The much-anticipated school finance reform bill has been declared dead after lawmakers in the House and the Senate wrestled over a school choice provision no one could agree on.
House Bill 21, by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston), was intended to dump $1.5 billion into the school finance coffers while overhauling the outdated means by which the state funds public schools. The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that the school finance system was constitutional but was in serious need of repair — Justice Don Willett called it "Byzantine," as the disparity between "property-wealthy" and "property-poor" school districts continued to worsen.
But once the bill was in the Senate's hands, senators made some major changes that did not sit well with the House. First, they slashed the $1.5 billion funding boost to $530 million. Then, they tacked on a school choice provision — Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's pet issue.
The school choice provision is controversial given it takes public state money to subsidize vouchers for private schools. The school choice bill failed earlier this session when the House voted overwhelmingly against it, drawing the ire of Patrick. While at first the school choice vouchers were slated to go to low-income kids who qualified, the provision on HB 21 would have applied exclusively to disabled kids.
Huberty and other reps rejected this provision once HB 21 headed back to the House chambers for final review. They moved to sit down with senators in a conference committee to iron out the disagreements, but the Senate turned down the request, with Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) saying Wednesday, "The deal is dead."
Patrick blasted the House, arguing legislators were hurting disabled schoolchildren.
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"Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session," Patrick said in a statement, "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. I was wrong."
Huberty maintained that the Senate's school choice provision would not have helped disabled kids as much as Patrick claimed, given that vouchers went for around $8,000 while private school tuition is more in the ballpark of $15,000.
Some senators warned that school finance reform won't ever pass unless school choice is part of the picture.
In the meantime, it looks as if Texas school districts are going to face another terrible two years of financing woes.