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"Disappointed" House accepts Senate's changes to school finance bill

The Texas House voted Tuesday to swallow a bitter pill and accept a version of a school finance bill that had $1.5 billion less in funding for schools than the lower chamber initially approved.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, stands as fellow members talk about a school finance bill on Aug. 15, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from House Speaker Joe Straus.

After three hours of private negotiations and almost two hours of public debate Tuesday, the Texas House decided to agree with the Senate's decision to strip funding and reforms from a school finance bill.

The House voted 94-46 to accept the Senate's changes to House Bill 21, which would put some immediate funding into public schools. The Senate voted out a bill last night that stripped $1.5 billion of new funding and all reforms to the outdated formulas for allocating that money. It also tasked a commission with studying future reform to the school finance system.

"To say I'm disappointed is an understatement," said House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, before moving to concur with the changes the Senate made to the bill. The House also voted 118-24 to concur with the Senate's method of funding the bill, deferring a payment to health care companies that provide Medicaid.

House Speaker Joe Straus said that after multiple discussions with the Senate, it was clear that advancing HB 21 with the Senate's changes was the House's best option.

"In its final form, this bill does not do nearly enough to help public education, but it does take some steps in the right direction," Straus said in a prepared statement. "It will help retired teachers struggling with surging health insurance costs, provide needed resources for some school districts facings severe challenges, and help schools educate students with certain disabilities'" Straus said.

On the House floor Tuesday, several representatives argued that the lower chamber should instead go to a conference committee to hash out the details in private, or reject the Senate's amendments and send the bill back to the Senate.

"Take back this crap and fix it," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. "I'm one person who doesn't like being run over by the Senate."

Huberty said he chose to concur to avoid losing funding for retired teachers, who would get $212 million for their health insurance program through the Senate's version of HB 21. "We cannot afford to have our retired teachers absorb that cost," he said.

The Senate's version of HB 21 would put $351 million into public schools, including $120 million for charter schools and traditional schools to pay for new facilities. It also helps small, rural districts with a $150 million transitional grant to offset the upcoming loss of a state aid program and $41 million to remove an existing financial penalty for small districts. The Senate on Tuesday added $40 million for an autism and dyslexia grant program for public schools.

HB 21 also put $212 million into the Teacher Retirement System to make the TRS-CARE health insurance program more affordable for retired teachers over the next two years.

Instead of increasing the base funding per student across the state, the Senate's version would leave most school districts with no additional funding.

Educators have thrown their support behind the original $1.8 billion version of HB 21, with almost 1,500 school superintendents and school board trustees writing a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last week asking the Senate not to change the bill.

Several representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, angrily questioned Huberty about the more controversial provisions the Senate added to HB 21, including facilities funding for charter schools, and about the loss of provisions they favored.

The bill "came back almost $1.5 billion skinny," said Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman. 

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, argued the Senate's $150 million for transitional grants to help rural schools does not help larger school districts that are the sole educational institutions in their counties.

Huberty promised to work with the Texas Education Agency to ensure the grants are allocated in a logical way, to help as many schools as possible. "We need to make sure that these school districts won't close," Huberty said.

Abbott signed HB 21 Wednesday with a statement that thanked Sen. Larry Taylor, the bill's Senate sponsor — but not Huberty. He also thanked Rep. Phil King, the author of a bill in the House to create a commission to study school finance reform.

“My job as governor is to ensure that we attract and we retain the best and brightest educators and provide the highest quality education possible for all students. I want to thank Sen. Larry Taylor and Rep. Phil King for working toward this goal on behalf of both Texas educators and students this special session," he said in the statement.

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