Is the Special Session Turning into a Nightmare for Teachers’ Groups?

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.

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Published at 1:52 pm CST