*Correction appended

The top public education policymaker in the Texas House unveiled a $1.6 billion plan on Monday that he described as a first step to overhauling the state’s beleaguered school funding system. 

At a Capitol press conference, state Rep. Dan Huberty said House Bill 21 would boost per-student funding for nearly every public and charter school in the state while reducing the amount of money wealthier school districts are required to give up to buoy poorer ones. The state's so-called Robin Hood plan has become a hot-button political issue as large districts like Houston have recently had to begin making payments.

"House Bill 21 will not only improve our schools but it will also reduce the need for higher property taxes," said Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs of the House Public Education Committee.

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The panel will discuss the legislation and several other school finance bills at a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Huberty described the bipartisan-backed plan as the starting point in a "multi-session approach" to overhauling the way the state funds public and charter schools — the subject of almost constant litigation for the past few decades. The Texas Supreme Court deemed the system constitutional last year while also calling for "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid." After the ruling, House Speaker Joe Straus ordered the House to study and recommend fixes.

Flanked by House Democrats and Republicans and school officials, Huberty ran through the details of the bill on Monday. 

He said HB 21 would increase the basic funding for almost all school districts from $5,140 to $5,350 per student every year. That would happen in part through an increase in transportation funding by $125 per student for all school districts, including property-wealthy ones that currently have limited access to that money. 

It also would increase the amount of money the state gives to schools for students with dyslexia and would include funding for high schools and non-professional staff in the basic formula, which determines how much money school districts get from the state per student.

Huberty estimated it would lower payments that property-wealthy school districts make to the state to subsidize property-poor school districts by $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019. As the state's share of school funding has decreased, more school districts with swelling enrollment are on the hook for such Robin Hood payments. 

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The bill is similar to an unsuccessful school finance initiative filed in 2015 that would've injected twice as much money into the system — $3 billion — and boosted per-student funding across the board. Still, $1.6 billion is a significant sum amid the current budget crunch.

"This ultimately comes down to how will we pay for this. We will continue to appropriately make sure the money is there for public education," state Rep. John Zerwas said at Monday's news conference. The Richmond Republican chairs the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.

Funding for the bill is contingent on its passage.

According to a preliminary House data run, about 35 of the state's more than 1,200 school districts and charters would lose funding in 2018, with Seminole ISD taking one of the biggest hits at $2.3 million lost in operations revenue. And about 58 total school districts and charters would lose some funding in 2019 compared to current funding levels.

The calculations do not account for the additional money some school district would get through a two-year grant program included in the legislation. Another component of Huberty's bill would give money to dozens of school districts that are set to lose substantial state funding under a hold harmless provision in the current school finance system, which is set to expire this year. HB 21 would let that program end but create a two-year grant program to help districts who stand to lose the most money as a result. 

 

School officials and advocates praised the House on Monday for boosting public education funding and tackling an intricate funding system without a court mandate. But some of the praise was guarded. 

Kathleen Zimmerman, executive director of Austin-based NYOS Charter School, said at the news conference Monday that the increase in funding for would help charter schools and is a "step in the right direction." But she also reminded legislators that charter advocates have long hoped that the state will agree to pay for new charter facilities through the school finance system, as it does for many traditional school districts.

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"I do applaud the chairman for building a more transparent, and certainly a more simplified system," she said.

The Texas Charter Schools Association is holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon on several bills that would increase facilities funding. 

Chandra Villanueva, an education policy analyst at left-leaning policy group Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the bill was a "good first step for simplifying and addressing some of the inefficiencies in our system." But she said she is concerned that the two-year grant program continues inefficiencies in the school finance system that should just be phased out.

Even if the House approves the bill, its fate in the Senate remains unclear. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made it clear that passing a private school choice bill is his top priority; Huberty said last week that the school choice bill will not make it past the House Public Education Committee, potentially setting the stage for a power struggle.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that House Bill 21 would add funding for high schools and non-professional staff. It would fund those through the basic funding formula, which determines how much money school districts get from the state per student.

 

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