Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Larry Taylor.
An effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered school finance system has been declared dead after the Texas Senate Education Committee’s chairman said Wednesday that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House.
“That deal is dead,” Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.
Taylor’s remarks come after his counterpart in the House, Dan Huberty, R-Houston, gave a passionate speech in which he said he would not accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21 and would seek a conference committee with the Senate.
HB 21 was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state's funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a "poison pill": a "private school choice" program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pronounced the bill dead in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
"Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam. I simply did not believe they would vote against both disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools,” he said in the statement. "I was wrong. House Bill 21 is now dead."
House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate has not prioritized school finance reform this session.
"We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse," he said.
HB 21 was the first time in years that the Legislature has taken up major school finance reform without a court mandate.
"Members, some of your schools will be forced to close in the next year based on the committee substitute of House Bill 21," as passed by the Senate, Huberty said, before moving to go to conference. "I refuse to give up. I'll continue trying. Let's at least attempt to rescue this bill."
The House voted 134-15 to request a conference committee with the Senate on the bill.
Huberty chastised the Senate for carving out the funding for schools as well as the fixes to the formula intended to make the system more equitable.
“The new version contains no method of finance,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, the budget is closed. There is no money in the budget for that bill.”
Taylor has said he would not agree on a version of the bill without the “private school choice” program. “There won’t be a conference committee,” he said.
Taylor contested Huberty’s statement that the Senate hadn’t considered any method for funding the bill. He said he had talked with Huberty on Tuesday about creating extra money by deferring payments to management care organizations through Medicaid. “There was a source of funding,” he said. “Unfortunately, what was said on the House floor was not true.”
The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the state’s system for allocating money to public schools was constitutional but fundamentally flawed, or “lawful but awful,” Huberty reminded the House. “Over the first month of the session, we tried to work with every interested party to craft a plan that would help every school district.”
He said the “private school choice” program the Senate stuck in his bill would not help students with disabilities, because it would provide each with about $8,000 of state money to attend specialized private schools that cost much more: an average of $15,000. Huberty had tried to get the Senate to include one of his own bills, creating a $20 million grant program for schools helping students with autism, instead of the voucher-like program for kids with special needs. Taylor ultimately included both in the version voted out of the Senate.
House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, made a nonbinding motion to prevent House members of the conference committee from including any voucher-like programs in the school finance bill. That motion passed 101-45.
The motion upset Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, who authored the only “private school choice” bill in the House, which would subsidize private school tuition for students with special needs. “You’re saying you don’t want the conference body to even consider having any kind of special-needs school choice? I know all of you have a place in your heart for these children,” he said.
Simmons made a motion to allow House conferees to consider voucher-like programs for kids with disabilities. The motion failed 47-89.
“It’s really amazing to me that our body is so afraid from helping out special-needs children with education choice that they wouldn’t even have the conferees discuss it,” Simmons later told The Texas Tribune.
He said Texas would probably never be able to get school finance reform unless both chambers passed some form of “private school choice.”
“As long as the Senate is as it is going forward, every school finance bill will have some kind of a choice attached to it. So either the House is going to say, ‘We never want any more money,’ or else they’re going to say, ‘We want some type of choice system that works,’” Simmons said.
Patrick had offered to barter for the “private school choice” program with a bill that tweaks the state's A-F grading system for districts and schools. He said he would delay the system's implementation to 2019. The Senate is expected to take up that piece of legislation, House Bill 22, Wednesday — and it won’t include a delay of the system’s implementation, Taylor said Wednesday.
School superintendents really want that delay to the A-F grading system, but not enough to concede on any type of voucher-like program, which they said would suck money from public schools. More than 40 public education advocacy groups sent letters to all Senate offices asking them not to vote for the bill, before the Senate voted to approve the bill.
Read related Tribune coverage:
- The Texas Senate voted to approve a bill that would simplify funding formulas for public schools and let parents use state money to send their kids with disabilities to private schools or pay for homeschooling.
- A Senate committee passed the House’s major school finance reform bill, after adding a controversial provision subsidizing private school tuition for special needs students — a move unlikely to go over well in the House.
- The Senate Education Committee discussed a bill that would radically simplify the state's school finance formula, stripping it of some antiquated provisions. Parents and educators who testified wanted a few new provisions added in.