Legislative Session Saw No Teacher Raises, Failed Voucher Push, And Armed Guards

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With a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus on hand, some lawmakers had the funds and optimism to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing public schools, such as teacher shortages and school funding, at the start of this year’s legislative session.

Legislative Session Saw No Teacher Raises, Failed Voucher Push, And Armed Guards(Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

Teachers Will Not Receive Raises Due To Clashing Political Views, Vouchers, And Squabbles

But, in the end, clashing political views, a battle over school vouchers, and squabbles between the Texas Senate and House blocked proposals that would have infused billions of dollars into public schools.

Teachers are the only state employees who will not be receiving raises this session. Bills that would have granted cash to better prepare teachers and keep them in the profession for longer periods of time failed along the way, despite the recommendations of a task committee formed by Gov. Greg Abbott to address teacher shortages.

Most notably, House Bill 100, which would have provided teachers with modest salaries and assisted schools in alleviating financial stresses created by the epidemic and inflation, expired Saturday after Senate Republicans inserted school vouchers, a policy that the House strongly opposed, into the proposal.

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Abbott Will Call A Special Session If Lawmakers Don’t Adopt A School Vouchers Program

However, the discussion over school vouchers is sure to continue. Abbott, who went across the state during the session lobbying for “school choice” measures, stated a few weeks ago that if lawmakers did not adopt a school vouchers program that he liked, he would call a special session.

It will be interesting to see whether anything different can be accomplished in a special session. House Democrats and rural Republicans joined together once more to oppose vouchers, claiming that such schemes would suck money away from public schools. Many of them are likely to remain staunchly opposed, though Senate Republicans may try to force their hand by withholding school funds until a voucher program is approved.

A comprehensive school safety law that would install armed guards on every campus, cost-of-living payments for retired teachers, bans on sexually explicit materials in libraries, and curriculum reforms aimed at decreasing teacher strain and raising test scores did pass this session. The proposals are now on their way to Abbott.

Here’s a look at what changed this session in public education.

There are no teacher raises.

Earlier this year, school officials asked lawmakers to do at least three things: increase the basic allotment or the amount of money schools receive per student; revamp the state’s school funding mechanism; and aggressively invest in teacher salaries.

Legislators came close but fell short on all three counts. The House originally intended HB 100 to increase the base allowance and adjust it for inflation. It would also have shifted the primary criterion used to calculate how much money the state pays to public schools from student attendance to enrollment.

If a student misses school in Texas, their district’s attendance average drops, as does the amount of money they receive. And, in a post-COVID-19 world where parents are more likely to keep their children home if they are sick, some districts’ finances are more precarious than ever. Schools have claimed that basing school funding on average student enrolment will provide more stability and allow them to manage their budgets more effectively.

The House version of HB 100 would have provided an additional $4.5 billion to school districts, but funding was reduced when the Senate drastically changed the bill and attempted to use it as a vehicle for a voucher-like program known as education savings accounts, which would provide state funds to parents who opt out of their school districts to pay for their children’s private schooling.

There are no vouchers.

Some senators who favor school choice programs believed they had enough support this session from families upset with public schools over pandemic response protocols and how race and history are taught to implement a school voucher program.

However, the Texas House demonstrated that it remains the most difficult obstacle for school choice supporters to overcome. For decades, Democrats and rural Republicans in the House have worked together to oppose such programs, believing that they would divert monies away from public schools, which serve as major job engines and community hubs across the state.

Senate Bill 8, a voucher proposal, failed after the House tried to limit its scope. The Senate had proposed a program that would be accessible to most Texas students, while the House countered with a program limited to certain students. The new bill never got a vote in the House after Abbott threatened to veto it if lawmakers didn’t expand its reach.

HB 100, the school funding bill, didn’t fare any better as voucher opponents preferred to tank it rather than accept education savings accounts. Rep. Ken King, author of HB 100, expressed regret that the bill didn’t pass, but he believes students, teachers, and schools are better off with current law than they would be if they accepted what the Senate is offering. Sen. Brandon Creighton, the Senate’s leading champion for school vouchers, accused the House of not having any intention of negotiating with him.

The failure to pass a program that Abbott approves means he will likely have lawmakers come back to the Capitol for a special session on school choice. Voucher proponents remain hopeful, but the most important agenda items still lay on the table. Greg Sindelar, CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, believes the promise of parent empowerment sits unfulfilled, leaving Texas parents without the transparency, quality, respect, and choice they deserve from their education system.

School safety measures

Legislators agreed to a school safety package that would require an armed security officer and provide mental health training for certain district employees. It took until the second-to-last day of the session.

In the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre, school safety was a top priority for both Republicans and Democrats. However, the raise-the-age bill they advocated for did not get a vote. House Bill 3, authored by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, would invest more than $300 million in school safety measures and give the state more control over how school districts are boosting security. If districts don’t comply with the state’s guidelines, they can be placed under the Texas Education Agency’s supervision.

The state allocated $1.1 billion to the TEA to help schools meet safety requirements and passed a law requiring schools to install silent panic alert buttons in each classroom.

Teacher shortages

Texas was facing a teacher shortage before the COVID-19 pandemic due to issues such as low pay, overtime, health worries, and culture wars. This has led to more teachers leaving the profession.

The TEA is struggling to fill its teacher vacancies, leading to schools having to refill positions on a yearly basis. In response, Abbott formed a task force to figure out how to fix the shortage. They recommended increasing salaries, improving teacher preparation, and helping teachers spend less time working during their off hours.

The House and Senate proposed bills that would have provided teacher raises allocated funds for training and mentorship programs, and mandated the TEA to conduct a “time study” to take a deeper look at the reasons why teachers are spending time outside their work hours. Neither bill passed due to disagreement between the chambers. Senate Bill 9 was proposed as a response to the task force findings but failed due to House Democrats stuffed their version with some of their priorities. House Bill 11, the lower chamber’s response to teacher shortages, never made it out of a Senate committee.

House Bill 1605 allocates nearly $800 million for investments in open-source, high-quality instructional materials for teachers, as well as provisions to give parents more access to the materials teachers use to instruct their children.

GOP lawmakers wanted to limit classroom instruction, school activities, and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, but they fell short. Critics of these proposals say they contain vague language that could stifle even informal discussions about LGBTQ people, such as teachers discussing their same-sex spouses.

Abbott House Bill 900 was passed by the Republican-led Legislature to keep sexually explicit content off school bookshelves. It came after two years of parents raising concerns and local school boards banning books that they felt were inappropriate. Between July 2021 and June 2022, Texas took more books off shelves than any other state, with most titles centering on race, racism, abortion, and LGBTQ representation and issues.

Retired teachers are expected to receive a one-time payment and a cost-of-living adjustment to combat rising inflation. This would be the first time some retirees have received an adjustment in almost 30 years. The bill calls for a 2% adjustment for teachers who retired between 2013 and 2020, a 4% one for those who retired between 2001 and 2013, and a 6% one for those who retired before 2001.

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