FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 19, 2006
I have said that I would not compromise the future of our school children on a mediocre school finance bill. The latest special session on public school finance ended on Monday, and I am satisfied that my firm stance, and that of other Senators, finally gave way to the best proposal we've had in three years of debating this policy issue. House Bill 1, the school finance bill, passed 31 to 0 in the Senate Chamber and 136 to 8 in the House Chamber.
The resulting legislation is not perfect, but the Legislature agreed on a handful of positive school finance measures that provide additional funds for our neighborhood schools, improve equity in funding formulas so that all Texas children have better access to necessary resources to learn, and give teachers a modest raise. These are positive strides that we can build upon during the next regular legislative session.
However, the Legislature should have done more for schools and was wrong on the tax policy because it does not provide a single dime for education and other urgent state needs. I wanted the focus of the session to be about improving schools. Instead, the focus was about taxes.
Excellence in education only became an issue when a group of bipartisan Senators, including myself, threatened to withhold our vote if school priorities were not addressed.
The legislation would have been much worse, but a minority of Senators held the line for our schools and children by fighting for greater funding equity, higher educator salaries, restoration of health care stipends for school employees, textbook funding, and bilingual education concerns.
When these issues were addressed in the school finance bill, I could not in good conscience pass up an opportunity to support these gains for our schools.
The legislation increases funding equity for our poor school districts, yet decreases the amount wealthy school districts will have to send back to the state under the current recapture system. It also rolls back school taxes by one-third over two years, while increasing the state's share of education spending.
The bill provides a crucial $2,000 pay raise for teachers, counselors, librarians, and school nurses. In addition, the $500 health insurance stipend for educators is re-designated as part of their salary. I and others also successfully fought to save a $500 health insurance stipend for full-time support staff.
Other positive initiatives in the bill include a new $275 per student allotment for high schools intended to improve college readiness among high school graduates, and freshmen entering high school in 2008 will now be required to take four years of math and science.
There were also provisions that merit close scrutiny as the legislation is implemented. Most troubling is the provision that allows nonprofit entities to take over management of failing schools. The details will be determined by the Commissioner of Education; however, I have serious doubts about the ability of an outside entity's ability to improve a low-performing school and question the accountability those organizations will have to taxpayers, teachers, and parents.
Two potentially troubling teacher incentive programs were created which contain vague and subjective criteria for measuring academic success. I oppose using the TAKS test as a measurement for incentive pay because many subjects are not measured by the TAKS. Quality teachers should not be disqualified for incentive bonuses because they do not teach core subjects. Funds spent on the teacher incentive programs should have been invested to ensure all teachers are paid a good salary. I will be watching to make sure incentives do not have unintended consequences.
While I support an updated tax system that reflects our modern Texas economy, I voted against the tax bills because they fail to provide new money for education. Wealthy Texans will see the most benefit from the tax breaks, and the cuts could possibly force legislators to trim core services, break our promise to provide one-third reductions in property taxes, or even raise other taxes.
I support reasonable tax cuts, but I also believe Texas deserves a first class education system and more than just basic social services. After all, we cannot educate our children if they are not healthy and alert.
If Texas wants to be a viable competitor in the global economy, we cannot continue to rank last. The public school legislation was a positive step toward improving our schools, but one that we will have to watch closely for unintended consequences.
I want to acknowledge our Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Speaker Tom Craddick for their willingness to bridge differences on education reforms and allow improvements to funding equity. The fact that we voted almost unanimously on House Bill 1 is a testament to their leadership.
Staff member handling this issue is Perla Cavazos, senior policy analyst. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my Press Secretary, Doris Sanchez, in Austin at 512-463-0385.