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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's School Finance Proposal Would Provide More Tax Relief Than New Funding

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
The Texas State Capitol building in downtown Austin.

An early estimate shows Gov. Greg Abbott's proposal for a school finance fix would provide three times more dollars for property tax relief as it would additional money for school districts in 2020.

That gap would widen to five times more by 2021, costing the state an additional $3 billion over that time period, according to a Texas Education Agency estimate released Tuesday during a meeting of the state's school finance commission.

It's just one proposal commission members could put in a report for lawmakers before the start of the 2019 legislative session. Some of them have expressed concern Texas could end up prioritizing property tax relief over proposals intended to improve student outcomes.

"It sounds to me like we could spend a tremendous amount of money and not have it affect education all that much," said state Rep. Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat. "I'm not opposed to property tax relief at all, but I don't know if it should be the one non-negotiable."

Commission members spent Tuesday morning discussing a long list of recommendations for improving the quality of public schools they have developed over the last 10 months; ideas include incentivizing schools to offer high-quality pre-K and pay effective teachers higher salaries.

They plan to vote on a draft report on Dec. 19, and are expected to deliver a final version by the end of the year.

Last month, the governor waded into the discussion and pitched his own plan, intended to help lighten residents' hefty tax bills and improve outcomes for public school students.

In raw numbers, estimates show his proposal would give taxpayers a break of $992 million in 2020, which would increase to $3.7 billion by 2023. It would provide $301 million additional funds for school districts in 2020, a figure that would drop to $74 million by 2023.

"For every three dollars spent on buying down tax relief, school districts get about a dollar of that," Nicole Conley-Johnson, chief financial officer at the Austin Independent School District, said of the governor's pitch.

"The main goal is tax relief," responded Leo Lopez, TEA's chief school finance officer.

Melissa Martin, a teacher at Galena Park Independent School District, spoke in favor of the proposal because it would decrease the negative effects of a longstanding program called Robin Hood, which requires wealthier school district to subsidize poorer ones to allow for equitable funding.

"We have to have property tax relief in this proposal," said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican, pointing out that some teachers can't afford to live near their schools.

The commission may not end up recommending a specific dollar amount lawmakers should spend on public education. Chairman Scott Brister, appointed by Abbott, has repeatedly balked at the idea of attaching a price tag to the commission's recommendations, concerned it could provide fodder for another school finance lawsuit if lawmakers choose not to fund it.

"I'm concerned if we start off with saying the commission recommends putting in $1.5 billion, then if the Legislature doesn't ... you've created the first cause of action," he said. Brister was the sole Texas Supreme Court justice to dissent in a 2005 lawsuit brought by school districts claiming Texas' school finance system was inadequate and inefficient.

But the commission appeared united Tuesday in recommending that lawmakers provide more money for schools. Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican and the chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said he would not vote on a report without that language.

Outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus supported Huberty in a comment on Twitter. “The House members of the School Finance Commission are right. Schools need significant new state dollars. We’re working on a House budget that prioritizes public education, including special ed.”

From the Texas Tribune

Aliyya Swaby started as the Texas Tribune's public education reporter in October 2016. She came to the Tribune from the hyperlocal nonprofit New Haven Independent, where she covered education, zoning and transit for two years. After graduating from Yale University in 2013, she spent a year freelance reporting in Panama on social issues affecting black Panamanian communities. A native New Yorker, Aliyya misses public transportation but is thrilled by the lack of snow.
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