When this magazine hits your mailbox, the 86th Texas Legislature probably will have gone home for a nice, long break—we hope. As I write this column, it’s too soon to predict whether this session will have produced wins for education from some of the high-profile bills being debated, such as an improved school finance system, a pay raise for hardworking educators, school safety measures, and more money for teacher pensions. The House and Senate agreed to add billions in additional public education funding to the budget, but they’re mulling competing proposals for how to spend those dollars. Failure to compromise by Memorial Day could trigger a special session.
Here’s what we know for sure: Elections matter. You’ve heard this dozens of times. ATPE uses it to urge you to vote during election season. Legislators invoke it during floor speeches before watching bills they care about pass or fail on party-line votes. It’s more than a catchphrase. It encapsulates the shift we’ve seen during this legislative session.
It also reminds us how much more work there is to do.
Last legislative session, merely two years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick prioritized legislation to take away educators’ right to voluntarily deduct association dues from their paychecks (which was being done at no cost to taxpayers), even forcing lawmakers to consider the issue during a special session. The biggest school finance proposal of 2017, a House bill calling for an additional $1.9 billion for public education, suffocated after Lt. Gov. Patrick refused to let senators negotiate it because the House failed to pass private school vouchers. The only “pay raise” proposal supported by Senate leadership was an unfunded mandate bill requiring school districts to find money in their existing budgets to give teachers a $1,000 bonus.
The 2019 legislative session, however, started with school finance reform, teacher pay, and student safety being declared emergency issues. Both chambers agreed to budget an extra $9 billion for public education and property tax relief. Not a single bill was filed to restrict educators’ payroll deduction rights. Educator pay raises were so popular that the main debates were about how much and for whom. Vouchers were barely a blip on the legislative radar.
What produced such an attitude shift over the span of only two years? The 2018 elections saw hardline anti-public education officeholders lose their seats to more moderate public school supporters from both parties. Candidates who relied on wealthy extremist groups like Empower Texans (known for their intimidation propaganda aimed at silencing educators) to fund their campaigns suffered ignominious defeats. Even those who retained their offices by narrower-than-expected margins took notice of the power of an engaged education community.
But keep your champagne corked. The fight to restore respect for educators is not over. Some legislators want to single out educators with harsh new restrictions on their rights to free speech and political involvement in an obvious reaction to 2018. Both Sen. Pat Fallon, who tried to distance himself from his Empower Texans campaign contributions and endorsements while courting educator votes during the last election, and Sen. Bryan Hughes, an author of the discriminatory payroll deduction bills we fought in 2017, filed bills this session to prevent educators from communicating about elections at school and limit their ability to teach students about civics and the legislative process—even threatening criminal penalties for violators!
We hope to finish this legislative session without such anti-educator bills passing, and we hope educators send an even louder message during the 2020 elections to dissuade lawmakers from filing or voting for these types of bills in upcoming sessions.
Elections still matter.