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.
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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.