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EduLege Tracker 5-9-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 31
May 9, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Now it gets serious…

The State Senate has now approved its version of a sweeping school finance bill—one that would give every teacher and campus librarian in Texas a $5,000 pay raise while cutting property taxes for home and business owners.

The Senate vote means that both chambers of the Texas Legislature have now passed different versions of a bill that would appropriate at least $9 billion of new state money toward improving public schools and deliver tax relief to property owners.

But major differences remain between the Senate version and the original House plan, which passed last month. So, key details—such as the size of the teacher pay raise or the amount of the property tax cut—won’t be known until a conference committee negotiates a final version.

The Senate version of House Bill 3 passed by a 26-2 vote, with three Republican members abstaining. The opposing and abstaining votes—also all Republicans—expressed apprehension with voting for such an expensive bill without first knowing its exact cost.

Democrats said they were supporting the bill, in spite of serious concerns about new policies in HB 3 that tie new funding for schools and teachers to standardized testing.

The Senate version, authored by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, originally had a staggering price tag of $15.5 billion for the state’s two-year budget period, a significant increase from the House’s version, which was about $9 billion.

The Senate bill is more costly, because it includes much more expensive teacher pay raises—a demand of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—and much deeper property tax cuts.

The initial version of Senator Taylor’s bill was tied to a one-cent increase in the state sales tax.

But during floor debate, Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, successfully offered a $2.9 billion plan to offset the revenue that local school districts would lose through property tax relief.  Senator Watson’s plan diverts existing oil and gas tax revenue, and relies on future sales tax collections from online purchases.

The latest version of the school bill lowers school property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 of taxable value—five cents more than the House version.

The biggest difference between the two chambers' versions of the bill is teacher pay.

The Senate opted to include a $5,000 pay raise for every teacher and librarian, which ate up about $4 billion available for schools.  The Senate also included a $127 million merit pay program to reward top-ranked teachers with even more money.

The House plan includes raises amounting to about $1,850 for every teacher—and broadens it to include other school staff members, including teacher's aides, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, counselors and school nurses.

The House plan originally included the same merit pay plan, but it was cut after teacher groups raised objections.

During debate, Senator Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, unsuccessfully tried to cut merit pay from the bill, saying it relies on unreliable state testing and pits teachers against one another.

Another major difference is the Senate’s inclusion of outcomes-based funding, which awards bonus money to elementary schools with 3rd grade students who read on level and high schools whose graduates enroll in college or join the military.

Senator Beverly Powell, D-Burleson—a former school board member—said those bonuses would direct money to the wealthiest districts with the fewest academic challenges.

Senator Powell’s amendment also failed.

Here’s who will decide…

Unlike the proposed State Appropriations Bill—to which he appointed only Republican conferees—Lieutenant Governor Patrick has appointed two Democrats to the conference committee that will now iron out differences with the Texas House on the school funding bill.

The five senators who will be serving on the HB 3 Conference Committee are:

  • Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, Chair
  • Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels
  • Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound
  • Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin
  • Senator Royce West, D-Dallas

Earlier, Speaker Dennis Bonnen named the House conferees. They are:

  • Representative Dan Huberty, R-Humble, Chair
  • Representative Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin
  • Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio
  • Representative Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso
  • Representative Ken King, R-Canadian

Keep that penny…

The proposed constitutional amendment that was backed by Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and Speaker Bonnen to raise the state sales tax by one cent on the dollar, to offset the cost of lower school property taxes died on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives this week.

Representative Dan Huberty acknowledged that he didn’t have the 100 votes that he needed to pass the measure. Instead, in a move tinged with sarcasm, he called for its postponement until noon on January 12, 2021—the start of the next legislative session. (Actually, legislation cannot be postponed from one session to the next.)

The legislation’s fate was pretty-much sealed after the Texas Senate adopted the alternative school finance proposal offered by Senator Kirk Watson and severed the proposed sales tax increase from the Legislature’s marquee school finance bill.

Representative Huberty and his House allies heaped criticism on their Republican Senate counterparts—in particular upon Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who had publicly vowed to vote against a measure that would increase the state sales tax.

“You have members of the Senate, demanding property tax relief their entire legislative careers, who did not vote for the only bill that actually provided property tax relief this legislative session,” Representative Huberty told his House colleagues.

Accusing Senator Bettencourt—by name—of limiting meetings of a subcommittee of a special school finance commission last year and sandbagging suggestions that percolated up from members, Representative Ken King, R-Canadian, asked Representative Huberty on the House floor: “Did Senator Bettencourt file one piece of legislation to create sustainable funding on the issue of school finance?”

“No, he did not,” responded Representative Huberty.

SHAC attack…

The Texas Senate has passed, and forwarded to the House, a bill that is aimed at increasing transparency in how human sexuality curriculum is developed and adopted in Texas school districts.

Senate Bill 784 passed 19-11 along party lines, with some Democratic senators calling it unnecessary.

During a Senate committee hearing on the bill, conservative-minded parents alleged that school districts left them in the dark during the development of sex education curriculums and excluded parents who want to serve on School Health Advisory Councils, which make recommendations on such curriculum.

The bill by Senator Bran Hughes, R-Mineola, would require that each member of SHAC be appointed by the school district’s board of trustees. Currently at least five council members must be board-appointed.  

SB 784 would also require council meetings and their minutes to be made public, and require the school board to implement a policy regarding the adoption of a human sexuality curriculum.

Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, criticized the bill for what she said was an effort to make SHAC, which is required at every Texas school district, a governmental body.

Texas law requires schools that offer sex education to promote abstinence as the preferred behavior for unmarried students. The districts can address contraception, but can’t distribute condoms, according to state law.

A handful of Texas school districts teach an “abstinence-plus” curriculum, which encourages abstinence but also teaches other methods to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Confederate scabs…

The Senate has also passed a bill that makes it more difficult for local school districts to rename campuses that are currently named after Confederate-era individuals.

“We've seen a trend across the nation and the world where controversial monuments are removed and destroyed," Senator Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said, while introducing his Senate Bill 1663. "I fear that we'll look back and regret that this was a period where deleting history was more important than learning from it.”

SB 1663 was sent to the Texas House—with just 19 days remaining in the legislative session—by a party line vote of 19-12 after more than four hours of often emotional debate.

Senator Creighton's bill would require a two-thirds vote of a local school board, or other governing body, before there could be a name change of any school, street, bridge, or park that has been in place for longer than 25 years. The same two-thirds vote would be required for the removal, relocation or alteration of any historical monument.

SB 1663 would also apply to memorials and buildings on state property, such as the Texas Capitol, and to public colleges and universities. Instead of boards of regents or state agency governing boards, the power to remove a monument or plaque would shift to the Legislature, and require a two-thirds vote by both chambers to approve changing older monuments on state land.

In an unusual show of support, more than a dozen state representatives—many of them members of the Legislative Black Caucus—came over from the Texas House, and gathered at the back of the chamber during debate, to show their support for State Senators Boris Miles, D-Houston, and Royce West, D-Dallas, who are both black, and who opposed the bill.

Senate Dean John Whitmire, D-Houston, the longest-serving senator, scolded Senator Creighton for wanting to protect vestiges of the Confederacy.

“Do you have any idea how you're removing the scabs of some of the most painful experiences of some of our fellow citizens and two of our colleagues?” asked Senator Whitmire, referring Senators Miles and West. “Are you aware of what you're putting them through? Are you aware?”

Senator Creighton responded “absolutely,” he was aware of why his bill provoked the emotions that is has among legislators of color.

I’d prefer putt-putt golf…

College-caliber high school football stadiums are one thing, but a school district-run water park and golf course is quite another.

Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, has passed Senate Bill 1133, on a 31-0 vote, to prevent school districts from being able to own and operate any waterparks, golf courses or hotels with taxpayer dollars.

The bill is aimed squarely at the La Joya school district in the Rio Grande Valley, which spent about $20 million to construct a Sports and Learning Complex, which includes a planetarium, tennis courts, an indoor pool and a water park—complete with slides, splash pads and a “lazy river.”

The Valley’s two Democratic State Senators—Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen—are co-sponsors of SB 1133.

The district-owned water park endured the wrath of Governor Abbott back in December, when he tweeted, “The State will add more funding for education. But it won’t fund water park projects like this. We will invest in the teachers who educate students.”

With about 4,400 teachers, support staff, and administrators, La Joya is the largest employer in western Hidalgo County, and has an enrollment of nearly 29,000 students.

It’s also a “property poor” school district, which means that it receives “equalized” school funding from so-called “property rich” districts.

Both the golf course and water park have been money-losers.

The Howling Trails Golf Course cost the school district nearly $302,000 during the 2017-2018 fiscal year, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report approved by the board in January. The Sports and Learning Complex lost nearly $250,000.

SB 1133—which must still pass the Texas House in the final weeks of the session—would require La Joya to divest all ownership of, or business interest in, its water park and golf course by September 1, 2024.

About as close as it gets…

Voters who are upset about impending teacher cuts, the closing of a campus and poor academic performance by students, appear to have pushed the DeSoto school board president out of his post—by a razor-thin margin.

Board President Carl Sherman Jr. was losing his re-election bid by only eight votes, according to unofficial results. That could be grounds for a recount under state law. Additionally, it's unknown if there are any provisional or mail-in ballots that remain to be counted.

Cynthia Watson Banks, a longtime special education aide in the DeSoto school district, holds a narrow lead for a seat on the board. Ms. Banks' sister also serves on the DeSoto school board.

Tensions are high across DeSoto, as the school district tries to untangle a $20 million financial mess. Trustees have already voted to temporarily close an elementary school. A vote to cut about 200 employees—mostly teachers—was delayed until after the election.

Officials say the district’s previous administration used sloppy bookkeeping practices and mismanaged its finances.

DeSoto is also struggling academically, and received a "D" accountability rating from the state last year.

Knowledge vs. sorcery…

Noted childhood vaccination advocate Dr. Peter Hotez is accustomed to verbal attacks from anti-vaxxers, but not by a member of the Texas Legislature.

Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, took to social media this week to attack Dr. Hotez, after the Houston physician expressed concern over the growing number of vaccination exemptions in Texas.

“You are bought and paid for by the biggest special interest in politics,” tweeted Representative Stickland. “Do our state a favor and mind your own business.  Parental rights mean more to us than your self-enriching ‘science.’”

Dr. Hotez replied that he doesn't receive any money from the vaccine industry, and that as a Texas pediatrician-scientist who develops neglected disease vaccines for the world's poorest people, it is “most certainly my business” to express concern over the growing number of unvaccinated children in Texas.

“Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime,” tweeted Representative Stickland. “Like every other business. Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity. It's disgusting.”

Dr. Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of infectious disease, bowed out of the twitter tantrum at that point, but Representative Stickland continued.

Over the course of the next hour, he tweeted that vaccines are “dangerous;” that a doctor concerned about the child's vulnerability to disease is a “brainwashed commie” and that a defender of science is a “typical leftist trying to take credit for something only The Lord God Almighty is in control of.”

The exchange was triggered by a new report that more-and-more Texas parents are claiming a conscientious objection exemption to childhood immunization requirements. 

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.