Coming Up at the State Capitol: Vouchers in House Committee, School Funding on House Floor

The House Calendars Committee meets Sunday, July 30, to set the House floor schedule of bills to be voted on next week, but we already have some idea of what to expect both in committee action and on the floor. (The Senate in the meantime may not do much further business until late next week.)

The Calendars Committee is expected to place on the schedule for next week an important school-finance package providing $1.9 billion to increase state aid to school districts. Part of the money would go to provide extra funding for services to English Language Learners and students with dyslexia; another big chunk would go to districts facing particular financial strains because of their small size or because they stand to lose certain funding they have come to rely on under current formulas. But the main portion of the money funds an increase in the base funding for all districts to $5,350 per pupil from the current $5,140.

The worthy bills to provide the $1.9 billion are HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and HB 30 by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond). The only questionable part of the package is an unprecedented payment of $25 million to charter schools for facilities construction in HB 21; some House members do not want to set this precedent so long as state funding for facilities for traditional school districts still lags far behind former levels.

We also will be watching carefully to see if two other good bills to improve education employees’ pay and benefits are set for floor votes next week.  HB 24 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) would give a real, permanent pay raise of $1,000 to every classroom teacher and full-time counselor, librarian, and school nurse starting with the 2017-2018 school year. HB 20 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) would boost funding for all retired school employees’ health care, enabling TRS to reduce retiree cost increases for TRS-Care coverage the Legislature enacted just a couple of months ago. HB 20 is not a complete fix, but it would provide significant relief from sharp cost increases that otherwise would take effect for retirees in 2018 and 2019.

The Calendars panel also may schedule floor action on another good bill, HB 23 by Huberty, to provide enhanced services for students with autism through the public schools, retaining the full rights of students to receive an appropriate education, in the least restrictive environment, with due process.

These well-established standards of service for students with disabilities do not apply to private schools—one good reason to reject bills like HB 253 by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton), which would target students with disabilities in a private-school voucher program that also lacks meaningful taxpayer accountability. The Simmons voucher bill, scheduled for a hearing in the House Public Education Committee Tuesday, August 1, is the House companion to SB 2, the Senate voucher bill already passed in that chamber last week. Like SB 2, HB 253 also contains a small increment of funding for public schools—and in effect holds that money hostage to the passage of the voucher scheme.

The better option for students with disabilities, embodied in Huberty’s HB 23 and HB 320 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), is to boost funding and increase services provided through the public schools, where students’ rights can be fully protected. The VanDeaver bill also is slated for a hearing on August 1 in the Public Education Committee.

That committee hearing will consider more than 20 other bills, including one that incorporates the governor’s proposal for a form of “merit pay” for teachers, HB 198 by Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches). Look for additional coverage of this hearing in upcoming Hotline messages.