This (Last) Week in The Legislature: More Questions Than Answers as Session Comes to a Close

The last full week of the Texas legislative session ended with final decisions being made on several important pieces of legislation, but going into the session’s final weekend, major bills relating to school finance, private school vouchers, pensions for retired educators, the future of higher education, and more are still undecided.

Public Education: Vouchers Make a Comeback, School Finance Bill in Limbo

The last week of session started with a surprise hearing by the Senate Education Committee. With less than 24 hours notice, the Senate Education Committee scheduled a hearing on House Bill 100, the school finance bill by Chairman Ken King (R-Canadian). The bill was originally intended to increase school funding and provide raises to teachers, but the Texas Senate hijacked the bill to include a private school voucher. 

While the version of HB 100 that was passed by the House would have raised the basic allotment by $90 per student next year, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), replaced the bill with entirely different language, installing a voucher similar to the one included in SB 8, the voucher bill that the Senate passed in April. 

Despite an effort by House leadership over the last few weeks of the legislative session to water down the voucher in SB 8 and also use the bill as a vehicle to update the state’s standardized testing requirements to make it more palatable, SB 8 died last week after it failed to be voted out of committee. The Texas House has not passed any private school voucher legislation this session.

To add insult to injury, the new version of HB 100 proposed by Creighton reduces the basic allotment increase proposed in the House version of the budget. Under the proposed Senate plan, the basic allotment would increase by just $50 per student next year, not $90.

Despite the short notice, public testimony on HB 100 at the committee hearing Monday was overwhelmingly in opposition to vouchers. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) argued against the bill, stating that adding the voucher to HB 100 caused the bill to deviate from its original purpose. Shortly after receiving the public testimony, Creighton called for the bill to be voted out of committee.

The following day, HB 100 was taken up by the full Senate. Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) was one of leading voices opposing the bill. Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) offered an amendment that would have struck the voucher aspect of the bill, but that amendment failed. 

Debate on the bill started late in the night, and senators did not vote on the bill until after midnight. This new mangled version of HB 100 passed on a vote of 18-13, with all Democratic senators, along with Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), voting against it.

While the Senate continued to push its voucher bill, the House considered SB 9, the so-called “teachers bill of rights.” The bill has changed form several times this session. The original version included several provisions relating to teacher working conditions and a one-time stipend for all classroom teachers. That stipend has been removed.

House rules require that bills be considered and receive approval on the House floor two separate times. Tuesday was the last day that bills could receive initial approval in the House, and Wednesday was the last day that bills could receive final approval in the House. SB 9 came up for initial consideration late Tuesday evening, hours before this deadline. 

In his speech laying out SB 9, Chairman Harold Dutton (D-Houston) alluded to the tension between the House and the Senate, especially involving school finance and vouchers. Dutton repeated one of his favorite refrains: “When the Senate won’t respect us, they need to expect us.”

We would, of course, say the same to the Legislature as a whole, as educators and school employees across this state continue to flood the Capitol with calls and emails. 

Dutton accepted several amendments to SB 9 that would have strengthened the bill and supported teachers. An especially significant amendment, offered by Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), would have raised the basic allotment by $1,000 per student, significantly higher than what was previously proposed by either the House or Senate and much closer to what’s needed to match inflation. 

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) offered another important amendment, increasing the minimum wage for school bus drivers to $15 per hour. Both amendments were accepted.

Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) proposes a $15 per hour minimum wage for bus drivers.

SB 9 received initial approval from the House on Tuesday night, but by Wednesday, when the bill came up for a final approval vote, Dutton moved to postpone consideration of the bill until after that night’s deadline, effectively killing the bill. 

It remains unclear why the bill was postponed, but the action was seemingly related to the ongoing negotiations between the House and the Senate. 

Several other bills up for consideration this week died either due to deadlines or due to points of order. (Points of order — P.O.O.’s — are procedural objections to a bill that identify administrative or process errors.) P.O.O.’s are often filed strategically in order to gain leverage over the author of a bill in order to accomplish changes that wouldn’t be adopted otherwise, delay the passage of a bill, or to kill a bill outright. If a P.O.O. is sustained and the error can be fixed, the bill must be returned to the relevant stage in the legislative process to resolve the error, but if a key constitutional parliamentary deadline is looming or has already passed, there might not be enough time to do so.

Some notable bills that met their end this week: 

  • SB 1515, which would have required public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments
  • SB 1446, which would have placed administrative burdens on TRS
  • SB 1861, which would have expanded the virtual education network into ISDs

State Budget: Senate Holds Teacher Raises Hostage In Last Minute Voucher Push

On Wednesday, the conference committee on HB 1, the state budget for the 2024-2025 biennium, filed its report. A conference committee is made up of five senators and five representatives to resolve differences between each chambers’ version of a specific bill. A conference committee report outlines the compromises between each chamber’s versions of the bill. The conferees representing each chamber vote on the differences, and a majority of the conferees for each chamber are required to sign the final conference committee report for it to be sent to the House and Senate for consideration. 

The House and the Senate versions of the state budget were several hundred pages each, and there were a myriad of differences between them. One key difference: the House version of the budget had a rider allocating $5 billion to public education funding increases generally, including an increase to the basic allotment. The Senate version, meanwhile, required that specific bills be passed in order for that funding to be dispersed. Some of that funding would be used to fund voucher bill Senate Bill 8 or similar legislation.

The compromise in the conference committee report would appropriate just $3.96 billion to public schools, which would be funneled through the public school funding formula. However, access to that $3.96 billion is contingent upon the passage of a comprehensive school finance bill. 

HB 100, which now contains a voucher, is the only school finance bill that is still viable this legislative session. The budget was crafted in such a way that public school funding (and raises for educators) are being held hostage by the Senate to force support for a voucher.

After the release of this report, Chairman Ken King, the author of the original HB 100, refused to concur with the Senate amendments to the bill. Now, that bill’s fate will be decided in a conference committee. Lawmakers have until midnight Sunday to agree to a compromise on HB 100; otherwise, that bill will die. 

Texas AFT opposes any version of HB 100 that includes a voucher. We encourage our members to call their representatives and remind them of that fact. 

Higher Education: Academic Freedom Under Attack

This week, the Texas House passed SB 17 and SB 18, both by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe). SB 17, which would ban Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs on college campuses, received an initial vote of support last Friday and received final approval on Monday. SB 18, which would weaken tenure offered by Texas colleges, received an initial vote Monday and received a final approval vote Tuesday.

SB 18, as it was passed by the Texas Senate, was a total ban on tenure, whereas the House version of SB 18 would weaken tenure protections and codify those specific tenure policies into state law. The version of SB 17 considered by the House was slightly weaker than the version passed by the Senate but would still effectively ban all DEI programs across the state.

Tenure is extremely important to preserving academic freedom, and DEI programs are key to integrating marginalized communities into universities, many of which have been historically dominated by white students and faculty.

The Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has remained opposed to these bills as they have made their way through the legislative process. AAUP is affiliated with AFT at the national level, representing professors and college faculty at universities across the state. These members have met with legislators across the Capitol this session to defend tenure and DEI.

Several lawmakers in the Texas House, especially members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (TXLBC) and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), offered a strong defense of DEI and tenure themselves. Legislators offered multiple P.O.O.’s in an attempt to slow down consideration of both bills and offered several amendments to improve them. Unfortunately, few amendments were adopted, and debate on the bills proceeded.

One key amendment offered by Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin) was accepted. The amendment expanded the property right definition outlined in the bill. Tenure is fundamentally a property right, so the language outlining what a person’s specific property interest is fundamentally determines the strength of their tenure. The more robust language offered by Cole will go a long way in defending professors’ rights.

Rep. Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, offered a passionate defense of tenure when he spoke in opposition to SB 18 on the House floor.

Chairman Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) defends against attacks on tenure.

Despite the passionate opposition on the floor, both SB 17 and SB 18 passed the House. Both bills are now headed for a conference committee, where the significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills will be negotiated.

Retirement: COLA Headed to the Polls

This week offered a more detailed glimpse into what the TRS COLA bill, SB 10, will look like. SB 10 was approved by the House and Senate in April, but the bill has been the subject of conference committee negotiations since then. Both the House and the Senate passed very different versions of SB 10.

Last week, the Senate finance committee confirmed that SB 10 would be funded by HJR 2, a constitutional amendment that would provide the appropriations to pay for the COLA. Because this spending is included in a constitutional amendment, not in the state budget, voters will have to approve this amendment at the ballot box this November. 

The COLA provided by SB 10 is contingent on voters approving HJR 2 at the ballot box this November, but the supplemental check that is offered to certain retirees is not contingent on voter approval.

The exact language for HJR 2 as it will appear on voters’ ballots this November will read: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the 88th Legislature to provide a cost-of-living adjustment to certain annuitants of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.”

This week, the Senate approved their version of HJR 2. The bill was then sent back to the House where that body concurred with Senate amendments. In laying out the Senate’s amended HJR 2, Chairman Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood) provided a few details on the current state of SB 10.

Bonnen stated that SB 10 will be tiered, with retirees receiving a 6%, 4%, or 2% COLA depending on their retirement date. He did not specify the exact cutoff point for each tier. He also said the supplemental check will be distributed in two tiers, with retirees 75 years or older receiving a $7,500 supplemental check and retirees between 70-74 years old receiving a $2,400 check.

The House version of SB 10 previously had provisions that would increase state and employee contributions to TRS, provide an ongoing “gain-sharing” COLA to retirees, and would provide TRS with recurring payments in order to pay off the system’s unfunded liabilities. These provisions were removed in the final version of the bill.

The exact language for SB 10 will be available once a conference committee report for SB 10 is filed, likely over this weekend.  

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