Perry 'will vote for the money' on Senate school finance, despit

Perry 'will vote for the money' on Senate school finance, despite school choice amendment

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LUBBOCK, Texas -

The state Senate Education Committee tweaked the House's school finance bill -- HB 21 -- to add funding for educational savings accounts for students with disabilities. Lubbock Sen. Charles Perry said he will approve it because small, rural schools in his district need other funding the House measure offers.

"You could say it's brilliant strategy -- and it is," Perry said. "It's politics at its best or its worst, depending on what side of the equation [you're on]."

Perry said the ESAs would open up school choice opportunity for a limited number of families, but that's not the main appeal for the House measure to him; Perry says the $1.6 billion the measure would provide to schools would protect districts affected by the end of the 2006 Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction program in September.

"We've been saying for the past four years," Perry said, "'this is going to come to an end.' Well, 2017, it comes to an end. That's a large part of my rural districts, so that funding would fix their problem."

Perry said five to ten of the schools in the expansive Senate District 28 could close if funding from the ASATR program isn't provided.

"I'm gonna go with the money on this one," he said. "That's the way politics works -- you put enough good and bad together and it comes out where people need it or don't need it. On this issue, for that purpose -- assuming that education savings accounts stay in there, to get the additional funding to fix the need that is relevant to District 28 [...] -- that's a fix that I can't bypass over something that arguably may be a great thing or might not be."

Perry said it's not an easy decision to make politically because of how divisive a discussion about ASATR can get among school administrators.

"In a room of 100 superintendents," Perry explained, "50 percent will not want ASATR, 50 percent will want ASATR, so there's no winning politically on this, but I have to go with erring on the side of my rural school districts that need that to survive, and hopefully buy some time to redo our school funding."

Perry said there are some districts that have budgets 30 to 60 percent composed of ASATR funds. He said the program needs to be phased out, but not over a cliff as current policy requires. With a 7-1 vote in the education committee, the bill will go to the full Senate.

The measure includes a provision to help districts relying on ASATR that is set to expire in September. HB 21 lets the program expire and creates a transitional grant program over the next two years to help school districts that would lose money.

The Senate committee version of the bill would would keep the grant program at $159 million over the next two years. The Senate has budgeted for less overall money in public education than the House, and the chambers are now conferencing to debate the final numbers.

The ESA amendment, though, could be a "poison pill" for the House to confirm the Senate's adjusted measure. Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), the chairman of the House education committee, has said his chamber will defund subsidies for private school tuition. 

"We're not going to pass a bill that's got a voucher in it — and that's been a contingency for the Senate to act," Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who sits on the House Public Education Committee, said earlier this week."So I don't have a lot of faith that [HB] 21 will get to the governor's desk."

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