House Bill (HB) 3610 authored by Reps. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), and Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) sought to remedy scenarios in which public charter schools must pay property taxes on purchased or leased property.
The legislation amends the Education Code to classify open-enrollment charter schools as political subdivisions for the purposes of exempting from property taxation any public property “purchased, leased, constructed, renovated, or improved with state funds after September 1, 2001.”
Although the bill was defeated Thursday, on Friday morning HB 3610 was taken up for reconsideration. An initial vote indicated House members would once again oppose the bill by 67 to 71, but an official vote verification, checking to see which members were actually present, flipped the final tally to 68 ayes and 67 nays.
In laying out the bill Thursday, Gervin-Hawkins provided emotional testimony in support of public charter schools saying it was an environment she knew very well since she had created a charter school for at-risk students.
“In 1995 when the legislature passed the charter school law, I was operating a basic non-profit, dealing with drop-out recovery students, young people that needed help, that the traditional public schools were not meeting their needs.”
Noting that her school resulted in a drop-out rate of zero, she added, “Charter schools work.”
In his comments clarifying the purpose of HB 3610, Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) said the Supreme Court had ruled that buildings owned by public schools or businesses but used for a “public purpose” could be exempt from property taxes.
Huberty also pointed out that as public schools, charters were using state education funds to pay the property taxes.
“So, we’re just transferring tax dollars from one bucket to a different bucket,” said Huberty. “Instead of taking the money and putting it to the kids to educate the kids.”
An opponent of the legislation, Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) queried Gervin-Hawkins about whether landowners might lease properties to charter schools to evade property taxes. He also expressed concerns that “corporations” operating public charter schools would be getting a tax break.
In her comments both Thursday and before Friday’s final vote, Gervin-Hawkins clarified that so-called “for profit” charter schools are not permitted under Texas law.
Huberty urged support for HB 3610 and decried the independent school districts actively opposing the bill.
“We just sent them $11 billion dollars. $11 billion dollars to the Title I campuses in the State of Texas right now.”
The final version passed Friday included an amendment clarifying that the exemption would apply to properties leased or purchased by traditional public schools and public community colleges as well.
Other charter school legislation authored by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) that would have required political subdivisions to consider an open-enrollment charter school a public school district for purposes of zoning and property development regulations was voted down in the House Thursday. Similar but not identical legislation authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has passed the Senate and remains pending in the House Committee on Public Education.
Update: The House passed HB 3610 on Third Reading Saturday by a vote of 65 to 60.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.