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Welcome to the funhouse

Photo: , License: N/A

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When the Current spoke to Van de Putte this week (fresh off a foot surgery after a spill in Washington D.C. last month), she was grappling with whether she should approach the Lege as usual.

"What I did last session, really the last couple of sessions … every single bill that came through a committee, I mitigated, I tried to find a way so that people I represent don't get hurt as much," she said.

"And now I'm questioning, 'Why do I keep doing that?' Maybe I should just let [the GOP], like a drunk, just totally hit bottom, just do all these nasty, bad, terrible things for Texas families, and maybe people will start electing better representatives and our turnaround will be quicker."

She sighed. "It's just something I've been wondering."

In the forthcoming sections, we preview the fights anticipated for this upcoming session and the stakes. By all accounts, the 83rd looks to be as bumpy as the 82nd. Welcome to the funhouse. Enjoy the show, if you can.

Punting on public ed

Pending lawsuits, pitting school districts against the state over how Texas finances education may give lawmakers an out when it comes to really tackling school finance this session, says Eva DeLuna Castro, a senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

"Every time you ask someone about what they'll do about the school finance stuff, immediately you hear all these timelines about the state court hearings, then State Supreme Court." It's likely lawmakers won't seriously talk school funding until a special session, possibly even punting serious work on the issue until 2015, DeLuna Castro worries.

"There's no sense of urgency on this, the single most important thing in the state budget," she said. With state revenue forecasts turning out to be better than expected, DeLuna Castro says lawmakers could reasonably, in the short-term, start to undo the $5.4 billion in education cuts and ease the burden on districts.

"If they had the money to do something better for schools, which we think they will, but they just don't want to until they're told what to do by the courts, that's a serious missed opportunity," she said. "Maybe by restoring funding for schools, some of those lawsuits would be moot."

Rep. Villarreal, for his part, plans to champion the money matters argument on the education front this session. As part of his ongoing research toward a PhD in public policy at the University of Texas, Villarreal has been crunching data from Texas public high schools from over the past decade, looking at what makes school accountability ratings fluctuate.

"In the end, the most powerful policy lever you control is money," he said. Villarreal's research shows that if you give a district $200 more per pupil, the odds multiply by five that a district will jump to a higher accountability rating. The argument's particularly poignant when you consider the cuts last session left schools with an average $500 less per student.

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