State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has tried to kill several bills this session. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune
A major mental health bill prioritized by the state’s top leaders as a way to help prevent school shootings was partially revived late Tuesday night hours after it appeared to have been abruptly killed on a technicality during a dramatic night in the Texas House.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which created a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services. Stickland’s point of order contended that an analysis of the bill provided to lawmakers was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in Stickland’s favor.
But hours later, provisions from SB 10 were added to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that the lower chamber passed earlier in the evening. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, sponsored SB 10 in the House and successfully amended it to SB 11 over Stickland’s objections shortly before a midnight House deadline to advance bills from the upper chamber.
SB 10 is one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated it one of his 30 legislative priorities.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill’s author, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of school shootings. It had bipartisan backing and cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.
“I think it was a well-intentioned bill that had some very bad unintended consequences,” Stickland told the Tribune by phone Tuesday night, an hour after his point of order initially knocked the bill out of contention. “I think it could have been stronger on parental rights to make sure our constitutional rights are protected in the bill.”
Asked if he was bracing for backlash from leadership over killing such a high-profile bill, Stickland said, “I expect it.”
Within a couple of hours, Stickland got it.
As it became clear Tuesday that Stickland’s point of order would torpedo the legislation, key players who worked on SB 10 moved quickly to figure out next steps. Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, walked across the Capitol rotunda into the Senate, where he spoke with Nelson, presumably about news of the bill’s fate.
“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” Zerwas told the Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland, who’s pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them, and he wins some, he loses some, and unfortunately, he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”
Just before 11 p.m., state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican and brother of the House speaker, made a motion to revive the mental health bill by amending a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier Tuesday. He offered a cryptic message that there was “an opportunity to do some additional work” in order to “further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”
Stickland approached the chamber’s back microphone with questions.
“Is this something we’ve seen before?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Greg Bonnen said.
Stickland attempted to delay the motion, asking procedural questions about how the chamber was going to reconsider a portion of a bill that had already passed. He then gave a speech imploring colleagues not to reconsider SB 11, the school safety bill.
“Maybe you plan on voting for it, and that’s fine,” Stickland said. “But here’s what I can promise you: One day, there’s gonna be something that you care about where you might be in the minority. … You’re going to hope that these rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”
At one point, Stickland and a group of lawmakers huddled at the front dais to discuss his attempts to prevent adding the mental health provisions to the school safety bill.
“I’m sick of this shit,” Stickland could be heard telling Dennis Bonnen.
Zerwas eventually succeeded in reviving major elements of the mental health bill, despite two further attempts from Stickland to prohibit the amendment on technicalities.
Stickland has built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, under both Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on several high-priority bills this year, including the House’s school finance reform proposal.
On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. In April, for example, he successfully knocked several measures off of that day’s local and consent calendar, which is typically reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.
On Monday, he used a point of order to successfully halt a bill that would have made it illegal to leave an unattended dog tied up in an inhumane manner. And earlier Tuesday, Stickland unsuccessfully called a point of order on SB 11, the school safety bill that would later be used as the vehicle to revive SB 10.
It was one of two school safety bills that advanced in the Legislature within hours of each other. The Senate also approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.
The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for youth access to mental health care. According to its 2019 report, The State of Mental Health in America, 71.3% of youth in Texas with major depression go untreated, compared with the national average of 61.5%.
Acacia Coronado, Emily Goldstein, Alex Samuels, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.
Dense fog blankets the dome of the Capitol in Austin. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune
Here at the beginning of a week in which most bills in the Texas Legislature will die, the big priorities set out at the beginning, in January, are still alive: school finance, property tax reform, school safety and responses to Hurricane Harvey.
Lots of other proposals are fading fast.
As of Friday, just over 5% of the 7,324 bills filed in the House and Senate this session had made it all the way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That tells you a bit about what will happen in the next few days. When this is over, when lawmakers have gaveled out on Memorial Day, that percentage will have jumped considerably. Two years ago, 18% of the filed bills made it to the governor. Four years ago, it was 21%. And in 2013, it was 24.4%.
But don’t just look at success; that won’t explain the dramatic tension of the next few days. Look instead at the overwhelming failure rate. Only about 1 bill in 5 — 1 in 4 in a good year — makes it out of a regular session alive. Everything else (that hasn’t found new life as an amendment to other legislation) meets its final end in the final week — when procedural deadlines form a bottleneck that most of the stampeding legislation doesn’t survive.
Those failures are not always surprising to the authors of bills, but failure is a tough ending when a legislator has worked for 20 weeks or more to make some changes in the state’s law books.
The big stuff is all right — at least for a minute — but other things you’ve probably heard or read about are in peril, a list that includes new laws that would allow people and businesses to discriminate when that’s based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”; limits on local residents’ ability to block oil and gas pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure projects; and loosening of the state’s current restrictions on medical marijuana. There’s also the Senate confirmation of Abbott’s Secretary of State appointee, David Whitley, who presided over the state’s botched search for noncitizens on the state’s rolls of registered voters and who’s out of a job if the Senate doesn’t confirm him before the session ends. Until Sunday night, it also included changes to election laws sought by Republican lawmakers; that bill didn’t get onto the House’s final calendar, but its provisions could find their way into other legislation before the session ends.
That’s a tiny sample of what’s in the air, and it’s changing fast. Some of the items on that list have already died once or twice, only to pop up in some other form. You’ll know in a week or so — after Memorial Day — what’s really dead and what really passed.
The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.
After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.
The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.
“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.
Since school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any tax relief effort would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools, if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.
Taylor had originally included several provisions that would provide ongoing tax relief, paid for by an increase in the sales tax by one percentage point.
Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had thrown their support behind that sales tax swap, arguing it would help Texans who are currently being taxed out of their homes. But the proposal has serious detractors in lawmakers from both parties in both chambers who are opposed to a higher sales tax.
So Taylor stripped the increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.
The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.
“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.
Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.
“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.
A few senators didn’t vote yes on HB 3 because they didn’t know the cost of the bill or how their school districts would be affected by it.
“The lack of a fiscal note delineating the total cost of the bill was unacceptable,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who voted against the bill along with state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
Creighton echoed those concerns about not knowing the legislation’s price tag, though he said he agreed with its policy.
“Before the session ends, I will have another chance to vote on the final bill, and I look forward to supporting it once I have a clear understanding of the impacts on school districts in Senate District 4, and the true cost of the legislation, which will have implications for all Texas taxpayers,” he said in a statement after the vote.
The House and Senate have passed versions of HB 3 that are similar in some ways: Both would raise the base funding per student — a number that hasn’t budged in four years — and would provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-K for eligible students.
Among the disagreements: how to make sure school employees get much-needed raises. The Senate has prioritized $5,000 pay raises for all full-time teachers and librarians. The House has directed districts to give all school employees about $1,388 in raises on average statewide and designated extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion.
Senate Democrats’ efforts to extend those $5,000 raises to full-time counselors and other employees failed along party lines Monday.
Also controversially for some, the Senate includes money providing bonuses to schools based on third-grade test scores and funding districts that want to provide merit pay for their top-rated teachers. Many teacher groups have opposed both, arguing it would put more emphasis on a flawed state standardized test.
State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, failed to get an amendment to the bill approved that would strike tying any funding to third-grade test scores.
Teachers, parents and advocates following on social media had paid attention to Powell’s amendment, mobilizing in support through a Twitter hashtag “#NoSTAARonHB3.”
Taylor pointed out that the bill also allows school districts to use assessments other than the state’s STAAR standardized test, which has lately come under renewed scrutiny, with researchers and advocates arguing it doesn’t adequately measure students’ reading abilities. He approved an amendment requiring the state to pay for school districts to use those alternative tests, which he estimated would cost about $4 million.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.
Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.
The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.
“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”
The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.
The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.
“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”
Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.
A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.
Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.
The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.
“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”
So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.
Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”
Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.
In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.
Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.
Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”
“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.
A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.
Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.
Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.
The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.
Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.
The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.
Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.
A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.
The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.
Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.
The supplemental bill also includes:
Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
$2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.
Flanked by other members of the Texas House, Rep. Dan Huberty and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announce the filing of HB 3 during a press conference on March 5, 2019.
Numerous members of the Texas House of Representatives filled a crowded room at the State Capitol today for a press conference heralding the filing of House Bill (HB) 3.
The much-anticipated school finance reform bill has been filed by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, with the support of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). At this morning’s press conference, Chairman Huberty shared that approximately 90 representatives had already signed on to co-author the bill.
HB 3 as filed calls for raising the basic allotment by $890 per student and increasing the minimum salary schedule that sets a statewide floor for paying teachers, librarians, school nurses, and counselors. The bill aims to help districts fund full-day pre-Kindergarten programs and also provides money that can be used for merit pay programs for teachers. During today’s press conference, Chairman Huberty insisted that the bill’s incentive pay proposal for teachers, which was inspired by recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, would be based on factors other than the STAAR test. HB 3 does not include any across-the-board pay raise for educators like the one found in SB 3 on which we’ve also been reporting recently. The $9 billion price tag for HB 3 includes provisions for property tax relief, as well, since the bill provides funding to help school districts lower their tax rates by 4 cents and also aims to reduce districts’ recapture payments.
The House has created a website with additional information about HB 3, including a downloadable flier, at TheTexasPlan.com. Speaker Bonnen, Chairman Huberty, and other proponents of the bill are also encouraging use of the social media hashtag #TheTimeIsNow in promoting the bill. Readers of our blog may remember that on opening day of this legislative session, Speaker Bonnen shared that he had placed styrofoam cups in the House members’ lounge featuring the phrase, “School finance reform: The time is now.”
Chairman Huberty announced today his plans to have the House Public Education Committee hold a public hearing on HB 3 on March 12, and then have the committee make any necessary changes and vote the bill out on March 19 for floor consideration soon thereafter. Huberty also noted that he continues to engage in talks with Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who is spearheading similar school finance reform efforts in the Senate and plans to file his own version of a school funding bill (to be identified as Senate Bill 4) this week.
ATPE appreciates the high priority being placed on fixing the state’s broken school finance system this session, as well as improving teacher compensation, addressing school safety, and shoring up the Teacher Retirement System. We look forward to participating in the upcoming hearings on HB 3 and all other related bills that are being debated this session. We will continue to work collaboratively with the 86th Legislature to craft comprehensive solutions that will address our public school students’ complex funding needs, the desire to improve educator compensation, efforts to ensure that our schools are safe learning environments, and the increasing pressure of making sure teachers’ pension and healthcare benefits are properly funded so that we can recruit and retain the best educators in Texas.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is sworn in as House speaker by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Looking on is Bonnen’s wife Kimberly. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. The Angleton Republican replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.
Whereas Straus was known as a mild-mannered leader, Bonnen has developed more of a combatant’s reputation in the House. He seemed to lean into that perception in his remarks. “I’ve never seen the use in sugarcoating things,” Bonnen said. “I am direct and I am a problem solver.”
Lawmakers praised his leadership ability in a series of speeches preceding the vote. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks, in which she said Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served.”
The new speaker pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting “caught up in things that don’t lead to real results.” He named public school funding as his top priority, in addition to school safety, combating human trafficking and reforming property tax collection. He even went so far as to replace the drinking cups in the House members’ lounge with new ones reading, “School finance reform: The time is now.”
“You will be reminded every day,” Bonnen said.
Bonnen’s election was hardly a surprise; he first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November, working behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. In his closing remarks, after asking for unity among House members, he gave a tearful tribute to his father, recalling some advice from the elder Bonnen, who passed away in 2017.
“Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it,” he said. “There’s a saying we have in Texas: As Texas goes, so goes the nation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott praised Bonnen’s “tenacity” and echoed some of his legislative priorities in a speech to the lower chamber. “You have the ability — and we will achieve it — that we are going to reform school finance in the state of Texas this session,” Abbott said. “And we are going to reform property taxes in Texas this session.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead. Patrick’s office later said the meeting was about border security.
Before a crowd of doting spouses and toddling grandchildren, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to a slate of new and returning state senators. Among them were state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who gave up his powerful committee chairmanship last week after an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation, and incoming state Sen. Angela Paxton, who was accompanied by her husband, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Nelson, performing a duty traditionally left to the lieutenant governor, joked that she was certainly the first grandmother of 11 to gavel in a session of the Texas Legislature. Soon after, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and the former mayor of the capital city, was elected president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the governorship after Patrick.
Other visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.
This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next five months, the two legislative bodies will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?
But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.
The festivities reached all corners of the building.
Huddled in the Capitol’s rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.
“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.
Elsewhere, children clutched their parents’ hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors.
A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the Governor’s Mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Abbott to address global warming. By early afternoon, when the swearing-in ceremonies were finished and lawmakers adjourned for the day, the fog had dissipated.
Texas’ decision to spend $33.3 million less on students with disabilities in 2012 will likely cost it millions in future federal funding after a Wednesday afternoon 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
According to the New Orleans-based court, the U.S. Department of Education was within its rights to try to withhold the same amount from Texas’ special education grants, since a 1997 federal statute prohibits states from reducing their funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. Texas had appealed the department’s decision, arguing that statute was vague and unenforceable.
A little more than a month after hearing both sides, and the day after a momentous midterm election, the three-judge panel effectively upheld the education department’s decision to financially penalize Texas in an opinion that called the state’s argument “unpersuasive.” The 13-page opinion questions Texas’ current system for funding special education, saying it could give the state reason to minimize the needs of kids with disabilities in order to save money.
The court also ruled that Texas must pay the federal government’s appeal costs. Texas has not publicly indicated whether it will try to appeal the ruling.
Since 1995, Texas has weighted funding for kids with disabilities, paying schools more to educate kids who have more severe disabilities or need more personalized attention in order to learn. It argued it spent $33.3 million less in 2012 because its special education programs successfully got students to “overcome their disabilities,” decreasing their need. School districts reported students in need of less expensive services that year and so the state allocated less money, lawyers argued.
The federal government’s argument is simple: States cannot decrease their funding from year to year, a provision that ensures they use the additional federal money to enhance services, instead of cutting their budgets.
Texas’ weighted funding system “poses the potential for future abuse” of that statute, the panel said in an opinion written by Judge Jerry Smith, who had expressed skepticism towards the state’s argument in October.
“Though Texas law requires the state to allocate funding based on the needs of disabled children, it is the state itself that assesses what those needs are,” Smith wrote. “Hence, the weighted-student model creates a perverse incentive for a state to escape its financial obligations merely by minimizing the special education needs of it students.”
At a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing last month, state education officials prepared lawmakers for a potential loss at the 5th Circuit, saying the penalty — which amounts to 3 percent of Texas’ annual federal special education grant — would have minimal impact on their special education programs.
Texas is separately working to overhaul its special education programs after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded earlier this year that the state had effectively denied services to thousands of students with disabilities who needed them. Officials estimate spending $3 billion more on kids with disabilities over the next three years, since more students are likely to be eligible for services.
Early voting for the 2018 general election began on Monday with Educator Voting Day. Educators were encouraged to the head to the polls and cast their ballots alongside friends, family, and colleagues. Many educators took to social media to share their “I voted” selfies. While there is no tally of how many educators have turned out at the polls thus far, counties across the state are seeing record numbers of voter turnout for early voting in a midterm election.
Educators especially must remember what’s at stake during this election with regard to school funding, teacher pay, retirement benefits, and a myriad of other issues. It is important to go into this election as informed as possible. For more information on candidates, where to find polling places in your county, and what’s needed in order to vote, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
With such a robust start to the early voting period, it’s only fitting that this week end with today’s Student Voting Day. As decreed by Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos last October:
The first Friday of the early voting period [is] Student Voting Day in Texas. This is a day when our entire community is called upon to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in the county of their registration.
Early voting will continue through Nov. 2. For many voters, this weekend offers the only opportunity to early vote on the weekend. The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Whether you vote early or on election day, take time to learn about the candidates and build and print out your sample ballot before heading to the polls.
Much attention has been paid nationally to the competitive race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz and his challenger Congressman Beto O’Rourke, but Texans know that isn’t the only race at issue in this election. Contests for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other down ballot races will be decided in this election, and the outcomes of those contests on Nov. 6 could set the course for education policy in Texas for generations to come. As recent media reports show, educators and public education issues are taking center stage in a number of high-profile races, including statewide contests.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.” – as reported by the Texas Tribune.
In an article published this week by the Texas Tribune and reposted here on Teach The Vote, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter explained that for quite some time the education community has been expected to lay down and take whatever the legislature gives them. But that tide may be starting to change. Educators have been becoming increasingly vocal and active in recent elections. A popular target of educators’ dissatisfaction with the status quo has been Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), and the Texas Tribune‘s article highlights the role educators have played in the bid by Democratic challenger Mike Collier to unseat him.
Another statewide race where public education has emerged as an issue, somewhat surprisingly, is the election for Texas Attorney General. There, Justin Nelson (D) is challenging the current AG Ken Paxton (R) and calling out the incumbent for eyebrow-raising stances he has taken on questions of political involvement by educators. Earlier this year when educators started activating behind another challenger vying to unseat Lt. Gov. Patrick in the Republican primary election, Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion questioning the propriety of certain actions being taken by school officials and pro-public education groups like ATPE to increase voter turnout among educators and even students who are eligible to vote. Paxton has used the AG’s office to continue to intimidate school district leaders out of promoting voting, and Nelson has responded by appealing directly to educators in the late stages of his campaign.
Read more about how educator involvement in this election has become a central focus in the AG’s race and how the education community is responding to the attempts to tamp down educators’ enthusiasm in this post by ATPE’s Exter. For public school employees who still have questions about what is and is not permissible political speech under state law, the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition of which ATPE is a member also created this guide on Election Do’s and Dont’s for educators.
If you want to beat the crowds on Election Day, you’ll want to turn out at the polls during the “12 Days of Voting” happening now. But ATPE can point to numerous other reasons for educators to get out and vote regardless of the crowds or lines.
As has been stated many times before, the results of this election happening now are crucial to every Texan but to educators especially. During this early voting period, we’ve begun highlighting some of the reasons why educators should take this election to heart. It doesn’t take much to see that with state leaders campaigning on boasts about non-existent pay raises for teachers, with continuous increases in the cost of healthcare, and with local taxpayers bearing more and more of the burden for school funding, it doesn’t take much to see that it’s time for a change. Check out the latest installments of our 12 Days of Voting series at the links below, and keep watching for new posts in our blog series throughout the early voting period:
A brand new poll released by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune today shows that high numbers of Texas voters are enthusiastic about the general election happening now. As reported by the Texas Tribune today, 76 percent of the voters polled said they were “absolutely certain” they would be voting in the midterms. Both Republican and Democratic voters displayed such enthusiasm according to the new polls results. In most recent midterm elections, the actual percentage of registered voters who turned out at the polls in Texas has been only about 38 percent.
The poll also showed statewide officeholders holding considerable leads over their challengers among likely voters. Here are more excerpts from the Texas Tribune‘s reporting:
The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?
Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.
TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.
Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?
“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”
He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.
“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.
On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.
Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.
Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.
But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?
“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”
Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.
Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”
But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.
Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.
But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.
“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”
Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.
In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.
Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.
On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”
“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.
“Public enemy number one for public education”
If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.
As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.
“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”
Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.
“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”
But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.
And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”
Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.
“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.
“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.
A “sleeping giant”?
There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”
Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.
Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.
Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.
A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.
Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.
“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”
Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.
There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.
“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”
The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.
At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.
“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.
While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.
“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
There’s just something about the seething mercury, the colorful proliferation of yard signs, and the specter of an existential showdown that awakens a – dare we call it – miraculous clarity in political combatants seeking votes.
When else can one witness folks who’ve spent the past 20 months fighting in bitter opposition to a particular set of constituents suddenly discover a deep love for the values they hold? The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s no surprise that we’re now hearing support for improving the school finance system from unexpected corners. To a certain degree, it’s positive evidence that educators are being heard, and that the powers-that-be realize that there is more to gain by working with the education community than working to dismantle it.
That doesn’t mean that efforts to dismantle it behind the scenes will stop. In politics as in statistics, things tend to revert toward the mean. The governing happens long after the polls close. Nonetheless, election season opens a brief window of opportunity to use our seat at the table to advance the conversation.
“We need to pay our best teachers more, reward teachers and districts for student growth, prioritize spending in the classroom and reduce the burden of skyrocketing property taxes. I’ll add up front that I believe the state will have to provide more funding.”
That last line seems to offer an acknowledgment of what we in the education committee have known for some time, but which many in the Capitol have resisted mightily.
The problem, of course, is that many of the people who have opposed investing more state dollars in public education have falsely argued that the state is already increasing education spending year over year. They point to raw dollars going back to a low-water point in 2006 in order to obscure the reality of the deliberate and steady erosion of state support for local schools. Troublingly, Gov. Abbott takes this very tack in writing that “overall education spending in Texas has increased by more than 50 percent since 2006, and the state is contributing 29 percent more education funding per student in that time period.”
Let’s look at that claim.
The numbers in the latter half of that statement come from a Texas Education Agency (TEA) presentation before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The headline of the slide below seems to confirm the governor’s assertion, but look at the orange line indicating funding adjusted for inflation. It clearly shows that in terms of purchasing power, total per-student funding has risen only slightly since 2006, and is roughly equal to per-student funding in 2008. (Click the image to view a larger version.)
Source: Texas Education Agency
What’s perhaps more telling is the blue bar indicating how much funding the state has contributed. I’ve added the red brackets and red horizontal line to make the minute changes easier to see. You can tell that the raw dollar amount the state has contributed has actually decreased slightly since 2008 – and that’s not even adjusted for inflation.
To get to the inflation-adjusted number, we look at the Legislative Budget Board’s (LBB) Fiscal Size-up for the 2016-2017 biennium. In the chart below, we can see how spending from local property tax revenue (circled in green) has increased, while state aid (circled in blue) has changed little from 2008 levels. In total constant dollars adjusted for inflation (near the red arrow), we see that total funding has in fact decreased.
Source: Legislative Budget Board
The governor also wrongly suggests that funding is not making it into classrooms. According to the TEA’s 2016-17 Pocket Edition statistics, districts only spend an average of 3.1 percent on administrative costs.
To his credit, the governor advocates that increases in funding should go to teachers. No disagreement there. His idea is to implement a system in which top-performing teachers can earn significantly higher pay by teaching in areas facing the most need – similar to the “ACE” system tested in Dallas ISD. It’s a conversation that’s worth having, provided that educators are involved in the process and that the system doesn’t rely primarily on student test results to identify those “top-performing” teachers.
Governor Abbott also suggests moving away from a per-pupil funding model and, implicitly, toward a more outcomes-based approach. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is identifying which metrics with which to measure student performance and the threat of schools faced with the most significant socioeconomic challenges receiving even less support.
Finally, the governor writes that school finance reform must be accompanied by reforms in property taxes. It’s true the two are inextricably intertwined.
Increasing the state’s share of public education funding is the surest way to provide relief in property taxes. The governor proposes forcing taxing entities to lower their rates as appraisals go up, with the state presumably stepping in to make school districts whole. That’s a lot to presume, especially to do so in perpetuity.
Districts could hardly be blamed for wanting to see the legislature commit money up front before committing to voluntarily lower their tax rates – and it will take a sizable appropriation to shift the burden back toward the state in a way that will be meaningful to local property owners. School board members are politicians too, and they don’t want to be blamed for high taxes any more than their counterparts in Austin.
So what does it all mean? Does the governor’s column signify a dramatic reversal of his stance on public education, and school finance in particular? Does it mean he’s ready to stop attacking educators through anti-teacher payroll deduction bills and focus on improving teacher pay instead?
At a minimum, the governor is now talking about public education as an important priority, and that’s a good thing. The onus is on us to engage respectfully yet forcefully, and to shape the conversation, to the extent we can, by correcting inaccuracies and providing meaningful input. At best, we hope the governor will listen to educators and incorporate our feedback, even after the elections are over.
Of course, just as election season begins in the frantic furnace of summer, it ends in darkness on a winter night. When the legislature returns in January, we’ll all be faced with cold reality.
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