Some Victories in the Fight for Better Education Funding and Policy in the Texas House

(1) Rep. Donna Howard, Democrat of Austin, achieved a breakthrough on the House floor Thursday afternoon in the fight to tap the Rainy Day Fund for public education over the next two years.  Her amendment to SB 2, a follow-up to the budget bill passed May 29, would use any increase in the Rainy Day Fund, above the amount currently projected, to cover the cost of enrollment growth in our public schools. Enrollment growth is expected to exceed 170,000 for the coming two years. The extra funding needed to cover the cost of serving all those new students amounts to $2.2 billion. So Howard’s amendment gives our public schools first claim on any new RDF money, up to $2.2 billion.

The Republican supermajority in the Texas House has stubbornly opposed tapping the $6 billion-plus now available in the Rainy Day Fund to prevent deep cuts in education. In fact, before adopting the Howard amendment, the majority rejected a worthy amendment by Rep. Pete Gallego, Democrat of Alpine, which would have used the Rainy Day Fund to eliminate entirely the $4 billion in planned cuts in state aid to school districts. The vote against the Gallego amendment was 94 to 50, with only one Republican (Rep. Mike Hamilton of Mauriceville) joining all 49 Democrats in support.

Rep. Howard’s alternative amendment lets the Republicans keep all of the $6 billion-plus in reserve, but it would ensure that any further increases in the Rainy Day Fund above the level forecast by the comptroller would go to our schools. (Such increases are quite likely, because the oil and gas tax revenue that automatically replenishes the fund is rapidly rising these days.) The Howard amendment was added to the bill without a record vote when the bill’s author, Republican Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahachie, agreed to accept it.

Now the trick will be to keep the amendment in the bill all the way through the process and then get a two-thirds vote on the final version of SB 2—two-thirds being the majority required under the state constitution to gain access to the Rainy Day reserve for the coming two-year budget. Meanwhile Rep. Donna Howard deserves a big thank-you for finding a way to break through the wall of opposition on this critical issue.

(2) Rep. Diane Patrick, Republican of Arlington, and Rep. Scott Hochberg, Democrat of Houston, teamed up on another breakthrough amendment in the House Thursday. They succeeded in making a major change in the school-finance mechanism contained in SB 1. Under the Patrick/Hochberg amendment, the mechanism for the deep cuts in school funding for the coming two years will expire in 2013. The result is that these cuts do not become the “new normal”—the permanently reduced funding baseline that leaders  in the capitol have sought. Under this alternative approach, current law setting fixed funding levels will be the starting point for the next budget in 2013. If aid levels from September 2013 on ever fall short of what funding formulas prescribe, the state would have to make up the shortfall—thus restoring current law after the 2012-2013 biennium.

At first Republican Rep. Rob Eissler of The Woodlands, author of the school-finance part of SB 1, energetically resisted the Patrick/Hochberg approach. However, as it became clear that more and more of his fellow Republican lawmakers were lining up on the Patrick/Hochberg side of the debate, Eissler was compelled to relent, and the amendment was added to the bill without further objection by voice vote.

At this writing, Thursday’s debate on more than 160 other SB 1 amendments continues. Friday’s Hotline will provide an update on the fate of SB 1 and the four bad House bills on the Thursday calendar—HB 18, 19, 20, and 21–which add up to a major attack on class-size limits and educators’ contract rights. Depending on what happens Thursday night, we may issue a new Action Alert on Friday as well.

(3) One other victory merits mention. Rep. Donna Howard (who obviously had a busy and successful day) added an amendment to SB 1 that would mean a lot to thousands of educational aides who have been taking advantage of the state educational-aide scholarship program to attend college and gain teacher certification. SB 1 would have restricted eligibility for the scholarships to those seeking certification in a shortage subject area. Rep. Howard’s amendment (which was accepted by SB 1 author Jim Pitts) says that those already in the program are not covered by the new eligibility restriction and can continue to pursue their chosen certification. Once again, we salute Rep. Howard for her excellent work.