Senate panel to hear ‘school choice,’ finance bill Friday

About 200 Texas school districts, four of them in Central Texas including Lago Vista, are slated to lose $200 million in Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, which was promised to school districts in 2006 to help them maintain same revenue levels when the Texas Legislature compressed property tax rates by a third. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Senate Education Committee on Friday will consider two bills that address many of the major education-related issues on the special session call, including school finance and ‘private school choice.’

Senate Bill 2, filed by Senate education chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, is comprised of several education issues that would reallocate $270 million from Health and Human Services over the next biennium to pay for:

• $60 million in first-time funding for charter school construction

• $60 million to help school districts experiencing rapid student growth pay for construction

• $150 million to fund financial hardship grants for school districts who are facing the so-called “ASATR cliff.” Almost 200 school districts including Lago Vista and Lake Travis are still receiving millions in Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction which was created in 2005 to maintain school district revenue after lawmakers lowered property tax rates — the main source of funding for Texas school districts — by one-third.

A possible threat to the passage of the bill is a component that public school advocates have compared to a private school voucher. Under the bill, public school students with disabilities looking to enroll in private school can receive up to $10,000 in tax credit scholarships each year to help pay for tuition.

Public school students would receive some money under the bill, too — up to $500 in education assistance, increasing five percent each year, to pay for supplies, tutoring and child care among other expenses.

The tax credit scholarship and education assistance system will be funded by donations from businesses which will in turn receive tax credits, capped at $75 million per year.

Proponents of tax credit scholarships say it’s ‘school choice’ because it allows students who feel trapped or aren’t receiving sufficient services in public schools to have a way out.

Opponents say that the scholarships wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a better education for students and that any public money used or lost through tax credits to support private schools is money that could have gone to improve public schools.

Also on Friday, the committee will hear a bill that would create a commission to study and make recommendations to improve the way the state funds public schools. The Texas Supreme Court last yearruled that the the state’s school finance system was minimally constitutional and that the system could be vastly improved to make it more equitable for school districts.