AUSTIN – Texas House members spent much of Tuesday criticizing the governor’s plans to give teachers a pay raise and to allow parents to send students to private schools, casting doubt that the proposals would pass in the lower chamber, which has repeatedly voiced skepticism over the bills they say fall short of addressing the state’s larger education problems.
Although lawmakers wrestled with several of the governor’s priority education issues in a public hearing that lasted into the night, the full House passed bills aimed at fixing the state’s teacher retirement system that would have cost retirees younger than 65 years old thousands of dollars a year in health care costs.
Education takes up the second largest share of the state’s two-year budget – $42.7 billion – and school issues make up roughly a quarter of the Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda.
In the 30-day special session that ends Aug. 16, he wants lawmakers to increase pay and benefits for teachers, approve a private school voucher program for students with disabilities and consider changes to the school finance system, as well as open a committee to recommend changes to school funding. His call also includes halting union deductions for teachers and other state employees and setting policies for which bathrooms transgender students can use in schools.
The agenda has largely pitted the Senate – led by a conservative tea party Republican – against the House, which is managed by a moderate Republican who has resisted several issues on the governor’s special session call.
Rep. Dan Huberty, a Republican from Humble, said during the marathon Public Education Committee meeting that the governor’s plan to give teachers a pay raise is “disingenuous” because it centralizes power in the governor’s administration. He also argued the Senate has “no will” to fix the state’s school funding formula.
Huberty is one of a team of House Republican chairmen who have refused to support legislation on Abbott’s 20-point agenda. Not a single member of his committee registered to support a bill that would create a school voucher program, which would create a tax-credit scholarship of up to $10,000 for students with special needs to use to attend private school and parochial schools.
House Bill 253 would use insurance premium taxes by certain nonprofit organizations to fund up to $75 million worth of scholarships. Parents of any income level could apply for the scholarship, although the Texas Education Agency could set a household salary limit.
The House voted overwhelmingly against school vouchers during the regular session, with more than 100 of the chamber’s 150 members agreeing to ban funding any program that creates tax credit scholarships or education savings accounts. Some members who oppose vouchers say they are worried about draining tax dollars from public schools, although rural lawmakers say vouchers would hurt their schools or are unnecessary in their school districts.
Rep. Ron Simmons, a Republican from Carrollton who is sponsoring the bill, suggested the outcome could be different during the special session since his proposal focuses on children with special needs.
“I’m much more concerned about disabled students than our rural schools,” he told the Houston Chronicle.
The Senate last month easily passed legislation to create a school voucher program. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the chamber, has argued the legislation would give families of children with disabilities more choice to find the school that is best for their student.
Fifty-three people signed up to testify on the bill, many telling stories about troubles they faced trying to get accommodations for their children who have disabilities.
The key education bills must advance out of the Public Education Committee before they can be voted on by the full House. However, if the bills fail to pass out of the committee, lawmakers can attempt to attach language from those bills on other related legislation on the floor.
The committee also considered House Bill 198, which would give teachers a $1,000 raise and come up with a plan to raise the average teacher salary to $51,000 a year, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches. The bill would create a two-tiered system and recognize teachers further in their careers and education. The committee left the bill pending.
The full House gave its tentative stamp of approval to a pair of bills aimed to help retired teachers. Lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed to spend $212 million to lessen rising insurance premiums, deductible and out-of-pocket costs for retiring teachers. House members also voted to give the Teacher Retirement System the power to create a cost-of-living adjustment for retiring teachers.
Students as ‘pawns’
The revisions, written in House Bill 20 and House Bill 80, come as changes made this year to the retirement system that required retired Texas teachers younger than 65 to shoulder a heftier financial burden for their medical treatment. The expense was predicted to total thousands of dollars for each teacher, beginning next year.
Texas is home to about 55,000 retired teachers under 65. The legislation, which faced some opposition because it is funded with one-time money, must face one more perfunctory vote before it can be sent to the Senate.
Board members from 30 Texas school districts swarmed the Capitol in hopes of convincing lawmakers to champion better school funding and to kill the controversial school voucher plan.
One was Rhonda Skillern-Jones from the Houston Independent School District, who said she wanted to tell lawmakers not to use students as “political pawns.”
“It’s an election year. Education polls well. Students poll well. Teacher poll well. They also vote, so there’s an overwhelming preoccupation because there is an election year,” Skillern-Jones said.