Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick backed out of a Tea Party event in Tarrant County to join President Donald Trump for a rally at the border.
His replacement in North Texas was Cary Cheshire, an employee of the conservative group Empower Texans. And Cheshire used some of his time onstage to criticize conservatives like Patrick for "kowtowing" to liberals.
"We've got a whole bunch of Republicans right now who want to go and hide after the November elections," Cheshire said in a speech reviewed by The Texas Tribune. "'We need to go and just spend a lot of money: That'll make them happy. We'll go give $5,000 to all the teachers who vote against us.' I don't think that's really going to work."
The speech was a sign of the unusual politics surrounding Patrick's top political priority this session: across-the-board raises for full-time classroom teachers. Some conservative groups like Empower Texans, which has funneled more than $800,000 to Patrick over the last five years, are concerned about the deviation from core Tea Party issues.
Meanwhile, many education advocates favor across-the-board raises over merit pay proposals being pushed by other state leaders who are usually more popular among teachers. But those groups are cautious about falling in line with Patrick, whom they've clashed with in the past.
"Educators will certainly take note if there is a substantial pay raise bill that passes this session," said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "Does that mean that they will completely forget about everything that has happened over the last six to eight years? Probably not."
Patrick has pushed that specific policy proposal — $5,000 base pay raises for every full-time classroom teacher — since his inauguration, arguing that providing more money for teachers will attract more qualified talent to the profession. The bill, filed by the Senate's lead budget writer, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is moving through the legislative process faster than most other education priorities in either chamber. With more than 20 Democratic and Republican state senators signed on as co-authors, the bill is scheduled for a public hearing Monday.
It's a seismic shift for a lawmaker who spent the last legislative session backing proposals educators revile, including programs similar to education vouchers that would allow parents to use public money for private schools. Patrick has been muted on those programs this year, focusing on teacher pay instead.
But will the proposal attract more teachers to support Patrick?
Cheshire seems to think the answer is no.
"The folks who have been sitting around watching 'Modern Family' and complaining about Dan Patrick for four years aren't going to change their tune when they just get another check. They're going to say, 'Thanks!' and write that check out to Mike Collier for Texas," he quipped onstage.
For once, Collier, Patrick's Democratic opponent in the November election, agrees with Cheshire — from way over on the other side of the political spectrum.
"This strategy is going to backfire terribly," he told the Tribune. "By the time they're done, teachers are going to be furious. They're smart enough to know that they're being used, and they're going to be less likely to vote for him in 2022 than they were in 2018."
Critics say Patrick's focus on teachers is a reaction to the 2018 elections. Patrick first faced a GOP primary challenge from pro-education candidate Scott Milder, who went on to endorse Collier in the general election. Patrick defeated Collier by fewer than 5 percentage points, way smaller than Patrick's 19-point win in 2014 and smaller than Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's 13-point margin in 2018.
The closer-than-usual election results spooked some conservatives. And before this year's legislative session started, top Republican leaders, Patrick included, committed themselves to bread-and-butter issues like fixing property taxes and putting more money into schools and the hands of teachers.
Patrick's office denied that his pitch for teacher raises is a response to those results.
"He has been working on education issues for over a decade — it is absurd to suggest that his advocacy on teacher pay began in November," Sherry Sylvester, Patrick's senior adviser, said in a statement.
Patrick suggested the same when speaking to a group of real estate agents in January.
"This isn't because of the election," he said. "I brought this up before the special session last session [in 2017]. I couldn't get any traction, but I think there's a little more traction this time."
Indeed, Patrick has gone through a few iterations of the pay raise proposal, each with a different price tag attached. In the 2017 special session, he wanted school districts to shift around existing funding to pay teachers up to $1,000 more, an idea that was nixed pretty quickly once education advocates made it clear they weren't on board.
Campaigning for last March's primary election, Patrick circled back to his old promise — but multiplied by 10.
"Teachers are the most important part of a quality education, not expensive buildings or fancy stadiums," he said in a January 2018 campaign ad. "Next session, I will fight to make sure our budget targets more money directly to teachers so they get the $10,000 raise because that's the right thing to do."
The day Patrick was inaugurated, Nelson filed Senate Bill 3, which landed on a $5,000 pay raise for all full-time classroom teachers each year, meaning $10,000 more pay over the two-year budget cycle — with a total price tag of about $3.7 billion.
With that much money on the table, educators seem open to hearing what the Senate has to offer. A few proposals for addressing teacher pay are floating around the Capitol, each with a different level of viability and potential impact for public education.
Education advocates are preparing to go to the Senate Finance Committee on Monday to ask for even more money, not just for teachers but for support staff.
"While we certainly appreciate a raise that is focused on us, we hope — whether it is as a part of SB 3 or as a part of the larger school finance conversation — that districts will be given an amount of money that is adequate for them to better pay the rest of the auxiliary staff," said Exter, the teachers' lobbyist.
Both Patrick and Nelson have indicated resistance to expanding the bill in that way.
"There is nothing in this bill that prevents districts from raising those salaries," Nelson said in a statement. "SB 3 prioritizes resources to invest in classroom teachers, who are the key to ensuring that our students succeed."
Educators also want to ensure the additional money lasts beyond the upcoming budget cycle.
"We have pretty clear examples of instances where the state gave a mandatory pay increase, and a biennium or two later, the economic situation shifted in the state, the dollars weren't sustainable," said Brian Woods, Northside ISD superintendent and vice president of the Texas Association of School Administrators' executive committee. Superintendents are concerned about using the money for raises and then having to cut salaries or fire teachers down the line.
In an interview last week with The Dallas Morning News, Nelson said the pay increase is intended to last beyond the next two years, “unless a future Legislature revokes it.”
But even if educators get the changes they want to the bill, there's no guarantee it would add more teachers to Patrick's base.
For Troy Reynolds, a Splendora ISD administrator who organized educators to bloc vote for education-friendly candidates in 2018, the Senate's teacher raises are a starting point. The grassroots group of educators rated Patrick unfriendly to education before the election, based on all the available information.
"We look at the entire comprehensive history. We have one data point in a very large set of data points. Will it change some people's votes? Maybe."
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Association of School Administrators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.