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Republicans “against” Dan Patrick

RG Ratcliffe reports on a “loose coalition” of business and education interests who are seeking to clip Dan Patrick’s wings.

[FBSID Board President Kristin] Tassin is now running for a seat in the state Senate, and she is just one candidate in a growing coalition of education and business groups that want to roll back the social conservative agenda of Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott. And recognizing the ineffectiveness of the Texas Democratic Party, they are concentrating their efforts on the upcoming March Republican primaries instead of betting on candidates in the general election. “There is a perfect storm brewing, and it goes a lot deeper than just a vouchers vote,” Tassin told me. “What really led me to step into this race is I really see this past session as an indicator of failed leadership and, often, particularly in the Senate.”

This is, at best, a loose coalition. Some by law are restricted to urging people to vote based on certain issues, while others are gathering money to put behind candidates who will clip Patrick’s dominance in the Senate. If they just pick up a few seats, Patrick will no longer be able to steamroll controversial bathroom bills and school voucher bills through the Senate, because he will lack the procedural votes needed to bring the legislation to the floor for debate.

[…]

One of the main groups that fought against the bathroom bill was the Texas Association of Business, and its political committee currently is evaluating which candidates to support in the primaries. “You’re seeing more and more business leaders engaged in this election—this time in the primaries in particular—than you probably ever had,” TAB President Chris Wallace told me. He said the leaders are motivated because “we had such a divisive time” during the 2017 legislative sessions.

Most of the TAB endorsements will be made over the next several weeks, but the group already has endorsed state Representative Cindy Burkett in her Republican primary challenge to incumbent Senator Bob Hall. In the TAB scorecard for pro-business votes, Hall sat at 53 percent and Burkett was at 94 percent, even though she supported the “sanctuary cities” legislation that TAB opposed. Hall voted in favor of the bathroom bill, but it never came up for a vote in the House. Because Burkett also carried legislation adding restrictions to abortion last year, she probably would not gain much support among Democrats. But as an advocate of public education, she already is opposed by the Texas Home School Coalition.

Emotions already are running high. When Hall put out a tweet that he is one of the most consistently conservative senators, a former school principal responded: “No, @SenBobHall, the reason we’re coming after you is because you side w/ Dan Patrick over the will of your constituents time and again. That’s why we’ll vote for @CindyBurkett_TX in the Mar. Primary. We’re not liberals, just ppl who want to be heard. #txed #txlege #blockvote.”

The Tassin race may create divisions in this loose coalition. She is challenging incumbent Senator Joan Huffman of Houston in the primary. Huffman gave Patrick a procedural vote he needed to bring the voucher bill to the floor, but then voted against the legislation. Huffman also voted in favor of killing dues check-offs, which allow teacher groups to collect their membership fees directly from a member-educator’s paycheck. But Huffman’s pro-business score is almost has high as Burkett’s, even though Huffman voted for the bathroom bill. Huffman also received a Best Legislator nod from Texas Monthly for helping negotiate a solution to the city of Houston’s financial problems with its police and firefighter pensions. However, the firefighters are angry over that deal and likely will work for Tassin in the primary. Huffman, though, has received an endorsement from Governor Abbott. We can’t make a prediction in that race until the endorsements come out.

I agree with the basic tactic of targeting the most fervent Patrick acolytes in the Senate. Patrick’s ability to ram through crap like the bathroom bill and the voucher bill is dependent on their being a sufficient number of his fellow travelers present. Knocking that number down even by one or two makes it harder for him to steer the ship in his preferred direction. Neither Kristin Tassin nor Cindy Burkett are my cup of tea, but they have a very low bar to clear to represent an improvement over the status quo.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First and foremost, depending on Republican primary voters to do something sensible is not exactly a winning proposition these days. There’s a reason why the Senate has trended the way it has in recent years. To be sure, it’s been an uneven fight in that there has basically been no effort like this to rein in the crazy in favor of more traditional Republican issues. To that I’d say, were you watching the Republican Presidential primary in 2016? The traditional interests didn’t do too well then, either. The Texas Parent PAC has had a lot of success over the years supporting anti-voucher candidates, often in rural districts where that issue resonates. I have a lot of respect for them and I wish them all the best this year, along with their allies of convenience. I just don’t plan to get my hopes up too high.

That leads to point two, which is that there needs to be a part two to this strategy. The two purplest Senate districts are SDs 10 and 16, where Sens. Konni Burton (who also scored a 53 on that TAB report card, tied with Bob Hall for the lowest tally in the Senate, including Democrats) and Don Huffines (and his 60 TAB score) will face Democratic challengers but not primary opponents. It’s reasonable for TAB et al to not have any interest in those races now, as they work to knock off Hall and (maybe) Huffman. If they don’t have a plan to play there in the fall, then at the very least you’ll know how serious this “loose coalition” is. I fully expect TAB and the other business groups to roll over and show Patrick their bellies after March. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ll be more than happy to admit it if I am. I wouldn’t bet my own money on it, though.

House passes school finance bills

I doubt they’ll meet a different fate than they did in the regular session, but kudos anyway.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House on Friday passed a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools and help out struggling small, rural school districts.

House members voted 130-12 to approve the lower chamber’s main piece of school finance legislation, House Bill 21, just as they did during the regular session. The House also voted 131-11 to pass House Bill 30, which would fund the school finance bill by putting $1.8 billion into public schools. Once the House gives the measures final approval, they will head to the Senate.

The funds cited in the legislation would come from deferring a payment to public schools from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, and would allow an increase in the base funding per student from $5,140 to $5,350 statewide.

[…]

The House Public Education Committee’s chairman, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of HB 21, has pushed his bill as a preliminary step to fixing a beleaguered system for allocating money to public schools.

“You cannot have property tax reform unless you have school finance reform. That is just a fact,” he said Friday. “We have the time to get this done. We just have to have the will to get this done.”

HB 21 would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are dyslexic and bilingual. It would also gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

[…]

The House voted 67-61 Friday against approving House Bill 22, a separate measure that would have continued ASATR for two years before letting it expire in September 2019. Some school districts have warned they might have to close without the program, which totaled about $400 million this year.

See here for the first go-round on HB21, and here for the ASATR story. I don’t expect anything to happen with any of this, but I suppose a surprise is possible. The House and the Senate are on such different pages that it seems unlikely in the extreme, though.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

Senate has mostly completed the Abbott special session agenda

I’m just going to hit the highlights here because this stuff is happening quickly and often late in the day, but most of the Abbott 20-point special session agenda has been turned into bills that have as of this morning passed the Senate. Yesterday’s action included vouchers and still more unconstitutional abortion restrictions, while the weekend saw a lot more. Basically, if it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, it will in the next day or two. They’ll then sit around and wait for either more agenda items to be added or amended bills to come back to them from the House.

As for the House, they’re just getting started. They passed the sunset bill on first reading, which is the one thing they had to do. There are committee hearings scheduled for the week – unlike in the Senate, the House is going to follow its usual process, which means taking a certain amount of time rather than acting like they have ants in their pants while their hair is on fire. How many Senate bills they take up, and how many they vote on, remains to be seen. You can bet that the voucher bill is a non-starter, but most things after that are at least possible. That includes some kind of bathroom bill, though whether they pass anything more than the weakened form of the bill that the Senate rejected in the regular session is anyone’s guess at this point.

In the meantime, the threat of the bathroom bill as well as the reality of the “sanctuary cities” ban continues to cost the state business, and there’s more where that came from. Texas Competes had a small business-focused press conference yesterday, and in their release they totaled the damage so far at over $66 million in canceled conventions, with $200 million set to pull out if Dan Patrick gets his wish, and over a billion that may follow suit. The Charlotte News & Observer sums it up nicely:

The story now is well-known: Bill passes, business vanishes, national disgrace ensues, Republicans stumble through an amateur hour of near repeal and finally, thanks to intervention from business people, a settlement is reached that unfortunately allows Republicans to save a little face by limiting local governments’ rights to pass anti-discrimination ordinances for a period of time. But North Carolina did enough to bounce back and start landing business again.

Ah, but in Texas, pardners, the HB2 lesson has gone unlearned, as Republicans in the Texas legislature prove themselves to be – using a Lone Star expression – “all hat and no cattle.” They’re actually pushing their own version of HB2, even after many Republican states backed away when they witnessed what happened in North Carolina.

[…]

In this age of Republicans driven by the hard-right, or whatever it is, ideology of the “base” that elected Donald Trump, the Texas debate proves that anything (crazy) is absolutely possible. What’s astonishing is that Texas lawmakers had a perfectly clear view of the economic catastrophe that came to North Carolina after HB2 — tens of millions of dollars lost, including $100 million economic impact for Charlotte with loss of the NBA All-Star Game, and thousands of jobs gone, with companies deciding against establishing offices or expanding the ones they had.

It’s as if, pardon the Texas-sized metaphor, Texas lawmakers stood and watched North Carolina Republicans run full-face forward into a cactus, and then turned to one another and said, “Hey, that looks like fun.”

Yes, this is the world we live in these days. Call your representative and let them know you’d really rather we not slam our faces into a cactus.

Special session officially set

Brace yourselves, it starts next week.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration for a special session of the Texas Legislature Monday, formally inviting lawmakers back to Austin to pass “sunset legislation” that will keep several key state agencies open.

The long-awaited procedural move allows lawmakers to begin filing bills for the special session set to begin on July 18.

In addition to the formal declaration, Abbott also released a draft version of 19 additional items he plans to add to the special session agenda later on. Last month, Abbott announced that lawmakers would consider 20 total legislative items during the special session.

[…]

Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw said her office received a copy of the proclamation around 11:00 a.m., which she forwarded to senators to alert them that they could begin filing bills. A physical copy of the proclamation was also delivered to senators’ offices in the Capitol building. Senators began filing bills Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile the House, which has had an e-filing system in place for years, received over two dozen bills before 1 p.m.

Robert Haney, the House chief clerk, said the first bill filed Monday, House Bill 41 from state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, was received at 11:42 a.m. The bill aims to change how the state calculates the constitutional spending limit, which restricts how much the budget can grow from one biennium to the next.

Within an hour, dozens of other bills were filed including two pieces of bathroom-related legislation from state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton. HB 46 would forbid “political subdivisions, including a public school district” from adopting or enforcing measures to “protect a class of persons from discrimination” in regulating “access to multi-occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities.” HB 50 is identical except applying only to a school district board.

See here and here for the background. Special sessions are limited to the agenda the governor sets. That has never stopped anyone from filing bills on whatever other subjects they wanted, some good, some bad, and some utterly pointless, because you never know when the governor may exercise his power to add to that agenda. The real question for this session is what happens when some number of Abbott’s bills don’t get passed – indeed, don’t even get a vote. “Sunset and sine die” may be the battle cry, but nothing would stop Abbott from calling everyone right back, as Rick Perry did in the past. How much is enough for Abbott? We’re about to find out.

What West Texas can do to improve their schools

Here’s an op-ed from the Statesman about one educator in West Texas who has had enough.

My hero this week is Graydon Hicks, Fort Davis superintendent of schools.

A West Texas publication published his open letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raking them over the coals for “the lack of positive legislative action for public schools in Texas” at the most recent session, which adjourned at the end of May without passing a school finance bill.

Hicks is a West Point graduate and an experienced school administrator. He is no-nonsense guy who does not mince words. After detailing the effect of shrinking state financial support for public schools on Fort Davis schools over the past 10 years — combined with an increasing number of unfunded mandates and requirements — Hicks wrote, “How much more do you want to harm our children?

“If your intent is to dissolve public education (and your actions are more than a clear signal of such), then simply go on the record with that statement and remove the state’s authority to further overburden us without financial support. Quit pontificating about bathrooms. Quit hiding your intentions behind righteous statements about school vouchers and choice.”

Hicks accompanied his letter with a chart showing the annually declining amount of state funding available to the Fort Davis school district and the increasing burden on local taxpayers since 2008. That year, state funding amounted to $3.9 million, or 68 percent of the school district’s budget. Local property taxes provided $1.8 million, or 32 percent. In 2017, the state will contribute $378,000 — about one-tenth of its 2008 commitment, or 15 percent of the total budget. Local taxes this year will provide $2.2 million, or 85 percent.

“The Fort Davis ISD has 226 students,” Hicks wrote. “It has no cafeteria, has no bus routes, has dropped our band program, has eliminated (or not filled) 15 staff positions, has cut stipends for extra-curricular activities, has frozen (or reduced) staff pay for one year, has cut extra-curricular programs, has no debt, and has increased our local tax rate to the maximum allowed by the law.

“We have nothing left to cut.”

I agree that Superintendent Hicks sounds like a fine fellow who is speaking truth to power. That said, I feel compelled to point out how Jeff Davis County (*), which is where Fort Davis ISD, voted in the last gubernatorial election:


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             623  60.54%
Wendy R. Davis          366  35.57%
Kathie Glass             31   3.01%
Brandon Parmer            9   0.87%


Lieutenant Governor
			
Dan Patrick             560  56.62%
Leticia Van de Putte    375  37.92%
Robert D. Butler         48   4.85%
Chandrakantha Courtney    6   0.61%

Hold that thought. Now here’s a similar story about the school funding woes in West Texas:

Educators were excited to hear Gov. Greg Abbott announce he would call lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session to consider $1,000 teacher pay raises.

But Donna Hale, superintendent at 200-student Miami ISD in rural Roberts County, is wondering where the money is going to come from. An unfunded mandate, she said, could throw a wrench into their already difficult budgeting process.

“That’s the last thing we really need – the state saying you’ve got to do this when they’re not offering any support for us,” said Hale, who already doubles as the district’s librarian and said she was considering taking over as principal to cut payroll costs.

A wind farm and a sea of oil and natural gas wells in Roberts County has been good to Miami ISD, giving the district a flush tax base to pay for teachers and buildings. But its $1 billion dollar tax roll was cut in half this last year amid tumbling oil and gas prices. A state aid provision that it has relied on in recent years to guard against economic downturns expires in September and will take more than a third of the district’s budget with it.

Many rural schools like Miami ISD, the only school district in the county, are facing a similar dilemma and pleading with the State Legislature to act. Lawmakers return to the Capitol next month for a legislative overtime period, but school finance reform has taken a back seat to bills regulating bathroom use and creating a school choice program.

Again, I sympathize, and again, I wonder how did Roberts County vote in 2014?


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             324  93.91%
Wendy R. Davis           15   4.35%
Kathie Glass              5   1.45%
Brandon Parmer            1   0.29%


Lieutenant Governor			

Dan Patrick             320  93.29%
Leticia Van de Putte     12   3.50%
Robert D. Butler         10   2.92%
Chandrakantha Courtney    1   0.29%

I think you get where I’m going with this. Now, I will stipulate that in 2014, one might have been able to believe that Greg Abbott, who was touting an expansion of pre-K, and Dan Patrick, who had served as the Senate Education Committee chair and had passed some bipartisan bills during that time, could at least have been okay on education and school finance issues. Here in June of 2017, after a session that included the Senate refusing to consider HB21 and a special session that includes vouchers on the agenda, it’s really hard to believe that now. Further, both counties are represented in the Lege by pro-education members. Roberts County is served by Sen. Kel Seliger, who was the only Senate Republican to oppose the main voucher bill, and by Rep. Ken King, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC in the 2012 primary. Jeff Davis County has two Democrats, Sen. Jose Rodriguez and Rep. Cesar Blanco, in the Lege. Both were unopposed in 2016, and Blanco was unopposed in 2014, but in all three cases they drew a comparable number of votes to Republicans on the ballot. In addition, former Rep. Pete Gallego carried Jeff Davis County in 2010, even as Rick Perry and the rest of the Republicans were also winning it. The voters there do vote for pro-education candidates. Will they – and other counties like them – recognize in 2018 that “pro-education” does not describe Abbott or Patrick? I for one will have a lot more sympathy for their plight if they do.

(*) Yeah, I know.

House still opposes vouchers

Keep on keeping on, y’all.

The top House education leader said Sunday that “private school choice” is still dead in the lower chamber.

“We only voted six times against it in the House,” House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty said. “There’s nothing more offensive as a parent of a special-needs child than to tell me what I think I need. I’m prepared to have that discussion again. I don’t think [the Senate is] going to like it — because now I’m pissed off.”

Huberty, R-Houston, told a crowd of school administrators at a panel at the University of Texas at Austin that he plans to restart the conversation on school finance in the July-August special session after the Senate and House hit a stalemate on the issue late during the regular session. Huberty’s bill pumping $1.5 billion into public schools died after the Senate appended a “private school choice” measure, opposed by the House.

Huberty was joined by Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and committee member Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, on a panel hosted by the Texas Association of School Administrators, where they said they didn’t plan to give in to the Senate on the contentious bill subsidizing private school tuition for kids with special needs.

[…]

VanDeaver said educators have two options: They can give in to the Senate’s attempts to attach school finance and private school choice, or they can vote against legislators who want those issues linked.

“If you don’t stick up for yourselves in a real way … we are going to lose,” Bernal added.

Amen to that. The real question is why do so many Senators serve Dan Patrick’s interests instead of their districts’? You know what I say, nothing will change until the people who get elected change.

Beyond that, one wonders how this will play out. Does the House simply refuse to vote a voucher bill out of committee, or do they let it come to the floor and then vote it down? Would Greg Abbott call another special session to force the issue? How big a hissy fit does Dan Patrick throw when he is thwarted? (Spoiler alert: very big.) Bring on the tantrums, I say.

Even the SBOE opposes vouchers and the bathroom bill

A rare bout of sanity.

The Texas State Board of Education is known for its conservative ideals, but a majority of its Republican members said Tuesday they oppose GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s demand that lawmakers pass a school voucher program and a bathroom law in next month’s special session.

Most of the education issues Abbott wants lawmakers to consider during their 30-day special session should be left to local school districts rather than dictated by the state, six Republican members of the board told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday. The six board members all said vouchers were a bad idea. Two members said they supported the Legislature taking up the issues and two others were unavailable for comment.

“Overwhelmingly, each and every member of the board looks at public education in a light that says, ‘We’re doing everything we can to promote, protect and serve the interests to some extent of public education,'” said Marty Rowley, a Republican member from Amarillo who said he opposes school vouchers and contends school leaders can manage student bathrooms. “Everyone’s perception of what school vouchers do is it doesn’t serve public education in the best manner.”

[…]

The governor also wants the Legislature to pass a bill regulating which bathrooms transgender students should use in schools — another issue considered by Patrick as a top priority.

Board members said few, if any, of their constituents or school leaders have expressed concern over how to handle bathrooms, and said schools should continue to have the flexibility to made accommodations on their own.

“There are ways for districts to deal with that,” said David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont who votes with the board’s conservative faction. Studies have found fewer than 1 percent of Texans are transgender, and “the 1 percent does not drive policy making for the other 99 percent,” he said.

I mean, if even David Bradley thinks the bathroom bill is a waste of time, what more do you need to know? I literally can’t think of anything to add to this.

The special session could get a little testy

Sow a little discord, Joe. We approve.

Speaking to educators Wednesday, House Speaker Joe Straus took some jabs at the Senate for focusing on a bill to regulate public bathroom use instead of putting more than a billion dollars into public schools.

The lower chamber’s leading politician spoke about the upcoming special session to hundreds of school board members and superintendents in San Antonio on Wednesday evening at the Texas Association of School Boards’ annual summer leadership institute. He urged educators in the room to keep speaking out for the issues important to public schools — and to act.

“There have been a few of you who would make good members of the Texas Senate,” he said, a joke that got him a round of laughter and applause.

Straus’ appearance comes as Texas legislators prepare to return to the Capitol for a July-August special session, with a packed agenda of 20 pieces of legislation Gov. Greg Abbott wants to see passed. Several of those bills would directly affect public schools, including a bill to regulate public bathroom use for transgender Texans.

“I don’t know what all the issues are with bathrooms in our schools, but I’m pretty sure you can handle them, and I know that you have been handling them,” Straus said. He said the “bathroom bill” sends the wrong message about Texas, instead of “making decisions that attract jobs, that attract families.”

[…]

Straus said Wednesday that even if the House had compromised on private school choice, the Senate stripped about $1 billion in funding for public schools. “Even if we approved vouchers, they still cut out the vast majority of the funding we had proposed for public schools, so there was hardly anything left,” he said.

He said the school finance reform study was too little, too late. “The Texas House has been studying this for years. We already passed a bill that’s a very strong first step,” he said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

You tell ’em, Joe. One wonders what might happen if we make it to the end of this session without any of the red meat stuff passing, possibly without getting out of committee. Would a weak leader like Greg Abbott keep calling them back? I have no idea. Don’t get me wrong, I have no reason to be optimistic about anything here. But if nothing else, a little pissing contest could make things interesting. I think we can hope for that much. The Statesman has more.

School finance bill is dead

It started with this.

State Rep. Dan Huberty said Wednesday that he would not accept the Senate’s changes to his school finance bill, launching a last-ditch effort to hammer out a compromise with less than a week left in the session.

After a passionate speech railing on the Senate for gutting his bill, Huberty, a Houston Republican who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, announced he has decided to request a conference committee with the Senate on House Bill 21.

The bill was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

“Members, some of your schools will be forced to close in the next year based on the committee substitute of House Bill 21,” as passed by the Senate, Huberty said, before moving to go to conference. “I refuse to give up. I’ll continue trying. Let’s at least attempt to rescue this bill.”

The House voted 134-15 to request a conference committee with the Senate on the bill.

See here and here for the background. The House’s request for a conference committee was denied by the Senate.

An effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered school finance system has been declared dead after the Texas Senate Education Committee’s chairman said Wednesday that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House.

“That deal is dead,” Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.

Taylor’s remarks come after his counterpart in the House, Dan Huberty, R-Houston, gave a passionate speech in which he said he would not accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21 and would seek a conference committee with the Senate.

HB 21 was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pronounced the bill dead in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam. I simply did not believe they would vote against both disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools,” he said in the statement. “I was wrong. House Bill 21 is now dead.”

House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate has not prioritized school finance reform this session.

“We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse,” he said.

HB 21 was the first time in years that the Legislature has taken up major school finance reform without a court mandate.

HB21 was also the vehicle for addressing the recapture issue that is costing HISD (among other districts) millions and which is being litigated on the grounds that the TEA didn’t make its changes to the formula properly. You can kiss that good-bye as well. It’s somehow fitting that the Lege could not come to an agreement on school finance, as this proves the lie of the Supreme Court ruling that insisted they could do this on their own without the Supremes forcing them to. Not as long as we have Dan Patrick presiding over this Senate they won’t. The Chron has more.

Senate wrecks school finance bill

It’s what they do.

The Texas Senate has scrapped much of a proposal to revise how the state funds education in place of a plan to create a school voucher program for children with disabilities.

The bill passed the Senate 21-10 at 12:50 a.m. Monday, marking the second time in two months the chamber has approved legislation that would allow parents to use public school dollars to subsidize their child’s tuition at a private school.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and Education Committee chairman sponsoring the bill. “This would empower some of those parents to have some leverage.”

The new language, added on the Senate floor late Sunday night, now includes money for charter school facilities, autism grant funding and programming for special education students transitioning out of school. The changes also reduce the amount of new money into education from about $1.9 billion to about $500 million during a tight budget cycle amid lower-than-expected state revenue.

The changes come to House bill 21, the lower chamber’s flagship proposal to begin a multi-year process of rehabbing the state’s school funding formula after the Texas Supreme Court called the system constitutional but in need of improvement. The House measure deleted outdated pieces of the formula, reduced recapture and added weights to allocate more money per student with dyslexia or learning English as a second language.

The Senate hijacked the bill shortly after it arrived in the upper chamber, adding to the bill a school voucher program, which the House has opposed, throwing the fate of the school finance fix into jeopardy.

Basically, HB21 as we once knew it is dead. The AFL-CIO changed its position on it from Support to Oppose a few days ago as these changes were first being made. At this point, the House should stick to its guns on vouchers and reject the amended bill. The Trib has more.

Investigation requested into voucher astroturfing

From the Quorum Report:

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

Following a criminal complaint by a GOP former lawmaker, an Austin representative has asked the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to look a letter-writing campaign that has deeply troubled rural Republicans in the Texas House who are opposed to school vouchers.

In a letter obtained by Quorum Report this evening, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told prosecutors that she’s heard from many of her Republican colleagues who cannot believe the way in which many of their constituents’ names were used.

As QR readers who have followed this are aware, rural Republicans from East Texas to West Texas have received about 17,000 letters orchestrated by a group called Texans for Education Opportunity. The group claimed credit for the letter campaign but has said everything was done properly.

The problem, though, is that many of those letters utilized the names of people who are opposed to school vouchers in any form and, in fact, some of them have raised concerns about whether their identities were stolen for this campaign.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has said he thinks lawmakers are being “defrauded” by these letters. One of the letters Seliger received, but the way, was sent in the name of someone who had died months before the letter was sent.

“I am writing to ask you and your office to immediately open an investigation into a massive letter writing campaign that appears to be fraudulent,” Rep. Hinojosa wrote to the Travis County DA Margaret Moore.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter. Rep. Hinojosa is the second person to ask a DA to investigate this, following former Rep. Rick Hardacstle, who was one of the people claimed to be a voucher supporter by this phony campaign. I Am Not A Lawyer so I have no opinion as to whether the civil code or the criminal code would be the more appropriate remedy for this, but it’s definitely fraud of some form, and if my name had been on one of those faked letters I’d want someone in power to Do Something about it, too. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Scott Braddock has more.

One more thing about vouchers

I’m going to enjoy this just a little bit more.

The Texas House of Representatives all but killed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s prized school choice bill Thursday, dealing the powerful Republican a major loss as he struggles to push his agenda through this year’s legislative session.

House members considering the state’s budget plan for the next two years voted overwhelmingly against diverting public education funds to private schools in the next biennium, registering their resistance to a so-called school voucher program and sending a message to Patrick that the bill has no chance this year of passage.

“The House stands strongly in support of our neighborhood schools and our public school teachers and that any scheme, such as a voucher or otherwise that attempts to siphon funds away from our public schools, is not something that would be acceptable in the House,” said Rep. Abel Herrero, a Robstown Democrat. He sponsored an amendment expressly blocking any school voucher program.

Lawmakers, in the midst of a day-long marathon session debating the state’s $218 billion spending plan for the next two years, voted 103-44 in favor of the amendment. The revision declared state money “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for non-public education.”

The Republican-led House also rejected a follow-up amendment allowing the state to fund a smaller so-called school voucher program limited to children from poor families. The chamber voted that idea down 117-27, signalling that paring down Patrick’s prized Senate Bill 3 will not win it more votes.

“Good-bye SB 3,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said from his desk after the vote.

Assigned a low bill number to reflect its importance among Patrick’s priorities, SB 3 would create education savings accounts that parents can tap to pay for private school tuition, home school costs, tutoring or other expenses. The bill would also create a tax credit scholarship program that rewards businesses with a tax break for cutting checks to the state to fund scholarships that could send children to private school. The Senate passed that plan last week on a 18-13 vote.

[…]

With the bill unlikely to pass this year, advocates for vouchers and school choice will use the vote to drive their political activities in the 2018 elections by singling out lawmakers who voted against vouchers, said Randan Steinhauser, co-founder of Texans for Education Opportunity, which advocates for broader school choice.

“This isn’t surprising. The House has always been an obstacle, and there are many Republicans who are not representing their constituents and their school children,” said Steinhauser, who has already gone door-knocking in several Republican lawmakers’ districts to pressure them into voting for vouchers. “This is an opportunity for parents in the state of Texas to see who is standing in the way of educational opportunity.”

See here for the background. I’ll get back to this in a second, but in the meantime, as Depeche Mode advises, enjoy the silence.

A day after Texas House members pointedly approved an amendment to prohibit the use of public money for private schools, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of so-called “school choice,” has yet to issue a public reaction.

[…]

Repeated calls and emails to Patrick’s office for comment went unanswered Thursday and Friday, although his staff has posted videos of him on Facebook talking about child abuse prevention initiatives and tuition set-asides since the House vote Thursday morning.

Patrick, who has rallied for years to pass a school choice program, assigned the proposal a low bill number to indicate its importance among his legislative priorities. Last week, he and Taylor, the Senate education chairman, pared down the bill to appease senators on the fence about the proposal, agreeing to exempt counties of less than 285,000 unless voters there petition for a voucher program.

Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and sponsor of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment Friday about whether he had been in contact with Patrick about how they would proceed on the measure.

House lawmakers long have said they have little interest in passing SB 3 and Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he did not want to force his committee to vote on the bill. The measure, which passed the Senate 18-13, is now awaiting action in the House.

A defeat on school vouchers likely would not hurt the lieutenant governor, said Jason Sabo, a longtime political observer and education lobbyist. Instead, he said, the House vote shows how politics are evolving away from party loyalty and toward regional and issue-based factions.

“It’s not about party. It’s about place,” he said. “If the largest employer in half the counties in your giant legislative district are public schools, you hate vouchers, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You’re anti-voucher. ”

Who knew it was even possible to get Dan Patrick to shut up? And with all due respect to Jason Sabo, whose remarks may be a bit out of context here, this alignment on vouchers is nothing new. As this DMN article from January notes, people have been pushing for vouchers, thankfully without success, for going on thirty years. The Legislature came fairly close to fulfilling the wishes of people like GOP megadonor James Leininger, who was then the main force behind vouchers, during the 2005 session. Among other things, this led to the rise of the Texas Parent PAC and its shocking primary win over then-House Education Committee Chair Kent Gruesendorf. Patrick has taken up the banner in the two sessions since he became Lite Guv, but the fight long predates him.

And this is why Randan Steinhauser is wrong. At this point, there have been many elections, mostly Republican primaries, in which public education has been a big issue. Even with the likes of Leininger and then-Speaker Tom Craddick and now Dan Patrick behind them, voucher proponents have basically gained no ground, and aren’t anywhere close to a majority in the House. Hell, we’re at a point where they had to rebrand themselves, because “vouchers” has become a toxic label, and resort to a third-rate astroturfing campaign for their lobbying. Voucher supporters are the definition of a narrow interest group seeking to carve out an advantage for themselves. I’m not going to say they’ll never succeed, because politics doesn’t work like that, but I see no evidence that they are gaining public acceptance. They got the fate that they, and Dan Patrick, deserved.

House passes its budget

Mostly shenanigan-free, with a nice little side order of shade for a few people who deserve it.

After 15 and a half hours of debate on hundreds of amendments to the Texas House budget, lawmakers in the lower chamber passed the two-year, $218 billion document, with 131 votes in favor and 16 votes against.

The House vote included using $2.5 billion from the state’s savings account, colloquially known as the Rainy Day Fund. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, thanked lawmakers for exhibiting “true leadership” with their willingness to tap the fund, “instead of electing to use an unconstitutional transfer from the transportation funding.”

That was a jab at the Senate, which last week approved its version of the two-year budget using a $2.5 billion accounting trick to free up funds dedicated to highway spending. The House must now work with the Senate, which is under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who vehemently opposes using the Rainy Day Fund, to reconcile their budget differences.

House lawmakers, debating the budget late into Thursday night, took several jabs at Patrick and other statewide elected officials throughout the evening.

Included in the fray were Gov. Greg Abbott, who saw one of his prized economic development programs defunded; Patrick, who heard a resounding “no” when his favored proposal to subsidize private school tuition with public funds was put to a vote; and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who lost more than $20 million from his agency’s budget for lawsuits.

On the winning side of the House budget debate were child welfare advocates, who saw funding for foster care and Child Protective Services tentatively boosted; social conservatives, who scored $20 million for the Alternatives to Abortion program; and the lieutenants of House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team who, in a display of unity, easily brushed aside most challenges from far-right Republicans.

Statewide GOP leaders took some of the heftiest blows in the House chamber. Lawmakers there voted to strip $43 million from the governor’s Texas Enterprise Fund, the “deal-closing” fund the state uses to lure businesses from elsewhere, and divide it into two equal pots: one for Child Protective Services and foster care funding, the other for a program that pays for disabled children’s physical, occupational and speech therapy services. Both are hot-button issues that have dominated the House’s budget negotiations during this legislative session.

[…]

Private school subsidies, a pet issue of Patrick and his Senate, also suffered a perhaps fatal wound on Thursday. House lawmakers voted 103-44 to prevent state money from being spent to subsidize private school tuition in the form of vouchers, education savings accounts or tuition scholarships. The proposal’s author, state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said it was “in support of our public schools and our neighborhood schools.”

[…]

Paxton’s attorney general’s office also saw funding gutted by House lawmakers who opted to instead fund programs that serve vulnerable children. Foster care funding would receive $21.5 million that was previously intended to pay for Paxton’s legal services budget under a proposal by state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, that passed 82 to 61.

See here for more on the Enterprise Fund de-funding, which made me smile. Despite promises of shenanigans and roughly a gazillion amendments filed, there was more good done to the budget than bad. Which is not to say it’s a good budget, but it’s far from the worst we’ve ever seen. Take your positives where you can.

Especially when they involve Dan Patrick getting pwned.

In late March, lobbying group Texans for Education Opportunity used an online campaign to generate thousands of letters to 29 state representatives lobbying them to back education savings accounts, one of the subsidy programs in SB 3. Though the group claimed the letters were credible, the letters stirred up suspicion after no representative could find a constituent who remembered adding their name to that correspondence.

Of the 29 representatives targeted in the campaign, 26 voted Thursday to block money from funding “private school choice” programs.

RG Ratcliffe called it a “mugging”. As former Houston Rockets radio announcer Gene Peterson used to say, how sweet it is. Also, too, going back to the first story, there’s this:

Stickland had filed an amendment defund a state program for the abatement of feral hogs, which he’s become known for championing at the Legislature each session. Stickland railed predictably against the program, calling it “ridiculous” and a waste of money.

“It has not worked, and it never will work,” Stickland said, his voice rising.

That apparently offended rural lawmakers, notably state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. In response, Springer attached an amendment to Stickland’s proposal that would cut the same amount of funding for the Texas Department of Transportation, but only for roads and highways in Stickland’s hometown of Bedford.

Stickland took to the back microphone to cry foul.

“Someone else has chosen to make a mockery of this system and play gotcha politics,” he said before being interrupted. Laughter had erupted in the gallery.

“It’s funny until it happens to you,” he continued.

Springer and Stickland then confronted each other on the middle of the House floor and had to be separated by colleagues. Springer’s amendment ultimately passed, 99 to 26, forcing Stickland to withdraw his own proposal to which it had been attached.

What is best in life is to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of Jonathan Stickland. And Briscoe Cain, too, the Chester to Stickland’s Spike, except without the victorious denouement for Chester. Look, just because the House passed a budget doesn’t mean this is the budget we’ll get. The Senate passed a budget, too, and there are lots of differences to be worked out between the two. The final version will be different, and some of the things we are cheering now may be undone in that. But that’s no reason not to cheer for the things that deserve it now. The Observer and the Press have more.

Vouchers get their Senate hearing

Here we go again with this nonsense.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would establish educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs associated with parents moving their children from traditional public schools to private, parochial, or charter schools.

In an online payment process, parents could use the accounts, called ESAs, to pay for items like private school tuition, educational software and tutoring for home school students. However, the bill would prohibit parents from using the money for food or child care.

SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for a tax break, Texas businesses can donate to the scholarship fund, according to the proposal.

Senators did not take a vote on SB 3 after Tuesday’s meeting, leaving the matter pending for another day. However, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble, long has opposed so-called ‘school choice’ measures and said the bill likely is dead on arrival in his committee.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which drew more than 100 witnesses, Taylor defended his bill from charges that it diverts public money from cash-strapped public school districts and gives it to private schools. He said districts would retain some funding in the first year that a student decides to leave a public school, giving it time to adjust without losing all per-pupil money they currently receive from the state.

“Basically, the school will have money without a student. It will actually have more money to spend on the kids who are still there,” he said. “It gives them a year to transition or maybe in the year, to see what they need to do to move their program forward, to be more competitive.”

I’m not going to rehash the arguments for why vouchers (by any name; there’s a reason they have been rebranded as “education savings accounts”) are lousy public policy. Search my archives for “vouchers”, or read this from the CPPP if you need a reminder. Though a vote wasn’t taken at the time of the hearing, the committee did subsequently pass it out on a 7-3 count, with Republican Kel Seliger voting No. This is one of Dan Patrick’s priorities, and a rare bill on which Greg Abbott has an opinion he’s willing to say out loud, so I’m sure it will pass the Senate, and most likely die in the House. This is what victory looks like these days.

In the meantime, there was this.

A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.

Springer started making calls. “We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they’re coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they’re even taking,” he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.

One of Springer’s letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. “I don’t believe in vouchers of any kind,” Hardcastle said Monday. “It ought to be illegal … representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping.”

Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. “We’re excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted.”

Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!'” Dixon said. “I’m upset that someone would hijack my views.”

Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.

Here’s a more detailed article about this bizarre story. I am reminded once again of Daniel Davies’ words, that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I don’t know if this was the work of amateurs or exceedingly hardened cynics, but I do know it is not the work of someone who is confident that the people are with them.

Patrick versus the House

The Texas House isn’t all onboard with Dan Patrick’s agenda, and our Lite Guv has his shorts in a bunch about it.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated a milestone Wednesday: His Senate had acted on all four of Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items with many more days to go in the 85th legislative session.

“It’s the earliest ever that anyone knows of that either body… has already passed all the emergency items,” Patrick said in a radio interview. Abbott’s top priorities are “out and done” in the Senate, Patrick boasted — a not-so-subtle contrast with the Texas House, which tackled its first emergency item this week.

It’s not the only bone Patrick has to pick with the House these days. As its resistance to some of his top priorities has come into focus in recent weeks, the lieutenant governor has become increasingly vocal about the tension between the two chambers.

“The brow-beating — I think the volume’s up a lot higher than we’ve seen in the past,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, a fellow San Antonio Republican. “Using a brow-beating approach in governing never bodes well for anybody.

In recent media appearances, Patrick has stopped short of directly criticizing the House. But he has hardly concealed his irritation with a chamber that has shown little appetite for some of the issues he cares most about. The latest exhibit came Tuesday, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, bluntly stated that Patrick’s school voucher bill will be dead on arrival in the lower chamber.

“They’ve said they’re against school choice, which is a high priority,” Patrick said in a radio interview on Monday. “We’re going to pass the Texas Privacy Act, which keeps men out of bathrooms and stops boys and girls from showering together in high schools. The House has said they’re not interested in that bill. I don’t know where they are on property tax relief, but… conservatives in the Senate have made a pledge that we’re going to get our job done.”

“What I always ask for is just bring a bill to the floor,” Patrick added. “We have 94 out of 150… House members [who] are Republicans. You need 76 to pass a bill. I believe there will be 76 out of 94 Republicans, if given a vote, on the House floor to pass all the legislation that we’re going to pass.”

The House has not responded in kind to most of Patrick’s public volleys, which date back to his panning of the lower chamber’s budget proposal in January — “I can’t explain the House budget” — and demand on the Capitol steps that same month that the House give school choice a vote this session. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it,” he said, joining Abbott at a school choice rally.

Then there is Patrick’s highest-profile priority, the so-called “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their “biological sex” in public schools, government buildings and public universities. Straus made clear early in the session that he has serious concerns with the legislation, which is set for a committee hearing Tuesday amid mounting opposition from the business community.

[…]

Those familiar with House leadership say Patrick’s recent comments probably aren’t helping him make his case across the hall. If anything, they’re solidifying the House’s resolve to chart its own path this session.

“With all due respect, I think they could care less,” said former state Rep. Jim Keffer, an Eastland Republican close to Straus. “Sitting there pounding your chest and pointing your fingers and trying to kick sand in someone’s face — that’s pretty childish to me.”

That’s one word for it. It’s also basically how Patrick came into the Senate ten years ago, full of bluster and glory-hounding and expecting everyone to do what he says because he’s Dan Patrick. After realizing the limits of that approach, he spent the next couple of sessions being more of a work horse and getting some stuff done. Then after most of the conventional Republicans in the Senate got replaced by people more like him and the upper chamber became the place where the crazy happened, he got a promotion and reverted to form. While it’s never comfortable depending on the House for sanity – Speaker Straus aside, the lower chamber has more than its fair share of lunatics and bad actors – it still remains true that people who think they’re important really don’t like other people who think they’re even more important. So keep raging against the machine, Dan. I’m sure that will be very effective.

Abby Whitmire: Why I’m running for Humble ISD Board of Trustees

(Note: As you know, I solicit guest posts from time to time. I am also working to follow the May 2017 elections more closely, to do my part for the renewed sense of purpose and desire to make a difference at the local level. I was delighted to learn that a friend of mine had taken that to the next level, so in that spirit I asked her to write about her candidacy.)

Abby Whitmire

Humble ISD covers over 90 square miles of northeast Harris County, including the communities of Humble, Atascocita, Kingwood, Fall Creek, and Eagle Springs. The population in the district is expected to rise from 40,500 to approximately 52,000 by 2025 – necessitating the construction of six new schools by 2022, including one high school, the seventh for the district. The district is 19.1% African American, 34.1% Latino, 40.9% White, and 5.9% Other. Almost nine percent of Humble ISD are Limited English Proficient and almost 34% are considered economically disadvantaged.

In the summer of 2016, the school board hired a controversial superintendent who had helped implement a private school voucher program in her previous job. The hiring of Dr. Liz Fagen as Superintendent was done over the very vocal objections of a large segment of the district. Many people in the district are still upset about that, and upset about how the board handled her hiring and how they tried to explain it to the public. A group of parents organized against this hire, and while we were ultimately unsuccessful in that objective, we have continued to serve in the role of watchdog for board and general district matters.

Part of this organizing includes supporting challengers to the six trustees who voted in the current superintendent (the seventh member was absent). Four positions are open in this election (one board member is not running for reelection so there is not an incumbent in that race). The day before the filing deadline, the incumbent in Position 4 was unopposed. I decided to run for Position 4 that day, because I believe the voters in Humble ISD deserve a real choice in who represents them.

I was blessed with amazing teachers who were committed and creative, and who cared so deeply about me and my classmates. I believe all children in Texas deserve a great, well-resourced school with respected and empowered teachers, regardless of where they live or how much money their family makes. I'm hoping to earn the votes of concerned parents in the district who want to protect public education.

I am the only candidate who has lived in a town – New Orleans – that is a living laboratory for charter schools. 93% of New Orleans students attend charter schools currently, and the number could soon approach 100%, as the Orleans Parish School Board intends to convert its five remaining direct-run schools into charters. This the highest percentage of any U.S. city (Source: Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives). The results are mixed at best. Living in that environment and hearing the concerns of parents and teachers made me extremely skeptical of charter schools and so-called "school choice" – the choice was often one of bad options.

My family moved to Kingwood for the schools. I want to make sure that the caliber of education in Humble ISD remains and even exceeds the level that has made it so attractive to families like mine. We know what works in education: Small class sizes, rich curriculums, experienced and accomplished teachers, and a system of support that helps to manage problems when students lose focus or fall behind. It's simple, but it's not easy. If I am elected to the school board, these will be my priorities.

Abby Whitmire is stay at home mom with a career background in non-profit fundraising, most recently in New Orleans for The Posse Foundation. Her campaign Facebook page is here.

(Ed. note: Kingwood State Rep. Dan Huberty, who is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee and an opponent of vouchers, had previously served on the Humble ISD Board. Just wanted to put that out there.)

Huberty says vouchers are dead this session

Always nice to hear.

The top education policy official in the Texas House said Tuesday that he would not allow the approval of school vouchers this legislative session, a blunt pronouncement that could be fatal to the prospects for legislation that is a priority for many top Republicans in the state.

The official, House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said during a Texas Tribune event here that he and his colleagues in the House already had debated the issue at length and determined that vouchers would reduce school accountability by putting public dollars in private schools that are not subject to the same rules and also would distract from more pressing challenges, such as fixing the school finance system.

Asked whether that meant a high-profile voucher proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was “dead, dead, dead,” Huberty said yes. Asked whether there was anything that could change his mind, Huberty said no.

“Why don’t we talk about the real issues?” Huberty said.

Excellent question. You can see the video of this conversation here. Rep. Huberty has been backed by the Texas ParentPAC, which came into existence back in 2005 for the purpose of supporting legislators who support public schools, which among other things means opposing vouchers. Why should we oppose vouchers? Well for one thing, they just don’t work.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos has been a champion of school vouchers for decades, and has claimed students don’t benefit from better funding of public schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that vouchers do not improve student achievement in any meaningful way.

A significant body of research on vouchers over the past 15 years has found that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, wrote Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University. In some cases, vouchers exacerbate issues that hurt students’ quality of education, such as racial and economic school segregation and a flow of inexperienced young teachers into schools.

Research on voucher experiments in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showed that there were no significant improvements for students, especially for students Republicans argue will benefit from them the most: students of color.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which is directly funded by Congress, showed no significant reading or math gains for students who used vouchers and scholarships compared to students who did not. Still, the Trump administration may move to expand the program, The Washington Post reported.

In Milwaukee, which has the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, only one in four students attend their public school. But black students, who are the main recipients of the vouchers, had lower eighth grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit. The scores were even worse for reading, where Milwaukee eighth graders scored lower than black eighth graders in all other 12 cities included in the study. Although Milwaukee students made large gains in the 2007–2008 school year, there were not significant gains in reading between 2007 and 2011.

Although proponents of vouchers say that competition forces public schools to improve, Carnoy came to the conclusion that it is more likely that accountability measures are driving improvements in struggling public schools.

You can see that well-timed research here. Closer to home, RG Ratcliffe highlights another issue with the Patrick plan: There just aren’t many private schools in poor neighborhoods, which is both screamingly obvious when you think about it and also kind of a logistical problem.

Dallas County has more than 30,000 children attending about 100 accredited private schools. The majority are clustered in wealthier areas of North and East Dallas, the News’ analysis of education and demographic data shows.

Meanwhile, entire swaths of southern Dallas County lack a single private school. These poorer neighborhoods have lots of low-rated public schools — the very schools that voucher supporters say they want to help kids escape.

And of course, the Patrick plan wouldn’t pay the full tuition for poor kids who wanted to go to St. John’s or Hockaday or wherever, so the end effect would be even more limited. You can see why Rep. Huberty isn’t excited. What’s far less clear is what Patrick and Abbott and so on keep pushing this idea.

Senate to begin studying school finance changes

We’ll see what this looks like.

Leaders in the Texas Senate are vowing to find ways to overhaul the state’s school finance system, saying a recent Texas Supreme Court decision granted them a prime opportunity to shake up the heavily criticized status quo.

On Monday, they announced the creation of a Senate budget working group — led by Friendswood Republican Larry Taylor — to tackle the issue. That group will work with the Senate Education Committee, which Taylor chairs, to propose replacements for the current school finance system.

“The opportunity is huge for us to get it right,” said Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee. “We need a whole new method of school finance.”

They’ll face an uphill climb in a session where legislators face several obstacles to major reform, not the least of which is money. The announcement comes a week after the Senate unveiled its preliminary budget, which did not include additional funding for public education.

During the Finance Committee’s first hearing of the 2017 legislative session on Monday, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, advised the newly formed working group to “start with a clean slate” in recommending a new school finance scheme. “It should be less complicated, innovative and should meet the needs of our students,” she added.

[…]

“We’re left with a question mark as to what this effort will mean by the Senate,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert at the Austin-based consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates. The main question is “whether they’re trying to reform school finance within existing dollars or looking for possible additional dollars to fund the system.”

Nelson last week unveiled the Senate’s $213.4 billion two-year budget proposal, calling it a bare-bones starting point for financial discussions in what promises to be a particularly tight-fisted year. That proposal did not touch funding formulas for public education.

The House’s base budget — also released last week — included an additional $1.5 billion that could be spent on public education only if the Legislature reforms the school finance system.

Here’s the Chron story, which has the local angle.

In Houston, where voters last November overwhelmingly rejected having local taxpayers pay the state for $162 million in so-called “recapture” of school funds, HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones said the creation of the Senate group signaled that the message from the ballot initiative had been heard in Austin.

“They’ve done more with HISD pushing back than they have in 24 years of hearing school districts complain about it,” Jones, a vocal opponent of “recapture,” said Monday. “Recapture is based on the premise of Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but that’s never what it did. It took from the poor and reallocated to the poor. Help me understand why 75 percent of our kids are poor, really poor, receiving free and reduced-priced meals, and you’re taking money from us? It makes no sense; we need more money, not less.”

Because the district will refuse to pay the recapture fee, the Texas Education Agency has threatened to remove commercial buildings from HISD’s taxing district this July so it can give the money to other “property poor” districts.

HISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she hopes lawmakers will act before the TEA takes the property tax revenue from local commercial properties, though she is not sure overhauling the school finance system can be done in one session. But she was heartened to see the Senate look at the funding system.

“School finance can’t be based on some kind of cryptic formula that makes it so kids in a certain pocket are getting lots of money and others are getting little,” Eastman said. “Areas such as ours shouldn’t be picking up all the slack for areas that can’t generate revenue off property growth. It shouldn’t be that big of a gap.”

In Pearland, where local schools receive $9,358 per student, the lowest share in the Houston area, Superintendent John Kelly said that if the state does not increase its share, his district may have to dip into reserve funds to provide any kind of an increase to employees or to meet rising costs. He said lawmakers have been disingenuous in saying they want to lower taxes while requiring districts to raise more local taxes.

“They talk out of one side of their mouth ‘tax cuts’ for people, but on the other side they’re confiscating the increase in tax values across the state,” Kelly said of the Legislature.

That would need to be a part of any overhaul for it to be worth the name. I’m more wary than optimistic. I fear what we will get will be another shuffling of existing funds that will mostly change who’s getting screwed less. I don’t have any faith that Dan Patrick’s Senate will put more money into the system, or that they will alter it in a way that allows for, let alone mandates, covering the costs of growth in a sensible fashion. Let’s not forget that at the same time this is going on, there will be a renewed push for private school vouchers, which will only drain more money from public education. They could surprise me in a good way, and I will reserve judgment until I see what they come up with, but I do not start out feeling very hopeful about this. The track record of the players involved argues otherwise. RG Ratcliffe, who also sees vouchers in this, has more.

Meet the latest education scam

Free money! What could possibly go wrong?

BagOfMoney

An ambitious new player has emerged in the controversial effort to use taxpayer dollars to help Texas parents send their kids to private or religious schools.

Texans for Education Opportunity, which launched in May, supports all forms of “school choice,” including charters and traditional public schools, said Executive Director Randan Steinhauser, an Austin-based school choice activist and public relations consultant who co-founded the nonprofit advocacy organization.

But she said the group’s main goal is to get Texas lawmakers to create “education savings accounts” — a program under which the state would dole out taxpayer money directly to parents via debit card to cover approved education-related expenses, like private school tuition, tutors or homeschooling materials. About a half-dozen other Republican-dominated states, including Florida and Arizona, have already created such programs, although most of them target specific student populations, including disabled and low-income students. (Nevada is an exception, offering assistance to all students.)

Literature provided by Texans for Education Opportunity, which appears to be the first statewide organization focused solely on school choice, suggests the state offer up to $7,800 for any student pursuing an alternative schooling route. That is about 90 percent of what the state provides on average to traditional school districts per student for annual maintenance and operations, the pamphlet says.

The concept is similar to private school vouchers, in which taxpayer funds are awarded directly to schools, but it is larger in scope.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Exter said that concern is separate from the larger one school and teacher groups have long expressed in opposing such programs — that they divert much-needed dollars away from struggling public schools.

Yeah, well, I’ll give you three guesses where the money for this might come from; there’s no mention of any vehicle to pay for this scheme in that intro email or their website. With a board of directors that includes Phil Gramm and a big donor to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I’m pretty sure the creation of an extra source of tax revenue is not on the table. This is a scam, plain and simple, and the real question is who will be dumb enough to fall for it and/or dishonest enough to shill for it.

Straus wants to study school finance

I appreciate the effort, but I plan to keep my expectations low.

Rep. Joe Straus

Citing a recent Texas Supreme Court decision that upheld the state’s public school funding system while deeming it “undeniably imperfect,” state House Speaker Joe Straus on Thursday ordered representatives to study the school finance system and recommend reforms before the 2017 legislative session.

“We can improve educational quality while also making our school finance system more efficient,” Straus said in a news release. “Ignoring some of the problems in our current system will only make them worse. School finance reform never comes quickly or easily, which is why this work needs to continue sooner rather than later.”

Straus requested that the House Public Education and Appropriations committees examine the impact of a soon-expiring provision that has allocated money to school districts to help offset mandated property tax cuts. He also asked the panels to study “the use of local property taxes to fund public education and its effects on educational quality and on Texas taxpayers.”

“As property values have increased, more school districts have become subject to recapture, meaning that some of their local property tax dollars are sent back to the state and distributed to school districts with less property wealth,” according to the news release. “For example, the Houston Independent School District is now facing the prospect of sending a recapture payment of $175 million to the state in 2017. Since 2006, the number of school districts paying recapture has increased from 142 to 238.”

“It’s important that we keep local tax dollars in local districts as much as possible, while still ensuring that all students have access to quality public schools,” Straus said.

[…]

He already has ordered the House to study the Cost of Education Index, one component of the school finance system, along with the debt load and facility needs of fast-growing school districts.

“Combined with those studies, the newly issued charges will allow the House to take a thorough look at school finance when the Legislature convenes in January 2017,” according to the news release.

I trust that Straus has good intentions here, and even with Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock’s retirement, there are plenty of House members who are knowledgeable on school finance issues to take this up. The main problem of course is getting anything worthwhile through the Senate, where Dan Patrick is as obsessed with vouchers as he is with bathrooms. As is so unfortunately often the case, just not taking a step backwards is the main goal for 2017. The Chron and the Rivard Report have more.

Eltife not running for re-election

He will be missed.

Sen. Kevin Eltife

After 23 years in elected office, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he will not run for re-election in 2016 to devote more time to family, friends, his work and his community.

Eltife said he’s loved every minute of his service in the Senate and is proud to have worked with fellow Senators and their staffs. But he said he did not want to hold a title or office without being 1,000 percent committed to the job and fighting for Senate District 1.

“After 23 years, I have to honestly say I need to take a step back, spend more time with my family and friends and recharge my batteries,” Eltife said during an Editorial Board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “I will continue to be involved and volunteer at the local and state level to try to help others.”

Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are hard-working, well-intentioned people who sacrifice time from their families and lives to try to make Texans’ lives better, he said.

“I’m going to stay plugged in,” he said. “I want to make sure northeast Texas voices are heard, and I don’t have to be in public office to do that.”

[…]

Eltife said when he arrived his primary focus in Austin was killing bad legislation that preserved local control. But he proved effective navigating bills and lending helping hands to other legislators.

He was instrumental in the creation of a pharmacy school and doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas at Tyler, expansion of craft beer brewers’ access to the market and, most recently, pass of a bill to give epileptics in Texas access to cannabis-based oils.

Those and other bills made a difference for his district, the state and Texans, he said.

Eltife said hearing the testimony from families of suffering epileptic children motivated him to pass the bill they saw as their only hope.

Eltife’s drive to make a difference many times has left him as a lone wolf legislator.

Eltife has been watching, not so quietly, as the state’s debt more than doubled since he arrived in Austin to about $46 billion from $17 billion.

The state used debt to fund road projects and meet needs he said could have been funded if legislators had been honest with Texans and used their political capital to make tough decisions.

Eltife said doing the right thing can mean going against the party line. He’s worked with both sides of the isle to move legislation he felt would benefit his district and the state.

Sen. Elife also spent a lot of time presiding over the Senate in the latter years of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s tenure. By all accounts, the chamber ran a lot more smoothly with him wielding the gavel in Dew’s absence. The Trib adds on.

Several Republicans have already been mentioned as potential candidates for Eltife’s seat.

State Rep. David Simpson of Longview will announce later this month that he is launching a bid for the job.

“Advancing liberty and promoting prosperity in Texas will take conservative leaders who are ready to tell the truth,” Simpson said in a Sunday statement. “We are excited to announce our campaign for Senate District 1 and intend to officially launch our efforts on June 22.”

Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, who was waiting to see whether Eltife would run for re-election, is also considered a likely contender for the post. Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, has said he would not rule out a run for the seat if Eltife gave it up. And Dennis Golden, a Carthage optometrist, has said he intends to run.

Eltife has often been a swing vote in a Texas Senate dominated by Republicans but governed by rules that give political minorities more power than their numbers would suggest. It takes consent from 60 percent of the state’s 31 senators to bring most proposals up for debate; issues that can only attract small majorities often languish as a result. And Eltife has found himself in the position of holding such proposals hostage more than once.

He was a rare Republican vote against repeal of the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools and who have lived here for more than three years to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. That repeal never made it to the full Senate. He opposed so-called sanctuary cities legislation that would require local police to enforce federal immigration laws. And he was a no vote on one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet bills, which would have allowed businesses to direct their taxes to scholarship funds for private school students.

Early in the legislative session that ended June 1, Eltife tried to tap the brakes on what he called “a bidding war” between the House and Senate over tax cuts, insisting that lawmakers should be using surplus funds for deferred maintenance, debt reduction and the like. The tax cuts went through, but so did some of what he had pushed for. By the end of the session, he declared himself satisfied with that partial victory.

This is a deep red district (Romney 72.1% in 2012), so it’s all a matter of the Republican primary. Thomas Ratliff would be fine if he ran. David Simpson is an odd duck, a teabagger but not quite cut from the same cloth as the rest of them. He’s just unpredictable enough to at least be a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end on a regular basis. Bryan Hughes would be bad, and I can’t imagine anyone else would be any better. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out. The one thing I do expect is for there to be a lot of money spent on that campaign, mostly by outside groups. Good luck and best wishes for the next stage of your life, Sen. Eltife. Trail Blazers and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

Senate passes a voucher bill

Hopefully, this will die in the House.

Some low-income families unhappy with their public schools would get help paying private school tuition under a plan that won tentative approval in the Texas Senate Monday.

Senate Bill 4, which would use state tax credits to entice up to $100 million in business donations to fund a scholarship program, cleared the chamber 18 to 12 with two Republicans, Konni Burton of Colleyville and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, breaking party lines to vote against the measure. One Democrat, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, voted in favor.

Before it passed, Democrats raised concerns about the plan, arguing that it diverted money that should be going to public education into an unaccountable private school system. “They don’t have the same kinds of requirements that our public schools do,” said state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso. “I can’t seem to get around that.”

While defending his proposal, state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, insisted that the legislation should not be considered a private school voucher program — a notion that has proven politically toxic in the Legislature.

“I don’t think we are taking money from the public schools. The student is leaving,” said Taylor, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “This is private money — not state money — that is donated.”

Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he viewed the legislation as a way to “short circuit around the whole voucher concept.”

“It is money that a corporation will be giving to a scholarship program in lieu of paying tax,” he said.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called on Taylor to add language banning private schools participating in the program from using Common Core, the national set of curriculum standards that Texas lawmakers prohibited in the state’s public education system in 2013.

“It just defies logic that you would apply a different standard to private schools using taxpayer subsidized money,” said Ellis, after his amendment was tabled at Taylor’s urging.

Senators Rodriguez, Menendez, and Ellis have hit the highlights here. This is a strong point, too.

Rev. Charles Johnson, director of Pastors for Texas Children, a public school advocacy group, said the push for vouchers is more a fight for money than improving educational opportunity for poor students.

“If this were about kids, we’d target those 70 or 80 struggling schools out of 8,500 public schools and we would give them the resources they need to succeed,” he said. “The Legislature consistently refuses to do that.”

Well yeah. That would cost money. Dan Patrick already thinks we spend too much money on public education. Even the credulous Erica Greider notes that under this bill, families with above-median incomes would be eligible for these “scholarships”, a name that’s more about branding than anything else. It’s a giveaway to people who don’t need it at the expense of people who do, and there’s no evidence from existing voucher programs elsewhere that it does anything to improve educational outcomes. Like I said, let’s hope it dies in the House, as it should.

Here comes the school finance bill

It’s a big deal.

Jimmie Don Aycock

The House education chairman on Tuesday unveiled a $3 billion proposal he hopes will overhaul the way Texas funds public schools and derail a looming lawsuit in the process.

“My objective when I began this was to simplify the situation that we’re in,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said before providing details of his proposal to the House Public Education Committee he chairs. “Please, before you take a shot at it, take a look at it.”

House Bill 1759 would make 13 changes to the way Texas funds public schools. It would provide $3 billion more than what’s needed to fund enrollment growth and would redistribute some existing funding to ensure each school district receives a more equitable amount.

Nearly all of Texas’ 5.4 million schoolchildren would receive more funding under the proposal. No district would see its per-student funding amount drop, according to data released Tuesday, but some would not see any gains.

Houston ISD, for example, would see its per-student funding increase by $213 in 2016 and $269 to $5,747 in 2017. If current funding mechanisms are continued, by contrast, HISD’s per-student funding level would drop. This is because HISD faces what’s called a “recapture cliff” in 2018, when it will be required to give an estimated $101 million back to the state to prop up poorer school districts.

[…]

Aycock hopes his bill will represent enough of a change to derail Texas’ latest school finance lawsuit, filed against the state by more than 600 school districts after the Legislature in 2011 cut billions in public education funding.

Last August, state District Judge John Dietz struck down the state’s public school funding system, saying it created an illegal, de facto statewide property tax and citing problems of equity, adequacy and efficiency. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule before the legislative session ends in June.

Aycock said Tuesday that he thinks his bill makes enough changes that, if it passes, Dietz’s ruling would be reversed or the case would be sent back to the lower court. Sheryl Pace, a school finance expert at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, agreed.

“If this were to pass, I think there’d be a good chance of that,” said Pace. “This is a substantial change.”

See here and here for the background. This is a big step forward, and I agree it would have an effect on the litigation. Keep in mind, however, that funding disparities between districts wasn’t the only issue that was litigated.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has said that Aycock’s proposal would mean new money for schools, but she doubts it would do enough for poor students or English-language learners to make the system truly equitable.

That was a major issue in District Judge John Dietz’s ruling against the state last year, and Aycock said this afternoon that his bill didn’t touch the funding weights that provide money for those students. But he did call his plan “the most equitable statistical sample that’s been proposed for many years,” and said, “I honestly move it helps the state’s position, moves the ball in the right direction.”

It does, and Rep. Aycock deserves a lot of credit for that forward motion. Assuming the House passes his bill – and I think it will – the question is what if anything the Senate will do with it. The prospect of at least scaling back the school finance litigation is sure to be an incentive for them, but the Senate has not shown any inclination to add money to public education – those tax cuts ain’t gonna pay for themselves, if you know what I mean – and has chosen instead to spend its time on bills that won’t actually solve any problems. Remember, Dan Patrick thinks the main problem with the 2011 cuts to education is that they didn’t go far enough. So good luck, Rep. Aycock. You’re going to need it. The Trib has more.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:

BagOfMoney

House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.

[…]

One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

[…]

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

Let the budgetary games begin

The House takes up the budget today, with over 300 amendments and riders queued up for votes. A couple of things to watch for as the debate goes on:

Killing vouchers.

BagOfMoney

Lawmakers in the Texas House will have a chance to draw a line in the sand over private school vouchers during the upcoming battle over the budget Tuesday.

An amendment filed by state Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christi, would ban the use of state dollars to fund private education for students in elementary through high schools, including through so-called tax credit scholarships.

If passed, the measure — one of more than 350 budget amendments covering topics from border security to abortion up for House consideration — would deliver a blow to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

[…]

If Herrero’s amendment fails, it would represent a dramatic change in sentiment for the chamber, which overwhelmingly passed a similar budget amendment during the 2013 legislative session. Patrick, a Houston Republican who served as state senator before taking office as lieutenant governor in January, led that chamber’s education panel at the time.

Rep. Herrero’s amendment from 2013 passed by a 103-43 vote. Neither Speaker Straus nor Public Ed Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock is any more pro-voucher than they were last year, and neither is Dan Patrick any more beloved, so you have to feel pretty good about the chances this time, though it’s best not to count your amendments till they pass. If it does, that won’t fully drive a stake through vouchers’ cold, greedy heart for the session, but it’ll be a solid blow against them.

“Alternatives To Abortion”

As the Texas House prepares for a floor fight Tuesday over its budget, a flurry of amendments filed by Democrats seeks to defund the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.

A group of Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen amendments to either reduce or eliminate funding for the program, which provides “pregnancy and parenting information” to low-income women. Under the program, the state contracts with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, a nonprofit charity organization with a network of crisis pregnancy resource centers that provide counseling and adoption assistance.

Since September 2006, the program has served roughly 110,000 clients. The network features 60 provider locations, including crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies.

State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she filed an amendment to defund the entire program because the state is giving more money to “coerce women” into a “political ideology instead of providing information and services” at a time when Texas women’s access to health services is being reduced.

The proposed House budget allocates $9.15 million a year to the program in 2016 and 2017 — up from $5.15 million in the last budget.

“I think it’s troublesome that here we are going to almost double funding for a program that has not proven to be successful in any way,” said Farrar, chairwoman of the Women’s Health Caucus in the House. An additional amendment by Farrar would require an audit of the program.

Several House Democrats filed similar amendments, including Borris Miles of Houston, Celia Israel of Austin and Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, whose amendments would transfer more than $8 million from the Alternatives to Abortion program to family planning services and programs for people with disabilities.

“These facilities have very little regulation, no accountability and no requirement to offer actual medical services,” Turner said, adding that funding could be used for other medical programs. “My amendments are an attempt to address our state’s real priorities and needs.”

Two Republicans, meanwhile, filed measures to boost the program’s funding.

I don’t expect Dems to win this fight, but it’s a fight worth having.

Other women’s health funding issues

The state currently administers three similar women’s health programs that cover things like annual well woman exams, birth control and cancer screenings for low-income women.

The newest program, the Expanded Primary Health Care Program, created in 2013, is slated to get the funding bump, bringing the total for women’s health services in the House version of the budget to about $130 million per year.

Here is the breakdown of funding for each program:

  • Texas Women’s Health Program: $34.9 million in 2016, $35.1 million in 2017
  • Expanded Primary Health Care Program: $73.4 million in 2016, $73.4 million in 2017
  • Family planning program administered by Department of State Health Services: $21.4 million in 2016, $21.4 million in 2017

In 2011, motivated by a never-ending quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family planning funding by nearly $70 million, leaving about $40 million for preventive and contraceptive services for low-income women. A recent study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project, a research group that studies the effects of family planning budget cuts, found that more than 100,000 women lost services after the 2011 cuts and 82 family planning clinics closed. In 2013, the Legislature restored the $70 million and put it into the newly created Expanded Primary Health Care Program, which became a separate item in the state budget. Still, advocates and providers have consistently fought for more money, arguing that the state is only serving one-third of women eligible to receive services.

[…]

Here is a list of other women’s health amendments and riders to watch for:

  • State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) filed an amendment that would allow teenagers who are 15 to 17 years old and already mothers to get contraception without their parents’ consent. Right now, state law requires that all teenagers under the age of 18 get their parent’s permission for birth control. The amendment mirrors Gonzalez’s House Bill 468, which she presented to the House State Affairs Committee in mid-March.
  • State Rep. Chris Turner (D-Arlington) has proposed a rider that would ensure sex education programs teach “medically accurate” information to public school students.
  • State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) proposes adding even more money to the Alternatives to Abortion program by taking almost $7 million from the Commission on Environmental Quality.
  • A House budget rider by state Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) protects the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program that provides breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women, under attack this session by conservative lawmakers hell bent on, you guessed it, defunding Planned Parenthood.

Some possible winners in there – in a decent world, Rep. Gonzalez’s bill would be a no-brainer – but again, fights worth having. Rep. Sarah Davis has received some liberal adulation this session for trying to do good on women’s health issues. That budget rider will be a test of whether she can actually move some of her colleagues or not.

Public education

An amendment by the House’s lead budget writer, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto would allocate $800 million more to certain public schools as part of a plan announced last week to diminish the inequities that exist among districts under the current funding scheme.

[…]

At the news conference Monday, Austin state Rep. Donna Howard said at least 20 percent of public schools still will receive less per-student funding than they did in 2011 under the proposal. That year, state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education, restoring about $3.4 billion two years later.

“We aren’t keeping up as it is,” Howard said.

She also noted the plan also does not include the $130 million that had been earmarked for a bill containing Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to bolster pre-K programs — an amount she described as insufficient considering it does fully restore funding to a pre-K grant program gutted in 2011.

Howard has filed a budget amendment that would allocate $300 million for pre-K.

Pre-K is one of Greg Abbott’s priorities this session, but his proposal is small ball. Rep. Howard’s amendment has a chance, but we’ll see if Abbott’s office gets involved.

And finally, same sex benefits, because of course there is.

Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) is again trying to bar Texas school districts from offering benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

Springer has introduced a budget amendment that would eliminate state funding for districts that violate the Texas Constitution, which prohibits recognition of same-sex partnerships.

The amendment is similar to a bill Springer authored two years ago, which cleared committee but was never considered on the floor. Under Springer’s budget amendment, the education commissioner, in consultation with the attorney general, would decide whether districts have violated the Constitution. Districts would have 60 days to correct the problem.

According to Equality Texas, Springer’s amendment is aimed at the Austin, Pflugerville and San Antonio school districts, which offer “plus-one” benefits that are inclusive of same-sex partners. But the group says those benefits are in line with a 2013 opinion from former Attorney General Greg Abbott, which found that such programs are only illegal if they create or recognize a status similar to marriage.

Yes, as noted, Rep. Springer has tried to meddle in this area before. I admit, I’m more worried about a budget amendment this year than a bill in 2013. Keep a close eye on that one.

Hegar’s first revenue estimate is in

We’ll see how it holds up.

BagOfMoney

Amid concerns that tumbling oil prices could push the Texas economy into a recession, Comptroller Glenn Hegar offered a cautiously optimistic tone on the future of the Texas economy Monday, announcing that lawmakers will have $113 billion to haggle over in crafting its next two-year budget.

“Our projections are based on expectations of a moderate expansion in the Texas economy and reflect uncertainties in oil prices and the possibilities of a slowing global economy,” Hegar said.

The biennial revenue estimate sets a limit on the state’s general fund, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. The general fund typically makes up nearly half of the state’s total budget.

Hegar predicted that Texas will take in $110.4 billion in revenue from taxes, fees and other income during the 2015-16 biennium. Hegar’s $113 billion projection also includes money expected to come from leftover funds in the current biennium. With the addition of federal funds and other revenue sources, lawmakers should have a total of $220.9 billion for the 2016-17 budget.

The state’s Rainy Day Fund is also projected to grow to $11.1 billion by the end of the next biennium if lawmakers choose not to use any money in the fund.

The state will end the current biennium, which ends Aug. 31, with $7.5 billion in leftover funds, Hegar said. That surplus will be split three ways between general revenue, the Rainy Day Fund and the state highway fund.

Two years ago, Comptroller Susan Combs estimated that the Legislature would have $208 billion for its budget, including $101.4 billion in general revenue and $11.8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. Lawmakers ultimately passed a $200 billion budget.

[…]

The liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities has estimated that lawmakers will need to increase general spending from the current $95 billion to $101 billion to maintain the state’s current level of services. More than half of that $6 billion spike comes from Health and Human Services, where an increase in medical costs and Medicaid cases in particular has grown.

Don’t expect that to happen. Indeed, if Dan Patrick has his way, it will never happen. The good news is that this is a reasonably sunny estimate, meaning The Lege will be able to do at least some of the things it wants to do without too much voodoo, assuming it doesn’t impose some ridiculously lowball artificial limits on itself, which it must be noted is always a possibility. But just because there’s revenue available doesn’t mean it isn’t spoken for, or at least in demand. The Observer explains.

On one hand, it’s not a crisis budget, and it’s not one that will require legislators to make cuts (though they might anyway.) The office of Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick released a brief statement that characterized the comptroller’s estimate as a green light for his agenda, which has included the promise of significant tax cuts: It provided “adequate revenue to secure our border, provide property and business tax relief while focusing on education and infrastructure. I intend to accomplish these goals.”

On the other, the “surplus” is a lot less than it looks at first glance, in part because the amount of budget trickery the Legislature has employed over the years. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott and Patrick have called for ending road funding diversions and making the Texas Department of Transportation whole again. But about $3 billion in additional revenue is needed to end diversions, and TxDOT says it needs an additional $5 billion just to keep the system at the current level of congestion—that is, without making any forward progress.

In education, the state has not yet gotten back to the level of funding that preceded 2011’s gargantuan cuts to public ed—a portion was restored in 2013, but a significant amount of money is needed even beyond what was the case in 2011, thanks to population growth. And it’s unclear how proposed voucher programs would affect the system’s overall cost.

And then there’s tax cuts. The truly sweeping tax overhauls that were talked about during the election, like substituting property taxes for increased sales taxes, seem to have fallen off the radar for now. In the past, GOP lawmakers of all stripes have passed minor tax bills and sold them to the voters as massive ones. That may be Patrick’s play, but even modest tax reductions will shave the “surplus” down in a hurry.

The question as always is what gets prioritized, and what gets left out. I believe this is an accurate summary:

Budget expert Dale Craymer, president of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, pointed out that lawmakers in writing the next budget will have the cushion of unspent cash and “a pretty solid non-oil-and-gas base to our economy.”

Still, he said, the “three great wants” of tax relief, transportation and public education are big-ticket items.

“The state is still in a good position to deal with maybe one of these,” Craymer said, “but certainly not all three.”

I’d say that’s the priority order for the Republicans. What happens if the Supreme Court forces them to deal with public education, especially if they don’t leave themselves any room to do so? Your guess is as good as mine.

Wake me up in June

As we prepare for the 84th Legislative session to begin, let’s pause for a moment and see what we can expect.

Greg Abbott wants to make the world safe for plastic bags.

Dan Patrick wants to cut his property taxes, and ensure that Texas never has enough money to meet its needs.

Donna Campbell wants taxpayers to subsidize private schools.

Ken Paxton is going to go to the office, sue the federal government, and go home. At least until he gets indicted for being an ethical morass. In the meantime, Dan Patrick wants to put Paxton in charge of the Public Integrity Unit. What could possibly go wrong with that?

The Senate is a cesspool.

So yeah, this session is gonna suck. It’s just a question of how much, and how permanent the damage is.

The Lege is unlikely to do anything substantive on education this session

Oh, there will be lots of sound and fury, as well as various sideshow distractions, but in the end the main issue to resolve – school finance – will be at best “tweaked”. For anything more than that, we will have to wait till the Lege is forced to act by the Supreme Court.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Public education promises to dominate the 2015 legislative session, as advocacy groups prepare yet again for a struggle over vouchers and lawmakers decide whether to tweak an outdated, complex school finance system.

With nearly 40 percent of the state’s $200 billion budget going to education, school finance is always a major driver of debate during Texas’ biennial legislative sessions. The nature of the debate in next year’s session is harder to anticipate, however, as new leaders with resolute education stances flood the upper chamber.

“I think there will be some – I hate to use the term ‘nibbling around the edges’ – but tweaks and specific measures” to how Texas funds public schools, said Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen. “But do we have a full revamp of the school finance system? I would be surprised if that happened before the Supreme Court ruled.”

Aycock, who chairs the House Committee on Public Education, has been meeting with a small ad hoc group of lawmakers since state District Judge John Dietz of Austin struck down Texas’ method for funding public schools in late August, citing problems of equity, adequacy and efficiency. Attorney General Greg Abbott has appealed Dietz’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

The legislative group likely won’t yield any cohesive policy recommendations, but Aycock said he plans to file legislation to tweak the system and he expects others will, too. The changes will fall far short of what many teacher groups want, however.

See here for some background. The sideshow of course will be vouchers, and with Dan Patrick running amok in the Senate it is possible they could get somewhere. I doubt they’ll gain much traction in the House where the Parent PAC-endorsed Aycock and Speaker Joe Straus can deep-six them, but you never know. I figure there will be some action on standardized testing, because there’s always some action on standardized testing, and I’m interested in hearing more about “community schools” as the anti-vouchers. Beyond that, we wait for the Supreme Court.

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.

[…]

While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

[…]

We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

Dan Patrick loves the poor folks

He says so himself, so it must be true.

“Oozing charm from every pore I oiled my way around the floor”

State Sen. Dan Patrick told a wealthy Houston business group Thursday that he would advocate for the poor and people of color if elected lieutenant governor in November, at one point advocating compassion toward immigrants who brave dangers to cross Texas’ southern border.

The shift in tone was noteworthy coming from the Republican Houston senator and talk radio host, whose earlier rhetoric on immigration and border security often included talk of an “illegal invasion” and claims that immigrants are bringing Third World diseases into this country.

Instead, Patrick, who rode that tough talk and tea party support to a trouncing of incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a May primary runoff, pitched his education and immigration platforms as a recognition of the disadvantages that low-income Americans face.

Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told the Houston Realty Business Coalition that the rich already have school choice, but the poor do not.

“If you’re rich enough – some of you in here, or maybe you work a second job to make it happen – send your kids to private school. And if you’re mobile enough, you move to the suburbs for better schools,” Patrick said. “We don’t have white flight in Texas – we have school flight.”

Children in inner-city schools – who Patrick said mostly are “black or brown” – are poorly represented by the Democratic Party, he said. The candidate said he would champion these families.

So he’s basically pushing vouchers, which is to say the same old shibboleth despite the utter lack of evidence that it solves any problems or serves as anything but a wealth transfer to people whose kids already attend private schools. Lisa Falkenberg takes him to task on this, and I’ll leave the heavy lifting to her. She doesn’t have the space to get into Patrick’s self-professed “compassion” for immigrants, which is pretty damn rich from a fervent supporter of “sanctuary cities” and fervent opponent of the 2001 Texas DREAM Act. There’s also his support for raising the sales tax to finance a property tax cut, which would benefit rich people like Dan Patrick at the expense of just about anyone that doesn’t own an expensive house. One could go on and one, but you get the point.

But let’s not get bogged down in details here. Let’s note instead the great humor of Patrick saying all this stuff in front of a bunch of wealthy business types, none of whom care about any of that and who were all no doubt impatiently waiting for him to get to the part where he tells them how much he’s gonna cut their taxes and all. Let’s take him at his word for a moment that he’s filled with compassion for the poor and the immigrants and that he’d like nothing more than to help them. What’s stopping him from delivering his message directly to the people that he so badly wants to help and the advocacy groups that work with the Legislature on their behalf? Instead of glad-handing a bunch of fat cats that are already in his pocket, why not address a group of low-income residents at a Neighborhoods Center or the like? Tell them you understand their concerns, listen to their stories, answer their questions, propose your solutions, and ask for their votes. It’s called “campaigning”. Patrick could have done that any time he wanted to this summer, instead of sneaking around from one tea party event to another. He could still do it now, though he’d also have to address the question of what took him so long. But hey, better late than never, right? Maybe Sen. Van de Putte can ask him about it at tomorrow night’s debate. Regardless, when he does do that, then we can talk about how genuine his “compassion” is and how seriously we ought to take his ideas. Until then, a healthy dose of skepticism and a regular serving of snark remain the recommended responses.

Where things stand with two weeks to go in the legislative session

With the Thursday midnight deadline for bills to pass on second reading in the House, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at the status of some major legislation and legislative priorities. There are two weeks left in the regular session, and the specter of overtime is hazy but present. A full list of failed House bills is here, I’m going to aim for the highlights.

Budget – In conference committee. The two chambers weren’t that far apart on how much they spent and what they spent it on, but there were real differences and things have gotten a little testy. Still, I don’t expect there to be too much drama on the basics.

Water and transportation – This is where it has gotten sticky. The Senate passed a joint resolution to allocate up to $5.7 billion from the Rainy Day fund for water and transportation projects, with some extra for public education. The House has rejected this approach, and compounded the issue by failing to pass a bill to fund water projects and pulling a bill to raise vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation matters. Both are stated priorities of Rick Perry, who says we’ll go to a special session if something isn’t done about these things. Complicating matters further is an opinion from AG Greg Abbott that Rainy Day fund spending counts towards the constitutional spending cap. The Senate’s approach would have avoided that, but Speaker Straus says it’s a non-starter in the House. The House would prefer to just vote to raise the cap, which requires only a majority, but David Dewhurst doesn’t want to do that because many Republicans (like him) might get attacked in the 2014 primaries for doing so. It’s quite the dilemma. Everyone is saying that one way or another these things will get done, but it’s not clear to me what the path forward is.

Education – We know that some more money will be spent on public education than in 2011, but the full cuts from 2011 will not be restored, and the final amount that will be added is still up in the air. The charter school expansion bill has not yet been heard in the House, and it’s not clear how it will go. Vouchers appear to be dead. HB5, the big bill to cut back on standardized testing and revamp the high school curriculum, was amended by the Senate after being passed by the House, and is now in conference committee after the House rejected the Senate’s amendments.

Medicaid expansion – Dead. As with all things, there are ways to raise the dead in the Lege while it’s still in session, but it ain’t happening here.

Expanded gambling – Also dead. Check back in 2014, if the Supreme Court upholds the school finance ruling.

Guns – The House did manage to pass a number of gun-expansion bills in the days before their Thursday deadline, including at least one truly demented bill. Many of them likely have no future in the Senate, which ought to make everyone whose bills died on the vine on Thursday from lack of time rethink their priorities (not that it will), but the campus carry bill may get a chance to be heard.

Abortion – A combination of resistance by two normally anit-abortion Democrats to some noxious bills in the Senate and that slow-roll calendar in the House have caused all of the major anti-abortion bills to be held at bay so far. The advocates of these bills in the House at least are unlikely to give up, and I for one have a very bad feeling that if there is a special session for any reason, Perry will add this legislation to the call. If the two-thirds rule is not adopted by the Senate for the special, then that’s all she wrote. If there is a special session, I expect a lot of people will pressure Perry to address this, and I expect he’ll listen to them. I hope I’m wrong, but as I said, I have a very bad feeling about it.

Redistricting – Who knows? I’ve seen several people mention that they have heard Perry will call a special on redistricting, but I have not seen Perry himself mention this, though he has talked about a special for water and transportation if they don’t get done. The idea of a special for redistricting came up late in the 2011 session, so this is certainly a possibility, but in my experience Perry usually telegraphs his intentions. But seriously, I have no idea. For updates on other election-related legislation, see Texas Redistricting.

Criminal justice – I defer to Scott Henson on this.

Beer – In case you were wondering, the craft beer bills were passed by the Senate and thus were not subject to the House Thursday deadline, as that was for House bills that had not yet been heard on the floor. The package of Senate craft beer bills should be heard in the House this week.

That’s about all I can think of. if I’ve missed anything obvious, let me know.

SBOE passes anti-voucher resolution

Good for them.

The Texas State Board of Education voted 10-5 on Friday to urge the Legislature to reject proposals that would result in public funds being allocated for private educational institutions.

The resolution, authored by Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr., D-Brownsville, asks the legislature to “reject all vouchers, taxpayer savings grants, tax credits, or any other mechanisms that have the effect of reducing funding to public schools.” It mirrored an amendment the House recently passed to the state budget by a wide margin banning the use of public dollars for private schools.

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Though the resolution eventually passed, it initially endured stiff opposition from a number of board members – including some who said the issue was outside of the board’s purview.

Member Tom Maynard, R-Georgetown, while stressing that he was a “huge supporter” of public schools, said that the board should leave the issue to the legislature.

“I get the voucher question all the time. And my position is, this isn’t a matter for the SBoE,” he said. “This resolution puts us in a position of commenting on things that are not within our constitutional authority.”

Maynard moved to postpone the resolution indefinitely, which provoked a debate about the role of the State Board in evaluating education policy. Member Marisa B. Perez, D-San Antonio, argued that the issue was central to the Board’s responsibilities.

“Saying that it doesn’t fall under our guise is not an acceptable answer to the teachers who are asking for our support,” she said. “Siphoning money from our public schools and turning them over to our private schools is definitely something we should address.”

The question about going outside the board’s duties is a valid one. The SBOE doesn’t have budgetary authority, but they do play a role in school finance as the trustees of the Permanent School Fund. I don’t have a problem with them passing a non-binding resolution, but I admit I’d feel differently if they had voted in favor of vouchers. I wonder if they were motivated in part to take this action by getting their noses out of joint over their potential loss of charter school oversight.

Only one of the board members explicitly endorsed the proposals condemned in the resolution – Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas.

“I believe in the American right to educate my children in the manner that I want,” she said. In addition to Miller and Mercer, other board members that voted against the resolution were chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

Yes, of course my SBOE member supported vouchers, even though she once said she wouldn’t. Don’t blame me, I voted for Traci Jensen. Hair Balls has more.