In a matter of days, the Texas Senate, under the direction of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, plowed through Governor Greg Abbott’s special session priorities on education. The blitz began late last week and continued through the wee hours of this morning, when several more contentious education items were granted final approval. The pieces of legislation now head to the Texas House, where the lower chamber began work with a significantly different focus: on a meaningful approach to fixing the state’s broken school finance system and state-funded, sustainable options for increasing teacher pay and the state’s contributions to retirees.
The Senate worked until 2am this morning, passing a voucher proposal that was paired with needed funding for certain school districts and facilities funding for charter schools; a prohibition on educators’ ability to utilize payroll deduction to pay professional association dues; a teacher pay bonus bill that includes one-time supplemental funding for TRS-Care; a “bathroom bill” that would dictate related local school policies; and not a fix, but another commission to study school finance. Here’s more:
SB 19: teacher bonus & TRS-Care
After spending a significant amount of time yesterday debating Lt. Gov. Patrick’s priority legislation regarding the use of bathrooms in public schools, among other public spaces, the chamber moved on to several other pieces of legislation affecting public schools, students and educators. It started with its teacher pay bill, SB 19, authored by Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound). The bill was originally marketed by its author and the Lt. Gov. as a teacher pay raise, but ATPE, among others, pushed back against that notion when it was heard in committee over the weekend.
ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter told members of the committee that educators appreciated two portions of the bill, the state-funded bonus for teachers and the needed one-time supplemental funding for TRS-Care, but he expressed opposition to the piece termed a “teacher pay raise,” which wasn’t state-funded and required school districts to “re-prioritize” funding. ATPE State Secretary and Abilene educator Tonja Gray also testified on the bill in committee, telling members: “I don’t want a pay raise on the backs of my students.” She explained that in an environment where Texas schools are already underfunded, an unfunded mandate to provide teacher pay raises would result in cuts to valuable programs or educators.
When the bill hit the full Senate floor for debate, the empty pay raise portion was removed and the bill was passed out of the chamber with overwhelming support. Senator Nelson, as the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Finance who writes and passes the state’s biennial budget, assured educators that she will prioritize a pay raise next session. ATPE looks forward to working with her to deliver on that promise to educators in 2019 as the 86th Texas Legislature convenes, and we will continue to fight on behalf of educators for a state-funded, sustainable, and meaningful pay raise. The House has its own versions of bills to address teacher pay and retiree benefits that are already on the move.
Related, the Senate also hosted a hearing over the weekend to consider proposals to fund a teacher pay raise in the next legislative session. ATPE submitted written testimony in opposition to the proposals, saying that “ATPE believes the legislature should pivot its focus on teacher pay to developing plans for long-term investments that do not come out of existing money already dedicated to public schools.” Both proposals received initial skepticism and one was in the process of being written as it was heard in committee. Both were left pending in committee and may stay there since the Senate removed the unfunded pay raise from its teacher pay bill.
SB 7: prohibition on payroll deduction for educators
A mere hour after praising educators endlessly as senators worked to approve the teacher pay bill on the floor of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Patrick turned the chamber’s attention to SB7, the bill by Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) that selectively targets educators in an attempt to silence their collective voice. Unlike the teacher pay bill, which received no attention during the regular session, the bill to eliminate educators’ right to utilize payroll deduction to pay voluntary professional association dues has been a priority of the Lt. Gov. and Texas Senate for years now.
During both the committee hearing and as the bill was debated on the floor of the full Senate, the discriminatory, purely political, and completely unnecessary nature of the bill was highlighted once again. ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey testified to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce that educators feel “besieged, besmirched and really like they’re second class citizens.” Testifier after testifier pushed back against the proponents’ rhetoric about busting unions and glass claims about eliminating associated costs to government. Educators, police officers, fire fighters, and many other public servant employees showed up to prove that this bill isn’t wanted by anyone, aside from a couple of heavily funded special interest groups that have made it their top priority to silence educators, which they see as too effective at fighting harmful policies like vouchers.
During floor debate, more truths emerged. Senator Hughes shared Governor Abbott’s promise to veto any bill that includes first responders, a status of employment he and others deem superior to educators and other public servants like CPS workers and correctional officers. Amidst questioning on why the bill picks winners and losers, Senator Hughes finally admitted that some people “don’t like the advocacy of labor unions,” acknowledging that the bill is about silencing the advocacy efforts of the public employees targeted under the bill, which amounts primarily to educators. And as all involved continued to push back against the lie that payroll deduction for association dues costs the state, the bill author could only say that he wants to get the government out of the process for the targeted professions only.
Democratic members of the Senate offered amendments to exempt educators under the bill, broaden the definition of first responder to include educators, null the targeted prohibition until associated costs can be identified, delay the legislation’s enacting date to give the targeted labor organizations more time to adjust, and more, but Senator Hughes rejected them all and the bill remained unchanged. The bill passed the Senate with support from all Republicans, except for one, Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville). He joined the Democratic members of the Senate to stand with educators in opposition. During the regular session, a nearly identical bill was sent to the House where it received no attention during the regular session. The House version of that bill died in committee and the Senate bill never received a hearing once it made it over. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on the special session version of this legislatio.
SB 2: special education voucher & certain school funding
First up in the Senate was SB 2, the voucher bill authored by Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). Paired with the $10,000 voucher for special education students was continued ASATR funding for certain schools that stress the funding is necessary. The bill also contains $60 million in facilities funding for fast growth school districts, $60 million for facilities funding for charter schools, and a grant program termed the ”educational expense assistance program” for public school special education students to access up to $500.
The voucher portion of the bill is, this time, in the form of a “tax credit scholarship.” Certain entities could receive tax credits in return for contributions made to the voucher program. Students with special needs could then access vouchers to pay for private school tuition. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter expressed ATPE’s concerns with the voucher portion of the proposal, saying that we should be focused on fixing things for special education students within public schools, rather than offering them money to go elsewhere. Tax credit scholarships, like all vouchers, are guilty of funneling public tax dollars out of the public school system. Offering tax credits to corporations will lower the general revenue Texas earns through taxes, and unless funds are raised elsewhere, cuts will have to be made in order to cover the deficit.
ATPE also encouraged legislators to take up the issues of ASATR and facilities funding independent of the politically charged voucher proposal. The Senate pressed ahead with the combined voucher and funding proposal, instead, and SB 2 passed the chamber 19-12. Two Republicans voted against the proposal, Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), and one Democrat supported the bill, Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (R-Brownsville). The bill heads to the House where the chamber took several overwhelming votes to reject vouchers during the regular session.
SB 16: commission to study school finance
The Senate also began with work on school finance, but unlike the House that is working on a bill to fix the system, the Senate bill would create a commission to further study school finance in Texas. SB16 is authored by Senator Larry Taylor, who filed a permanent fix supported by ATPE during the regular session. However, he chose not to advance that bill during the regular session, instead altering the House’s school finance bill by adding his voucher proposal. In the special session, he maintains that more studying of school finance should be done prior to passing a fix to the system. ATPE submitted written testimony that said it is time for legislators to act on school finance. We also encouraged the legislature to include educators on any commission that passes.
When SB 16 was debated on the Senate floor Monday, legislators agreed with our request to add an educator and amended the bill to include an active or retired educator to the commission. The chamber passed the legislation unanimously and sent it to the House where more extensive work to fix school finance is underway.
SB 3: bathrooms
The Senate chamber spent the better part of yesterday debating SB 3 by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham). After hours of testimony in committee and hours of debate on the Senate floor only days later, the Senate advanced the proposal, 21-10, with all Republicans and one Democrat, Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (R-Brownsville), voting to advance the legislation. Speaker of the House Joe Straus has sided with business and school districts and made his feelings on the legislation fairly clear, saying he just doesn’t think it is needed legislation. The House offered a bathroom proposal limited to public schools that it was willing to advance during the regular session, but it did not receive the seal of approval from the Senate.
It is important that members of the legislature hear from you on these issues deemed priorities by Governor Abbott. ATPE is encouraging all members to visit Advocacy Central to send a message to state legislators about these proposals as they continue to make their way through the process during the special session. Tell them to focus on meaningful pay and benefits for your profession and adequate school funding for your local schools. Let them know that vouchers and targeted prohibitions on payroll deductions for educators are distractions from the real issues faced by Texas public school children. You can also utilize the resource to thank your individual senators who voted with public education and educators!