Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Special to The Leader

The Senate Finance Committee began agency hearings on Tuesday, and first on the list was the Texas Education Agency. Committee Chair Jane Nelson said that’s no accident. “Public education is critical to the future of our state and I think we need to send a real clear message about our priorities,” she told colleagues.   In the Senate’s first pass at the state budget, filed as SB1, Texas would spend more than $55 billion in state and federal funds on public education. That includes $2.6 billion more to pay for enrollment growth of an estimated 165,000 more students in the upcoming biennium.

The committee heard from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, who laid out his priorities and requests for additional funding. Morath started with high-quality pre-kindergarten funding.   A major priority of Governor Greg Abbott last session, the Legislature created a new pre-k grant program which Morath said has expanded access to pre-k to about 159,000 students. Morath sees that as a good investment . “It is much cheaper to address the achievement gap if we never let it start,” he said. “With a strong foundation for all kids, remediation costs in future years should decline.” He testified that 40 percent of Texas five-year-olds aren’t ready to learn the most basic lettering and numbering exercises when they enter kindergarten. Though the base budget includes $32 million more to expand high quality pre-k programs, Morath asked for $118 million so that districts can receive full grant funding for the entire 2018-2019 biennium.

Another priority for the commissioner is improving state data systems and Internet infrastructure. Morath said that the current system is fragmented and inadequate to provide full data security for the state’s 18 million student records, past and present. By updating or consolidating the 72 active data systems related to public education in Texas, the state can save money. “If we can cut the time that a data clerk spends managing data by five percent, that has ramifications in the multiple millions of dollars,” he said.

Morath asked the committee to approve $25 million for an initiative with the potential to draw down nine dollars in federal funds for every dollar spent on new fiber optics infrastructure to bring broadband to every school district in Texas. Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor of Friendswood agreed with him. “This is a great equalizer. When we get broadband access to every campus across Texas, that brings in all these on-line resources,” he said. “It just opens up a whole plethora of opportunities for us to move education into the 21st century.”  This is the last year that the federal government is offering this program, Taylor added, so if the state misses the opportunity future Legislatures could have to pay the full price for broadband infrastructure. Morath said there are 536 districts in Texas that could use this matching fund program.

Wednesday, January 25, the Finance Committee will take up higher education funding beginning at 9 a.m. The Senate will reconvene for regular session at 11 a.m.