Senate takes lead on school finance debate
AUSTIN -- Just two days into the 79th Legislative Session, state senate leaders announced the framework for new legislation to solve the problem posed by public school finance. The furor over how to pay for public schools has been the state's top priority issue for more than a year. The Senate plan has goals for reducing local property taxes, improving education and providing more money for Texas' nearly 300,000 public school teachers.
"The plan represents a good start," said State Senator Royce West, vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. "It is urgent that we start immediately in crafting legislation to fix the problem that's loomed over Texas for a decade. We must find new revenue sources that will not only pay for schools, but provide a measure of relief to homeowners struggling with high taxes. But while a new finance system is critical, providing a high quality education is still paramount.
More than 700 of Texas 1,034 school districts are at or are near the maximum property tax rate. Many Dallas County cities have tax rates that are among the highest in North Texas. Residential property taxes are a major revenue source for Texas public schools. Last fall, District Court Judge John Dietz ruled the state's current finance plan unconstitutional. A new system must be in place by October 1, 2005. While districts across Texas are divided in their support of the current "Robin Hood" plan, most agree that schools are underfunded. The new plan will explore a lower, broad-based business tax that differs markedly from the existing business franchise tax.
"As we explore new plans to finance our schools, we must be careful about options that raise sales taxes," said Senator West. "I share the opinion that higher sales taxes would disproportionately impact those who can least afford it. But it is clear that new revenue sources must be put on the table for debate, including gaming proposals."
The Senate plan includes a pay increase that will raise Texas' teachers to the national average. Additional resources for schools will include new accountability and performance standards, but will not be linked to additional testing. The plan also restores health insurance compensation to previous levels cut in 2003. Reform measures contained in the bill package will expand dual language instruction and allot more money for pre-kindergarten programs. The overall goal is to increase spending on public education by more than 10 percent. Texas now spends $30 billion annually on public schools.
For more information, please call Kelvin Bass or LaJuana Barton at 512-463-0123.