Ahead of the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 10, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has released his 21 legislative priorities, including a number of items related to K-12 and higher education.
While the priorities Patrick listed at his Wednesday press conference are mostly “concepts” at this stage, Texas AFT sees promise in some of the lieutenant governor’s education items:
- Raising teacher pay
- A cost-of-living adjustment or 13th check for retired educators
- Continued investments in school safety
“It’s no secret we disagree with the lieutenant governor on many things,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT, in a statement. “But if he’s ready to dig in on increasing pay so Texas teachers don’t lag $7,500 behind their national peers or make sure our retired teachers can afford to pay their bills, our union is ready to work with him.”
Texas AFT has made each of those areas central components of our own legislative agenda, and we will pushing for a $10,000 across-the-board raise for teachers (and a 15% raise for support staff), an annual COLA for retired educators, and a significant increase to the basic allotment that funds our schools.
What about school vouchers?
Interestingly, nowhere among Patrick’s priorities is an explicit reference to school vouchers, which he has been pushing publicly for some months now. Of course, this is not the first time we’ve seen state leaders soften or obscure language around vouchers and privatization — something of little surprise given most Texans’ negative attitudes toward the subject.
While it is too early to tell, one item on Patrick’s education list may provide a home for a voucher scheme: “empower parents by giving them a voice in their children’s education.”
On the surface, there is nothing objectionable in the concept. Our union firmly supports parents being actively involved in their children’s education and working directly with educators to support them. We will be watching to make sure this concept doesn’t interfere with the rights of the vast majority of Texas parents who value their neighborhood schools and their child’s right to a well-funded public education.
Patrick also discussed tenure and funding for Texas’ public colleges and universities. Over the past year, Patrick has repeatedly stated his intention to “reform” tenure policies across the state. According to our union affiliate the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), tenure is important to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education. When faculty members know they could possibly lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and provide knowledge to students. Tenure provides the conditions for faculty to pursue research and innovation and draw evidence-based conclusions free from corporate or political pressure. The assurance of tenure is a critical component to the ability of colleges and universities to attract and retain the best educators.
As recently as February of this year, Patrick threatened to end tenure in all public higher education institutions in order to combat the teaching of politicized topics, such as critical race theory (CRT). In the past legislative session, Patrick prioritized bills which targeted the teaching of CRT in K-12 public schools, even though there is no evidence that CRT is taught in K-12.
In Patrick’s own statements this week, he even admitted that CRT is taught by very few professors at Texas’s colleges and universities.
Patrick signaled support for creating a new endowment fund for Texas’ public universities. The University of Texas system and the Texas A&M University system have access to the Permanent University Fund, a multibillion-dollar endowment, but Texas’ other universities do not have access to this fund. Texas Tech and the University of Houston have argued that their lack of access to these funds have negatively impacted their ability to educate students and move up in national university rankings. Gov. Greg Abbott has floated the idea of establishing $1 billion endowment funds for both Texas Tech and the University of Houston respectively, but neither Abbott nor Patrick provided details on how these funds would be created.
The rest of Patrick’s priorities
Patrick laid out many priorities for the session not related to education, primarily focusing on property tax relief and the electric grid. Patrick stated that much of the state’s projected surplus of over $27 billion should be spent on providing property tax relief to homeowners. Patrick signaled support for expanding homestead exemptions but suggested that it was the responsibility of Senators and Representatives to craft precise plans for providing property tax relief.
Patrick also emphasized the importance of fixing the state’s electrical grid. Since the massive grid failure during winter storm Uri, which occurred during the 2021 legislative session , no significant improvements have been made to the grid and no special sessions have been called to address the grid’s failure. Patrick stated that in the coming legislative session he would prioritize the expansion of the Texas grid’s natural gas power generation capacity.