Approaching Sine Die
Updated: May 26, 2021
The session is not yet over. But at this point, we know the outcome of most of the bills we've been watching. It FEELS like it's been a very discouraging session, but once you take a closer look through a public education lens, it's not as bad as it could have been. True, we've been playing mostly defense. But our defensive strategy has held. This is thanks to the consistent and tireless work of our PTC team and to the outcry of the faith community when situations arise that require their voice.
We nearly managed to block HB 3610, which exempts commercial properties from paying property tax if they lease to a charter school. But because of a vote confirmation when several of our key no votes were off the floor, that bill moved to passage. There was an amendment that changed some no votes to yes, which included leasing to public schools in the exemption. However, this rarely happens and is not as much of a compromise as it sounds.
We hoped to see movement toward more democratic oversight for the approval of charter school expansion amendments. But the bills that moved through this legislature were seeking to do the opposite. SB 28 and HB 3279 sought to take away State Board of Education veto power over new charter school applications. Thankfully, these bills did not pass out of the House Public Education committee in any form, even with proposed substitutes like keeping the SBOE veto but requiring supermajority.
Other charter school bills, SB 487 and parts of SB 28 and HB 3279, also sought to exempt charter schools from local zoning restrictions. These bills did not pass. SB 487 was a big and final push from the charter school lobby, and it was stopped on a point of order on the floor by Rep. Linda Ortega.
The session started off with a big celebration -- the governor announced he would extend "hold harmless" funding to school districts for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. This was important because for the first part of the school year, districts were given funding based on prior years' attendance, protecting them from funding loss due to COVID enrollment drops. This is evidence of the impact of public awareness advocacy campaigns, led by our friends at Raise Your Hand Texas and Just Fund It TX. How many average Texans even knew what the words "hold harmless" meant before this year? It's always been a funding formula for the first few weeks of every school year. The governor knows that the public education advocacy community is watching everything.
COVID stimulus money. Over the past year, the federal government has provided three batches of relief funding to states with the expressed purpose of supplementing public schools and helping schools open safely for in-person learning.
ESSER I, the first round, was $1.3 billion for Texas public schools. The Texas Education Agency essentially "stole" this from the districts, as the advocacy community is explaining it. Technically, TEA used the money to supplant their budget rather than distributing it to local school districts as supplemental funds to respond to the pandemic, as it was intended.
ESSER II, the second round, was $5.5 billion for Texas public schools. The state is still sitting on this money. Coincidentally, this is approximately the same amount of money the comptroller initially estimated Texas' budget to be short. The public education advocacy community feared that the state would again use this money to fill budget holes. Now it is clear that the money is being tied up because of a requirement that the state catch up on higher education funding by about $1 billion. This is a classic example lately of Texas leaving money on the table because we don't want to be told how to spend our money. The governor has suggested that this might be addressed in a special session.
ESSER III, the third and largest round of funding, totaled $11.2 billion. TEA is allowed to keep 10% for its budget. And 1/3 of the remaining nearly $10 billion will be released over the next three years according to federal guidelines. This leaves approximately $7 billion which the governor has released to the school districts.
The bottom line: the federal government offered Texas schools $18 billion, and Texas essentially said no thanks. We received $7 billion, which is an enormous and very appreciated amount of money, but it is disheartening to think what those extra billions could have done for our children.
Outcomes-based funding. House Bill 4545, by Public Education Committee Chairman Dutton, would have tied standardized test results to the amount of funding that a school receives. The public education advocacy committee raised their voices, and the outcomes-based funding portion was stripped from the bill. However, it might still be added to another bill by the Senate in the next few days, in which case it will be decided by a conference committee.
To kick off the session, PTC was heavily involved in stripping Chairman Dustin Burrows's pandemic response bill, HB3, of a voucher.
The House overwhelmingly voted to support the Herrero Amendment to SB1, disallowing vouchers in any form. The amendment was later stripped out in conference committee, but we are grateful to the House for upholding their opposition to vouchers.
The second-to-last week of the session, we pushed for a public hearing in front of the House Public Education Committee so they were not able to vote on a special education voucher in SB 1716 behind closed doors. We opposed the voucher and got an amendment proposed that changed the flow of funding and gave oversight to Education Service Centers, essentially stripping the voucher.
Preserving Local Control:
Our hope this session was to spread out the power of the commissioner of education, but the bills that moved were in pursuit of the opposite. It is imperative to limit consolidated and centralized power and distribute that power to local communities, particularly when it comes to the education of our children. Power centralized in the hands of too few people leads to corruption because it lacks the moral component of accountability.
One controversial bill was SB 1365 (HB 3270 was the similar companion), giving the commissioner power to override local school boards in far-reaching situations.
PTC initially opposed this bill, taking the side of many teachers' groups. But through diligent advocacy and conversations, we reached agreement that the bill would not be as harmful as we understood it to be. We submitted a letter to the House Public Education committee explaining our change of heart and our continued hesitancy to this legislation. You can read that there:
Unfortunately, the one positive development we thought would make its way through this session ended up not being heard on the House floor. HB 81 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, the "community schools bill," had great potential to support our neediest students and families and ensure educational success. But our legislators had other priorities.
There are still a few days left in this session, and we are all eyes and ears. Vouchers still may pop up in floor amendments. Charter schools might try to squeak through some special allowances. Hang in there with us!