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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The Texas House is launching an ambitious attempt to fix the troubled way the state pays for public schools without waiting for the conclusion of a bitter, ongoing court battle — starting with plans to pour $3 billion back into classrooms.
The chamber’s chief education expert, Republican Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, said Wednesday he’s been in quiet bipartisan discussions for months about overhauling a school finance system he called “antiquated,” saying it was full of facets where “some are obsolete, some are just flat illogical.”
“Some of those will be very difficult votes, very difficult discussions, because to change a system that is pretty badly flawed will require some courage,” said Aycock of Killeen, who chairs the powerful House Public Education Committee.
The plan includes the House increasing the $2.2 billion in extra school funding already built into its proposed 2016-2017 state budget – money largely available because of rising property values statewide that have increased tax revenues – by an additional $800 million.
Republican House budget Chairman John Otto said that could be done by tweaking the chamber’s $209 billion budget that will be debated by the full House next week, since it left more than $8 billion in projected state surpluses and tax revenue unspent.
At a Capitol news conference, Aycock was joined by lawmakers from both parties and joked “this is not an old white guy Republican issue.” But he acknowledged that the plan could clash with the state Senate, which has prioritized “tax relief” over school funding and spent Wednesday approving a $4.6 billion tax cut package.
“I believe there is adequate funding to accomplish significant tax cuts and do what is right for the children of the state of Texas,” Aycock said, adding that he’s confident he can push the plan through the full House but remains only “hopeful” of its chances in the Senate.
The effort, though, also means lawmakers may have to walk a legal tightrope amid the multiyear school finance case. The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear it on appeal but likely won’t decide until well after the legislative session is over.
The case began in 2011, when the GOP-controlled Legislature cut $5.4 billion from public education funding. That prompted more than 600 school districts statewide to sue — triggering Texas’ sixth major school finance court fight since 1984.
Lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion in funding in 2013. Still, last year, a district judge in Austin declared the school finance system unconstitutional, saying funding was inadequate and unfairly distributed among school districts.
If the Supreme Court upholds that decision, it would order the Legislature to remake the school finance system and could ultimately wipe out Aycock’s plan and any other related actions lawmakers take this summer.
Aycock said the plan wouldn’t “try to outguess the lawyers,” but that it was important to pass such a major overhaul now, while state coffers are flush.
Texas has no state income tax, meaning schools rely heavily on local property taxes and a “robin hood” system where school districts in the wealthiest parts of the state share funding with those in poorer areas.
Aycock said his plan would see current funding rise for at least 94 percent of students statewide – but also said that means some school districts will see funding fall some.
Classroom advocates immediately cheered the plan. Association of Texas Professional Educators Executive Director Gary Godsey hailed Aycock in a statement “for courageously providing true leadership by taking the first step on fixing our broken school finance system.”
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