Texas House Bill Would Add Billions in School Funding

(CN) – “Revolutionary.” “Transformative.” “Monumental.” The superlatives were flying Tuesday as a bipartisan group of Texas state legislators rolled out a $9 billion school-finance and property-tax reform bill promising pay raises for teachers and relief for struggling homeowners.

There’s a large disparity in public school teachers’ pay in the country’s two most populous states: Texas teachers earn average salaries of $52,575, compared to $79,128 for California teachers, according to the National Education Agency.

Against a backdrop of recent statewide teacher strikes over poor pay in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma, House Bill 3 aims to bring Texas in line with the national trend of states recognizing that low pay is alienating educators and pushing promising candidates into other careers.

Introduced Tuesday by Representative Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, HB 3 would increase the state’s per-student contribution to school districts from $5,100 to $6,030, raise the minimum salary for teachers and let school districts dip into a $140 million fund for teacher recruitment and retention.

HB 3 calls for those changes to be protected by turning them into statutes, Representative Steve King said at a news conference Tuesday. King, a Republican, represents two rural counties in the Texas Panhandle.

“By putting it in statute we are guaranteeing it would take a change in that statute to ever do away with these pay raises. We are that serious about honoring our teachers and helping make teaching a profession once again and not just a job,” King said, surrounded on a dais at the state capitol building by some of the 80-plus legislators who have signed onto the bill.

Of the $9 billion, Huberty said, $6.3 billion will go to schools and $2.7 billion to tax relief. Huberty said the bill would lower school district property tax rates statewide by 4 cents per $100 of appraised property value. That equates to $100 in annual savings for the owner of a $250,000 home, according to the Texas Tribune.

Property taxes are pricing some Texans out of their homes because school districts were forced to raise taxes after the state cut $5 billion in education funding in 2011. The population of Texas public school students, meanwhile, has grown from 2 million to 5.4 million since 1989.

HB 3 includes funding for programs to ensure all students learn how to read by third grade and for poor school districts to pay for pre-kindergarten education.

The bill even sets aside funds for programs to help dyslexic students, which hits close to home for Huberty.

“We’ve finally funded dyslexia. We recognize that is a problem, as somebody who has a son who is dyslexic. I’m dyslexic, the speaker’s announced he’s dyslexic. That’s very important to us on a personal level. I’m pretty sure that’s going to stay in the bill,” Huberty said, referring to House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican.

At 200 pages, HB 3’s breadth is a stark contrast to the Texas Senate’s first school-reform salvo.

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 3 on Monday, approving $5,000 annual raises for full-time teachers and librarians.

Bonnen bristled when a reporter said the Senate will have a much easier time explaining its bill than the House will with HB 3. He said he does not know how you can call the Senate’s “$5,000 across-the-board pay raise, period, nothing else” a school-finance plan.

“No discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of absolutely incentivizing a teacher to go into a tougher school district to teach. What we have is a plan. And I’m proud of our plan,” Bonnen said.

With its introduction Tuesday, HB 3 took the first step in a journey full of switchbacks to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk.

It will be debated and amended in the Texas House, then – given the broad consensus among state lawmakers that school-finance reform is the legislature’s top priority– representatives will pass it to the Senate.

Once the Senate finishes its amendments it will go back to the House, then on to Abbott for his signature this spring.

Because Abbott named school-funding and property-tax reform priorities for this legislative session, lawmakers can immediately vote on HB 3 and SB 3. They are exempt from rules that block lawmakers from voting on legislation in the first 60 days of the 140-day session that started Jan. 8.

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