The July special session of the 85th Texas Legislature – formally referred to as the “first called session” in Capitol parlance – kicked off this week on the heels of a large rally in support of public education.
More than 800 educators and allies rallied Monday on the Capitol steps to show lawmakers headed to town for the special session that educators are ready to stand up for children and classrooms. The event was hosted by grassroots group Texans for Public Education and organized with the help of ATPE. Nearly a dozen educator organizations contributed speakers.
Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to add a number of anti-public education items to the special session call, including harmful voucher legislation and bills to ban educators from using payroll deduction to support professional organizations. Both could have catastrophic effects on public education, and educators vowed to hold lawmakers accountable for their actions during the 30 days ahead.
The governor’s special education voucher would subsidize unaccountable private schools with public taxpayer dollars. Proposals during the regular session would have covered at most around $9,000 of the $40,000 tuition typical of private special education program providers, which would guarantee only a small number of affluent families would benefit. Furthermore, vouchers would not guarantee children admission into private programs and would force those who were admitted to surrender federal rights and protections guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). State Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrolton) is carrying two voucher bills during the special session, House Bill (HB) 52 and HB 58.
The rally’s turnout highlighted the power of educators’ voices at the Capitol, which some lawmakers hope to diminish by limiting their ability to join a professional organization or association through a ban on payroll deduction of membership dues. Senate Bill (SB) 7 by state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and HB 156 by state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) target educators while exempting police, firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel. The legislation purports to hurt unions, but would actually protect some of the state’s largest unions while singling out educators in non-union professional associations including ATPE. Supporters of these anti-teacher payroll deduction bills (identical to the regular session predecessor that was Senate Bill 13) hope to diminish the ability of educators to influence legislation that improves public schools, helps the state’s 5.4 million public school
Both retired and active educators face rising costs for healthcare under the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), and school districts face increasing financial hardships as a result of the Texas Senate’s killing desperately needed school funding proposals during the regular session. Both are a result of lawmakers failing to heed the voices of public education supporters, who are preparing to track the actions of legislators during the special session and hold them accountable at the ballot box.
ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey summed up the message of Monday’s event to the teachers in attendance: “Vote your profession.”
Monday’s rally was attended by a number of pro-education legislators, including state Reps. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), Donna Howard (D-Austin), Ed Thompson (R-Pearland), Ernest Bailes (R-Coldspring), Celia Israel (D-Austin), Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), Dan Flynn (R-Van) and others. Hundreds of ATPE members and staff attended, including newly-elected state officers and past presidents. With temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, ATPE provided water that was generously donated by Pepsi and Dr. Pepper/Snapple.
The Texas House and Senate gaveled in Tuesday morning for the official start of the special session. The 30-day special session was necessitated by the Senate’s failure to pass a “sunset” bill reauthorizing the Texas Medical Board (TMB) during the regular session. Sunset legislation must pass in order for the medical board that licenses doctors to continue to exist, and the TMB legislation is the only item formally before the legislature at this point. The governor has vowed to add another 19 items to the special session call as soon as the sunset legislation clears the Senate.
In the House, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) confirmed that the TMB sunset legislation is the only item eligible for action until the governor expands the special session call to include other legislation. The House’s TMB legislation was referred to committee, where it was swiftly approved today.
In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick broke 50 years of legislative precedent by waiving the “tag rule” that allows Senators to require 48 hours’ notice before holding a public hearing on a bill. This rule gives lawmakers who may be voting on the bill time to prepare and gives members of the public wishing to voice their opinions on the bill time to arrange for travel. Instead, Senate Republicans voted with Patrick to suspend the rule and hold a hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon. The Senate Business and Commerce Committee approved the sunset bill in less than an hour, setting up a full Senate vote today. After approving the legislation on second reading, the Senate adjourned until 12:01 a.m. Thursday, at which point the Senate is expected to approve the legislation on third reading and send it to the House. The lieutenant governor gave no explanation for scheduling the midnight vote.
With sunset legislation moving expediently through the Senate, an expansion of the governor’s special session call to include private school vouchers, eliminating payroll deduction, and other education-related issues could come at any time. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on any legislative activity that affects public education. ATPE members are also urged to visit Advocacy Central to send messages to their legislators about these issues.