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Oliveira Bill Seeks Statewide Property Tax for Texas

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

Saying that the Texas House has "floundered" by not coming up with a school finance plan, Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) today announced that he is filing a constitutional amendment and two bills creating a statewide property tax, significantly increased funding for bilingual children, more dollars to offset the effects of poverty and an equalized funding tier for classrooms.

"We must move away from solely having a debate on how much property tax relief Texas should have," he said. "The issue for many leaders is what is politically opportunistic or politically correct by focusing on property tax relief. That has nothing to do with the quality of public education or the future of Texas."

Overall, Oliveira said a statewide property tax is "the most appropriate" way to fund public schools. Because the state continues to struggle with a significant achievement gap caused by insufficient funding, school taxes should not be reduced below $1.15, he said. In addition, to provide greater economic relief to more modest homeowners, $40,000 of value should be eligible for exemption from taxation, up from the current $15,000.

"I'm not saying this is the House plan," said the Brownsville legislator. "This is my stab at laying out something for my colleagues to look at." If things continue going the way they are now, the way Texas looks in the future is "very sad," he said.

The four "necessary elements" to Oliveira's proposal include:

- Closing the achievement gap between limited English-proficient children by funding intensive, more individualized bilingual education by raising the bilingual education weight from 0.1 to 0.4. This amounts to $468 million in new dollars.

- Helping poor children overcome the adverse effects of poverty and close their achievement gap by funding a curriculum targeted at economically disadvantaged children by raising the compensatory education weight from 0.2 to 0.4. This amounts to $1.1 billion in new money.

- Ensuring every child is taught in a safe, quality classroom capable of handling today's technologies by creating a third tier of funding, equalized to the 98 percentile, to provide for the construction and renovation of schools and ancillary facilities. This calls for $2 to $3.8 billion annually in new funds.

- Extending pre-kindergarten from a half-day to a full day for children who do not speak English or are economically disadvantaged to increase test scores through a child's academic career, reduce referrals to more costly special education programs, result in fewer children being held back, and increase high school and college graduation rates.

In addition, Oliveira said he has "to insist" on teacher pay raises. The issue "has not received the support in the House that it needs," he said. "I've grown weary of my colleagues who want to simply focus on so-called reforms without recognizing that our teachers are underpaid and below the national average." Oliveira said he is asking for a salary increase of $3,000 per teacher. "It is a lot of money in terms of cost," he conceded, "but it's something we have to do. We shouldn't talk about one single reform or incentive until we have a teacher pay raise."

Ultimately, the proposal would cost the state approximately $3.5 billion. "A lot of people will say this is all very expensive," said Oliveira. "I remind everyone of the quote we always hear about education that rings so true: education may be expensive, but try ignorance. It's a lot more expensive."

The Brownsville legislator said he has shared his proposal with a few House members and with the staff of leadership and so far, nobody has rejected it. "Obviously nobody is going to say, 'Here is the silver bullet,'" he said. "But as a senior member of the House and having been through this a couple of times, I thought it was time to lay out some proposals."

He said he believes a bill will emerge from the House Public Education Committee in the next 30 days that will be voted on by the end of February or the first week of March. "If we don't start debating this right now and look at the tough votes like a statewide property tax, we're not going to do anything this session," he said. "The debate has to start now or we're going to flounder in the House and not have a school finance plan." He added that some things like video lottery terminals are going to have to be put back on the table in order to get things done.

"I'm ready to make tough votes and come out for increased taxes," Oliveira said, noting his frustration with property tax relief dominating the school finance discussion when it has little to do with education. "It may win an election for somebody, but it's not doing a damn thing for our kids."