- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
House Speaker Joe Straus told school board members from across Texas on Wednesday evening that the way to improve public education and reduce property taxes is to increase state support for education and that legislation to regulate bathrooms and offer state money for private school tuition is wrongheaded and counterproductive.
“Somebody is going to pay for public education,” Straus said at the Texas Association of School Boards 2017 Post-Legislative Conference at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter. “It’s either going to come from the state or it’s going to from local property taxes. If we want real property tax reform we need real reform of school finance.”
For Straus, it was a shot across the bow at fellow Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in advance of a special session of the Legislature that will begin July 18 in which property taxes, bathroom policy and creating a commission to study school finance reform are all on the agenda dictated by Abbott.
Straus said that while “I appreciate the attention” that the governor wanted to bring school finance, “the Texas House has been studying this for years and already passed a bill that was a very strong first step” toward school finance reform, but was stymied by a Senate that demanded some kind of voucher program be part of the package.
The House bill, Straus said “provided $1.8 billion in new state funding,” but the Senate thought that was too much, and its version would have provided schools with $530 million while creating a school choice program for special education students. Under the system, the state would have redirected per-student money from public schools into so-called education savings accounts that special education students could use to pay for private school tuition.
But, Straus said, even if the House had acceded to a small pilot school choice program, the Senate would still have shortchanged the schools.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Straus said. “The Texas House is ready to act now, before the problem of school finance gets worse.” The 140-day regular session of the Legislature ended May 29 without consensus on key issues.
The San Antonio Republican called on the school board members to rally behind the House agenda on school finance — increasing state aid and resisting vouchers — and said they need to be more vocal and active.
Noting that they were sometimes disparaged by some politician as “educrats,” Straus said, “I’d like to hear a lot more from you so-called educrats.”
“This is a defining moment for public education in Texas, and we cannot squander it,” Straus said.
“I bet a few of you would make great members of the Texas Senate or know others who would,” he said.
Straus said the Senate view this session was that, “there probably wasn’t time to address school finance in the regular session.”
“I guess we look at things differently,” Straus said. “Until we get it right, the Texas House will always have time to work on school finance.”
“In many ways your hands are tied and the Texas Legislature is holding the rope,” Straus told the school board members.
Meanwhile, Straus said, “We are starting to send the wrong signal about who we are as a state.”
Referring to legislation to regulate the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals that Patrick made the central crusade of the regular session, Straus said that what he considers to be a wholly unnecessary controversy can only send a negative message nationally.
“Too often, we knowingly walk right into controversies that repel jobs and opportunity,” Straus said.
“We seem determined to repeat the mistakes other states have made,” he said, referring to North Carolina’s experience in enacting similar legislation.
“I want Texas to be known as a state that makes decisions that attract people, jobs and opportunities,” Straus said. “And that begins in our public schools: The public schools that breathe life into every community in Texas, from cities to suburbs to small towns.”
Employers, Straus said, want to be in a state that has great schools that produce critical thinkers.
“They never ask why we haven’t approved private school vouchers,” Straus said.
And, Straus said, sending the message that “our schools are beset by problems in the bathrooms is not only inaccurate, but sends the wrong signal.”
“I don’t exactly know what all the issues are with bathrooms in our schools,” Straus said. “But I’m pretty sure you can handle them and that you have been handling them.”