By Brian Lopez/The Texas Tribune
With a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus on hand, some lawmakers had the cash and optimism at the beginning of this year’s legislative session to tackle some of the biggest issues regarding public schools, like teacher shortages and school funding.
But those lofty goals crumbled in the end as clashing political ideologies, a fight over school vouchers and squabbles between the Texas Senate and House derailed bills that would have injected billions of dollars into public schools.
Instead, teachers are the only state employees who won’t receive raises this session. Bills that would’ve allocated funds to better prepare teachers and help keep them in the profession longer failed along the way — despite being prompted by the recommendations of a task force created by Gov. Greg Abbott to tackle teacher shortages.
Most notably, House Bill 100, which would have given teachers modest raises and helped ease schools’ financial strains caused by the pandemic and inflation, died Saturday after Senate Republicans shoehorned school vouchers, a measure that the House vehemently opposed, into the proposal.
But it’s likely the debate on school vouchers will soon continue. Abbott, who traveled across the state during the session advocating for “school choice” measures, said a few weeks ago he would call lawmakers back for a special session if they didn’t pass a school vouchers program to his liking.
It remains to be seen if anything different can be accomplished in a special session. House Democrats and rural Republicans once again banded together to defeat vouchers, saying such programs would siphon money out of public schools. Many of them are likely to hold firm in their opposition, though Senate Republicans might try to force their hand by continuing to withhold school funding until a voucher program is approved.
What did pass this session were a sweeping school safety bill that would place armed guards at every campus, cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers, bans on sexually explicit books in libraries, and curriculum reforms aimed at reducing teacher workload and increasing test scores. The proposals are now headed to Abbott’s desk.
Here’s a look at what changed for public education this session.
No teacher raises
Early in the year, school administrators asked lawmakers to do at least three things: raise the basic allotment, the base amount of money schools get per student; overhaul the state’s school funding formula; and heavily invest in teacher raises.
Lawmakers were close but fell short on all three fronts. HB 100 was initially conceived by the House to increase the basic allotment and adjust it for inflation. It would’ve also changed the core metric used to estimate how much money the state gives to public schools from student attendance to enrollment.
In Texas, if a student misses school, their district’s attendance average goes down — and so does the amount of money it receives. And in a post-COVID-19 world in which parents are quicker to keep their children home if they’re feeling ill, some districts’ finances have become more volatile than ever. Schools have argued that basing school funding on their average student enrollment would give them more stability and let them better plan their budgets.
The House’s version of HB 100 would’ve given school districts an extra $4.5 billion, but funding was scaled back when the Senate drastically changed the bill and tried to use it as a vehicle for a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts, which would give parents who opt out of their school districts state funds to pay for their children’s private schooling.
Some lawmakers who support school choice programs believed that they had enough backing this session, from families displeased with public schools over pandemic response rules and how race and history are taught, to help them enact a school voucher program.
But the Texas House proved it still is the largest hurdle for school choice proponents to overcome. Democrats and rural Republicans in the House have joined forces against such programs for decades, fearing they would siphon funds away from public schools, which serve as important job engines and community hubs across the state.
An earlier voucher proposal, Senate Bill 8, failed after the House tried to limit the scope of the legislation. The Senate had pitched a voucher program that would’ve been accessible to most Texas students; the House countered with a program that would’ve been limited to certain students, like those with disabilities or who are attending failing schools. The new bill never got a vote in the House after Abbott threatened to veto the bill if lawmakers didn’t expand its reach.
HB 100, the school funding bill, didn’t fare any better as voucher opponents preferred to tank it rather than accept education savings accounts.
“I am truly sorry HB 100 did not pass, but in the end I believe students, teachers, and schools are better off with current law than they would be if we accept what the Senate is offering. The Governor likes to threaten special sessions, well my opinion of that is I stand ready,” said Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, author of HB 100, in a statement.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the Senate’s leading champion for school vouchers this session, accused the House of not having any intention of negotiating with him.
“I stand ready to make a deal and put politics aside because the 6 million children in Texas schools and our teachers deserve it,” he said in a statement Saturday evening.
The failure to pass a program that Abbott approves means he will likely have lawmakers come back to the Capitol for a special session on school choice. But a special session doesn’t guarantee lawmakers will pass anything, especially since the House is expected to maintain its stance on the issue.
Even so, voucher proponents remain hopeful.
“The most important agenda items still lay on the table,” said Greg Sindelar, CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The promise of parent empowerment sits unfulfilled, leaving Texas parents without the transparency, quality, respect and choice they deserve from our education system.”
School safety measures
It took until the second-to-last day of the session for lawmakers to agree on a sweeping school safety package that would require an armed security officer at every school and provide mental health training for certain district employees.
In the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre last year, school safety was a top priority for both Republicans and Democrats. However, families of the Uvalde victims were left disappointed after the raise-the-age bill they advocated for did not get a vote. The bill would have changed the age to legally purchase semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.
Lawmakers sent House Bill 3, authored by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, to Abbott on Sunday, which would invest more than $300 million in school safety measures and give the state more control over how school districts are boosting security at their campuses. If districts don’t comply with the state’s guidelines, they can be placed under the Texas Education Agency’s supervision.
In addition, the state also allocated $1.1 billion to the TEA to help schools meet the state’s safety requirements.
Lawmakers also passed a law that will require schools to install silent panic alert buttons in each classroom.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas was already facing a teacher shortage. Issues like low pay, working overtime, health worries during the pandemic and being caught in the middle of Texas’ culture wars have led more teachers to leave the profession.
The TEA has noted that the state is struggling to fill its teacher vacancies. Retaining teachers has also become increasingly difficult, and schools are having to refill positions on a yearly basis.
In response, Abbott formed a task force to figure out how to fix the shortage. The group met for nearly a year and recommended increasing salaries, improving teacher preparation and committing to help teachers spend less time working during their off hours.
Both the House and the Senate pitched bills that would have provided some teacher raises, allocated funds for training and mentorship programs, and mandated the TEA to conduct a “time study” to take a deeper look at the reasons why teachers are spending time completing tasks outside their work hours.
Neither bill passed amid disagreement between the chambers. The Senate proposed Senate Bill 9 as its response to the task force findings — which included money for teacher residency programs and teacher raises — but the legislation failed after House Democrats stuffed their version with some of their priorities. House Bill 11, the lower chamber’s response to teacher shortages, never made it out of a Senate committee.
One proposal that both chambers agreed on, House Bill 1605, was sent to the governor and allocates nearly $800 million for investments in open-source, high-quality instructional materials for teachers, in an effort to save them some planning time. The bill also includes provisions that give parents more access to the materials teachers use to instruct their children.
GOP lawmakers wanted to limit classroom instruction, school activities and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. But they fell short.
Lawmakers filed several bills to restrict discussions about LGBTQ people in classrooms, similar to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. Critics of these proposals say they usually contain vague language that could stifle even informal discussions about LGBTQ people, such as teachers discussing their same-sex spouses.
The Republican-led Legislature did send Abbott House Bill 900, which aims to keep sexually explicit content off school bookshelves. The bill came after two years of parents raising concerns and local school boards banning books that they felt were inappropriate.
Between July 2021 and June 2022, Texas took more books off shelves than any other state, with the most titles centering on race, racism, abortion, and LGBTQ representation and issues.
Extra cash for retired teachers
While working teachers didn’t get raises during the regular session, some retired teachers are expected to receive a one-time payment and a cost-of-living adjustment to combat years of rising inflation. This would be the first time some retirees are getting an adjustment in almost 30 years.
Once Senate Bill 10 becomes law, retirees age 75 and older will get a $7,500 check. Those between 70 and 74 will get a $2,400 one. The bill calls for a 2% adjustment for teachers who retired between 2013 and 2020, a 4% one for those who retired between 2001 and 2013, and a 6% one for those who retired before 2001.