With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate's version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.
House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.
When asked about the Senate's proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, "I don't know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise ... with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach" a school finance plan.
"What we have is a plan," he added. "I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas."
Patrick, in a statement to The Texas Tribune responding to Bonnen's remarks, said that the two chambers "have taken different approaches" on the issue.
"The Senate has 3 bills — SB 2, SB 3 and SB 4 — that address the issues in HB 3," Patrick said. "The good news is that both the House and Senate remain focused on property tax reform, increasing teacher pay and school finance reform, and we look forward to working with the House on these issues this session."
The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.
It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker's brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state's contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.
HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.
The politics surrounding the Senate's teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick's campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employee criticizing conservatives like Patrick for "kowtowing" to liberals.
That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.
Huberty said Tuesday that the House would "certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill" but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.
He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.
At least one educator group is calling for an across-the-board raise. HB 3 “will provide more classroom resources and may give some teachers a pay raise. But we need an across-the-board, permanent pay raise for every teacher guaranteed in the law and an increase in funding to also assure pay raises for all school employees,” Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said in a statement Tuesday.
The dueling proposals highlight how a lot of negotiating still needs to be done in order to get both chambers on the same page. Although Senate and House lawmakers previously said they wanted to have a joint press conference releasing identical school finance bills, the Senate's education chair, Larry Taylor , R-Friendswood, was not present at Tuesday's press conference and has not filed a companion bill. He is expected to file Senate Bill 4 later this week, which will likely not be identical to HB 3.
Overall, HB 3 covers three priorities — teacher pay, property tax reform and school finance reform — that Abbott named “emergency items” in his State of the State address last month, meaning state lawmakers can move faster to pass them. Of the $9 billion proposed in the bill, $6 billion would go to school finance reform and $3 billion would go to property tax relief.
On Tuesday, Abbott praised HB 3 while avoiding specifics about teacher pay.
“We promised Texans that this session would be transformative and address big issues like school finance and property tax reform, and today’s announcement by Chairman Huberty is a big step in honoring that pledge,” he said.
At 186 pages, HB 3's wide-ranging set of policy proposals would also:
- increase the base funding per Texas student by $890, bringing it from $5,140 to $6,030. That base number has not been changed in four years and is not adjusted for inflation.
- compress all school districts' tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, which could save the owner of a home with a taxable value of $250,000 about $100 annually in school district taxes.
- help reduce recapture payments by about $3 billion. Recapture, also known as Robin Hood, is a state program that takes excess funding from wealthier school districts with higher property values and redistributes it to poorer school districts and charter schools.
- help fund full-day pre-K for eligible students.
- provide $140 million for a program to help school districts recruit and retain teachers.
- give an incentive to school districts that want to offer an extra 30 days of half-day instruction for elementary school studies during the summer.
Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.
Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter 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.