Governor’s “State of the State” Misses the Mark on School Funding, Vouchers, and Employee Voice

By constitutional design, the Texas governorship is a comparatively weak executive position, with only modest direct authority to govern the state. But one power the governor does have is to designate certain legislation as an emergency item, eligible for early action during the biennial legislative session. And today Gov. Greg Abbott exercised that authority to designate four topics as legislative emergencies entitled to be voted on as soon as possible.

Those four items, named in Abbott’s “State of the State” address to a joint session of the state House and Senate, are:

–an overhaul and new funding for the state agency responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect (Child Protective Services);

–mandating local governments’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities (so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation);

–ethics enforcement for public officeholders; and

–a call for a national constitutional convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to Abbott’s specifications.

Regarding the CPS initiative, which enjoys broad, bipartisan support, Abbott exhorted lawmakers not to “underfund this rickety system only to have it come back and haunt you in the years ahead.” However, in regard to school funding, Abbott had only discouraging words. Though he boasted of improving graduation rates and progress in the education of minorities and the economically disadvantaged, and endorsed the idea of developing a new system of school finance, he warned against “flooding” public schools with more money—as if there were any danger of that in a badly underfunded system. He also discouraged use of the state’s massive reserve fund, the Economic Stabilization Fund, which puts nearly $12 billion at the disposal of the Legislature this session.

Instead, Abbott pushed the deeply divisive idea of private-school vouchers, which he touted as a way to “more efficiently empower parents to choose the school that fits their child’s needs,” in spite of evidence from voucher systems in other states that these schemes fail to deliver improved education through unaccountable private schools funded with taxpayer money.

Abbott also included in his litany of desired legislation an attack on your ability to decide how to use  your own paycheck. He backed two bills to end what he called “the practice of government deducting union dues from the paychecks of employees.” He further claimed that “taxpayer money” is being “used to support the collection of union dues.” However, the reality is that taxpayer money does not pay for dues collection. State laws authorizing payroll deduction specify that any costs associated with the practice are the responsibility of the organization that receives the deductions. In many cases, the costs are so trivial in this era of electronic processing that payroll departments consider it a waste of time and resources even to calculate the cost, and leading backers of the ban on dues deduction have conceded that taxpayer cost is not really an issue. Nor can they or Abbott explain why their legislation targets only employees’ voluntary dues deductions, when the state and local governments also deduct voluntary contributions to other organizations that engage in advocacy.

The reality is that this proposal is an attack on your liberty to do with your paycheck as you choose, substituting Greg Abbott’s judgment for yours in deciding how to spend your paycheck. It’s an attempt to hinder your ability to pool your resources with those of other school employees to advocate through your chosen organization a positive agenda for public education:  increased funding for public schools, better alternatives than standardized testing to gauge and encourage student achievement, and intensive support for schoolchildren at struggling campuses through proven, effective mechanisms such as community schools.

Upcoming Hotlines will detail further items on the governor’s wish list, but all in all the items in his “State of the State” agenda do not measure up to the needs of Texas schoolchildren, and some of his notions would do them and their teachers a downright disservice if enacted.

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