Podcast Transcript: Recap of the 88th Texas Legislative Session: A Session Out of Balance

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MORGAN SMITH: Welcome to the Intersect Ed Podcast, where the stories of public education policy and practice meet. 

I’m your host, Morgan Smith. Today, we’re talking about education and the 88th Legislature. We’ll cover what did—well, mostly what didn’t—happen. And we’ll talk about what’s to come—and how to turn the frustration many of us are feeling into action. 

The 2023 legislative session started with a lot of promise. Lawmakers had a historic $33 billion dollar budget surplus. There was energy and consensus to address a number of issues, from teacher workforce, to assessment and accountability, to school funding.  

What we got instead was gridlock, and ultimately, a long list of missed opportunities. 

Lawmakers failed to give Texas public schools enough funding to keep up with inflation, much less provide teacher pay raises to help stop the exodus of educators from the classroom. They lost efforts to improve our accountability system so that teachers could focus on their students’ learning instead of their performance on standardized tests. They did not pass any policies to help recruit and retain high-quality teachers. 

There was one tentative win for public education advocates. Thanks to a bipartisan group of determined House lawmakers who withstood enormous pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott—no private school voucher program passed. But as we’ll discuss today, that victory is far from certain, and came at a great cost. 

LIBBY COHEN We came into this session with so much potential. We had this record budget surplus, we had a number of different policy task forces and commissions that had come up with some really good ideas across important policy areas within public education. And we ended up just squandering all of it for the sake of this one political priority of leadership’s, which was vouchers.

MORGAN SMITH: This is Libby Cohen, who is Raise Your Hand’s Senior Director of Advocacy. 

Talking with Libby, and other education policy experts, you really begin to get a sense for how the voucher movement this session interfered with efforts to pass any kind of meaningful education policy. 

Here is Bob Popinski, Raise Your Hand’s Senior Director of Policy. 

BOB POPINSKI: It was a session out of balance. Once you started the typical process, as you know, there’s about 1,400 public education bills filed, the priority issues of the House members and the Senate members. But what happened is that the voucher movement kind of got into all of these pieces of legislation. Why did special education funding fail this legislative session? Because a voucher was attached to it.

Why did school funding fail this legislative session and we failed to give just a basic inflation adjustment to our public schools? Because a voucher program was attached to it. Why did assessment and accountability fail this legislative session? Because at the end of the day, what did they do? They attached a voucher program to it. And so, it was a session that was out of balance. We had all of these great recommendations, and at the end of the day, at every turn, members wanted to attach a voucher program to it, so that they could provide that need for that political rhetoric back home.

MORGAN SMITH: Political observers all knew going into the legislative session that vouchers would be a key issue of the Governor’s—and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has had various forms of voucher programs on his priority list for years. But for many, it was a big surprise how much lawmakers were willing to sacrifice in their attempts to push one through. 

Here is Will Holleman, Raise Your Hand’s Senior Director of Government Relations. 

WILL HOLLEMAN: When I think back about the session, it’s the great policies that both chambers put forward that seem to get log jammed in the process, whether it was teacher residency programs, inflationary adjustments, basic allotment, or even if we were trying to de-emphasize STAAR, which we were trying to do. It all got lodged in this standoff between all the good ideas and vouchers. 

It’s the things that could have been, we had hundreds of billions of dollars in the treasury that are just sitting there, treasury and rainy day fund, and we had so much on the table that could have been addressed. We know that school safety is important. We know that accelerated instruction is important, but we didn’t get major teacher pay raises, we didn’t get basic allotment increases. It all just kind of got log jammed.

MORGAN SMITH: The lack of action on school funding with a staggering surplus in the treasury as school districts faced down a fifth year of double digit inflation, skyrocketing operational costs and the need to retain teachers—is one of the biggest shocks of the session. 

BOB POPINKSI: In a time where they had $33 billion dollars in beginning balance, this was a perfect opportunity to adjust for that inflation and continue an inflation adjustment moving forward, by getting that into statute, by getting that into the formula, so that school districts would have flexible funding moving forward. The biggest surprise is that, obviously, none of that happened, because of the voucher conversation. But in addition to that, what didn’t happen is that we left a lot of money on the table, even without passing those bills. They left $10 billion dollars of general revenue on the table, that they could have used to pay for and keep pace with public education needs. 

Now, remember, school districts are having to pass their budgets this summer right now. So school districts are having to dip into fund balance or not give pay raises to their teachers or their staff at all, because they are waiting on the Texas legislature to actually do something. So that was the biggest surprise, knowing that all of the issues that our school districts and our 5.4 million kids and almost 400,000 teachers are going through, that the legislature didn’t act at all and left them hanging out to dry during their budget process.

MORGAN SMITH: Since vouchers failed during the regular session, Gov. Abbott has only doubled down on his insistence that lawmakers pass an Education Savings Account. His efforts are a part of what public school advocates view as a nationally coordinated drive to open tax dollars to private vendors under the guise of educational opportunity. In other words: this conversation isn’t going away any time soon. 

BOB POPINSKI: What we’ve seen in the Senate version and even in the House version of a more robust educational savings account program is that it diverts much needed public school funding to private schools and vendors for things like tuition and fees, transportation, materials for assessments, and educational therapies, and it’s diverting away from what our public schools need to provide a well-rounded public education for our students that are currently in our public school system.

MORGAN SMITH: There’s also the issue of accountability. Under the proposals currently under consideration, taxpayer dollars used for voucher programs would not be subject to a fraction of the accountability as they are in public schools. Texas leaders have spent decades creating policies to safeguard our public school students, like rigorous curriculum standards, teacher certification requirements, and an accountability system meant to provide transparency and oversight. A voucher program takes all that work and says none of it matters, because the private schools and vendors that would receive public money aren’t subject to any of these requirements.

BOB POPINKSI: There’s no accountability for where that funding goes for the vendor. Under all of these legislations, the comptroller will have some oversight and some audit, but those aren’t tracking all of the dollars and where they go. What we’ve seen in other states is, with the ESA accounts, that parents are using it to buy items like canoes and going on field trips to amusement parks, and that’s not what we want our public dollars to be doing for our students in our public education system. We want to make sure that they’re sticking to curriculum, making sure that they’re providing our students with a well-rounded education, and making sure that there’s accountability for where our taxpayer dollars are going.

We’ve seen it in the bills, we’ve seen it in the Senate version of Senate Bill 8. We’ve seen it in their language in House Bill 100, that they’re telling you that they know private schools and private vendors don’t have to offer the same types of high quality programs as public schools. They don’t have to require and accept all students. They don’t have to provide the same annual assessment of STAAR or end of course exams. In fact, there’s no elected officials whatsoever overseeing the private schools or private vendors, and so there’s just a lot wrong with vouchers as a policy for Texas, let alone looking at what student achievement does for our students, right? There is no proof in all of the research out there that says sending your kid to a private school through a voucher program actually propels them forward in their academic progress. In fact, in some cases, we’ve seen declines in academic progress.

MORGAN SMITH: The governor is expected to call a special session to address vouchers, most likely in September—and it’s possible that additional education policy items that did not pass could be revisited during this time. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has assembled a special committee to study educational opportunities for K-12 students, and the report that panel produces in early August could provide a window into what might be on the table for the special session.

BOB POPINSKI: As this new House Educational Opportunity and Enrichment Select Committee is meeting, it’s time to get involved again. We hope that they’re going to post public hearings, and it’s time to have your voices heard. What we saw during the legislative session is a tremendous outpouring of our advocates across the state, and you need to continue to stay informed and stay involved and stay on top of the issues, because all of the Raise Your Hand Texas policy priorities are still at play during the summer and during a special session. If you want to see teacher workforce improvement, if you want to see the pushback against vouchers, if you want to see a push for more educational opportunity for our students, now is the time to get involved, because it’s going to be a session that’s probably just isolated to those specific issues, come September or whenever the Governor happens to call a special session.

MORGAN SMITH: But even if lawmakers do address school funding during the special session, it’s likely to fall short of what public education advocates say schools need. Here’s Libby.

LIBBY COHEN: Where we are in Texas is near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to per pupil funding for our public education students. Raise Your Hand was really clear going into this session that we needed to add a $1,000 to the basic allotment just to keep up with inflation since 2019 when the legislature passed landmark school finance reform, and despite the unprecedented surplus at their disposal, the biggest basic allotment increase we saw proposed by the legislature was $90 a year. So I would say in terms of where we’re going with school funding, that does not bode well for a new dramatic school funding proposal to suddenly surface during the special session. And this is going to have to be a long-term proj ect of public education advocates to really push the legislature to be much bolder in their thinking when it comes to public school funding.

MORGAN SMITH: Lawmakers were looking at adding additional funds to schools through tailored allotment increases in House Bill 100, which was the regular session’s big school funding proposal. But that legislation also failed when the Senate attached a voucher program to it in a last ditch effort to get one passed. 

And what about that pay raise for Texas teachers that had such enthusiastic bipartisan support heading into 2023? 

LIBBY COHEN: So over the course of the session, Raise Your Hand worked to bring 75 teachers to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers about what was important to them about what sort of measures would keep them in the profession. And a constant theme that we heard from them, as was detailed in the teacher vacancy task force as other public polling and opinion research has unearthed as well, was the need for a substantial teacher pay raise. And the Legislature didn’t deliver on that.I think that means there is more energy that will go into delivering a teacher pay raise during a special session.

MORGAN SMITH: Libby says that there are two questions to look at when considering whether a pay raise will happen during the special.

LIBBY COHEN: One is, will proposals for a teacher pay raise continue to be tied to vouchers? In which case, the passage of a pay raise is very much in question. And the second issue would be, how large a teacher pay raise? There was legislation this session that proposed a $15,000 across the board pay raise that was really exciting to a lot of educators. If the legislature were to come in with a much more modest pay raise, as say, $2,000, $3,000, I’m not really sure given the climate that we’re experiencing in Texas, whether it’s around inflation and the cost of consumer goods or rising property values and the resulting increase in whether it’s rents or property taxes that teachers are paying, that a more modest increase would really allay teachers concerns enough to prevent a continued exodus from the profession and could instead have the impact of continuing to really motivate teachers to get engaged and fight for a larger pay raise next session.

MORGAN SMITH: We know from the regular session where the battle lines will lie for the special. What we don’t know yet is how lawmakers will respond as their constituents begin to understand what’s been lost in pursuit of vouchers—and that’s an opportunity for everyone who cares about public education. 

LIBBY COHEN: So I think the key factor to watch, we know the interests of the various lawmakers involved, will the advocate response continue to be as strong as it was over the course of the legislative session? And I think the answer there is going to be, yes and then some. We saw, as it became clearer and clearer in the final weeks of May, that the Legislature was actually willing to sacrifice any kind of additional funding for schools in a period of double-digit inflation, any kind of pay raise for teachers, despite the well established body of evidence making the case for the need for that pay raise, that the willingness of the Legislature to forego those things in order to pursue vouchers really made a lot of people angry. And if anything, I think you have a body of advocates that is more fired up and more engaged going into a special session.

MORGAN SMITH: Whether the special session opens the door to meaningful change or not, there are ways to take action now. 

WILL HOLLEMAN: I think that there’s so much frustration back at home with local communities, whether it’s parents or students or teachers, especially teachers, principals and superintendents that are kind of waking up to this, “Oh my gosh, we had all this money that could have been used to help us pay for school security, get like a security resource officer on campus and it just got stuck.” So I think where those folks take that frustration and whether they use it in a positive way to try and encourage their legislators, I think that could be huge. 

MORGAN SMITH: Georgia Polley—who is a public school parent in Spring Branch ISD in suburban Houston and an advocate who worked with a number of organizations, including Raise Your Hand, during the legislative session—is feeling a lot of the same disappointment that everyone who worked on behalf of public school students this session is feeling. But she did have a message for lawmakers. 

GEORGIA POLLEY: Advocates may be frustrated, but we’re definitely not discouraged. We’ll keep on with what we do.

MORGAN SMITH: Georgia also had advice for how to best reach out to your legislators about your concerns. 

GEORGIA POLLEY: I’ve sort of gone through and I’m working on, loosely termed report cards on our legislators. I’m looking at some of the key votes that happened and where they were on them. That gives me an idea of who to focus on, who to encourage, and to keep in touch. I think that’s also the hardest thing after a session is over, is that you want to stay in touch with your legislators. You don’t want them to forget about you, but you have to do it kindly. They’re tired, too. They’ve worked a lot. So I think keeping in touch, letting them know we’re still here, we’re not going anywhere. I know you’re back to your regular job for a while, but this is, public education isn’t going anywhere, and so we need to keep it at the forefront. 

MORGAN SMITH: Keeping in touch can be as simple as calling up your representatives and asking them questions like “Hey, I noticed school funding didn’t pass. What happened?” 

Here’s Will again. 

Will Holleman: They want to hear from their constituents. They may not want to hear from them all at once, but that’s what happens when we get a shortened truncated legislative session or a special session especially. But they have to go and make those asks themselves, Raise Your Hand can only do so much. The different organizations can only do so much. Ultimately, it’s voter pressure that really kind of drives that nail at the end of the day. 

CTA: To stay informed on critical education issues, you can sign up online for Raise Your Hand’s Across the Lawn weekly newsletter at www.RaiseYourHandTexas.org/Get-Involved 

To receive text alerts that will allow you to join Raise Your Hand in taking action at key moments in the lead up to the special session, text RAISEMYHAND to 40649. 

Today’s episode was written by me, Morgan Smith. Our sound engineer is John Jacob Moreno and our executive producer is Anne Lasseigne Tiedt. 


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