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Amidst Two Major Losses, Education Advocates See A Watered-Down Victories in School Finance

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When it comes to easy talking points for education advocates—protecting teacher contracts and assuaging the $4 billion in cuts to public schools—there’s going to be very little that’s easy to brag about when this special session ends. But largely unnoticed are some minor victories contained in the school finance language of Senate Bill 1, a must-pass piece of legislation that will likely come up for a final votes in both chambers today. 

In broad strokes, the school finance deal barely differs from the deal that the House and Senate negotiated during the regular session, before it was derailed by a Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster. Despite the woefully unequal funding structure already in place, the plan cuts approximately 6 percent from all districts in the first year of the bienium and in the second year, takes three-fourths of the cuts from wealthier, “target revenue” districts. (For more on the plan, see my story here.)

Most importantly, however, the new plan represents a shift in funding philosophy. Instead of funding school districts automatically, based on how much our formulas say they need, the new system introduces a new factor into the equation that allows the legislature to fund districts based on what money is available. The shift would mean that for the first time since 1949, school districts could not count on the state to fund them fully year to year. Furthermore, in the first version of the bill, if a district’s needs changed during the year (for instance, if more students entered than were expected) the state was no longer obligated to settle up such costs.

State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, successfully attached an amendment to the House version of the bill that limited the changes to the next two years, after which school financing would revert back to the current system. After that, schools would once again get automatic funding. Furthermore, her amendment required the state to settle up with school districts that did not receive as much as they were entitled to. 

The final version of the bill—which will very likely pass today—includes the settle-up language and a watered-down expiration date. Instead of expiring in 2013, as Patrick’s amendment dictated, the school finance plan is now set to expire in 2015. That may not sound like much of a victory, but it’s one of the few areas where the special session has offered improvements to what would likely have passed during the regular session.

In other areas, there’s much less for education advocates to be excited about.

Monday the House and Senate both passed Senate Bills 2 and 8. Senate Bill 2 had once been a source of great hope for Democrats in particular when state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, successfully attached an amendment to the House version of the bill that said if the Rainy Day fund exceed $6.5 billlion, up to $2 billion of surplus money would go towards public education. The manuever earned Republican support because it did not actually spend Rainy Day money currently available. But the victory was short lived. Pressure from vehemently fiscal conservative groups soon scared many formerly supportive Republican members. The House ultimately asked negotiators to strip out the measure. When the bill came back from conference committee, the Howard amendment was gone, and the bill passed both chambers without the extra funds. It now seems like the $4 billion cut to the state’s school districts is all but written in stone.

Meanwhile, Democrats also saw one of their few legislative victories in the regular session go down in flames. The House and Senate passed Senate Bill 8, the so-called “mandate relief” legislation that makes it both easier and cheaper to fire teachers, as well as allows school districts to distribue furloughs and pay cuts. The bill, which was carried by Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro and House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler in their respective chambers, gives greater power to school administrators and according to proponents, it will give school districts various options for cutting costs. It’s only fair, they say, given that the state is cutting funding.

During the regular session, however, teachers groups worked feverishly in a successful effort to kill the measure. For them, it represented a assault on contractual protections that teachers fought long and hard to gain. Shapiro never found the requisite two-thirds support to consider the bill on the Senate floor, while Eissler’s attempts to pass the thing fell victim to a series of technical points of order. The session ended without either chamber passing the measure, one of the few victories Democrats and teachers groups could claim. During the special session, however, the bill flew through both chambers and came out of conference committee without a hitch.

For teachers groups, the victories in Senate Bill 1 will likely be cold comfort. But it may be the only comfort they get for a while.