Senate Finance Committee begins consideration of education funding changes

Lingering effects of the pandemic on school districts and a desire to lower property taxes are among the issues on the committee’s agenda this session.

By Shelly Brisbin and Rhonda FanningFebruary 6, 2023 11:10 am, ,

Faced with districts considering school closures and struggling to keep teachers in the classroom, the state Senate Finance Committee will meet this week to discuss school funding.

Up for discussion are possible changes to the formula by which the Texas educational system is funded, as well as whether to take up so-called school choice initiatives.

The Texas Newsroom’s Sergío Martinez-Beltrán says the Senate is also facing “drama” over Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s announcement that the one Democratic committee chair this session will be the last he will appoint from the opposition party. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So this week talk centers on public education funding and something big happening in the Senate Finance Committee, I believe, right? 

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán: Yes. So this week, particularly Monday and Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee is meeting and they are going to start discussing education funding and funding for the higher education systems, as well. So it’s going to be an interesting discussion, particularly with the the fact that we have such a big surplus in this state and there are a lot of potential solutions to the issues with education funding in the state.

And of course, that’s inexorably tied to the push to reduce property taxes as well, which is something that we’ve talked about in the past. What are some of the challenges that you’re hearing there at the Capitol when it comes to public education funding?

You know, I think the pandemic really had a negative impact on school districts, and that is because of the way Texas funds public education. So right now, the way it works is that student attendance determines how much money the state will give a school district. And as you know, the pandemic had a huge impact on attendance. And we are now seeing the effect of this old policy of how we fund schools across the state, having a negative impact on school districts across Texas.

» RELATED: How does public school funding work in Texas – and how would property tax relief affect it?

Well, what about proposed solutions? Are we seeing anything that both parties are jumping on board with, or are we looking at two different approaches or what? 

Listen, it’s a surprise. It might be a miracle, but there is some agreement in some areas here. So there’s an effort to make what determines how much money a school district gets instead of attendance. We’re seeing some bipartisan support on that particular proposal. So the House, it’s a Republican carrying the bill. And in the Senate, it’s a Democrat. So it’s one of those interesting times where we see this agreement.

There’s also a big push from some public education advocates to increase the basic allotment, which is the per pupil funding. Right now, it’s $6,160. But with inflation and just a different economy, advocates say the basic elements should be increased. And that would automatically pump salaries for teachers, librarians, counselors and nurses – something that’s, you know, needed for them. But again, most of these solutions are coming from the Democrats, which means that they are unlikely to pass unless they enlist some Republican lawmakers.

You mentioned the basic allotment. That is the amount of money that the state provides per pupil, is that right?

Correct. That’s the money the state provides per student across the state. But if a student leaves the school, that money follows the student. And that’s one of the issues here that some lawmakers want to target and address.

Well, while we’re talking about money following students, I suppose we need to point to what advocates refer to as “school choice.” This is likely to be taken up again in one form or another this session. Can you briefly explain what we’re talking about there and how that might affect public education in Texas?

Sure. So “school choice” is a term often used by Republicans when referring to programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for the private education of their kids. And it can be in the form of a school voucher, education savings accounts, or even tuition tax credits. And this has always been controversial, even among Republicans themselves, who say that a “school choice program” would hurt school districts in rural communities. And others who oppose school vouchers and similar initiatives say the state should just focus on investing more in public schools than allowing for parents to use public funding to use in private schools.

The Senate Finance Committee is headed by a Republican this session. As I understand it, only one out of the 15 Senate committees is led by a Democrat. What’s the basis behind that decision from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who sort of pulls the strings in the Senate?

Well, that’s the current drama at the Texas Legislature, you know, the appointment of Democratic chairs. As you mentioned, in the Senate, every chair but one is a Republican. And that only Democrat chair is Sen. John Whitmire of Houston – he chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. And, you know, he’s been there for 40 years in the Senate, but he’s running for mayor of Houston, and that election is in November. And Dan Patrick has said that no other Democrat would be appointed after Whitmire leaves. And that has been, you know, one of the main priorities of the Republican Party of Texas. They’ve been calling for the banning of Democratic chairs. However, they are somewhat okay with Lt. Gov. Patrick’s decision to appoint Whitmire.

What they are not okay with is with House Speaker Dade Phelan naming Democratic chairs. During the 2021 legislative session, Phelan appointed 21 Republican chairs and 14 Democratic chairs. He has yet to announce this session’s committee heads, but the Republican Party of Texas has been pressuring Phelan, even running ads in his district, calling on him to ban Democratic chairs.

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