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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.

It was always going to be risky. When Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered a major fiscal bill at the very end of the regular legislative session, she forced Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session to deal with public education. At the time, she explained that she did so to try to prevent the proposed $4 billion in cuts to school districts and the impact to the school finance system.  “I did my part, the small part I could play, in stopping a failed public policy,” she told reporters that night. 

With less than two weeks left in the special session, we’ll soon find just how much of the public policy actually got stopped.  The special session forced the Republican-dominated House and Senate to reconsider the cuts to education and how those cuts would get distributed. Democrats and a few moderate Republicans worked hard to try to use the special to increase funding for schools and soften the long-term impacts the school finance system. They’ve had some success. 

But there was a downside to the special session too. By forcing a special, Davis opened a bit of a Pandora’s box. That included education bills Democrats had managed to halt in the regular session. When the governor called the special session, he specifically asked lawmakers to consider measures to “allow school districts to operate more efficiently.” That allowed the Legislature to revive so-called  “mandate relief” bills that make it easier to fire teachers and give school districts the right to furlough teachers and cut their pay. Teachers groups hate these bills. These proposals were dead until they were revived in the special session on education. They now appear likely to become law.

As the three main bills chug through the legislative process, we’ll soon find if the special-session gamble paid off.

The Howard Amendment

Most attention has gone to the Howard amendment—a move by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, to put more money into education. Perry has been adamant that the Legislature not spend any of the state’s Rainy Day fund on the 2012-2013 budget. Democrats have argued that instead of drastic cuts to education and healthcare, the Legislature should use more of the fund, which Comptroller Susan Combs has estimated will have $6.5 billion available for the upcoming biennium. Howard’s amendment, attached to Senate Bill 2, does not spend any of the money currently in the fund, but instead directs up to $2 billion in new accumulations to go to public education. The $4 billion in cuts to schools remain, but under Howard’s plan, gains to the Rainy Day fund would help close the gap.

But while Howard had the votes to attach her amendment to the House version of SB 2, it will require a two-thirds vote from both chambers to implement the measure. Furthermore, some House Republicans who initially passed the bill are now faltering in their support; 87 House members voted for a non-binding recommendation that conferees on SB 2 should strip out the amendment before the bill comes back. The outlook appears bleak for the amendment. “That one’s not even on life support,” says Richard Kouri wryly.

“Mandate Relief” 

Kouri, the political director for the Texas State Teachers Association, was not excited about the special session. “We did not believe it was advisable unless there was a consensus that we actually could get to the budget and could get to the funding issue,” he says. “If we couldn’t get to the money we thought it was very problematic to go into a special session.” They weren’t the only ones. Another group, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, lobbied Democrats to avoid a special session on education.

That’s because the stakes of the special session were especially high for teachers groups. They successfully killed the controversial “mandate relief” bills during the regular session—one of their only victories during the session. Last week, both the House and Senate passed new versions of the legislation, which chips away at longstanding teacher protections. In addition to allowing furloughs and pay cuts for teachers, Senate Bill 8 also slashes the requirement that districts give teachers their termination notices at least 45 days before the end of the school year. Under the House version, school districts would have to give only 10 days’ notice. The bill gets rid of seniority protections and makes it easier and cheaper to fire teachers. 

Proponents of the bill argue that these are necessary tools for school districts that must balance their budgets with a lot less money from the state. But teachers groups have called it an assault on their profession. “It unravels about 25 years of contract safeguards and salary safeguards,” says Eric Hartman, the political director for Texas AFT, another teachers’ group.

Still, Hartman argues that, regardless of the filibuster, Perry would likely have called a special session to consider “mandate relief” legislation. “It was an illusion if anyone thought this would not come up whenever a special session was called,” he said. “It was pretty much a forgone conclusion that we would see a return of this attempt.”

Patrick Amendment

Unlike Kouri, Hartman is more positive about the special session. Texas AFT openly supported Davis’ filibuster, and has used the special session to hold a lobby day at the Capitol for its members. For evidence of the good to come out of the session, Hartman points to the Patrick amendment—a lesser known effort with one of the biggest potential payoffs for schools. 

As I’ve written before, cuts are not allowed under current school finance law, so the Legislature must pass new measures to allow for decreased funding. The proposed school finance plans fundamentally alters the philosophy around education funding. Instead of automatically funding schools based on pre-determined amounts per child, the plan gives the Legislature the ability to fund schools based on how much the state has that biennium and wants to give. Instead of an obligation, school funding would no longer be automatically funded funded. School districts could no longer trust that they would get the needed amounts from the state.

Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington. Patrick, in conjunction with Democratic school finance guru Rep. Scott Hochberg, crafted an amendment to Senate Bill 1 to limit such long term impacts. While the plan remains in place for 2012-2013, the Patrick amendment effectively sunsets the plan. In two years,the education funding would revert to current law. The Patrick amendment has bipartisan support. If it survives the conference committee process, the measure will be a major step towards keeping school finance intact. Had there been no filibuster, the Senate would have very likely joined the House in voting to make the education funding changes permanent.

Overall, however, Kouri doesn’t seem optimistic. “Right now it certainly doesn’t seem like the special session is going well for teachers,” he said.

Hartman sees it differently. Whatever legislative outcomes the session yields, he argues it’s helped put the spotlight on the Legislature, allowing more of the public to get invovled or at least get educated about the issues. “This is a very long struggle we are dealing with,” he explained. “The next step is to head to the voting booths.”

The Response

Lord help us.

In a parking lot, behind a nondescript, beige building, the young man stands out as heartbreakingly earnest. In a black t-shirt, with a bit of stubble around the chin, the looks out and begins the litany. “Economic collapse,” he says. “Injustice. Violence.” Suddenly, in the same parking lot, an even younger, more fragile looking adolescent appears. “Perversion,” this one says. “Division. Abuse.”

And so begins the video, imploring viewers to partake in “The Response”—Gov. Rick Perry’s Aug. 6 gathering for Christian worship and fasting at Reliant Stadium, home to the Houston Texans. There’s been a lot about the event, which the website describes as “a call to prayer for a nation in crisis.” But have you seen the video advertising it?

Throughout the two-minute web-video, 15 different people appear on the screen, all of decidedly different ages and ethnicities. Even the background changes—from the parking lot to a classroom, inside a house with framed photos on the wall, in a field near a feeder. Everyone featured is deeply perturbed, as at first they reel off their concerns, which come to include “terrorism” and “natural disaster.”

Then things take a personal turn. “I just want my children to be happy,” says one woman looking into the camera. “To get a job when I graduate,” says our t-shirt-clad young man. “For my daddy to love me,” says a little girl with messy hair.

The abrupt shift—just in time to cue a nice techno beat—is one of the major elements in this entire event. The gathering attempts to connect both large-scale concerns with deeply personal worries. The event aims to move from the general to the specific, and in doing so, it invites any attendee to project whatever their own concerns are onto a welcoming canvass. A very pious, Christian canvass that is.

Because, while “The Response” may be about anything, it’s not for just anyone. While Perry is listed as the “initiator” of the event, the American Family Association will be bearing the costs of the gathering. Listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, AFA is known for its extremist views against gays and non-Christians. The event is specifically geared toward Christians. The website details the AFA’s belief that salvation requires belief in the Holy Spirit, and in an interview with the Texas Tribune, AFA president Tim Wildmon explained that “Those who don’t [believe] go to hell.” The Anti-Defamation League and Council on American-Islamic Relations have both spoken out against the event.

Meanwhile, speculation grows that Perry may make a late presidential bid, the governor is out in front. In a public letter on the site, he urges people to “call upon Jesus to guide us.”“There is hope for America,” he writes. “It lies in heaven and we will find it on our knees.”

Rick Perry’s week-long national coming out party is well underway—and so far the governor seems to be working some magic.While he has yet to actually toss his hat (or better yet, a lock of his hair) into the ring, Perry has said he’s considering the idea, and he’s giving every sign he’s serious. From Los Angeles, where Saturday he addressed an anti-abortion rally, to New York, where he spoke last night at a Republican dinner, Perry has managed to package his usual stump speech into some nice national clothing. It wasn’t much of a leap. He’s spent much of the last two years railing against the federal government in defense of states’ rights, and it seems now he’s ready for primetime. 

Actually maybe not. Perry may have brought down the house with his New York speech, but according to Politico, afterwards, Perry and the Texas First Lady flew out the kitchen exit, avoiding the waiting press gaggle.

In fact since becoming a buzzworthy could-be candidate, Perry’s only major interview was with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, who’s not exactly Woodward or Bernstein. “Methinks they think you’re the guy,” Cavuto mused Tuesday when Perry came on the show. For the most part, Cavuto let Perry extoll the virtues of the “Texas model”—low taxes and pro-business approaches. When Cavuto asked how Perry had lured Carl’s Jr. restaurants to Texas, the governor flashed a trademark smile. “They love the smell of freedom,” he explained. Public policy via olfaction! Perry even got in a couple plugs for his book, Fed Up! before heading over to Glenn Beck’s stage for an ostensibly unscripted moment. “How many jobs did you create?” Beck asked as he finished drawing a chalk portrait of Perry. “Since June 2009, about 48 percent of all the jobs created in America were in Texas,” Perry responded—before walking off set.

The job-creation theme has been big as media outlets have focused on Perry’s potential strengths as a candidate. “In recent months, Mr. Perry has been talking up his success in Texas adding jobs in the face of a tough economy,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Many activists in the Republican Party have pined for a dark-horse candidate to enter the field, which they believe is lackluster in order to give the GOP a jolt of enthusiasm,” wrote D.C. insider’s paper The Hill. Bloomberg News began their piece on Perry with the headline: “Texas Governor Calls for Halt of Economic Ruin.” Glad someone did.

Nowhere was a mention of the unprecedented fiscal crisis still plaguing the state that Perry oversees. While legislative efforts have spilled into a special session to determine just how to make controversial cuts to education, the governor seems far removed from the mess. There are the allegations that he’s used the Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund as slush funds for pet projects. And few stories mentioned Perry’s controversial role planning “The Response,” a Christian prayer gathering he’s organized in partnership with the vehemently anti-gay American Family Association, which has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Even when it comes to job creation, this is hardly a flawless record; the San Francisco Chronicle was one of the only places to mention that most of the jobs created in Texas are low wage.

It’s certainly understandable why the press isn’t kicking the tires a little harder. After all, Perry isn’t officially in the race. But, as he told Cavuto, he may decide very late to join in the fun—which will hardly leave the press much time to investigate Perry’s record. 

And it will fall to the national presscorps to step up the scrutiny; the GOP candidates will hardly be in a place to question Perry. After all, his ultra-conservative bona fides make Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney look like raging moderates—hardly the image they want to present. Poking the Texas governor might heighten the comparison between rightwing and center, which could easily just benefit Perry.

If Perry decides to wait and jump in at the last minute, he may find the pathway to a GOP nomination fraught with little scrutiny. That is unless the presscorps start staking out the kitchen exits.

The Legislature has provided no shortage of what-the-hell-are-they-thinking moments the past six months. But late Thursday night (well, early Friday morning) during a House floor debate, we saw perhaps the most bizarre moment of all—a glimpse inside the mind of Wayne Christian. 

The House had been debating a package of school finance and fiscal bills. Democrats had their biggest win of the special session when Austin Democrat Donna Howard attached an amendment that requires surplus money in the Rainy Day Fund—as much as $2 billion—to go toward public education. But Christian stole the show when he offered an amendment near midnight that  forbid state universities from spending public dollars on a “gender and sexuality center or other center for students focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning or other gender identity issues.” (At least he was pretty inclusive in his discrimination.) That meant not only could state dollars not be used to support such centers, but, according to Christian, gay student groups couldn’t even meet in campus buildings.

Earlier in the session, Christian had offered a similar, though less restrictive, amendment and successfully attached it to the state budget. The amendment passed with 110 votes, but later got stripped out of the bill in negotiations with the Senate. So on Thursday night, the Republican from the East Texas town of Center brought to the floor an even harsher version. 

Despite its obvious anti-gay bias, the amendment had a chance to pass. Though many members no doubt found the amendment odious, few were willing to vote against it. In April, the less-harsh version won 110 votes, including support from 11 Democrats.

This time, though, they didn’t have to take a public vote. Christian pulled the amendment down when Democrats threatened to torpedo the entire bill with a point of order that Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, presumably had ready for a moment like this. 

This entire line of thinking—shut down the LGBT centers groups—might lead a number of readers of this particular publication to wonder “What the hell is was this guy thinking?”

For once, we actually got a sense of just what he was thinking. And it wasn’t pretty.

Before he actually pulled down the measure, Christian took the stage to express his own baffled amazement at the people before him—people willing to gut the entire bill rather than risk a blatantly discriminatory amendment getting tacked on. His speech, however, was more than about the amendment itself. It was some insight into a worldview that’s increasingly present in the Texas Legislature—a vehement social conservatism, responding to the various social revolutions in this country. (The entire text of Christian’s speech is below.)

Christian began, not by talking about sexuality at all, but about racial politics. “I’m one fellow that was racially discriminated against,” he said. “See back in the ’70s I was on the first team in basketball at … high school my sophomore and junior years. We integrated my senior year, and I rode the bench because I couldn’t play as good as they did. ‘Cause white boys couldn’t jump.

“So,” he concluded, “I received discrimination.” Let’s put this in context. His school was integrating. You know—because the town had been segregated so white children got a disproportionately better education. Christian apparently feels he “received discrimination” because he “couldn’t play as good as they did.” If you missed the part of this anecdote in which Christian actually endured discrimination, you’re not alone.

Christian wasn’t done however. He began telling the chamber how he worked on the Human Services Committee “to address the human service question of taking care of the poor and needy.” For the record, Christian championed the ultimately failing effort to drain the System Benefit Fund, which provides electric bill assistance to poor and elderly Texans. But Thursday night—well Friday morning by this point—Christian was explaining that despite all his efforts to help these poor creatures, human services is “just a place where there’s such a high wall of misunderstanding, prejudice, distrust that we can’t get over that fence.”

Still with no mention of the actual amendment or human sexuality, Christian then went on to the greatness of America. “The white people in Europe couldn’t do it. Black people from Africa couldn’t do it. White people from Canada, the Hispanic population couldn’t do it,” he said. “But when we all came together in this one place called America, the United States of America—we have 90 percent of the world’s wealth.” Eat your heart out, Sarah Palin. 

After expending quite a bit of energy, explaining he was a patriot and liked everyone “red or yellow, black or white,” Christian ended by saying he simply didn’t get how a good guy like himself was seen as hateful.”Every time I open my mouth and express ‘let’s equalize this,’ [people think] I’m prejudiced or I’m wrong or I’m tainted in my views and opinions,” he said.”I apologize to anybody in this session that I have ever said anything, done anything, expressed any way that would be prejudicial, discriminatory, wrong, hateful—anything. Because I’m sure my mouth does it. My wife reminds me regularly that it does.” Which makes us wonder what he says around the dinner table. 

Christian might have ended with a nice why-can’t-we-all-get-along? Instead, however, he finally got to the point. Those darn gay people, whose rights, for some reason, some reps were trying to protect. “I am just amazed that that is why we would pull down the entire bill in the State of Texas,” Christian said, noting that neither the cuts to school finance or health and human services had caused as much havoc. “It was because we didn’t want to continue expressing training in our higher institutions for alternative lifestyles,” Christian said. “I am dumbfounded with that one.”

By the end of that speech, I have a feeling he wasn’t the only one dumbfounded.

 

Here’s the full text of Christian’s speech in all its glory:

Members let me first apologize for burning so much of your time this evening. It’s not my desire to delay to getting home to your families, getting home to whatever, doing whatever. And it is most certainly not my desire to kill a days of hard diligent sincere dedicated work that all of us have participated in. I don’t intend to do that.

Came here about 15 years ago… I came here 15 years ago mostly because I had the honor of being elected by constituents. But I remember I came because one night, one Christmas Eve night, my wife worked at Perry Brother’s variety store. I was there. There was a young single mother that was crying with her child because she couldn’t afford to buy toys. I was very concerned about that. Good Lord got better to me and Lisa, we got married and he gave me enough success that I could come here and do what all of you do and leave our families. And I came with the attitude that there needed to be a better way. I was raised in a school that was largely minority, I lived in a district that represents probably one of the highest Hispanic populations in the state next to the Valley. I’m one fellow that was racially discriminated against. See back in the 70s I was on the first team in basketball at [inaudible] high school my sophomore and junior years. We integrated my senior year  and I rode the bench because I couldn’t play as good as they did. ‘Cause white boys couldn’t jump. So I received discrimination. I grew up in a racially mixed community. To me equality is me saying the same thing to one, doing the something to the other. In my home, every race in the world you could think of, my children came home, spent the night, we graduated every kind of kid. It doesn’t matter, red or yellow, black or white. I believe that.

It amazed me when I got here to the Texas House and asked to be on the Texas Human Services Committee because I felt like we needed to do something about these poor single mothers in the state of Texas. I would keep saying what can we do for them? And they’d say give ‘em more money, keep doing the same thing. And Einstein’s story that ya’ll have heard is that the mark of a true idiot is to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

I was asked at the Republican Caucus meeting down in San Antonio, when I raised my hand and asked the Speaker at that time… or the senior members, I said when are we going to address the human service question of taking care the poor and needy? And they said, “Oh Christian, we’ll handle that later. Different time, Different place.”

I guess my view is just somehow warped. I asked for the Human Services Committee and I didn’t know a freshmen could get their first committee assignment but I was amazed to get it. Found out it’s because nobody else wanted it. For three sessions we worked on human services and I found that it’s just a place where there’s such a high wall of misunderstanding, prejudice, distrust that we can’t get over that fence. And to this day fifteen years later, it’s still present. Tonight I brought an amendment that was requested of young people. I believe very simply—this is my warped opinion and evidently I must not meet the majority of understanding somewhere and I apologize for it. But let me say that what I believe is that equality is either everybody is either treated equally and equal means the same. But I don’t understand that if you teach, express, promote, fund, advocate this one view, then that’s okay. But if you don’t do that one and do the other, say the more traditional like I would believe values that I think were more responsible for building the values for our country, our our society, that’s somehow intolerant or wrong or somehow not equal. Or if you do them both equally, that’s not right either.

I don’t understand that and I apologize for my prejudiced in thinking everybody having equal or not expressing one side over another. To me that views as equality.

Let me say this in closing. I believe America is unlike any other place on planet Earth. The white people in Europe couldn’t do it. Black people from Africa couldn’t do it. White people from Canada, the Hispanic population couldn’t do it. But when we all came together in this one place called America, the United States of America. We have 90 percent of the worlds’ wealth. Listen to this. The second richest place on planet earth next to the united states is western Europe. that’s france and england, that bunch. that’s the second richest place on planet Earth. Do you know the absolute classification of people in the United States, we’re talking the poorest our government can classify, has more square footed heated area, eats more red meat, is more likely to drive a car, own a telephone and a television than the average citizen in the second richest place on planet Earth, Western Europe. There’s something right about all of us working together. And that’s what I bleed for. But it seems like the walls are so high every time I open my mouth and express ‘let’s equalize this,’ that I’m prejudiced or I’m wrong or I’m tainted in my views and opinions.

Folks I pray for the day that we actually can sit and discuss things and bring those walls of prejudice down. And I apologize to anybody in this session that I have ever said anything, done anything, expressed any way that would be prejudicial, discriminatory, wrong, hateful—anything. Because I’m sure my mouth does it, my wife reminds me regularly that it does. But folks, there is a better way of working together. And I hope to God one day we can find it together in this country. I do not want to destroy the day’s work.

I have been told that if I will pull my amendment, that then those that have objected to the amendment will pull down their point of order against Senate Bill one. I am just amazed that that is why we would pull down the entire bill in the state of Texas. Get this clear. Wasn’t over the inappropriate school finance. It wasn’t over not funding the needy and the human services agenda. it was because we didn’t want to continue expressing training in our higher institutions for alternative lifestyles. I am dumbfounded with that one.

Education: No Longer an Obligation?

The budget's impact on schools won't just be a $4 billion cut but a change in philosophy.

My last print column from our Lege wrap-up issue.

For more than 60 years, education has held a privileged place in Texas public policy. Unlike every other part of the budget, funding for public schools was automatic—in 2009, like most sessions, the House and Senate barely discussed the topic. Instead, like almost every other year, lawmakers figured out a method for determining how much districts were owed, and then they paid it. The methods and formulas for funding changed, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but in the midst of a flawed and unwieldy school finance system, the state could always be relied upon to keep its word when it came to one fundamental obligation: paying to educate children.

For the first time in memory, we’re about to turn our backs on that obligation.

Most people have heard how the state is preparing to cut $4 billion in funding for schools. They’ve heard how the cuts will lead to teacher layoffs, to fewer course offerings and larger classes for middle and high school students. And all of those things are true. But lost in the depressing details of the education cuts is one of the biggest policy shifts in Texas history.

Under the proposed legislation, education becomes like every other part of our budget. “For 60 years,” says education consultant and school-finance expert Lynn Moak, “schools have been able, fundamentally and with only minor exceptions, to rely on current law as being fully funded.” No more. Lawmakers will see how much money they have in the bank, and they’ll determine how much they can afford to give for education. That means districts can no longer count on a minimal level of funding every year. Now they have to cross their collective fingers, hold their collective breath, and pray the legislators are feeling generous.

Making things even shakier for the districts, the new system also lets the state off the hook for future payments. Currently, if the state puts too little into education, whether on purpose or by accident, we settle up in the next cycle—it happened this year, in fact. Until then, the debt is on our books, and the state of Texas makes good on those debts. But under the new plans, the state could purposely allocate far less than our school funding system demanded, and there would be no requirement that the state make good on their obligations.

Of course, the House and Senate leadership have bent over backward to tell us that they’re making education their major priority. They fought for a $4 billion cut to education—as opposed to initial proposals of almost $10 billion. If that’s not enough relative gallantry for you, they’ll point out that school districts will still get more money than they got last biennium, just not enough to cover the thousands of new kids entering our school system. “We’re not cutting school budgets,” said Senate budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. “We’re not providing as big of an increase as they think they’re entitled to.”

In the face of such stunningly heroic statements, let me make one small correction: We’re not providing as big of an increase as the state told them they were entitled to.

House Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, proudly defended the plan on the House floor. He said that while appropriations to public schools would become more “discretionary” under his plan, school districts had nothing to fear. “We have made clear our priorities,” he proclaimed. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who has long held “guru” status in the House for his school-finance expertise, looked flabbergasted. “This is not a good year to make that argument, Mr. Chairman,” he told Eissler wryly.

Indeed not. This was always going to be a depressing legislative session. There were always going to be serious cuts, tough choices that left students in some districts hurting. But the shift away from automatically funding schools is deeper, more far-reaching than even the cuts themselves. The fundamental promise that this state has made to school districts—to parents, teachers and children in this state—may soon be broken beyond repair. We’re watching the state systematically de-prioritize public education.

>You don’t have to be God-fearing to believe there will be a reckoning for such decisions—when this state becomes poorer and less educated. It’s a reckoning that current and future students will shoulder. The state spent the last 60 years fostering trust that it would meet its obligations. In one legislative session, we’ve seen just how fast that trust can be eroded.

Updated: June 7, 2011, 1:45 p.m.

This probably wasn’t what Sen. Wendy Davis had in mind.

It’s been a week since the Fort Worth Democrat filibustered the controversial school finance compromise in the last week of the regular legislative session and forced a special session to deal with the budget cuts to education. In that week, the Senate has moved at lightening speed, passing not only the school finance plan that Davis and other Democrats found reprehensible, but also Senate Bill 8, which allows school districts to furlough teachers and cut their pay, as well as making it easier to fire them. These were all measures teachers’ groups successfully killed during the regular session.

Senate Republicans passed SB 8 Monday and had already approved the $4 billion cut to school districts on Friday. They also stuck with the unwieldy school-finance compromise forged during the regular session. The school-finance plan distributes the unprecedented $4 billion in cuts across an already vastly unequal system. In the first year of the biennium, it cuts $2 billion by slicing approximately 6 percent from all districts, poor as well as rich. In the second year, those districts getting more money per kid must bear $1.5 billion in cuts, while the poorest districts take a total of $500 million in cuts. Critics say the plan does little to rectify the unequal funding school districts receive from the state and cuts from poor school districts that are already limping along.

In other words, the Senate hasn’t changed its approach to school finance, but it has revived many of the controversial bills that advocates and Democrats successfully killed in the regular session. Now the fate of the education cuts, the school finance plan and SB 8 all rest in the House—which, with a Republican supermajority, has been more in lockstep than the Senate.

The House leadership appears determined to pass not only the education cuts and school finance plan, but also the same measures that allow teachers to be furloughed and fired more easily. Neither the House nor the Senate could get such bills through during the regular session; in the Senate, there was not the requisite two-thirds support, while in the House, Democrats repeatedly halted the bill with points of order. This time,the  Senate already passed its version since in a special session, the upper chamber does not recognize the two-thirds tradition. In the House, the measure has been divided into small pieces, with different members carrying different parts of the initial bill. This way, if the Senate’s bills fail, the House can still take up each component in the bill individually. The major education bills—including the cuts and the school finance plan—are scheduled to come to the House floor this Thursday.

Meanwhile, new attempts to change the system are coming out of the woodwork. The House Government Efficiency and Reform Committee heard a bill yesterday from Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, to create a voucher system for private schools—an effort public-education advocates have successfully kept at bay for years. For teachers and advocates, things are not looking good.

Ostensibly, Davis had two goals when she filibustered. Obviously, she hoped to stop the unprecedented $4 billion in cuts to school districts, but she also argued the process needed to have more input, more attention. After all, when the House passed the school finance measure on the final night of the regular session—before it died in the Senate—few lawmakers had seen the plan or its projections for their districts. The bill had not gone through a committee hearing, so parents, teachers and advocates never got a chance to testify on it.

But by the end of last week, almost all the testimony on major education bills was overwith. Who knew the lawmakers who dragged their feet on these issues throughout the regular session could move so fast?

Saturday, around 200 protestors came out to show their disdain for the education bills. Many carried the same signs they had in March, when almost 10,000 people met at the Capitol to protest cuts to schools. “We have to soldier on in this war!” yelled Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for teachers’ group Texas AFT. The protestors chanted, “We’re watching, we vote!” over and over again. But almost no one could hear them—the lawmakers had gone home for the weekend. 

The original version of this post had Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, carrying the voucher bill. Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, is carrying the measure. Callegari is carrying HB 17, a bill relating to minimum salary schedules.


For two days, the House and Senate have been locked in negotiations about just how they’ll distribute $4 billion-worth of cuts to school districts. The issue of school financing has become central to the legislative session—without a solution, lawmakers almost undoubtedly will have to come back for a special. The lawmakers are faced with two plans—one from the House, one from the Senate. One plan takes the simplest approach possible and cuts all districts by the same percentage. The other begins to tackle some of the long-standing structural problems with the system. 

Lawmakers must find a way to distribute drastic and unprecedented cuts over an already unequal system. The state uses two methods to determine how much each school district should receive. Right now, most school districts get funded using a “target revenue system” that’s based on, among other things, past property tax collections. The formula system, which passes out funds based on cost rather than past tax collections, has been left woefully underfunded, and only the poorest districts subsist on the formula system. Everyone else uses “target revenue”—where the rates of pay per student vary from less than $5,000 to over $12,000.  The vast inequalities between districts leave the system in desperate need of reform. 

The clock is ticking and lawmakers are meeting feverishly behind closed to doors to come up wtih a solution. Here’s our guide to following along.

The Shapiro Plan

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, has been working on her school finance plan all session. In fact, she even chaired a subcommittee specifically on public school funding. The plan she decided on took $4 billion out of the system—one billion as a pro-rated cut to everyone and the other $3 billion from the 80 or so percent of school districts getting the funding through target revenue. While her plan passed the Senate Finance Committee as a stand-alone bill, Senate Bill 22, it did not have the votes to come up on the Senate floor.

As I wrote when Shapiro’s plan passed out of committee:

The Senate committee called it a “share the pain model.” Every district in the state gets cut somewhat in the plan, but those with more money get cut more. Of the $4 billion in cuts, the first $1 billion comes from about a 1.5 percent cut to all school districts. The other $3 billion comes from districts on target revenue. But districts only get cut until they’re receiving the amount they would get under the formulas. The wealthiest districts can get cut up to 8 or 9 percent under the plan—but they’ll still be getting more than everyone else. Thanks to an amendment from Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, the bill does require that the target revenue system end by 2017.

Because the plan cuts so heavily into target revenues, it simultaneously pushes more districts on “formula funding”—the fairest funding mechanism. Districts under formula funding get the same amount per kid, and why the formulas are currently woefully outdated, many advocates have long pushed for the formulas. Only 120 districts out of over 1000 actually get their funding that way right now however, and those districts are the poorest of the poor in terms of target revenue. Under Shapiro’s plan another 650 districts currently using their target revenues would move onto formulas. 

At the time she introduced it, many of the poorest districts were upset they were getting cut at all. After all, districts on formula funding barely have enough money as it is. Then they saw the Eissler plan…

 

The Eissler Plan

If you don’t have a lot of familiarity with Rep. Rob Eissler’s school finance plan, it may be because his plan has never been publicly debated. It was never even filed as a bill. Most of us only began to learn about it in the last week, as Eissler prepared to attach the plan as an amendments to other bills on the House floor. While those efforts failed, the plan lives on in the minds of House leaders.

On its face, there’s not a whole lot to his plan: it simply cuts six percent of funding from each school district each year. Sounds fair, right?

The problem is, thanks to a seriously flawed system, school districts are currently receiving vastly unequal amounts of funding. While some are barely scraping by, others do quite well for themselves. Taking six percent of funds away will mean very different things to different districts. It’s like telling a family surviving on $40,000 a year and a family with $120,000 that they’ll both lose six percent of their income. The family with $40,000 will struggle dramatically, while the richer family will not. While the plan cuts the same percentage from all districts, it inflicts unequal amounts of pain.

To sell his approach, Eissler also rankled senators when he included one-time federal money from the Edujobs program in his projections of school losses. The Edujobs money—over $800 million—has already been gone out to districts. The Legislature had no say over it. But Eissler nonethless added in the extra funds in his projections showing the impact of his plan on districts. He included a column that showed what percent of funding school districts would lose under his plan—including the federal funds. Not surprisingly, it made his numbers look a lot better than Shapiro’s.  (Shapiro soon got new runs that also included the Edujobs money as well, so there could at least be an apples-to-apples comparison.)

Furthermore, the plan does nothing to actually address the structural flaws in the school finance system. By taking the same percentage from everyone, Eissler’s plan maintains wide funding disparities between districts. Some might argue they make them worse by taking the some level of cut from haves and the have-nots.

 

Must-Pass Scenario

As negotiators try to settle on some sort of compromise between the two plans, they have to be extremely careful. Once a decision gets made, the plan must be attached as an amendment to Senate Bill 1811, a fiscal matters bill that’s already passed both chambers. SB 1811 is in the final stages of the process, in a conference committee with representatives from both the Senate and the House. The conference committee will have to vote to go “outside the bounds”—adding a new amendment that wasn’t in the versions that either the House or Senate passed.

After that, there can be no negotiating. The bill will go to both chambers for an up or down vote—and if either chamber votes down SB 1811, then the entire budget agreement is shot. In addition to being a vehicle for school finance legislation, SB 1811 also a crucial to the budget agreement.  Largely using accounting tricks and delayed payments, it frees up billions of dollars that budget negotiators are assuming they have. If they don’t have those dollars, the budget won’t balance.

Of course school finance legislation may be equally necessary in avoiding a summer special session. The state’s current system isn’t built for cuts—and under current system, we just can’t take away $4 billion. While there’s a caveat in the law that allows the commissioner to deal with cuts if need be, we’d still owe school districts that amount, to be paid at a later date. Chief Senate budget writer Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, has been adamant that that’s not an option at all. “To the extent that we’re just kicking the can down the road on education,” he said Wednesday, “I’m not for it.”

The House in particular seems eager to get this whole thing wrapped up. House members pushing for the Eissler plan have argued that its simplicity is a key. “When it’s this late like this school finance can be a Pandora’s box,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Highland Park. Rather than opening up a whole conversation on school finance and reforms to the system, several House members have said they want to wait until session’s over to come up with a plan for reform. Right now, says Branch, “something that can be easily communicated and easily understood is important.”

For negotiators, there’s little room for error. A false move on school finance could bring down the entire session and the budget—and guarantee that everyone would have to come back this summer. Shapiro, who has repeatedly told reporters that progress is getting made, said Tuesday, “The issue is do you wanna be here for special session?”

 

Dissention in the Ranks

But alas, finding common ground is no easy task.

In the Senate, members like Bob Deuell and Robert Duncan pushed very hard to produce a plan that ends target revenue. In a letter Wednesday to his colleagues, Deuell put it bluntly: “We have an opportunity to set into statute a plan to phase-out target revenue and I will continue to advocate for a fair and responsible means of achieving the end of target revenue.” Deuell told me he didn’t think he could support a pro-rated cut like Eissler’s. 

They’re not the only ones. In the House, with its unprecedented number of first-time representatives, many are looking to Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, a freshmen with a deep understanding of school finance thanks to years as a school board president. Huberty isn’t a fan of Eissler’s straight six percent cut.  “I have a philosophical problem with it to be honest with you,” he said. Huberty nonetheless remained optimistic that tweaks to Eissler’s plan would make it more palatable.

House leadership seems committed to delaying major reforms to school finance until the session is over. In fact, the House never really got active on school finance until recently—Eissler never even filed a bill. Only Reps. James White, R-Lufkin, and Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, actually offered up school finance bills for debate. Hochberg, who’s generally seen as the go-to school finance expert in the House, offered a plan that put all districts back on formula and capped losses at 10 percent—meaning rich districts lost significantly more under his plan than under Eissler’s. But Hochberg’s plan never even made it to the House calendar to get debated on the floor. When I asked him Tuesday night if he’d been part of any negotiations, he smiled wryly, and said “my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail.”

 

Possible Deals

With time ticking, negotiators continue to meet behind closed doors. While this is one of the most important decisions of the session, the decisions will be made away from public view. But speculation runs rampant on the deals. Among the most prominent rumors: 

- Paul Burka reported Tuesday night that the compromise would cut $2 billion from all districts and $2 billion from just target revenue districts. 

- Lawmakers could decide to implement the six percent cuts for two years, while putting in provisions to reduce target revenue over time.

While initially the gossip was that negotiators would choose between the plans, it seems likely now that the final plan will be a combination of both Eissler’s and Shapiro’s offers.

The lawmakers don’t have much time to make a decision—senators will soon be within the range to filibuster bills they don’t like. But whatever decision they do make, the public won’t see it until it’s a done deal. In the meantime, we can all sit around and discuss the wisdom of cutting $4 billion from our schools, no matter how it gets sliced.

 

For two days, the House and Senate have been locked in negotiations about just how they’ll distribute $4 billion in funding cuts to school districts. It’s the first time we’ve decreased funding for public education since our modern school finance system went into place in 1949. 

Eissler’s plan has never been heard in Commitee, will never get a debate

Conference Committee

A good number of Senate Republicans have been adamant that whatever school finance plan comes up must the flawed target revenue system

This is hardly a partisan issue: Rs may block, 

Hochberg Plan Gone and Hochberg out of negotiations

Inclusion of Edujobs funds in runs

Summer Session, Must pass

Another Pitts, Turner, Crownover, Eissler, Geren // Senators Duncan, Chair; Williams, West, Patrick, and Deuell

Dewhurst, Shapiro, Duncan and Deuell face off with Eissler, Geren, Branch and Pitts

The Possible Reincarnation of School Finance Plans

With conference committees still meeting and a midnight deadline looming, lawmakers still have a few options for passing school finance plans.

When Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, took the mike late Monday night, he knew he was beat. He began thanking his colleagues for their work on Senate Bill 1581, a technical fiscal matters bill that had become the central vehicle for school finance amendments. He told his colleagues that he hoped the House would one day approach school finance holistically, rather than simply looking at “runs”—projections of how much individual school districts gain or lose. “At some point, I hope this body will find good policy, not just runs,” he said.

Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, apparently wasn’t moved. The moment Aycock was done talking, she raised a point of order, which was soon sustained. SB 1581 was dead for all intents and purposes, leaving members to wonder just if and how they can pass a school finance bill this session. If they cannot, there will almost undoubtedly be a special session this summer for lawmakers to determine just how the unprecedented $4 billion in cuts to school district funding will be distributed. (As I’ve written before, a special session may well be a good outcome for the Democrats.) Members may even try to attach the bill as an amendment to one of the Senate education bills coming up Tuesday—the last day to pass Senate bills in the House.

House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, has the plan that’s rumored to curry the most favor with House leadership. Rather than dealing with any of the serious flaws and inequalities in the current system, Eissler’s plan simply takes six percent of funding away from each district, no matter how rich or poor. At one Public Education Committee meeting Friday night, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, told everyone that Eissler’s plan was “the” plan.

While Hochberg has a different, competing plan, many expect that the Eissler plan will move forward, most likely by getting attached to Senate Bill 1811. SB 1811 is a different fiscal matters bill that’s already through the House and Senate and currently being negotiated in a conference committee. If the conference committee members agree, they can go “outside the bounds,” and include Eissler’s school finance plan, even if it was not in either chamber’s version of SB 1811. As he was leaving, Aycock said that was his expectation or “my best guess anyways.” 

But that’s a risky move. SB 1811 is a “must-pass” bill for the budget. Largely using accounting tricks and delayed payments, it frees up billions of dollars that budget negotiators are assuming they have. Sticking school finance to the bill is a risky move—once the bill returns from conference, members can only vote up or down on the entire bill. That means, if school finance was attached, members would be voting on measures that never were debated on the floor. If members disliked the plan enough—and a majority of members were to vote against the bill—it would also ruin the budget deal. 

It’s not the only option. Eissler said he also has his eyes on a Senate bill tomorrow which he could amend to include his school finance plan. “There are always other options,” he said. “There are many twists and turns.” While he declined to say which bill he was considering amending, Eissler can only attach a school finance amendment to a bill dealing with similar topics. Tomorrow’s calendar, the last one to include major Senate bills, has several education bills.

With less than a week left in the legislative session, anything that passes will probably be a rushed job. And if members do wind up attaching a plan to SB 1811, that will mean that members have no options to debate the measure or change it in any way.

A few hours before his bill was killed, Aycock stood on the dais to postpone the measure and field questions from concerned members. “We’re taking a lot of steps in faith here,” said Republican Rep. Jim Keffer. “There’s no clear pathway” on school finance.

Aycock concurred. “We need to be very cautious,” he said. “We cannot make mistakes at this point without dire consequences.” But if the lawmakers want to pass a school finance bill, they’re going to have to rush and make quick decisions about one of the most complicated systems in the state.