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In Another Blow to Public Schools, Hochberg Leaving Legislature

Facing major education challenges next session, the House will have a tough time replacing its education expert.
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Scott Hochberg was none too happy that everyone called him a nerd. “You can’t think of something to call me?” he groused more than once. But it was hard to think of anything else to call the state legislator with his messy white hair, glasses and encyclopedic knowledge of school finance law. In a House chamber of cheerleaders and quarterbacks, he often proved that knowing the facts and doing your homework could actually bring power and influence. As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the vice chair of the Public Education Committee, Hochberg seemed a living example of Revenge of the Nerds.

Until last session, when he watched helplessly as the Texas House chose to make unprecedented cuts to public education, and the leadership shut him out of school finance negotiations, making cuts less equitable across the state.

So maybe it’s not a huge surprise that today Hochberg announced he won’t seek re-election after almost 20 years in the state Legislature.

Hochberg is one of 25 incumbents so far to announce they aren’t coming back. But his decision may have the most widespread impact, particularly for education advocates. The funding mechanisms around public schools and universities are mind-boggling complicated and irrational. Hochberg was the undisputed expert on how the laws worked. He often tangled with the Texas Education Agency, following up on how policy was actually getting implemented. He spent much of his time on the floor translating and explaining the rules to less-informed colleagues. Because education has traditionally been a bipartisan area, Hochberg often had Republicans sponsoring his bills in the Senate and supporting him in the House—most notably working with Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Last session, however, everything blew up. With an ultraconservative Republican super-majority and a $27 billion budget shortfall, things turned nasty fast. Spectators watched Hochberg’s and Eissler’s friendship implode as the two men battled on school finance plans.

Hochberg was kept out of the closed door meetings on school finance and ultimately had almost no say in the plan the House backed—a plan that cut the same percentage from all school districts, despite vast funding inequalities. He had little say on the Appropriations Committee, where lawmakers ultimately decided to cut $5.4 billion from public schools. Then, adding insult to injury, the Legislature passed redistricting maps that put Hochberg in a district with fellow Democrat Hubert Vo. While those maps have now been redrawn by federal courts, it’s hardly shocking to think Hochberg’s downtrodden.

In his announcement, Hochberg writes, “My decision should not be thought of as any commentary on the current political environment, the challenges ahead, or, for that matter, the disappointment of soon having to endure the designated hitter rule when watching hometown Houston baseball.”

But regardless of his reason, Hochberg’s departure leaves an enormous gap in education expertise—at a time when the Legislature can least afford it. The 82nd legislative session was bleak, but the 83rd will likely be worse. Next time around, lawmakers will actually have to deal with the state’s structural deficit and tax-policy problems, which means figuring out a better system to pay for public schools. Meanwhile, they’ll probably also have to figure out a new way to distribute money to the schools. School districts across Texas are suing the state in several different lawsuits around both inadequacy and inequity in funding.

Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, is clearly the chosen member to take the reins from Hochberg, but it’s bound to be a tough job. During the session, it fell to Aycock to try, unsuccessfully, to pass a fiscal matters bill containing school finance language. While Aycock is undoubtedly smart and eager, he’s only in his third term. Hochberg had the trust of his colleagues, that he both understood all sides and would explain the policy options fairly.

The House will dearly miss its resident nerd.