Lawmakers have officially made their exit from the Pink Building, leaving two bills that will bring major changes to Texas school districts awaiting the governor's signature. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are wondering whether and how the two measures will play in next year's elections.
Embedded in the school finance plan that distributes the $4 billion reduction in state funding across districts is a fundamental shift in how Texas finances public education. Schools will no longer have an amount guaranteed under statute, which has been the law of the land since 1949. That means they'll be funded based on how much money lawmakers decide is available through appropriations, instead of what the law dictates is necessary to educate students. But that measure will sunset in 2015, a small victory for school districts during the special.
The second is a broad mandate relief bill that allows school districts to furlough teachers, reduces contract termination notification time and minimum salary requirements and expands the Texas Education Agency's authority to grant waivers for the 22:1 student teacher size ratio. Teachers' groups argue that the legislation will pit administrators against teachers — and that instead of allowing more teachers to keep jobs, it will make it easier to fire them.
None of measures affecting contractual obligations will take affect until next year because districts have already made their hiring decisions for the upcoming year. But expect challenges in court as schools figure out some of its more obscure provisions, like the requirement that teachers be hand-served their termination notices in certain circumstances.
Schools will also have to navigate what the funding reductions will mean for day-to-day operations. Many will attempt to raise local taxes to make up for the shortfall in state aid. A few, like Keller ISD in suburban Fort Worth, have already tried. There, after statewide attention from Empower Texans, a fiscal conservative activist group, and a disapproving letter from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a 13-cent tax hike failed overwhelmingly at the polls. Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Empower Texans, said his organization didn't oppose local tax increases as a policy matter — but that it took offense at what it called the "bully tactics" — spreading information about the number of teachers who would lose jobs without it — the Keller district used to campaign.
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