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The Three Key Education Measures to Watch

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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.”