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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. 

When word came out Friday afternoon that House and Senate budget negotiators had reached a compromise, you might have thought the Capitol could relax. After all, for weeks, insiders have speculated that finding middle ground on a budget with a $23 billion shortfall would be tough—especially when the Senate only wanted to make drastic cuts to health care and education while the House seemed intent on making the cuts draconian. So when the House and Senate worked out a deal on the budget, with $4 billion slashed from school funding, it might have seemed like a time for the non-teacher, non-parent and non-student crowds to celebrate.

Instead it prompted a realization: the state is actually going to have to pass a new school finance plan—one that distributes the budget cuts to school districts. Without a school finance plan, the lawmakers will likely have to come back for a special session. But coming up with some agreement on just what that plan should look like is hardly easy. Lawmakers face two distinct problems. First they must introduce unprecedented cuts into a system that’s built to be automatically financed. Secondly, they must decide whether to tackle the structural problems with the current system, created in 2006. Right now, most school districts get funded based on a “target revenue system” that’s based on, among other things, on past property tax collections. The poorest districts subsist on formulas that are woefully underfunded. Vast inequalities between districts leave the system in desperate need of reform.

Then of course, there’s the fact that the school finance bill will ultimately encapsulate the losses facing each district. Despite the widespread Republican support for budgets that slash public education, no one actually wants to see their school districts go without. So Friday afternoon, the entire Capitol swung into school finance mode. The Senate approved one plan—which House Republicans have already vowed won’t make it to the floor. Meanwhile, some Democratic representatives were certain that a plan by House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, was the plan budget negotiators had agreed to. But that plan—which never had a hearing and was unfamiliar to most—remains at odds with another plan by Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg, the House’s school finance guru. A budget deal may be in the clear, but nothing’s certain when it comes to school finance.

The senators returned to the floor around 4 p.m. to reconsider Senate Bill 1581, a fiscal matters bill essential to the budget. The bill provides $2 billion to spend by deferring state payments to school districts by one month in 2013. The Senate had the bill because the previous night, while it was getting debated on the House floor, Rep. Mike Villarreal called a point of order. The Senate had to strip out an amendment that allowed concealed handguns on college campuses. But while they were at it, the senators decided it would be a good time to tack on a school finance plan.

The plan is hardly new. Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, presented it to the Senate Finance Committee a month ago, where it was favorably voted out. As I reported then: “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.” Critics of the plan argue that by cutting from all districts, including the poorest of the poor, Shapiro isn’t doing enough to increase funding equity. Furthermore, while the plan sets 2017 as the date to end the target revenue system, many want to see more actions to actually transition to new longterm funding mechanisms.

On the floor, her Republican colleague Sen. Bob Deuell did not mince words. He criticized the body for the $4 billion cut to education—a cut another senator had called a “heroic effort.” Deuell told the senators they should be using more of the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day fund instead of cutting schools at all. Then he started lambasting the enormous funding differences between districts, which he said Shapiro’s plan fails to adequately address.

“We knew there were inequities and we were supposed to fix them,” he said. “But we haven’t.” He read a list of highest and lowest funded school districts that each senator represented, highlighting how some districts get almost triple the amount per student that others receive. “Members,” he said, “that’s why we need to get rid of target revenue.” But while he had an amendment to take more school districts off of target revenue, he pulled it down as requested by Senate leadership. 

Shapiro said her bill “set in motion a pathway to a better school finance system with a decrease in target revenue.” But it was hard to think that was her primary goal—earlier she’d told a Democrat that “this was never a budget for public education that was based on equity.” Ultimately, the plan was successfully tacked on to the fiscal matters bill, before the Senate voted the bill back to the House.  

But all that effort may well have been for naught. Later, at a midnight meeting of the House Public Education Committee, members were all dismissive of Shapiro’s plan. 

“I’m not for the Senate’s school finance bill,” pronounced Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg, whose word on school finance often carries weight despite his party affiliation. 

“I’m not either,” Eissler, the committee’s chairman, agreed. “Wanna take it out?” he asked Hochberg, “or wanna just do it on the floor?” 

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, who will carry the Senate bill when it reaches the House floor, told members his “intention is to heavily change” the bill. In other words, don’t expect the Shapiro plan to have much support in the House.

But what will take its place?

There are two primary alternatives in the House—one from Eissler and one from Hochberg. Hochberg’s plan deals directly with the systemic problems of school finance and target revenue. It puts almost all districts onto the same formula for funding, drastically decreasing inequality. But that equity relies on cutting the richest districts down, and while there’s a 10 percent cap on the amount a district can lose in funding, the plan isn’t exactly popular with wealthy districts like Austin.

But Hochberg was disheartened throughout Friday’s session. At the Public Education Committee meeting, he openly said that the budget deal was based on Eissler’s school finance plan.

“I was told the Senate was agreed to Mr. Eissler’s plan,” he said. “We were told the deal was pro-ration.”

By Saturday, however, Eissler was hardly sure of that, saying he had no idea whether his plan was “the” plan. Of course, most of his colleagues had only just learned about his school finance measure.

Eissler’s plan is perhaps the most straightforward of all—simply cut around six percent of funding for every district in the state. But on Friday, he was still reworking language and adjusting the projections of just what impact the measure would have on districts. The first set of projections he sent out to members wasn’t accurate; instead of cutting districts by the same percentage, it cut each district by around $300 per student. As members finally got accurate projections, they began to flood his desk with questions, even as he was still trying to make sure the language in the measure was correct.

Eissler initially planned to debate the across the board cut Friday night, as an amendment to a different fiscal matters bill. But the devil’s in the details, and he couldn’t finess the language in time. It wasn’t until late in the evening that he gave up on passing school finance Friday night. 

Senate Bill 1581 remains the bill to watch for school finance. It’s expected to hit the House floor Monday, where Eissler and Hochberg may well wind up going toe-to-toe. The Eissler plan is popular with wealthy school districts because it cuts them the least. But it does nothing to deal with the long term problems of school finance; inequalities remain largely the same as each district takes the same percent cut. Hochberg’s plan brings equity to the system, but it cuts wealthy districts by large percentages while leaving the poorest districts to keep more of what they have. 

With the clock ticking down, this will be a key battle for members hoping to avoid a special session. Few members actually understand the school finance system, and most will vote based simply on which plan cuts the least from the school districts they represent.

As members spent much of Saturday trying to understand the differences between the plans, a diverse group of protestors, white, black and Latino, young and old, stood outside the chamber. “Teachers Don’t Forget,” read one sign. “Cuts Hurt Kids,” proclaimed another. Many of the attendees had gathered two months earlier for the giant “Save Texas Schools” rally. The protestors kept up one loud chant: “Use the Rainy Day Fund!”

“We’re making a difference,” organizer Allen Weeks told the crowd.

But at this point, a $4 billion cut to public schools looks like a foregone conclusion. The only thing left to decide is which districts will be hurt the most.

The State of Things in Budget Limbo

Budget compromises seem to be chugging along—assuming they can pass some mighty controversial fiscal matters measures.

It’s looking more and more likely that the Legislature may yet reach an agreement on the budget—in the regular session. Most of this week, House and Senate lawmakers have struggled to see if they could come to a compromise on education funding, the most contentious fiscal battleground. By Thursday night, R.G. Ratcliffe and others reported the biggest sticking point is now almost a million dollars in funding for higher education. The Senate appears to have prevailed on public education, where there will likely be a $4 billion cut to funding, rather than the House’s proposal of a $7.8 billion cut. 

Meanwhile, credit-taking is already beginning. Speaker of the House Joe Straus sent out a press release last night arguing that the House had done its share of negotiating already by allowing the use of an extra of $3 billion in the budget, thanks to “additional revenue from the Comptroller and the improving economy.” He was referring to the extra $500 million that the Comptroller added to her tax revenue projections and the $2.5 billion coming from savings and accounting tricks in the “fiscal matters” bills. The new money “allowed House budget negotiators to find an additional $2 billion to fund public schools,” he said. It’s quite a statement, given that the lionshare of the “fiscal matters” bills come from deferring $2 billion in payments to public schools. 

And there’s no guarantee that the key “fiscal matters” bill is going to pass—without which all of the compromising is for naught. The fiscal matters bills implement accounting tricks, like deferred payments, to provide extra money for budget writers to use. And there’s no guarantee that the key measure, Senate Bill 1811, is going to get through easily.

Last night, after the House passed one of fiscal matters bills dealing with Medicaid savings, members braced themselves for a long debate on Senate Bill 1581, another necessary fiscal matters bill primarily about education funding. But Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, wasted no time marching up to the podium and calling a point of order on the bill.

His issue, he said, was with a last minute Senate amendment from Sen. Jeff Wentworth that would have allowed concealed handguns on college campuses. “The vast majority of students and their parents oppose guns on campus,” he said. “So do our chancellors and presidents of universities.” Plus, he said, it wasn’t germane to a bill about money and funding. The speaker sustained the point of order, and sent the bill back to the Senate to strip out the measure. 

But while tweets soon broke out accusing Villarreal of effectively killing the budget and prompting a special session this summer, Villarreal says there’s no reason to panic. If the Senate cannot turn the bill around fast enough for the House to pass it by Tuesday’s deadline, the key components of the bill he killed can simply be added onto the other fiscal matters bill, SB 1811.

That leaves a whole lot riding on one measure. The House is scheduled to debate the SB 1811 Friday at 2 p.m. If they can’t pass it, it’s hard to see how they’ll pass the budget. 

For his part, Villarreal is hoping for a special session, although he maintains the Democrats have no impact on the matter.  “I don’t think it can get any worse if we go into special session,” he says. “The Senate budget is harmful to the quality of our kids’ education. The House budget is a disaster.”

Deja Vu All Over Again: Another Make-or-Break Day for the Budget

If the House can't pass the technical fiscal matters bills, we can expect a special session. But even if the bills do pass, I wouldn't make any summer plans.

Wednesday was supposedly the pivotal day for the Legislature. If the House could agree and vote out the Senate’s technical ‘fiscal matters” bills then there was a chance we would see a budget by the end of session. The bills would generate billions in additional revenue through some accounting tricks like deferred payments and some cost saving maneuvers, particularly regarding Medicaid. Without those bills (and the money they would bring in), the budget is dead in the water, for the regular session anyways.

Wednesday wound up being pivotal for different reasons. The bills were once again postponed. According to Democratic Rep. Mike Villarreal, the measures have been postponed a total of 15 times in some form or another. Today, yet again, we’ll wait with baited breath to see if fiscal matters actually get debated and passed. The lack of action so far speaks volumes—and seems to indicate just how bleak things look for finishing the budget in the regular session.

While technically the House has until Tuesday to pass Senate bills, many Capitol insiders see today one of the last days for the House to approve fiscal matters legislation. And without it, we’ll almost definitely be returning to the Capitol for a special summer session.

No one is excited to vote on the fiscal matters bills (Senate Bills 1811, 1581 and 23). The deadline has already passed for getting House bills out of the House. That makes Senate fiscal matters measures a tempting place to try to attach failed House initiatives. The pre-filed amendment packets are hundreds of pages; many of the amendments were once entire bills that never made it to the House floor. Many of them are highly controversial, like the amendment to allow concealed handguns on college campuses. Not to mention that the fiscal matters measures themselves rely on some accounting smoke and mirrors—not always popular with fiscal conservatives.

With so many tough votes in these fiscal matters bills, House members want assurances that a budget deal will get reached before the end of session. If there’s no budget, then why spend so long on fiscal matters, taking votes that could be used to harm lawmakers next election?  The House seems to be waiting on the budget negotiators from both the House and Senate to reach an agreement. But the negotiators definitely can’t reach an agreement if they can’t count on the revenue from fiscal matters.

But there’s hardly any certainty that the House and Senate will find common ground even if they had the fiscal matters revenue. School funding remains a major point of contention, and neither side seems willing to budge. The Senate budget cut $4 billion from public education while the House cut almost $8 billion. When it passed out of committee, senators vowed not to stand firm on the cuts and not allow any more cuts to public school funding. If that difference cannot be negotiated, the fiscal matters bills are irrelevant.

As the Texas Tribune reported, Speaker of the House Joe Straus has tried to assure members that the budget negotiators from both chambers are making progress, repeatedly arguing “we’re close”. Meanwhile, the Trib reports, chief Senate budget writer Steve Ogden has called a special session “a certainty.” 

Today we may find out who’s right. 

Teachers, Democrats Win Fight on Major Education Bill, But What Now?

Bills like HB 400 aren't pretty for teachers, but when you want to cut huge amounts from public education, the results are bound to be ugly.

Despite weeks of coverage and contention, House Bill 400 never got a pithy title from the press like the “guns on campus” bill or the “pork chopper” bill. But after Thursday night, the school reform legislation, which would have allowed districts to fire teachers more easily, as well as furlough them and cut their pay, may now be remembered by another moniker: the session’s first Democratic victory.

When the clock hit midnight Thursday night in the Texas House, marking the deadline for passing bills the first time on the floor, HB 400 had not made it through. The contentious bills had already been postponed three times in the last couple weeks, based on different technical points of order raised by Democrats. The bill then got postponed a couple other times as its author, Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-Woodlands, fought for support from his colleagues. In the end, it never made it back to the floor Thursday night.

That doesn’t mean the effort is dead—Eissler has vowed to try to attach the measure as an amendment to every education bill he sees—but the Democrats undoubtedly scored a victory. Teachers groups have fought the measure intensely, and successfully lobbied many members, including Republicans, to oppose the bill.

The problem is, however, that the state is still planning to cut billions from public education—and without this bill, school districts have fewer options for cutting costs. The House budget includes almost $8 billion in cuts to districts. The Senate budget cuts $4 billion. Either way, most school districts are going to feel some pain—and some school districts will feel quite a bit of pain. HB 400 offered districts options like furloughs and pay cuts to deal with the impending fiscal crisis. Without such a measure, layoffs will be one of the only options left for cutting costs.

In many ways, teachers groups had to oppose HB 400—it weakened safeguards within teacher contracts, allowing for options like pay cuts. Senior teachers wouldn’t get the extra job protection they’ve enjoyed for years. And it made all these changes permanent, rather than letting them expire. In some ways, it fundamentally changes teachers’ status as a protected class of workers. The commissioner of education speculated that if bills like HB 400 passed, it could open the door for more widespread unionization efforts.

With or without HB 400, districts are going to face tough cuts. And without it, there may well be more teacher layoffs. “I’m trying to save teachers’ jobs,” Eissler has said repeatedly.

But many Republicans were hesitant to support his bill. Earlier, Republican Rep. Larry Phillips tried to defang the bill with an unsuccessful amendment that garnered support from 18 GOP votes. Had Eissler had the full support of his party, he could have simply suspended the rules (with a two-thirds vote) and passed the bill without points of order. Instead, Republicans who eagerly supported the budget and its accompanying cuts to education found themselves opposed to a bill that outlines the consequences of such a cut.

Democrats can enjoy their consistency. They did not vote for the budget, so why should they vote for a bill that will weaken teacher contracts?

Still, districts need some options for these next couple years, so they don’t have to fire as many people. In both the House and Senate, the main vehicles are stalled. Senate Bill 12, a softer version of Eissler’s bill, doesn’t have the votes to come up for debate, and many speculate that it’s dead. School finance bills—which would set out the system for how cuts will get distributed to school districts—also face bleak futures. Much like HB 400, the House school finance measure only has a future as an amendment. It never even made it onto a House calendar (their version of a to-do list) and its prospects as a stand-alone bill died Thursday night as well.

No one likes bills like these—school finance bills that show just how much each district is going to lose, bills that cut teacher pay. But oddly enough stripping funding from public education is bound to have some ugly consequences, for teachers, schools and even state legislators.

Will the Senate Bypass the Two-Thirds Rule to Pass Teachers’ Groups’ Worst Nightmare?

House Bill 400 has stalled three times in the House. But if it passes, how will the controversial bill pass the Senate?

When House Bill 400 got stalled for a third time Monday night—yet again because a point of order—I wondered exactly why some House Republicans are so determined to pass the bill out of the House, when support for it will be risky and the Senate doesn’t have the votes for a less controversial version.

The controversial bill makes it easier to fire and furlough teachers, as well as cut their pay. Conservatives who support the bill argue it’s the easiest way to save teachers’ jobs in light of the proposed vast budget cuts to education. It gives school districts more flexibility on who to fire—rather than having to layoff the newest teachers first—and ultimately, they say, fewer teachers will get fired if a district can employ other methods to cut costs.

The problem is that teachers’ groups don’t agree. All four groups—from the conservative ones to the progressive would-be unions—are fighting tooth and nail against the measure. It doesn’t take a genius to know that getting teachers’ groups upset is a risky political business. In fact the commissioner of education has said that measures that decrease teacher protections could lead to a more all-out push for unionization and collective bargaining.

Plenty of Republicans House members are nervous about voting for a bill with political consequences—particularly because in the Senate, a much more moderate version of the legislation doesn’t have the two-thirds required to come to the floor. If the Senate doesn’t have the votes to debate their own bill, how will they have the votes to debate a more controversial version? Why should House members take a politically risky vote if the will will simply die in the Senate?

That’s until Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands and the author of HB 400, reminded me of the latest parliamentary discovery: House Bill Day in the Senate.

What was once an unknown designation became vitally important when the Senate leadership announced the body could debate and pass the Senate version of the budget on House Bill Day and it would not need two-thirds support. It was an unprecedented move, breaking with tradition. For bills that originate in the House—like the budget—House Bill Day affords Republicans the ability to pass with only a majority in support.

That may be the play here for HB 400. While the bill is more controversial than the Senate version, a couple members told me that HB 400 would have an easier time passing the Senate since it would only need a majority, and the Senate bill would need two-thirds. Eissler seemed confident that should the bill get out of the House, it would pass the Senate. But that’s dependent on the Senate leadership allowing such a move.

It’s not an easy call. While HB 400 makes permanent changes to how teachers can be treated, it also would definitely mean fewer teachers get laid off in light of the state’s budget crisis. During the Senate budget debates, Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro took a swing at those who weren’t supporting her version of HB 400. “Let’s not talk about pink slips when we’re not able to take a hard vote to help those teahers from losing their jobs,” she exclaimed, citing the bill.

If the Legislature does not pass HB 400, the political implications of the budget will be tougher for legislators to ignore. Tens of thousands of out-of-work teachers will become the face of state budget cuts. If they do pass it, teachers’ groups will be on the warpath against those legislators. Not to mention the Senate might once again use an obscure rule to break with the two-thirds tradition for the second this session. We’ll find out Tuesday if the House can successfully pass the bill without any more hold ups.

It’s a tough position. Evidently making drastic cuts to public education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.