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School finance is unfinished business, especially during a pandemic

House Bill 3, the school finance law enacted by the Legislature in 2019, was well-timed, coming as it did before the deadly and very expensive COVID-19 pandemic struck.

But the additional $11.6 billion in public school funding, including money for teacher pay raises, was only Act I. Even under the best of times, it was only a down payment on improving an inadequate school finance system, and, as you may have noticed, these aren’t the best of times.

Act II, on which the curtain will rise Jan. 12 with the new legislative session, will be a harder sell, but educators must make it.

Greg Abbott is still governor, and the partisan makeup of the Legislature will be largely the same as in 2019, when Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and then-Speaker Dennis Bonnen suddenly discovered public education. Patrick even temporarily set aside his usual No. 1 priority, private school vouchers, to focus on the needs of public schools, after educators had turned out in large numbers in the 2018 election to replace legislative obstacles with 12 new pro-public education House members and two new state senators.

In the recent election, we mostly held our own, but tax revenue losses from the pandemic and perhaps an eruption of partisan mischief will make the upcoming session different.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has estimated a $4.6 billion revenue shortfall for the current budget period and has warned it may get larger. That means many legislators will be in a mood to cut, even though school districts’ budgetary needs have grown because of the health crisis.

There are alternatives to cuts, including the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s emergency savings account, which the comptroller expects to have a balance of almost $9 billion by the end of this budget period. A lot of additional money also could be raised by closing tax loopholes for an assortment of special interests, a difficult task that nevertheless is long overdue.

Meanwhile, threatening to make the entire legislative session, including a budgetary resolution, even more difficult is an outsider, the new far-right chairman of the Texas Republican Party, who thinks bipartisanship is a bad word and is trying to wreck the session before it even begins.

The new chairman, Allen West, is a refugee from Florida, where voters unseated him after one term in Congress. Texas GOP leaders elected him party chair during their state convention a few months ago, and he already has tried to pick public fights with fellow Republican Gov. Abbott and the Republican who is likely to become the next speaker of the Texas House, Rep. Dade Phelan of Beaumont.

The day after the election, Phelan announced he had the support of 83 House members, more than the 76 necessary to secure the speakership when the session convenes. Most of his supporters were Republicans, but about 30 were Democrats, and West, who can’t vote for speaker because he isn’t a member of the House, protested.

He called Phelan a “Republican political traitor” and said it was “utterly absurd and demonstrably idiotic” for him to have the support of Democrats in leading a House that has a Republican majority. Never mind that every speaker of both parties has had bipartisan support since Republicans started becoming a force in the House more than 40 years ago.

Many of Phelan’s Republican supporters quickly pushed back against West, and barring a surprise Phelan is likely to be the next speaker.

But it is unknown how much influence West, who is more interested in stirring up divisive hot-button issues than he is in supporting public education, will have on Republican lawmakers as the session progresses. And it is unknown if Dan Patrick, who also likes to push hot buttons, will revert to form and try to cut education funding in favor of privatization or some other divisive scheme.

So, educators, stay tuned. Your influence and frequent communication with your legislators will be critical before the legislative curtain drops late next spring.

Allen West takes sharp-elbowed approach as Texas GOP chair, raising intraparty tension ahead of legislative session

Clay Robison

Don’t be intimidated by voting in a pandemic or by Texas’ obstacles to democracy

Judging from the record turnout during the first two weeks of early voting in Texas, a person who didn’t know better may think our state goes out of its way to make voting as easy as possible. That person, unfortunately, would be wrong.

Texans are voting early and in large numbers not because state leaders have made it easy, but in spite of the fact that state leaders have made it as difficult as they think they can get away with. As you may have read, a study conducted by three universities has concluded it is more difficult to vote in Texas than in any of the other 49 states, considering factors such as an early voting registration deadline, tight restrictions on mail-in voting and a photo ID requirement to counter the mostly fictitious threat of “voter fraud.”

Consequently, our rate of voter participation traditionally has been one of the lowest in the country, but that may be changing this year, and you can be part of the change.

Texans who value democracy are not intimidated. They are voting early and in record numbers because most of them, I hope, are determined to end our national nightmare and put a responsible, adult leader in the White House — and elect more pro-public education candidates to Congress and the Texas Legislature.

Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period, a sensible move that cost him a lot of grief from the worst democracy-abusers in his own party, but otherwise he has enforced Texas’ hardline stance.

But there was one pro-election victory this week. The Texas Supreme Court upheld Harris County’s use of 10 drive-thru voting stations to ease voting congestion in the Houston area during the early voting period and on Election Day, Nov. 3. Anyone registered to vote in Harris County is eligible for this option. Find out where and how you can vote from your car here.

Despite the unnecessary restrictions, voting in a pandemic can be easily accomplished by most people. With a little patience and a few safeguards, such as wearing a mask and keeping your social distance, you should find the experience as safe as going to the grocery store, perhaps safer. The last day of early voting is this Friday, Oct. 30. That gives you five more days to vote early and avoid what may be even longer lines on Election Day.

So, grab your photo ID and your mask, take a few relatives and friends who haven’t voted yet and go Vote Education First. You will be doing yourself, your children, your students and a lot of other people a big service. And you will be strengthening our democracy.

TSTA’s endorsed candidates.

Clay Robison

Unlike many educators, Sen. John Cornyn is ready for retirement

If educators and other Texas voters succeed in electing M.J. Hegar to the U.S. Senate to replace President Trump’s lapdog, John Cornyn, the deposed senator would have an early start on financial security in retirement. Even while he receives his $174,000 Senate pay, he already has been collecting state retirement payments worth more than the average salary of a Texas teacher.

I don’t have an up-to-date figure, but eight years ago he was receiving more than $62,000 a year in combined annual payments from the Judicial Retirement System of Texas, the Employees Retirement System of Texas and the Texas County and District Retirement System, according to a 2013 report in The Dallas Morning News.

The average teacher pay in Texas is about $57,000, and most educator pensions are nowhere near that much. Remember, Cornyn has consistently supported Trump policies, including the president’s pressure on governors to reopen schools prematurely during a deadly pandemic, which has forced many teachers to resign to protect their health or take early retirement, which they can’t really afford.

The disparity in retirement security stems from the fact that the elected officials who create the public pension systems are more willing to take care of each other than provide financial security for educators. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2002, Cornyn held a succession of state offices, including Texas attorney general, a seat on the Texas Supreme Court and a state district judgeship in San Antonio.

Once he leaves the Senate, Cornyn will be eligible for a federal pension to add to his state pensions, and he can qualify for lifetime health insurance.

At some point, Cornyn also will begin receiving full Social Security payments, unlike many educators who are penalized by two Social Security provisions, the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset, which Congress has refused to change.

That is another reason for Texas voters to change senators.

Watch M.J Hegar’s message to TSTA members.

Clay Robison

The Legislature increased school funding because of educators, with no help from the Texas Supreme Court

TSTA has not endorsed a candidate in the race for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, but people who are concerned about public education should be reminded that the incumbent, Nathan Hecht, refused to order more school funding the last time the court had a chance to address school finance.

This was in 2016, when the high court overturned a ruling by a state district judge who had ordered the Legislature to make significant improvements in how public education was funded.

With Hecht participating, the high court admitted that the school finance system was awful. But the judicial hand-wringing – a hollow attempt to express empathy for school children and parents — was meaningless because the court concluded the system didn’t violate the state constitution. That took the justices’ political allies in the governor’s office and the Legislature off the hook to make improvements.

Sure enough, the Legislature did nothing to improve education funding during the 2017 session. Only after educators voted in large numbers in 2018 and replaced a dozen anti-education House members and two senators with education friendly successors did Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature make improved education funding a priority during the 2019 session.

They increased funding by several billion dollars for classroom programs and teacher pay raises, a nice down payment on real school finance reform.

This week, I noticed a newspaper editorial endorsing Hecht for reelection, suggesting in a very confusing way that Hecht and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a bad school finance system had somehow led to the bipartisan decision to increase school funding three years later.

Don’t bother to try to figure out that line of thought because the conclusion is wrong. The Supreme Court obviously had nothing to do with the Legislature’s decision to finally tackle school finance reform. The Legislature improved school funding in 2019 only because educators voted in large numbers in 2018, threw out some legislative obstructionists and replaced them with pro-education lawmakers.

Educators and parents also need a Texas Supreme Court that will hold the governor’s and the Legislature’s feet to the fire on funding and other critical education issues. Hecht has shown he won’t do that, but his main opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, will.

Meachum is an experienced civil district court judge and the mother of three public school students. She knows that 5.5 million school kids need more than a court’s empathy.

Clay Robison