Recapping the special session, part one

We have much to be thankful for in relation to the July-August special session of the Texas Legislature—primarily for the fact that it is over. The session called by Gov. Greg Abbott that ran from July 18 through August 15 ended with Abbott and his sidekick Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick frustrated by their failure to achieve some of their top misguided priorities. These included:  a private-school voucher bill targeting students with disabilities; a transgender-discrimination bill (the so-called “bathroom bill”); and a takeaway of public employees’ freedom to opt for payroll deduction of their organizational dues.

Some 18 of Abbott’s 20 agenda items sailed through the Texas Senate, but fewer than half made it through the Texas House in a form acceptable to Abbott and Patrick, who ramrods the Senate but has discovered his influence in the House is next to nil.

The worst substantive policy change to come out of the special session affecting public education was the establishment of a first-time-ever funding entitlement for charter schools’ facilities acquisition and construction—without first making equitable and adequate provision for long-neglected facilities needs of the regular public schools. The state share of facilities spending for school districts has plummeted from 30 percent to less than 10 percent over the past 16 years, according to the experts at the Equity Center.

This unfortunate precedent favoring charters was insisted upon by Patrick and the Senate even as they gutted the House-passed proposal to provide $1.8 billion in increased funding for public schools. The House proposal would have boosted per-pupil operating funds for virtually all school districts and charter schools, would have increased formula funding for bilingual education and for students with dyslexia, and would have left more local funds in the hands of major urban districts that are deemed high-wealth but have disproportionately large percentages of high-need students.

After the Senate got through eviscerating the House school-finance package, the surviving remnants included $40 million for disability grants, $41 million for small school districts, $150 million in hardship grants for districts that have grown dependent on special funding above what state formulas actually call for, and an inadequate $60 million for school districts’ facilities that doesn’t begin to make up for neglected needs.  The net effect of the Senate’s action was to strip from the school-finance bill almost everything that would have benefited major urban school districts with the highest concentrations of high-need students. The Senate action also eliminated any significant relief from the state’s increasing reliance on local property-tax payers to foot the bill for the public schools while the state share shrinks.

A majority in the House accepted the Senate’s take-it-or-leave-it offer on school finance chiefly because it was combined with a vitally necessary increase in state funding for school retirees’ health plan administered by the Texas Teacher Retirement System—TRS-Care. The TRS-Care funding included in HB 21 means that sharp increases in costs imposed on retirees, slated to take effect in January 2018, will be moderated significantly. For instance, the individual deductible for under-65 retirees, due to rise to $3,000, will be $1,500 instead. Many retirees will still face hefty increases, but they will be markedly reduced thanks to the impact of grass-roots activism by tens of thousands of retired and active school employees who drove the Legislature to make a better offer after lawmakers passed the initial plan for draconian cost increases in the regular session in May.

Upcoming Hotlines will continue our recap of the special session, including the creation of a special commission on school finance that will be named later this year to come up with ideas for comprehensive reform of school funding. We also will offer a look ahead at other looming policy battles affecting all the students, teachers, and other education employees coming back to school this month.

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