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Budget Plans Target Incentives and Testing

The budget proposals released by lawmakers this week show an interest in revamping school testing and the state's economic incentive programs.

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In budget proposals that the House and Senate released this week, legislative leaders signaled their priorities as much by what they funded as by what they didn’t.

Neither budget offers new funding for controversial economic incentive programs run out of the governor’s office.

The draft House budget does not include any money for standardized testing in schools, while the Senate budget appropriates $98.4 million for student assessment programs.

A House official who briefed reporters Tuesday said both moves were done out of an acknowledgment that many lawmakers have concerns about both the state’s approach to student testing and the incentive programs. Starting the budget with no new funding prompts a discussion on their merits and forces supporters to make their case to lawmakers and the public about what level of funding is appropriate, said the official.

While state lawmakers have concerns about student testing, they are almost certain to fund it at some level and are probably required to under federal law. The role of standardized testing in public education has drawn questions and pushback across the nation. The state’s latest standardized test program, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), was implemented for the first time last year but complaints about the program prompted the Texas Education Agency to allow school districts to choose whether to implement a rule that requires the assessments count for 15 percent of high school students' final grades.

In his speech to the House on the session’s opening day, Speaker Joe Straus said every member of the Legislature has heard complaints about “the burdens of an increasingly cumbersome testing system in our schools.” He promised that lawmakers would create a system that’s more flexible and reasonable.

“To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing: the Texas House has heard you,” Straus said.

Economic incentive programs like the Texas Enterprise Fund have been under fire for years as critics, including some Tea Party leaders, have described them as “corporate welfare.” Some lawmakers have argued that business executives have probably made up their minds to do business in the state before applying for economic incentives, making them a waste of public money. Others have questioned whether cronyism is playing a role in the size of the incentives or which businesses receive them.

The budgets offered by both chambers offer no new funding for economic incentive programs but did leave funding left over in the funds from the current biennium including $120 million for the Texas Enterprise Fund and $7.2 million for the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. The state’s film incentives program would not have any state money to award new grants under the proposed budgets.

Gov. Rick Perry plans to defend the role of the incentive programs in boosting the state’s economy, according to Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman with Perry’s office.

“Budgets as introduced are always a starting point and our office expects to have to make our case for important programs, just as other agencies have to make theirs,” Nashed said. “Ultimately, the governor believes these incentive funds are important to our state’s economic strength and job creation prospects, and we’ll work with lawmakers to see them move forward.”

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, the current leader of the House Democratic Caucus, expressed concern that the fight to fund economic incentive programs could get in the way of efforts to restore the $5.4 billion in cuts to public education lawmakers made last session.

"Public education advocates will have to compete with economic development interests for the surplus funds when education must come first if Texas' economy is to grow," Farrar said in a prepared statement.

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