A Tale of Two Chambers: Senate Fast-Tracks, House Slow Rolls in First Week of Special Session

In the first week of this 3rd special session, focused largely on private school vouchers pushed by the governor and his billionaire donors, each chamber of the Texas Legislature took drastically different approaches to the governor’s call. The Texas House, of which a bipartisan majority has remained adamantly opposed to tax-payer funded voucher scams that would undermine our public schools, took little action this first week of the session. On the other side of the capitol, the Texas Senate rammed through their $500 million voucher bill (and a limited school funding bill intended to bribe voucher holdouts) in the span of just four days.

Both chambers’ contrasting approaches to this special session is indicative of each body’s contrasting positions on vouchers as well as broader disagreements that have recently been exacerbated by the Ken Paxton impeachment trial. 

The Texas House

The Texas House took limited official actions this week. The House was only in session for a brief period this Monday and Thursday. They will reconvene on the House floor next Monday. No committee hearings have been scheduled, and there is no indication that an official bill that voucher proponents will rally behind has been filed, yet.

Off the House floor, there has been plenty of activity. This Monday, Texas House Democrats, led by Caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), held a press conference at the Capitol publicly opposing any voucher deal, no matter what bribe was attached to it. The majority of the House Democratic Caucus was present at the press conference. The caucus also held several press conferences across the state on Thursday in which they reiterated this message in their local communities.

Rumors are swirling that pro-voucher Republicans within the Texas House leadership have been concocting a private school voucher plan. The plan could also include measures that would increase public school funding in order to win over (effectively bribe) voucher holdouts. Those measures will likely be based on the recommendations from the House Select Committee on Educational Opportunities and Enrichment. Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen), Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, will likely be the author of this bill.

On Monday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) stated that a voucher bill would pass the house only if it is in tandem with a public school funding bill. However, the Coalition for Public Schools, consisting of numerous pro-public education groups, released a coalition statement last week urging legislators to oppose any bargaining on vouchers in exchange for more public school funding. 

The only education item on the governor’s call was a voucher for “all Texas school children.” So, a bill like SB 2 that includes an increase in public education funding would not fit the current special session agenda and as a result may not ever make it to the House floor due to the risk of a procedural point of order that would kill the bill. During a special session, lawmakers are supposed to limit consideration of legislation to subjects within the call, though this is largely enforceable by the governor’s signature or lack thereof. In his call, Abbott made no mention of much-needed funding for public schools.

There has been no indication that the 24 Republicans and 63 Democrats that voted against private school vouchers during the Regular Session have wavered in their opposition to vouchers. In order for any bill to pass the Texas House, it would require at least 75 votes from the 150 members of the Texas House. Texas AFT and the entire public education community are grateful to these elected officials for standing up for public schools despite well-funded attacks by privatizers. 

The Texas Senate

The Texas Senate took a vastly different approach to the first week of the special session. Shortly after the session was announced, the Senate Finance Committee scheduled a hearing on Monday to take up Senate Bill 2, which relates to public school funding. Then, the Senate Education Committee scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to take up Senate Bill 1, the Senate’s $500 million voucher bill.

SB 1 is a “universal” voucher program, meaning that all students, regardless of whether they are currently attending private or public schools, could have their tuition subsidized by Texans’ tax dollars. For current private school students, this would act as a tax break for wealthy parents who already send their children to private schools. For current public school students, the diversion of at least $500 million in taxpayer dollars for unaccountable private schools will mean less funding for all public schools and increased recapture payments that local taxpayers must send to the state. 

SB 1 would provide vouchers of up to $8,000 per year. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average private school tuition in Texas is over $10,000, meaning that many parents would not be able to afford the tuition at most private schools. No accountability measures are built into the proposed voucher program. Private schools would not even be required to take the STAAR test, which the state uses as the basis for taking over our public school districts like Houston ISD. 

Every Texan, a well-respected statewide non-profit, analyzed the bill and calculated how the voucher included in SB 1 could potentially harm school districts across Texas. They calculated that if just 5% of Texas’ 5.4 million public school children utilized the voucher, it would cost school districts across the state a whopping $2.2 billion per year. You can find out how much the voucher would cost your local school district on this spreadsheet provided by Every Texan.

SB 2, the public education funding bill intended to win over voucher holdouts, is fairly lackluster and makes little effort to help cash-strapped school districts.

The bill did include money for one-time teacher pay bonuses, but only teachers would be entitled to the one-time increase. Paraprofessionals, nurses, librarians, maintenance workers, and all other school employees would receive nothing. In fact, these valuable employees might be permanently left out of future basic allotment increases if this bill passes and removes a provision in current law requiring 30% of a basic allotment increase to be used for teacher and support staff compensation.  

While SB 2 leaves out all support staff, it would provide teachers in districts with less than 5,000 students a one-time $10,000 salary increase and teachers in districts with more than 5,000 students a one-time $3,000 increase. This uneven distribution of these one-time bonuses that is arbitrarily based on student population is a clear attempt by voucher peddlers to win over anti-voucher Republicans, many of whom represent rural areas where schools are the hub of the community and sometimes the major local employer. 

The teacher bonus would only be a one-time increase, but the Senate voted instead to provide a permanent entitlement to unaccountable private schools with the intent eventually defunding and privatizing public schools. The $500 million price tag for taxpayers is just the start and we have already seen how the governor can use transfer authority to fund his favorite political projects as he has to push inhumane policies at the Texas border. The only permanent funding increase offered by the Senate is a mere $75 increase to the basic allotment. An increase of more than $1,000 would be necessary just to keep up with inflation since the basic allotment was last increased in 2019. While inflation has increased prices by nearly 20% since 2019, $75 would only constitute a paltry 1.2% increase to the current basic allotment. 

In response to this half-billion dollar voucher scheme and feeble public school funding effort, the Senate Democratic Caucus released an alternative plan, SB 40. SB 40, which was spearheaded by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) with support from Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and the rest of the Senate Democratic Caucus, would raise the basic allotment to $7,365 to fully account for record inflation in the past few years. 

Despite the clear problems with SB 1 and SB 2, both passed the Senate by an 18 to 13 margin. All the Democrats in the Senate and Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Lufkin) opposed the bill.

A Legislature at War with Itself

In the background of legislative activity, the leadership of both chambers appear to be at each other’s throats. The Legislative session was kicked off on Monday with Lt. Governor Dan Patrick calling for House Speaker Dade Phelan to resign and with Phelan admonishing Patrick for his ties to antisemitic white supremacists. This spat stems from the recent Ken Paxton impeachment trial, in which Paxton was acquitted by the Senate after being impeached by the House, but animosity between the two chambers has been steadily brewing.

After Phelan’s House moved to impeach Paxton, Patrick claimed that he would remain impartial during the trial but received a $3 million from the Pro-Paxton and Pro-Voucher Defend Texas Liberty PAC. While Patrick claimed that this donation did not sway the result of the trial, Patrick’s partiality was evident at the conclusion of the trial when he called for an audit of the House’s impeachment process, implying some sort of impropriety.

This week, it was reported that Defend Texas Liberty PAC’s Executive Director, Former State Representative Johnathan Stickland, met with Nazi-sympathizer and self-proclaimed white supremacist Nick Fuentes. In response to the reporting, Phelan called on Patrick to return the $3 million donation. Acknowledging the incident, Patrick stated that the meeting was a “blunder” but refused to return the $3 million and went so far as to call for Phelan’s resignation, retorting that the speaker had hit “rock bottom.” 

Given the open hostility between the two chambers, any sort of compromise on a contentious issue like private school vouchers seems unlikely in the near future.