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News Rush to deadline

With three weeks to go in the legislative session, school finance remains unresolved

As the story goes, after being captured at a staged archery tournament, English folk hero Robin Hood was sentenced to execution for defying his over-taxing arch-nemesis, Prince John. Robin Hood stood on the gallows with the hangman's noose around his neck, minutes away from death, when his band of merry men suddenly rushed in and saved the day.

Texas' own Robin Hood - the nickname given to the state's school- finance system - faces a similar fate as Austin lawmakers struggle to reach an agreement on a school-finance bill before the legislative session ends May 30. Robin Hood earned its name because it redistributes local property taxes from wealthy school districts to poorer ones, but last September, State District Judge John Dietz declared the system unconstitutional, citing the the program's failure to adequately close the gap between rich and poor districts. In his ruling, Dietz cited demographic research that projected dramatic falls in per capita income and graduation rates by 2040 if the current education system remained in place. Dietz warned that if legislators do not fix the problem by this October, the State must stop funding public education, which could cripple the school system.

But as the House and Senate try to fix the current system's shortcomings, some worry the spirit of Robin Hood will be lost. According to Paul Colbert, a former legislator who consults for Houston and El Paso school districts, rather than revamping the system, the State should remove the cap of $1.50 per $100 of property value that districts can raise from property taxes.

"The districts have not been able to continue to match the impact of inflation and the changing requirements and raised standards, other than by cannibalizing their existing programs," Colbert says. "It's not that the car is broken and needs to be replaced, it's just that they haven't put any gas in it."

"It's not that the car is broken and needs to be replaced, it's just they haven't put any gas in it."
- Paul Colbert

To address the problem, the Senate and House have their own versions of HB 2, the school-finance bill authored by Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington). While both versions promise raises in teachers' salaries and more than $3 billion in new state money for schools, the two plans differ in their payment method. The Senate wants to replace local property taxes with a statewide property tax, while the House claims money is available in the general budget and a statewide property tax isn't necessary. Colbert acknowledges that a statewide tax would redistribute wealth similar to the Robin Hood system, but he says a new tax would be difficult to pass because it would require two-thirds approval by the House and Senate, as well as a public vote to amend the state constitution.

As lawmakers attempt to hammer out a bill before the session ends, they must address a host of concerns that more than 300 school districts brought to the table in last year's court case, such as the lack of funding for low-income students and students in limited English proficiency programs. "The State has consistently provided too little funding for the education of economically disadvantaged students and students with limited English proficiency (LEP). We've done many studies that have repeatedly told us that it costs at least 40 percent more for these students to be educated to the level we expect of them," says Colbert. While the Senate Education Committee amended the House bill to include more funding for LEP programs, critics such as Colbert say lawmakers still have not allocated enough money for these special student populations.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in July for the State's appeal of Judge Dietz' ruling. If the Supreme Court upholds the appeal, the October 1 doomsday date could be postponed, but most lawmakers are insistent on resolving the school finance problem regardless of how the Court rules. The Senate Committee on Education passed a substitute for the House education bill on April 29, which featured a number of changes to the House version, including the proposed statewide property tax. If the two chambers cannot reach a final agreement, Governor Rick Perry may be forced to call a special session this summer - as he did four times in 2003-04 - to settle the matter. Legislators failed to fix school funding during a special session last summer, before the District Court established the October 1 deadline.

Time is running out for lawmakers to fix the shortcomings of the current system of financing education while preserving Robin Hood's egalitarian spirit. The Texas education system is standing on the gallows, and Austin's band of merry men and women have less than a month to come to the rescue.

By Elyas Bakhtiari


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