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State panel calls for $1.7B school funding investment

December 20, 2018

AUSTIN — A school finance commission is recommending Texas invest more than $1.7 billion over the next two years to boost student literacy and teacher pay. But where the funding comes from remains an open question.

And it’s up to state lawmakers, when they reconvene in January, whether to adopt any of the policies proposed unanimously by the 13-member Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

Some members said improving public education will take new state dollars, not just a reshuffling of existing money.

“I feel more confident now than I ever have that new money is going to go into public education and I’m hoping that it’s going to be significant and meaningful,” said Nicole Conley Johnson of Austin ISD, a member of the commission. “I think this report will be the impetus for such action.”

But some conservatives argue that lowering property taxes, which make up the bulk of funding for local school districts, should take priority and the state already has the revenue to make necessary fixes.

“Higher state or local taxes aren’t needed to improve student outcomes across Texas, nor is significant additional new education spending,” said Kara Belew with the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation in a statement.

The commission recommendations are among a growing list of proposals for funding schools and curbing escalating property tax bills.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wants to restrict what local school districts can raise in property taxes each year, with the state making up the difference.

Meanwhile, outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is promising to leave behind a budget blueprint that will inject an additional $5 billion into public education over the next two years.

Many of the commission’s recommendations address early child education, since about four in 10 Texas children are unprepared when they start kindergarten and the state ranks 46th in the nation in fourth-grade reading.

The report suggests spending roughly $780 million to better educate low-income and English language learners, with a goal of improving their reading levels by the third grade. The money could be used to fund full-day prekindergarten, among other items, the report said.

In addition, an estimated $800 million could reward school districts whose students meet third-grade reading standards and whose high school graduates are career or college ready.

The report also recommends $200 million to pay higher salaries to effective teachers. The incentive would be phased in over years, eventually costing $1 billion in 2028, the report said.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders have already voiced support for some of these initiatives, including calls for top teachers to earn six-figure salaries.

Abbott praised the commission’s report, saying it is clear the state must allocate more funding for education, and pledging: “This session, we will do just that.”

Still, funding for all of the proposals is unclear and the commission spent little time discussing it Wednesday. An appendix to the report lays out possible tax increases, including raising the gas or alcohol tax, though those are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“We know that these things cost more money, where that money comes from is still up for debate,” said Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who sits on the commission. “Property tax relief and school finance are naturally linked, which one gets more of the dollar ... we don’t know the answer to that.”

amorris@express-news.net

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