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Analysis: For lawmakers, like kids, education can be very difficult

The governor put a number of public education proposals on the Legislature's plate for the current special session. Getting more than one or two into law would defy the odds.

A group of educators from Gordon, Texas applaud a speaker at the Texans for Public Education rally on the Capitol steps on Monday, July 17, 2017.

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One should avoid the word “never” when trying to describe what might happen in the Texas Legislature — even when talking about things that seem impossible.

Let’s say it is unlikely, then, that the same Texas lawmakers who couldn’t solve school finance during the regular session will work it out in the current 30-day special session, or that using public money for private education is suddenly more acceptable to them than it was a couple of months ago.

Money is tight. Tempers are high. Lawmakers aren’t on the same page.

The state doesn’t have the money it would need to accomplish what Gov. Greg Abbott has asked legislators to accomplish. Actually, it has plenty of money, but it’s stuck in an account — the $10.3 billion Rainy Day Fund — that some lawmakers consider off limits.

But the governor’s list of “20 things that can’t wait until the 2019 regular session” includes some big price tags.

Abbott wants merit pay raises for public school teachers that would average $1,000 per teacher. That would cost roughly $350 million per year.

He also wants lawmakers to shore up the health insurance plan for retired teachers. The tag on that one is $193 million in the first year and grows to almost $300 million per year after that.

Abbott’s call for private school vouchers for students with disabilities would cost $75 million in tax credits annually.

There’s your dash of irony: State officials seeking property tax relief want to force local schools that depend on property taxes to spend more on teachers.

And the governor initially wanted lawmakers to also put together a study on school finance but then opened the subject matter to allow reforms of the current system. Price tags vary according to ambition, but the cheapest school finance plan advanced so far this year — the cheapest one — came in at about $1 billion. The House’s version during the regular session was almost twice that size.

Look at the cockamamie schemes they’re coming up with. Order the pay raise, but make local school districts pay for it. Fix retired teacher health insurance, but borrow the money from the underfunded Medicaid program to pay for it. Pay for changes to school finance, borrowing from the state’s fund for public education to pay for improvements to public education.

“Cockamamie” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Some legislators would take money from that fat Rainy Day Fund to cover some of these budget-busters. But the prevailing view, particularly in the Texas Senate, is that the savings account should only be tapped for one-time expenses, not recurring ones.

That said, there are few other places to go. Voters are already wound up about high property taxes — the sixth-highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation. Those bills are dominated by school property taxes, which have risen steadily over the past 10 years as state spending per student has fallen (there’s your dash of irony: State officials seeking property tax relief want to force local schools that depend on property taxes to spend more on teachers).

It’s not an atmosphere of comity and trust in the big granite building in the middle of Austin. During the budget debates in the regular session, the House accused the Senate of using the kind of accounting that made Enron famous; the return volley from the Senate was that the House ploy to pay for school finance was a Ponzi scheme.

Never mind the financial support; the House’s proposal for school finance was bigger than the Senate wanted, and the Senate’s version included a voucher proposal for students with disabilities.

The House has voted against vouchers a couple of times already. They’re just not going there.

School finance will eventually be reworked, if the past is any guide. The last major changes are a decade old and the system that was rebalanced then is badly out of balance now. Not so out of balance that it’s unconstitutional, according to the Texas Supreme Court, but a mess just the same.

The governor originally wanted a study and might end up with one, although some lawmakers protest that the issue has been studied to death already. That’s true, but nobody has unearthed a politically and operationally palatable solution. Without that or an order from a court telling the state to fix things or else, major repairs seem ... unlikely.

From the list of public education items on the agenda, highlight health insurance — a genuine and immediate problem for a large number of retired educators.

Put the rest on the back burner, but never, ever say never while the Legislature is still in session.

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