By Kate Alexander – March 15, 2013
Austin American-Statesman Staff
House budget-writers scraped together an additional $1.5 billion for public education Thursday, but that wasn’t enough to mollify Democrats who say more needs to be found to help Texas schools.
“If this is the start and the finish line, then I think we are doing the schoolchildren a disservice,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said as the House Appropriations Committee wrapped up work on its 2014-15 budget bill.
Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, bristled at Turner’s suggestion that budget-writers were not doing enough to restore the $4 billion cut from school aid two years ago.
“There has been no other area of our budget that has been increased a billion and a half dollars,” Pitts said. “That is a priority of this committee.”
The House public education budget is about the same as Senate Bill 1, which was approved by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week and set for consideration by the upper chamber Wednesday.
The additional state aid for schools would translate to about $100 to $200 per student in poorer school districts while wealthier districts wouldn’t get much more, said state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, who crafted the education budget.
In 2011, legislators reduced school aid by about $500 per student.
The 2014-15 House budget doesn’t tap $3.3 billion in available revenue, including $1.6 billion that is below the constitutional spending limit. The $1.7 billion above the spending limit could be accessed with a simple majority vote in both chambers, but there is little appetite in the GOP majority to do so.
Turner wanted the entire $1.6 billion that remains under the spending limit to be used for education, but Pitts noted that other priorities need to be funded.
Democrats have secured a commitment to get $375 million for schools quickly in a bill supplementing the current budget. They are also eyeing $12 billion in the state rainy day fund, the likely source of funding for high-priority water and highway projects, but tapping it requires a two-thirds vote so the Democrats have a little leverage.
“We’re looking at anything and everything we can,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We all want want to invest in our infrastructure, yet at the same time we want to make sure that we bring public education along with that.”