Last week, the House of Representatives passed its version of school finance reform with House Bills 2 and 3. Today, members of the Senate Education Committee joined with Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in highlighting the Senate plan for increasing funding for public education while reducing local property taxes. "The shipwreck of Texas school finance system has run aground," said Dewhurst, "The House has passed these two bills, that shows that they're willing to work with us to right the course. And in the Senate we're going to work with them to make sure our Texas students, each of them, has the opportunity to have a first-rate education."
Senator Florence Shapiro, who chairs the Education committee, laid out the main goals of the Senate plan to reform public education in the state. The Senate wants to focus on post-secondary education readiness for Texas high school students. To do this, the Senate plans to increase accountability standards for high schools and take steps to reduce the high school drop-out rate in Texas, one of the highest in the nation. Shapiro added that teachers must be better compensated for their valuable work, accomplished through performance-based incentives and a pay raise to bring Texas teachers' salaries up to the national average. The Senate plan will also focus on at-risk and bilingual students, and put more money into facilities and textbooks. All in all, the proposed Senate plan will increase school funding by $6.7 billion over the next biennium. "Our goal for the students is to provide all students in Texas with an education that prepares them for the 21st century," said Shapiro. Shapiro added that the Education committee will begin hearings on education finance reform on the week following Easter, with a finished product on the Senate floor at the end of April.
The other half of the school finance plan promises significant property tax relief through the elimination of local property taxes. Most districts in the state already assess the $1.50 per $100 valuation cap, and the Senate plan would replace this local assessment with a state-wide property tax, set at $1.00 per $100. Local districts would be able to levy a 15 cent per $100 valuation for local enrichment with voter approval. The Senate plans to make up for the loss of revenue by closing the franchise tax loophole that currently excludes many Texas businesses, such as service-oriented companies. "Our tax system in Texas cries out for reform," said Senator Steve Ogden, Chair of the Senate Finance committee. "It is antiquated, it is out of touch with the 21st century economy. If we are successful, and I think we will be ,we will produce a package that is mostly reform, that aligns our taxes and revenue collection mechanisms with the 21st century." The Senate plan seeks additional revenue without creating new taxes, but could raise some existing taxes, such as increases in alcohol, cigarette, or motor vehicle taxes. Ogden said he expects the Finance committee to vote out a new education finance bill by the first week of May. Additional information on the Senate school finance reform plan can be found at www.texaschildrenfirst.com.
The Senate will reconvene Thursday, March 17th at 8:00 A.M. to consider the Local and Consent Calendar, and will meet in regular session at 10:00 A.M.