School Finance Plan Praised in Capitol Hearing

A plan to overhaul the state’s public education funding system from a top House lawmaker received largely favorable reviews from school districts during a marathon legislative hearing that ended late Tuesday night.

House Public Education Committee chair Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, on the floor during House Bill 1 debate March 31, 2015.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

A plan from a top House lawmaker to overhaul the state’s public education funding system received largely favorable reviews from school districts during a marathon legislative hearing that ended late Tuesday night.

“While this bill, some consider it not to be perfect, for us fortunately it is a significant step in the right direction,” Houston Independent School District Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones said during a meeting of the House Committee on Public Education.

Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has argued since the legislative session began that lawmakers shouldn’t wait for the outcome of a school finance lawsuit to consider changes to the school finance system.

In March, Aycock said that after months of discussion House leaders had decided to push for an update to the system. His proposal, House Bill 1759, seeks to simplify and bring more equity to district funding across the state. 

"We had to ask the fundamental question: Do we want to do what's right for the state of Texas and the children of Texas, or do we want to sit around and try to play lawyer and outguess the courts?" he told reporters at a Capitol news conference last month.

Texas school districts filed litigation challenging the state's school finance system after lawmakers slashed more than $5 billion from the public education budget in 2011.

A Travis County district judge ruled in the districts' favor in August, saying the way the state distributes money to districts is unconstitutional because of both inadequate and unequal funding. The state appealed the lawsuit to the high court, which is expected to hear the case this year.

Aycock's proposal removes multiple provisions in the current school finance system. 

It drops the number of districts that must send money back to the state under “recapture,” or what’s commonly known as Robin Hood. The nickname comes from the practice of taking property tax revenue from richer districts and redistributing it to poorer districts in an attempt to equalize school funding throughout Texas.

That adjustment, Skillern-Jones said, was a life raft for school districts that are “property rich, but poor in students” — those that have high property values but large populations of low-income students — like Houston. The district faces sending $200 million back to the state in the 2016-2017 school year.

(See how individual school districts would fare under Aycock's plan here.)

It also eliminates the “Cost of Education Index,” which gives districts extra money based on characteristics like size, teacher salaries in neighboring districts and percentage of low-income students. Under Aycock’s proposal, that money would instead go to overall per-student funding.

That change that generated the most discussion Tuesday. Both smaller school districts that would lose money meant to help them account for economies of scale and districts with high numbers of the low-income and English-language learning students that the index is supposed to help raised caution about the effects of such a shift.

“While I never say no to money … I would ask that it would be looked at in the way that it is distributed,” said Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers. “I believe that our most needy students … are perhaps are going to get left out.”

Representatives from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Center For Public Policy Priorities said it would actually increase, not decrease, inequity in the public education system. 

Many who spoke at the hearing praised Aycock for tackling the topic of school finance without waiting for a decision from the Texas Supreme Court. 

"There are lots of good things here. This is actually a bold bill in that it does some things that we haven’t done yet," said Wayne Pierce, the executive director of the Equity Center, a nonprofit organization that represents school districts with low property wealth. "It seems to step out and take some risks." 

On Tuesday, Aycock adjourned the committee without taking a vote on the bill.