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No teacher raises, no vouchers: Lawmakers fail to reach compromise on school funding bill

Students sit in the hall before heading to their first class at Yes Prep West Campus in Houston. A major school funding bill died Saturday — along with teacher raises and a voucher-like program — when lawmakers couldn't reach agreement before a key legislative deadline.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Students sit in the hall before heading to their first class at Yes Prep West Campus in Houston. A major school funding bill died Saturday — along with teacher raises and a voucher-like program — when lawmakers couldn't reach agreement before a key legislative deadline.

A multibillion-dollar school funding bill that became a last-ditch effort to enact a voucher-like program in the state — a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott this legislative session — died Saturday after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise before a key deadline.

It was a dramatic end for one of the top items on the governor’s wish list. Abbott, who traveled around the state promoting the idea, has said he’s prepared to call lawmakers back for a special sessionif lawmakers didn’t pass a “school choice” bill he liked.

The proposal’s failure means that school districts won’t get funding to raise teachers’ salaries or balance their budgets, which they said became necessary expenses after the pandemic rattled their finances and inflation diminished the value of the money they get from the state. The Legislature’s proposed budget, which was finalized and sent to Abbott on Friday, allocated money for every state employee except teachers. House Bill 100 was the only bill that would’ve done so.

Members of both the Texas House and the Senate took HB 100 into closed-door negotiations Friday after the bill was drastically changed in the upper chamber. The biggest change was the addition of education savings accounts, a program that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses.

But lawmakers could not reach a deal before 11:59 p.m. Saturday, the deadline to issue reports on bills they’ve negotiated. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, announced Saturday afternoon that lawmakers would not reach a deal because the Senate would not budge on vouchers.

The end of HB 100 extends the Texas House’s undefeated streak blocking school vouchers. Democrats and rural Republicans for decades have joined forces against such programs, fearing they would siphon funds away from public schools, which serve as important job engines and community hubs across the state.

“I am truly sorry HB 100 did not pass, but in the end I believe students, teachers, and schools are better off with current law than they would be if we accept what the Senate is offering. The Governor likes to threaten special sessions, well my opinion of that is I stand ready,” King said in a statement.

The Senate tried to avoid a potential special session by modifying HB 100. The House’s original version of the bill intended to allocate $4.5 billion in new funding for schools. The Senate turned it into a more than 100-page bill that incorporates several provisions of other proposals that didn’t make it through the legislative process, including education savings accounts that would’ve given parents who opt out of the public school system up to $8,000 in taxpayer money per student each year.

The changes raised the bill’s price tag to $3.8 billion, with about half a billion going to the voucher program. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the program would’ve cost the state more than $1.5 billion by 2028.

Earlier this session, Senate lawmakers tried to pass an education savings account program open to most Texas children through Senate Bill 8. It would’ve established a program similar to the one outlined in HB 100, but the House Committee on Public Education changed the scope of the program by limiting its eligibility to only certain students, like those with disabilities or those who were enrolled at a campus that recently got a failing grade in the state’s accountability ratings. The change was an attempt to make education savings accounts more palatable for House members who oppose school vouchers.

That version of the bill never got a vote in the House’s Public Education Committee. Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen, chair of the committee, told The Texas Tribune this month that he questioned whether it was worth bringing the bill up for a vote after Abbott threatened to veto that version of the bill.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who authored SB 8, accused the House of not having any intention of negotiating with him.

"I stand ready to make a deal and put politics aside because the 6 million children in Texas schools and our teachers deserve it," he said in a statement Saturday evening.

Some Republicans have tried to pass voucher-like programs for decades with no success. The bill’s supporters felt they had a shot this time around as they thought some parents’ frustration with health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the way race and gender identity are taught in schools — themes Republicans have seized on in the last couple of years — would give them the swell of support needed to get vouchers over the hump.

Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, said not getting a basic allotment increase or the other funding that HB 100 would've provided means that school districts will have to operate under budget deficits — and that they'll be dipping into their savings to survive.

"I knew we would come to this point, where it would be vouchers versus funding," Woods said. "What I could not have believed is that we would completely blow a $33 billion surplus and do nothing for teachers in spite of the governor's teacher retention task force."

Mandy Drogin, campaign director of an education initiative for the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in a statement that she is "optimistic about the opportunity to empower all Texas parents with education freedom through ESAs in a special session."

HD Chambers, executive director of the Texas School Alliance, an organization of 45 school districts that educate 41% of the state’s K-12 students, said teachers were caught in a game of politics this session and it will lead to districts making "significant cuts."

"The governor and senators are using teachers as a pawn," Chambers said. "And that to me, I find that inexcusable."


From The Texas Tribune