Special Session Update: New Committees and New Attacks

As the House and Senate’s increasingly public and hostile battle over how to distribute more than $12 billion in property tax relief rages, both chambers have made other moves that have serious implications for the future of public education in Texas.  

House Announces Select Committee on Education

This week, House Speaker Dade Phelan announced a new committee which might have a big role in deciding the fate of public school funding and private school vouchers in the state of Texas. 

According to a press release from the Speaker’s office, the 15-member Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment was created with broad goals of increasing education access, improving student outcomes, and modernizing student assessment and accountability measures. The body is tasked with submitting a report on their recommendations and findings by no later than Aug. 11, 2023.

The committee includes 5 Democrats and 10 Republicans. While most standing committees in the Texas legislature are tasked with considering and passing bills, it is unclear whether this committee will pass bills or is just tasked with formulating a report. No meeting dates have been set yet.

The committee’s report is due Aug. 11, just weeks before September when Gov. Greg Abbott will reportedly call a special session to address education issues. During the expected special session, the legislature will likely consider both public school finance and private school vouchers. It is unclear whether legislators will again try to tie those issues together into a single bill, as the Senate did in the last weeks of the regular legislative session. 

With a broad statement of purpose, it is unsure exactly what topics the committee’s recommendations will cover, but it is nearly certain they will touch on the issues of testing, funding, and vouchers. Of the 15 committee members, eight voted for the anti-voucher “Herrero Amendment” to the state budget. Two of the members of the committee, Rep. James Frank and Rep. Matt Shaheen, actually authored voucher legislation during the regular session. 

Voted for the anti-voucher “Herrero Amendment”:

  • Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), Select Committee Vice-Chair
  • Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin)
  • Keith Bell (R-Forney)
  • Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin)
  • Ken King (R-Canadian)
  • Oscar Longoria (D-Mission)
  • James Talarico (D-Austin)
  • Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston)

Voted against the anti-voucher “Herrero Amendment”:

  • James Frank (R-Wichita Falls)
  • Cole Hefner (R-Mt. Pleasant)
  • Will Metcalf (R-Conroe)
  • Matt Shaheen (R-Plano)

Were shown “Present Not Voting” on the anti-voucher “Herrero Amendment”:

  • Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), Select Committee Chair
  • Harold Dutton (D-Houston)
  • Cody Harris (R-Palestine)

Senate Pushes Religion in School

As the Senate continues to tread water on the issue of property tax relief, it has taken the opportunity to further attack public education, specifically targeting the separation of church and state.

This Monday, the Senate considered three bills which would bring religion to public schools. Two of the bills, SB 9 and SB 17, were refiled versions of bills that did not pass during the regular legislative session, SB 1515 and SB 1556 respectively. 

The three bills are as follows:

  • SB 9 by Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford) would mandate the display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. This bill is a refile of SB 1515 by Sen. King, which was voted out of the House Public Education Committee, but failed to receive a vote on the House floor.
  • SB 17 by Sen. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) would permit public school employees to talk about religion and engage in prayer with students while on duty.
  • SB 19 by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) would allow school districts to adopt policies that would mandate prayer periods in schools. The bill would amend current law to allow school employees to encourage students to pray.

While SB 17 passed out of the committee unanimously, SB 9 and SB 19 passed with the two Democrats present, Sen. Morgan LaMantia (D-South Padre Island) and Sen. Judith Zafirini (D-Laredo), voting against the bills.

Due to the fact that the House has adjourned Sine Die and the fact that these bills do not fall under the special session call from Gov. Greg Abbott, it is practically impossible for these bills to pass. The choice to move these bills, especially SB 9 and SB 17 which were refiles of bills that did not pass the House, is likely a political statement to apply pressure on the governor and the House.

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