Teacher groups, school advocates bracing for Abbott’s special session

5:24 p.m Wednesday, June 7, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Ralph Barrera
Louis Malfaro with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers leads a large crowd of Texas public school teachers at a rally at the Capitol on March 13. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Teacher groups, school district officials and their advocates are bracing for a special legislative session that will see a renewed push for a school choice system, among other initiatives that they oppose.

“We’re incredibly disappointed in the governor and his call for special session. The laundry list of bad ideas most of which were debated during the regular legislative session were found to be wanting,” said Louis Malfaro, head of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

The education measures on Abbott’s 20-item wish list for the 30-day special session that will start July 18 include a private school choice program that would help students with disabilities pay for private school tuition and a school finance commission that would be tasked with making recommendations on how to fix the state’s broken system of funding public schools. Additionally, Abbott wants a $1,000 pay raise for teachers, using existing school dollars.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott calls for sweeping special session on conservative goals

Abbott said during his Tuesday news conference announcing the special session that he wants the salary hikes to be paid for through legislation that reprioritizes how schools spend money and how school administrators hire and retain teachers.

“Texas doesn’t need to spend more. We just need to spend smarter,” Abbott said.

There are about 350,000 teachers in Texas, according to the Texas Education Agency, meaning spending on teacher pay would increase by $350 million annually statewide.

School districts would have to cut teaching staff, educational programming or dip into reserves, if a pay raise is enacted, according to several teacher groups. They have characterized the pay increases as an unfunded mandate from the state.

“Districts that can provide pay increases for the coming year are already doing so in order to assist educators in offsetting premium increases for healthcare and to retain a quality workforce,” said Casey McCreary with the Texas Association of School Administrators. “The state mandating a pay increase with no corresponding funding is passing those costs to local taxpayers.”

RELATED: Austin mayor: Abbott’s call for special session is ‘a war against cities’

The Austin school district has negotiated a 1.5 percent salary increase for 2017-18. An unfunded mandate to boost teacher’s salaries by $1,000 would cost about $6 million, possibly more because the district also contributes to Social Security, said Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson.

Adding to the potential blow, the Austin school district is slated to pay the state $534 million in recapture payments next school year — more than any other Texas school district — to help the state fund property-poor schools.

“Placing a $6 million pressure on a school district already experiencing a revenue shortfall of nearly $30 million due to recapture and state per capita costs is unconscionable,” Conley Johnson said. “It will destabilize us financially for many years if changes are not made to public ed funding laws.”

The Legislature during the regular session that ended May 29 did not give most school districts extra funding over the next two years and failed to pass school choice legislation after Democrats and rural Republicans in the House opposed it.

A majority of senators saw school choice as an opportunity to help special education students escape public schools that weren’t meeting their needs while a majority of House members saw it as a means to strip money from cash-strapped public schools without holding private schools accountable.

House education leaders pushed House Bill 21 which would have injected at least $1.6 billion more into the public education system but it ultimately failed because the Senate added private school choice into the bill. The House rejected establishing a school finance commission, saying that the commission wouldn’t result in a meaningful school finance fix.

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