House accepts stripped-down Senate school-funding bill with TRS-Care cost relief, then shuts down special session

The Texas House voted 94 to 46 this evening to accept a stripped-down Senate version of HB 21 on school funding. The Senate amendments to HB 21 eliminated $1.5 billion of the $1.8 billion in the House-passed version, completely eliminating the main sources of any new aid to cash-strapped urban districts–a proposed increase in the basic allotment and in bilingual-education aid. Removing these two funding streams means the bill does nothing to ease burdens on the vast majority of local property-tax payers, who have been forced by the state to shoulder an ever-rising share of the cost of public education. ¬†Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) spoke for many when she said this bare-bones version of HB 21 is a “pretend” fix for school finance.

What sold a majority of the House on this bill was the Senate’s insertion of health-care cost relief for TRS retirees into HB 21. In effect, the Senate gave the House an ultimatum: ¬†Approve this urgently needed aid for retirees along with the rest of HB 21 or risk losing it in a last-minute tussle over a separate bill pending before the House, SB 16. The TRS-Care portion of HB 21 will provide $212 million to reduce the increase in retirees’ outlays for health-care deductibles and premiums in the TRS-Care health plan.

The school-funding elements of HB 21, now on its way to the governor’s desk, add up to $351 million. Some $150 million will go to smaller school districts to continue above-formula aid that they have come to depend upon even though it was supposed to be phased out by now. Another $41 million also will go toward reducing a small-district funding penalty that small, sparsely populated districts have been trying to get rid of for decades. Some $40 million more will pay for two years’ worth of grants to school districts for services to students with autism or dyslexia.

The final piece of the HB 21 package is the most controversial. It splits $120 million for facilities costs evenly between traditional school districts and charter schools. What’s so controversial about that? Well, regular Texas public schools that educate five million students get no more new money than the charter schools that enroll 250,000 or so–just 5 percent of Texas students. Charter schools have never before received facilities aid from the state, in part because they already have a substantial advantage over traditional public schools in operating funds–an advantage averaging more than $700 per pupil statewide, ranging as high as $1,300 in some major urban districts. Charter schools now will receive facilities aid on a preferential basis, while the state fails to reverse a steep decline in the state share of facilities funding for traditional school districts from 30 percent to less than 10 percent over the past 16 years.

Having accepted the Senate’s shrunken school-finance package, the Texas House adjourned a day early, shutting down the special session for good as far as the House is concerned. The House left on the table a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the Senate on the issue of property-tax limits for cities and counties. As of 9 p.m., the Senate appeared to be poised to reject that offer, leaving in doubt whether another special session could be called by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that several of the worst ideas on the governor’s and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s agenda in this special session fell by the wayside thanks to intense opposition among the 150 members of the House–reflecting the resistance of grass-roots constituents like you back in their home districts. The special session ends with no private-school vouchers, no transgender-bathroom discrimination, no infringement on your freedom to have your organizational dues voluntarily deducted from your paycheck–and thus no suppression of your voice at the Capitol. And that voice is needed now more than ever.