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What’s an unfunded mandate look like? Is that when the state tells school districts to give teachers at $1,000 pay raise and doesn’t send the money to cover it?

The $120 million Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed from the state budget isn't going to be enough to cover the teacher pay raises he says he wants the Legislature to approve during the coming special session, which is another way of saying that the state isn't going to pay for it. That means local property taxpayers would have to cover the tab if lawmakers "give" each of the state's 353,805 public school teachers another $1,000 per year.

It will take some serious salesmanship to move this proposal. It’s more than a question of where the money will come from, although that’s a perfectly good question. It’s not exactly clear where the money would go if the state could round up the money to spend.

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Texas lawmakers have been steadily cutting the state’s share of public education costs for a decade. They started this cycle of school finance with the state paying about 45 percent, the federal government paying about 10 percent and local school districts paying the remaining 45 percent. The feds are still covering their dime, but the state’s share has slipped to 38 percent and the local share — the share that’s financed by that notoriously unpopular property tax — has risen to 52 percent.

That pattern hasn’t stopped, by the way: During the regular legislative session that ended on Memorial Day, state lawmakers approved a new two-year budget that spends less state money per public school student than the last budget. At the same time, those same lawmakers are shocked — shocked! — at the way property taxes are going up.

Add to those costs the idea of paying for $1,000 teacher pay raises and having the local districts paying for the hikes ordered by the state.

Read that again, while pretending your neighbors have elected you to the local school board: The state government is cutting its share of the cost of running your schools, ordering you to raise teacher pay and hollering at you for raising taxes. Thank you for your service!

An optimist might say that the school finance item on the governor’s special-session wish list could pry open the treasury enough to also pay for teacher raises, but that proposal is tangled up with another of Abbott’s requests: a voucher program for special-needs kids.

Yet there is much more to all of this than an unfunded $1,000 pay raise for teachers. The raises would average $1,000, but they wouldn’t necessarily be across-the-board hikes. Aides to and allies of the governor have been shopping around a merit pay plan that would base the size of teacher pay raises on teacher performance.

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“It is a holistic change to how teachers would be compensated,” says state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who heads the House Public Education Committee. “My initial reaction was, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”

Whatever you think about that, it’s a lot to bite off in a 30-day special session. Other issues on the governor’s agenda —school finance, using public money for private schools, regulating which kids use which restrooms — were all debated earlier this year. Hearings were held. Some will argue that those issues have been examined enough to justify the quick consideration a special session allows. That's not the case with teacher pay — although school's out, so they'd be certain to hear from teachers. 

“This is a year’s worth of work that needs to be done — it’s a heavy lift in a special session,” Huberty says. “Is this a horrible idea? I don’t think anybody knows yet.” 

The governor’s crew has a lot of arguments stacked up: College students don’t see teaching as rewarding, top teachers are leaving the profession, students do better with better teachers and Dallas schools — where Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was previously on the school board — had good results with merit-based pay raises.

Their arguments against the current payroll system center on lousy public school student performance on third- and fourth-grade reading tests, eighth-grade science tests and end-of-course algebra 1 exams; on low passing scores on SAT/ACT tests used by most colleges to assess student readiness; on the numbers of students who need remedial classes when they get to college; and so on.

It’s a start, but closing an argument on something as fundamental as teacher pay in 30 days — especially when it’s not part of a fresh debate from the regular session — is asking a lot of a Legislature busy with more familiar but similarly difficult issues.

Lawmakers have 19 legislative priorities aside from the pay raises. Still, they have 30 days. What could go wrong?

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Local governments and school districts battling the Texas Legislature over property taxes have a couple of things in common: They want local control over taxes and a more reliable partner in the state government. [link]

  • The regular legislative session belonged to legislative leaders — primarily Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who aggressively set an agenda for the Senate. Now, with a special session looming, Gov. Greg Abbott is asserting himself. [link]

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