Key education bills in limbo as Legislature begins final month

Greenleaf Elementary School math teacher Donna Conner is engaging her fifth-graders by recreating the popular escape room concept in her classroom. Photo: Submitted

Greenleaf Elementary School math teacher Donna Conner is engaging her fifth-graders by recreating the popular escape room concept in her classroom.

AUSTIN — State lawmakers often tout promises to prioritize educating the state’s children, but they’re running out of time.

When the Texas Legislature returns to the Capitol Monday, lawmakers will have less than a month to pass bills before they adjourn, including court-urged reforms to the state’s beleaguered school funding system and measures aimed at deterring sexual relationships between teachers and students.

“This is the time of year where accidents can happen. Most of them are intentional,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Lawmakers need to pass bills through both the House and Senate by May 29, the last day the Legislature can meet without a special session. Once both chambers pass an identical bill, the measure can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for consideration.

Here’s a breakdown of the top five public education issues still pending in the Texas Legislature and where they stand:

The Budget: The Legislature’s sole responsibility is to pass a budget, but the House and Senate have yet to agree on how much they want to spend and on what.  One key difference is in how much to put toward education. The House wants to spent about $1.5 billion more on education than the Senate, namely by dipping into the state’s rainy day fund, a piggy bank the Senate so far has refused to touch.

Why’s this matter? Even with the extra money the House wants to spend on public education, the left-leaning Center for Public points out the state needs to plug in another $2.7 million to keep up with the rate of inflation. Note that Texas is paying less into public education than it used to, pushing more of the burden to local property taxpayers. Under both plans, the state would pay 38 percent of Texas’ overall public education costs, down from 46 percent in 2012.

Vouchers: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s long-running endeavor to help parents send children to private school using taxpayer money appears headed to failure again in the Legislature, but it’s too early to say the issue is dead. The Senate passed the bill despite concerns among rural lawmakers and Democrats that the measure is unneeded and could drain money from public schools.

The bill has yet to get a hearing in the House, and likely will not this session. More than 100 members of that chamber, Democrats and Republicans alike, voted last month to ban state funding for any school voucher bill, essentially telling Patrick they will let his bill die. That probably won’t stop the Senate from exploring whether a smaller plan limited to students with special needs could change their minds.

School finance: Talk about the state’s school funding formula would make most people’s eyes glaze over, but this year’s debate could boil down to a political battle of wills between the House and Senate that could leave the two chambers in a grand stalemate and schools struggling under the weight of a system the Texas Supreme Court chastised as hardly adequate.

Changing how schools are funded is hard work, both because the formula is complicated and the politics gets messy between lawmakers and their local school districts. The House sent the Senate a proposal that makes minor changes and would reduce the so-called “Robin Hood” payment property-wealthy school districts give up to property-poor districts. The Senate would rather take on a larger overhaul, but it also is interested in taking the high road as an option and studying the best way to change the formula during the interim.

Pre-K funding: In the quest to improve the quality of pre-K classrooms, Gov. Greg Abbott wanted the Legislature to fully fund his grant program, but no dice. While the governor’s program gives local pre-K program extra money for increasing standards for their teachers and coming up with parent engagement plans, neither the House nor Senate has funded his program in their budgets.

That riled up the governor earlier this session, leading him to accost a key senator after the Senate pulled funding out of its budget. At the moment, both chambers want to spread the money Abbott wanted for his program to a wider swath of pre-K classrooms, but the governor is expected to fight for his program before the session is over.

“Pass the trash”: The Texas Education Agency has seen a 42 percent uptick in educators accused of inappropriate behavior, and opened 222 investigations into such allegations last school year, up from 156 the year before. With frequent headlines about teachers having inappropriate relationships with students, lawmakers came back this session looking to stiffen penalties for guilty teachers and for the principals and superintendents who protect them.

The bill would penalize school officials with jail time and hefty fines for failing to timely report improper behavior by a teacher and give the Texas Education Agency subpoena power to investigate allegations. A bill is expected to land on the House floor soon, although its differences from the Senate version will have to be ironed out before lawmakers can send it to the governor.


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