Photo: Eric Gay, Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO – Texas House Speaker Joe Straus chastised the Senate for fighting improvements to public education Wednesday and called for this summer’s special session to include a focus on the state’s beleaguered school finances.
In a stinging speech that slammed the Senate’s focus on school vouchers and bathroom bills, the San Antonio Republican told a hotel ballroom full of school board members that they should pressure state lawmakers, and run for election to the state’s upper chamber.
“In many ways, your hands are tied and state government is holding the rope,” he told more than 200 attendees at the Texas Association of School Boards during their opening dinner at a conference to review legislation from the 2017 legislative session. “One of my biggest concerns coming out of this year’s session is that we are starting to send the wrong signal about who we are as a state.”
Branding the House as the chamber that “still believes in public education,” Straus said he had looked forward to speaking at the Wednesday night conference so he could be around elected officials who are “sincere, hard-working and committed to education. It’s quite a change for me,” he said to laughs in the Marriott Rivercenter in downtown San Antonio.
Lawmakers are expected back in Austin July 18 to take up a 20-point agenda outlined by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that includes extending the existence of the Texas Medical Board along with controversial issues like abortion restrictions and reigning in local government regulations.
The call also includes several education issues, such as requiring school districts find money in their budgets to give teachers a $1,000 raise and give school administrators more power to hire and fire teachers.
The governor also wants lawmakers to take up controversial legislation to regulate which bathrooms transgender people should use, a matter which became one of the most high-profile bills of the Legislative session but failed to pass the House which maintained that the matter could hurt business in Texas and target transgender children in schools.
“Telling Texans that our schools are beset by problems in the bathroom is not only inaccurate but it sends the wrong signal about our priorities. I don’t know exactly what all the issues are with bathrooms in our schools, but I’m pretty sure that you can handle them and I know that you have been handling them,” he said to applause.
Patrick, who controls the Senate, has made it a priority to pass legislation that would require people use the bathroom that correlates with their sex at birth, effectively banning transgender people from using the bathroom aligning with the gender they identify with.
Abbott also wants lawmakers to take up legislation to limit property tax growth after a proposal championed by the Senate that would have imposed stricter limits on raising property taxes failed to win approval in the House.
School finance ought to play a role in the conversation during the special session, Straus said, “because it relates directly to property tax reform.”
Straus told reporters after the speech he is hopeful school finance could be added to the special session call and woven into the discussion of property taxes. He said he was encouraged the governor also wants a long-term study how to best address the state’s school funding formula, which the Texas Supreme Court last year found constitutional but in need of major change.
“If we’re real serious about it, real property tax reform means real school finance reform,” said Straus. “I’m hoping that [Abbott] will add this to the call and that we can do something significant to reduce the impact and problems with property taxes and at the same time, fund our schools better and reform a system that is badly out of whack and desperately needed.”
State government is spending less on public education each biennium, leaving more of the costs of educating the state’s 5.3 million student dependent on local property taxes, according to the Legislative Budget Board.
The House proposed a series of fixes to the state’s school finance system, adding $1.8 billion in public education, including more money for English Language Learners and funds to help school districts losing money from the phase out of an outdated funding program.
The legislation failed to pass during the regular legislative session after the Senate stripped out much of the spending and replaced it with a school voucher program that would allow parents of student with special needs use public school dollars to fund tuition at private schools.
State senators, led by tea party Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, argue parents should have more choices in where they send their children to school. After first proposing a program allowing any student to attend private school using state tax dollars, the Senate shrunk the proposal to a program limited to students with disabilities.
The House refused and asked the Senate to negotiate. After political wrangling, neither side was willing to budge, and both school finance reforms and a school voucher plan died.
Straus and Patrick have been at odds all year as tension has grown between the two chambers that have different priorities and political dynamics.
Before finishing the 18-minute speech that included three ovations, Straus told attendees to make their voices heard inside the Texas Capitol and “even run for Senate.”