Voucher standoff could doom major Texas school finance fix

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas House on Wednesday rejected the Senate's effort to scale back an ambitious, $1.6 billion school funding plan and tack on a limited school voucher program.

The funding proposal provides a roadmap to begin fixing how the state pays for public schools, an issue that the House has tried to address for years. The Senate injected one of its priorities: vouchers offering state funding to children attending private and religious schools.

The standoff between the chambers - both controlled by Republicans - could mean lawmakers adjourn on Monday until 2019 without getting either.

"It's made virtually impossible for us to come to some meaningful financial reform on school finance," said state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who heads the House Education Committee.

Texas educates around 5.3 million public school students, more than any state except California. It relies on a "Robin Hood" funding scheme where school districts in wealthy areas share property tax revenue they collect with poorer counterparts. The Legislature frequently cuts classroom budgets so deeply that school districts sue.

But no school finance changes are legally required this session because Texas' Supreme Court ruled last summer that the system was minimally constitutional, though flawed.

The House nonetheless passed a school finance package in April that would increase annual, per-student funding about $210 to $5,350, while raising state spending for school district transportation and educating dyslexic students. But the Senate, after 1 a.m. on Monday, rolled the plan back to about $500 million in total costs and offered some special education students taxpayer-subsidized vouchers worth about $8,300 per year to attend private or religious schools.

Alternating between angry and occasionally on the verge of tears when speaking about his dyslexic son, Huberty said on the House floor Wednesday that the Senate "stripped the bill of all the solid policy work." He complained bitterly about the Legislature failing to do more, even though state spending now only accounts for just 37 percent of Texas public education funding - with most of the rest coming from local property taxes and federal sources.

The Senate's voucher plan, sponsored by the head of that chamber's Education Committee, Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, probably wouldn't apply to more than 6,000 special education students. But opponents argue that once Texas agrees to start using public money to fund private schools, the program will expand exponentially, as have voucher plans in other states.

Taylor himself has repeatedly acknowledged that insisting on even a small voucher plan could kill the full school finance fix, but says it's worth fighting for.

He'll get his chance. After Huberty spoke, the House voted 134-15 to go to conference committee and try to reach a deal. But the chamber also voted overwhelmingly to instruct its negotiators to reject any form of vouchers, recalling its stance while devising the budget in April when the House voted 103-43 to declare that public funding should stay with public schools.