Education funding reforms named top priority by Texas Senate Finance Committee

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The Senate Finance Committee called for a complete reconstruction of Texas’public school finance system and higher education reforms during the committee’s first round of meetings last week.

Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, designated a specialized work group to “propose potential replacements for our current funding structure” in the public school system. In regards to university spending, Nelson appointed a workgroup, led by Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to specifically consider non-education funding on special items.

Higher Education

Prior to the start of committee hearings, Nelson proposed a base budget of $213.4 billion for 2018-19, which she said is a “starting point” for discussions. The budget proposal includes an $800 million decrease in funds used for initiatives such as museums and research establishments that do not receive standard formula funding, but “support the special mission of the institution,” according to the Legislative Budget Board. 

“I look forward to working with members to ensure that we’re allocating our resources in a way that avoids duplication, provides true public benefit and stays true to our core mission of higher education,” Nelson said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Nelson said the task of allocating only $300 million to these special items is a difficult assignment, but said she expects the workgroup to propose a budget plan soon.

Public School System

In response to controversy surrounding how public schools in the state are funded, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the system as constitutional last May. However, the court recommended the Legislature change the system completely with “top-to-bottom reforms.” 

Nelson recommended the group propose a system with fewer complications, more innovations and the ability to meet student needs. She assigned Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, to lead the group, which will collaborate with the Senate Committee on Education. Taylor said the current system, which has been in place since the 1940s, is outdated and said he believes reform is necessary.

“It’s time to redo the whole thing,” Taylor said at Monday’s meeting.  

Public schools in Texas are primarily funded by local property taxes, which differ by district, and state aid. The Texas Education Code states its mission of equality and “a standard of neutrality that provides for substantially equal access to similar revenue per student at similar tax effort.” 

According to the Texas Education Agency, the current “wealth equalization” plan, also referred to as the “Robin Hood” plan, attempts to limit disparities in school funding by redistributing funds from property-wealthy districts to support property-poor districts. 

However, some school districts find fault with the current system and have expressed funding procedures are not fair or efficient enough to maximize student success, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.  

The working group met for the first time on Friday. Taylor emphasized the group has an opportunity to simplify a complicated system.

“My hope in our opportunity is to come up with a transparent, understandable, fair and equitable structure that prepares our classrooms for the 21st century,” Taylor said at Friday’s meeting.

The finance committee reconvenes this week to address Health and Human Services and health care costs, which Nelson said was another top priority for the committee this session.