Paying for public education accounts for nearly a quarter of the Texas state budget. It's a lot of tax money, roughly $42 billion to fund public schools over the next two years. Both the State Senate and the House are close to agreeing on that. But where the money will come from is the tough part.
"The big distinction and difference that has been clear from early on is whether or not to tap the Rainy Day Fund," says Sherri Greenberg, a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. The Rainy Day Fund is money salted away from oil tax revenues during the boom years for use during lean years. "The House is saying yes, we should take some of the money from the Rainy Day Fund to fund the budget. The Senate is saying no, and that is the significant, fundamental difference that affects everything else."
The House bill would boost state spending on public education by $1.5 billion. By contrast, the Senate budget would cut state spending by about $1.8 billion and require school districts to make up the difference with local property taxes.
"People aren't perhaps going to be paying more in terms of tax rates, but they're going to be paying more in taxes, and so instead of, say, maybe getting a rebate or not having future increases, they're going to effectively be paying for more things locally than from the state," says Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.
That's actually nothing new. The state has shifted the burden of funding K-12 education increasingly from the state onto local property taxpayers, as property values rose across Texas.
"What they've been putting in on a per-student basis has gone down and they've used those resources in other ways to balance the state budget," says Steve Bassett, chief financial officer for Fort Bend ISD.
Ten years ago, state funding made up about half of Fort Bend's budget compared to local property taxes. Today, it's down to less than a third. Bassett says the result is that, adjusting for inflation, per student funding has flattened, "at the same time that we're trying to be competitive with industry so that teachers are willing to be teachers. There's certainly many teachers who could leave, and many do, to go to higher paying jobs outside of public education."
"I think the House's budget would have a greater positive impact on our kids locally," says Anna Eastman, District 1 trustee for Houston ISD's Board of Education, "because it raises the basic allotment. The state actually would contribute more to education funding, and so our kids would get more, a greater portion of their funding from the state added for this biennium."
There's a catch. The House's increase in education spending only kicks in if the Legislature passes another bill, which would overhaul the state's school finance system. That bill — HB 21, authored by State Rep. Dan Huberty of Humble — passed the House overwhelmingly in mid-April. It has yet to be assigned a committee in the Senate, and time is running out.
"What we may see when we actually get to reconciliation in the conference committee, where the Senate and the House attempt to hash out a final budget, that some of the House's plans for school finance reform are actually agreed upon for other legislation, but others are left by the wayside," says Mark Jones of Rice University's Baker Institute.
As far apart as the House and Senate are now, they will have to hammer out a deal on education spending. The budget is the one piece of legislation members are constitutionally required to pass. The only question is whether they'll do it before the regular session ends on May 29 or whether they'll have to come back to Austin for a special session in the heat of a Texas summer.