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Struggle Over Education Bill Breaks Old Alliances, Creates New Ones

State Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, is a widely liked Republican chairman with a supermajority to back him up. So why has his signature education bill this session, a mandate relief package for school districts, stumbled so badly?

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Just past midnight, at the close of a 14-hour day last week on the floor of the Texas House, state Rep. Rob Eissler stood joking with reporters.

“I’m going to move my desk up to the front mic,” Eissler said, “so I can watch every bill that goes by.”

After failing on three separate occasions to pass his signature education bill for the session and running out of time on a fourth, the Woodlands Republican was describing his plan to attach the legislation as an amendment to other bills that are still working their way through the House.

The widely liked, pun-spinning Eissler has led the House Public Education Committee since 2007, and this session he has a Republican supermajority to back him. Yet even with 66 co-sponsors, he stumbled with the bill bundling several measures to relieve school district mandates required by the state — including removing the 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through fourth grade, minimum salary requirements for teachers and contractual obligations dealing with layoffs.

The clash over the measure, House Bill 400, has been cast as teachers versus administrators, labor versus management. But in a session characterized by extreme partisanship, the legislation is notable for what it is not: Republican versus Democrat. While it has handed Democrats a rare strategic victory this session, it has drawn opponents from the left and the right.

“Education is not a partisan issue,” Eissler said. “Not everybody in one party is completely sold on one approach.”

In the months before the Legislature convened, there were many calls to free school districts from “unfunded mandates” at the state level to help them cope with the consequences of the impending deep financing cuts. Education leaders in both chambers — Eissler; Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano; and Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston — introduced separate legislation taking aim at state mandates. But even after budgets that reduced public education financing by $7.8 billion in the House and $4 billion in the Senate overwhelmingly passed, the bills have proven a tougher sell.

His joking aside, Eissler’s proposal has an uncertain future as an amendment to other legislation. And in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote to bring bills to the floor for consideration, mandate-relief proposals have stalled — though they could also potentially live on as amendments, at least until the session ends on May 30.

“When there is a big piece of legislation that draws lots fear and concern and opposition from significant players, that can cause members to delay or stall or wait to act until the end, or find less controversial ways of dealing with it or passing it,” said Sandy Kress, an architect of Bush administration education policy who is now an Austin lobbyist.

Lawmakers who philosophically endorse reduced spending can balk at what that means practically: teachers losing jobs, getting paid less and managing larger classes. “There’s an ugliness to a lower-funded environment that people don’t like to face,” Eissler said.

Confronting that ugliness makes legislators from both parties skittish, particularly those who represent rural districts, where schools can be the largest employers — and where the lines between labor and management are much less defined.

“With Republicans, we could say, ‘Well, surely they’ll side with management over labor,’” Kress said. “But if you’re from a small district, you don’t necessarily think unions and management if it’s the teacher you know and the school where your kid goes.”

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said “there’s a tension” in his party about how to handle mandate relief. He led the charge against HB 400 from the right with an amendment that would have made any measures temporary, kept the class-size ratio intact and applied salary reductions and furloughs to administrators as well as to teachers.

“Those of us who represent districts that are smaller, it’s different than maybe those big-city districts where it’s much more a business,” Phillips said. “For our school districts, it’s not a business but teaching kids.”

The state’s teachers associations have opposed the legislation in stronger language. They view the bill as an ideological attack on essential, hard-won contractual rights. For them, it represents an opportunistic use of the fiscal crisis to enact changes that the education community would not accept otherwise.

“These are management issues that shouldn’t be discussed when the Legislature is talking about way underfunding public education,” said Lonnie Hollingsworth, a lobbyist with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, adding that the bill could be described as a “divide-and-conquer strategy.” Hollingsworth said the legislation had strained his group’s relationship with Eissler.

“I think they thought they could win HB 400 with 101 Republicans in the House, and they didn’t think they had to compromise,” he said.

Eissler said the fierce opposition from teachers groups has contributed to resistance to the bill. But he said that observing the groups’ deliberations on mandate-relief legislation in the Senate discouraged him from seeking their input.

“There were weeks and weeks and weeks of negotiations with the Senate,” he said. “Am I going to get a better deal than the Senate?”

Though Eissler’s legislation has exposed a fracture among House Republicans, it is Democrats — galvanized by the teachers associations — who can claim responsibility for derailing it. They have pummeled it to the ground with parliamentary tactics, including one from Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, after four hours of debate during the bill’s second appearance on the floor.

Martinez Fischer said he had teased his Republican colleague about the bill’s travails. “I’ve said that if this bill ever makes it to the floor again, I want you to wear a cat suit,” he said. “Because House Bill 400 has had more lives than any legislation I’ve seen in my 12 years of service.”

Cat suit or not, Eissler vowed that his measure would return to the floor — and pass. He also said his relationship with teachers associations was not in danger.

“I’ve always gotten along with the teacher groups, and I still do,” he said. “Other than this.”

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Public education State government 82nd Legislative Session Larry Phillips Texas Legislature Trey Martinez Fischer