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Dewhurst announces education panel

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX – Fending off questions regarding the timing of his announcement, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst Wednesday named Senate appointees to two joint education panels.

Four of the appointees - Sens. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), Royce West (D-Dallas) and Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) - are among 11 Senate Democrats who fled to New Mexico Monday to break the Senate quorum and prevent a congressional redistricting bill from coming to the Senate floor.

Dewhurst denied that his naming of the appointees today was politically motivated to entice the Democrats back to Austin. He said a number of senators, both Democrats and Republicans, came to him last week to ask about the timing of the appointments. "I told them we would be making appointments the early part of this week," he said. "We're not going to actually have a joint committee meeting until next week at the earliest. But as far as getting organized...we have an obligation to the people of Texas to start work."

Named to serve on the Joint Committee on Public School Finance are Sens. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), (chair), Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), Todd Staples (R-Palestine), Lucio and Van de Putte.

Named to the Joint Committee on Higher Education are Sens. Shapiro (chair), Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), Kip Averitt (R-Waco), Kyle Janek (R-Houston), West and Zaffirini.

Dewhurst said at a press conference today that he and Shapiro have been looking at the school finance proposal made in May during the regular session of the 78th Legislature. He said the past six weeks have been spent meeting with consumer representatives and tax expert groups.

The proposal in May (SB2), said Dewhurst, reduced property taxes by 50 percent, shifting the dollar-per-dollar loss of property tax revenues into a sales tax increase and taxes on certain services in the state.

"I'm optimistic we can do better than that," he said. Dewhurst said he would rather reduce property taxes by 50 percent and shift less than the dollar-per-dollar into sales taxes by offering a "montage" of different taxes and adding "one or two non-tax revenues into the mix."

Dewhurst said SB 2 from the regular session was tied to a three-basket approach: finance, facilities and reform.

The goal in the Senate relative to financing, he said is to reduced local property taxes by 50 percent, and be able to pay back each dollar of lower property taxes with "less than a dollar of additional taxes."

He said the committee will look at 20-30 of the best performing school districts in the state to see the practices they use to earn exemplary results and then "be able to suggest these best practices to school districts around the state."

Shapiro said not only does the legislature want to move forward on its study of possible solutions to the state's school finance woes, but also to look at what has been done in the past. "So we must look at education reform at the same time," she said.

The Plano Republican said several meetings have been held to discuss a research agenda. A research team is being put together and headed by Dr. Lori Taylor, formerly of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, and including other experts from The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. She noted $1 million had been allocated for an adequacy study and that research regarding what exists today will help the state move forward.

The group also will be involved in evaluation and investigating best practices, said the new chairman. She said accountability standards were put in place in Texas public schools years ago. Thus the state now has good data from districts that are doing well. She said that data will be incorporated to design best practices that will help school districts increase student achievement, decrease the dropout rate and provide every student in the state with the best opportunity to learn.

Shapiro said that while the legislature is in special session, she is hopeful committee members might visit some high performing Austin area schools to determine best practices and to "see first-hand what's taking place in these communities."

The Plano Republican said she is hopeful to begin work immediately, with work groups to begin deliberations within the next two weeks. Their goal, she said will be deliberating and seeking to understand "where we are and where we want to go as it relates not only to school finance, but also to education reform."