For once, Dan Patrick didn’t mention bathrooms at a press conference.
Instead, the lieutenant governor stepped into the spotlight ahead of next week’s special session to unveil his “big and bold” plan to boost salaries and retirement benefits for teachers, priorities set by Governor Greg Abbott. But most of all, he used the presser to chastise House Speaker Joe Straus, the most influential — and recognizable — moderate Republican in Texas.
For years, the two leaders have beefed over how to fund public schools. During the regular session, Straus proposed a measure that would have pumped $1.5 billion more in funding to the state’s ailing school finance system, but instead Patrick’s Senate tacked on one of his pet projects, a school voucher measure that flopped in the House.
On Thursday, Patrick called Straus’ public school finance plan a “Ponzi scheme” at least five times, accused him of “laying the groundwork for a state income tax,” and then — in the same 30-minute press conference — complained that Straus has refused to meet with him one-on-one all year. (I wonder why.)
“I’m offended to see anyone try to use public education as a political tool and political stunt, promising to throw billions at it without a plan, and not telling the people where the money’s coming from,” Patrick said.
Patrick’s plan for teachers has two main parts. First, he wants school districts to direct 5 percent of their budgets to boost teacher salaries. Second, he wants to divert $700 million over the next two years from managed care groups to new bonuses for retired and tenured teachers, according to the San Antonio Express-News. After two years, he would pay for ongoing bonuses through a proposed constitutional amendment that would funnel $700 million a year in lottery money away from general funding for schools. Critics immediately noted that Patrick’s plan sounded a bit like a Ponzi scheme itself: moving money from one part of public education to another.
For example, the lottery already helps fund public schools, to the tune of about $1.3 billion each biennium. “Earmarking some of that for teacher pay isn’t ‘new funding,’” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities.
In typical Straus fashion, the speaker issued a statement after the press conference that didn’t directly address Patrick’s missives and instead applauded the lieutenant governor for his “newfound focus on school finance reform.”
Patrick opened the Thursday press conference at the Capitol by asking the group of reporters how their summer vacations are going.
“About to be ruined,” someone responded, and that was before Patrick unveiled four posters with charts and graphs to prove that Texas “isn’t underfunding education.”
“It’s simply not true,” Patrick said, adding later that “it’s in the eye of the beholder. … Every agency wants more money.”
One way to behold public education funding is to take a step back. In 2011, Dan Patrick was a state senator. That year, he and much of the GOP-controlled Legislature whacked $5.4 billion from public schools, a historic cut that the Lege has never restored. Meanwhile, the state has forced more and more of the burden of paying for public schools on to school districts and local property taxes. As a result, property taxes have skyrocketed for many homeowners. Even still, Texas spends about $10,000 per student per year, 36th in the nation and $2,555 less than the national average, the AP reported in May.
Educators and school administrators have insisted that the path to fixing the school finance system is through the state’s property tax scheme. For example, Graydon Hicks, the superintendent of Fort Davis ISD, recently wrote Patrick a letter laying out how the two go hand in hand.
In 2008, state funding for the West Texas school district “amounted to $3.9 million, or 68 percent of the school district’s budget,” while “local property taxes provided $1.8 million, or 32 percent,” a chart in the letter explained. “In 2017, the state will contribute $378,000 — about one-tenth of its 2008 commitment.”
But Patrick insisted that the school boards and administrators are spending state funding all wrong and seemed to suggest that spending money on ESL and special needs students is a waste.
“Where’s the money going?” Patrick asked. “And again, I know where much of it is going. Structural materials, we have a large percentage of the population that’s not proficient in English, we have special needs students. My point is we need to spend more of that money on the most important asset: the teachers.”
Beyond the policy proposals, which reporter James Russell pointed out came straight from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a corporate-funded conservative think tank, Patrick managed to throw gasoline all over the flaming hostility between the House and Senate, himself and Straus, and the tea party and establishment wings of the Texas GOP. It doesn’t bode well for a happy and productive special session, or the state’s 5.3 million public school students.