. Wilkerson, who argued that costs such as fuel and utilities should be factored into the formula if the program remains.

"There's a great deal of progress being made on the real issue, and that's equity," said Betsy Heard, an aide to Representative Gregory Luna. "We're not promising it's a solution the plaintiffs and the court will accept, but at least we're moving in that direction."

Observers said an announcement last week by Mr. Kauffman and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund that they could not challenge the Senate bill's finance remedy did not alter the conference committee's compromise, which more closely resembled the House bill.

Mr. Kauffman said he could not predict how the group would respond to a plan based largely on the House bill, which puts greater emphasis on unequalized enrichment. Information for this story was also gathered by Peter Schmidt.

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