Special session on school vouchers begins with Republicans in disarray

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Passing school vouchers, the top legislative priority of Gov. Greg Abbott in the new special session, was always going to require a delicately assembled coalition of Republicans.

It would need to include compromise between the more conservative Senate and a faction of rural House members that have long joined with Democrats to block the idea.

But as the special session began Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan were at each other’s throats, hardly a signal of a productive lawmaking environment. And Phelan indicated his desire that any voucher program be paired with more public school funding, which could prove to be another complicating factor in the negotiations.

Patrick called on Phelan to resign because the speaker demanded he return $3 million to a major backer, the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, after The Texas Tribune reported its leader had met with a white supremacist and antisemitic activist. Patrick accused Phelan of using this weekend’s Hamas attack on Israel for political gain.

“I didn’t think even Dade Phelan would stoop this low,” Patrick said in a statement. “He has now absolutely hit rock bottom. His latest stunt is disgusting, despicable and disingenuous.”

Phelan pushed back, reiterating his claim that the group was responsible for “political rot” within the Texas Republican Party.

“I didn’t take $3 million from a PAC that associates itself with Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. That’s not my problem,” Phelan said. “My House members… don’t take money from this PAC. We don’t associate ourselves with sexual deviants, misfits, and people who associate themselves with Holocaust deniers.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the Tribune report, and he did not speak out Monday on the Phelan-Patrick fight. He is scheduled to speak at a pro-Israel gathering Monday evening in Austin.

Against that backdrop, the House gaveled in and out in less than half an hour. It unanimously passed a resolution supporting Israel after the country was attacked by Hamas militants over the weekend and adjourned until Thursday.

The Senate also passed a pro-Israel resolution by a unanimous vote but then got down to work. The Senate Finance Committee held a late afternoon hearing where it began considering legislation to pump new money into public schools, an item that is not on Abbott’s special session agenda but is an important prerequisite for many lawmakers if they are going to pass school vouchers.

The bill’s author, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said during the hearing that vouchers are “for a different day” and “not connected” to his school funding bill, which would include teacher pay raises and additional funding for school safety upgrades.

Vouchers have “nothing to do with today,” Creighton said. “Our public school funding initiatives are in and of themselves a lift for our public schools and our public school teachers.”

“Separate from that,” he added, “we have what will be a fraction of a fraction of the budget as a new allocation” for vouchers.

While public school funding is not on Abbott’s agenda for the special session, the Senate also got started Monday on a few items that are. The chamber referred bills to committee that would ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers, increase human smuggling penalties and create a state criminal offense for illegal entry from a foreign country.

Phelan predicted the dispute between Patrick and him would have no impact on the special session. He said the House would pass its priorities and negotiate with the Senate to reconcile differences in legislation, as it always does.

“My members are great people. They’re here for the right reasons,” Phelan said. “We will be immune to the outside noise, as we always are.”

Democrats show united front

The Democratic caucuses in both chambers held news conferences Monday vowing to fight voucher proposals, even if it comes at the expense of teacher pay raises and additional public school funding.

“Senate Democrats stand united in our opposition to any [voucher] legislation, regardless of what it’s tied to, including teacher pay raises and allotment,” said Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer speaks at a press conference held by House Democrats at a press conference stating their continued opposition to school vouchers, at the state Capitol on Oct. 9, 2023, an hour before the 3rd special session convenes at the Texas Capitol.


An hour before the beginning of the third special session, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, joined by members of the House Democratic Caucus, speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol on Monday.


Credit:
Bob Daemmerich for The Texas Tribune

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters his group is “very clear: no vouchers and no deals.”

“A voucher scam is a poison pill that will end up taking more out of our public schools than it puts in,” said Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin.

Meanwhile, Creighton’s $5.2 billion school funding bill, Senate Bill 2, would help school officials with the rising costs of running a district, provide teacher raises and direct more funding for school safety.

“The future of Texas begins in the classroom, and it is incumbent on lawmakers to unleash the potential of education for the 6 million students we serve,” Creighton said in a statement.

For now, it is unclear whether the bill could pass this special session as Abbott did not include public school funding or teacher raises on the agenda. His call only included passing education savings accounts, a school voucher program that would give families access to state funds to pay for their children’s private schooling. The state constitution says lawmakers can only pass bills related to the governor’s agenda items during special sessions. The governor can at any time modify the agenda.

Creighton said he intends to file a school voucher program Monday evening.

New school funding proposal 

SB 2 would raise the basic allotment — the base amount of money schools get per student — from $6,160 to $6,235. This money is used to pay for the day-to-day operations of a district and can be used to increase teacher salaries.

The bill also includes a one-time pay bonus for teachers. Those in districts with less than 5,000 students would receive a $10,000 payment while those in districts with more than 5,000 students would receive a $3,000 payment.

This provision is similar to legislation that Creighton tried to pass during the regular session. Creighton said he wanted to give teachers in small districts more because they are usually paid less.

A Texas Tribune analysis shows that teachers in major suburban and urban school districts get paid an average of about $61,432, almost $10,000 more than those teaching in rural areas.

However, teachers and unions have criticized the use of districts’ student enrollment to decide which educators get the bigger bonus, saying it’s a less-than-ideal way to determine who needs the money the most. Costs of living are usually higher in larger metropolitan areas.

SB 2 would also expand and increase funding to the Teacher Incentive Allotment, a program that promises to pay teachers up to six-figure salaries if they meet certain performance requirements. About 13,000 teachers, or about 4% of the state’s educators, are currently part of the program.

And finally, the bill increases funding that goes to school for safety upgrades. Under House Bill 3, the flagship school safety law passed in May, schools received $15,000 per campus for security upgrades and an additional $10 per student attendance. SB 2 would amend those amounts and instead give schools $30,000 per campus and $20 per student attendance.

Monty Exter, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said Texas needs a “sensible, adequate, transparent and stable” approach to teacher raises and not just one-time bonuses, adding that his group would be opposed to the bill if it is contingent on passing school vouchers.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said Senate Democrats will not support the bill if it means that school vouchers will pass and are ready to give up funding for teacher raises and other public school funding to put a stop to vouchers this session.

Maia Pandey contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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