Texas House Speaker optimistic on education reform

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, Tuesday, welcomed the newest member to the House Chamber. Rep. James Talarico is filling the vacated seat for a house district that’s mostly comprised of Round Rock. He is one of 12 new Democrats elected to the chamber cutting into, but not eliminating the Republican majority.

"It's going to be a relatively large freshman class and I think that’s always a reason for optimism,” said Speaker Straus.

For Speaker Straus, who did not seek re-election, the slight adjustment in power has him thinking that school funding reform, which has been elusive under his watch, may now be possible.

"The first step toward making achievements is the desire to do so, and so I’m again very, very encouraged that Speaker Pro Tem Bonnen and soon to be Speaker Bonnen is really focused on that issue. It’s absolutely necessary it is overdue,” said Speaker Straus.

The Austin school district is an example of why the current state model is so controversial. It's estimated that next year AISD will send almost $670 million in local tax money to the state. It’s called recapture and is expected to increase to just over $780 million by 2020. The total amount paid by AISD since 2002 is almost $4 billion.

A lot of these chairs will be filled with new faces offering new ideas, but Straus’ optimism remains somewhat tempered. Because with a little more than a month away from the regular session no single idea regarding school finance reform has emerged into a comprehensive plan.

"We are hoping that when we go into the next legislative session that we will see a real concerted honest effort to address the school finance system,” said Mark Wiggins with the Association of Teachers and Professional Educators.

There is a special working group trying to come up with a reform plan. Next week the Senate Education Committee will also look at ways to help school districts lower operating costs for schools. Wiggins is curious what will end up on the House and Senate floors for debate.

"There are going to be a lot of plans that come forward over the next couple of weeks and over the next months, whatever plan eventually becomes the school finance plan, it needs to provide sustainable long term funding that is going to, you know, give the best for 5.4 million school children in classrooms all over the state,” said Wiggins.

Speaker Straus suggested a new funding model must be simplified.

"The public's expectation especially after this last election has changed and I think the politicians would be smart and elected officials would be very smart to listen to the voters and to perform even better than we have in the past,” said Speaker Straus.

Before the debates even begin, budget cutting will already be underway. In December an AISD task force is expected to submit recommendations on how to deal with a nearly $30-million shortfall. School closures, boundary realignments and program reductions are on the table.