Republicans Search for New Normal

GOP rift appears in approach to education cuts

Austin Rep. Donna Howard authored an amendment that could send more dollars to the Foundation School Program
Austin Rep. Donna Howard authored an amendment that could send more dollars to the Foundation School Program (Photo by John Anderson)

Texas schools know that they will be short roughly $4 billion in state money for their upcoming budgets. Now the next big battle is over how long those cuts will last. On one side are fiscal conservatives, who – with the mantra of "Texas must live within its means" – want these cuts to be the new normal. On the other side are Democrats, moderate Republicans, and pro-education conservatives who see the current funding crisis as regrettable and fixable.

During the last two weeks, the House and Senate passed two key pieces of school finance legislation: the funding reforms in Senate Bill 1 and the 2012-13 school finance appropriation in SB 2. Combined, these have come to be known as the Eissler-Shapiro plan. In the first year it applies the 6% across-the-board cut proposed by House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. In the second, it transitions to the formula-funding revisions authored by Senate Education Commit­tee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. During floor debates, rival amendments were batted around but rejected: first, a proposal for two years of Eissler (rejected because it was too damaging to smaller, poorer school districts) and then one for Shapiro-Shapiro (rejected because it hurt the property-wealthy districts with high needs). Though legislators worked on the Eissler-Shapiro model in the regular session, the new legislation is not the same text that passed the House and flunked the Senate in May as SB 1811. Between the Senate debate on June 3 and the House third reading seven days later, a total of 188 amendments were offered. Many had nothing to do with school finance (SB 1 is a broad and sweeping fiscal matters bill, of which education finance is only a small part), but Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, made a major change for smaller, more cash-starved districts. Under Eissler-Shapiro, they would see a bigger cut in the first year than in the second; the Patrick proposal smooths out the difference, meaning they would no longer have to fire teachers and staff only to rehire them and rebuild programs a year later.

More astonishingly, the Democrats got a partial win in their push to tap the Rainy Day Fund. If Republicans were hell-bent on defending the predicted $6.5 billion unexpended fund balance, what about any unpredicted excess? Austin Rep. Donna Howard authored an amendment to SB 2 that takes the comptroller's current estimates of the Rainy Day Fund from mid-May as the baseline. Next year, any cash over that forecast gets transferred straight to the Foundation School Program – up to the estimated $2.2 billion per year required to cover enrollment growth. Howard said the bipartisan backing for the bill materialized because her amendment is "a true compromise."

Cue the ire from the fervent right. Andrew Kerr, executive director of radical tort reform mavens Empower Texans, fired off a missive that "right-thinking lawmakers still have a chance to undo" the plan to redirect extra funds by pulling it out at third reading. Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, dutifully obliged, filing an amendment to kill Howard's proposal. Unfortunately for King and Kerr, passage of the amendment would require a two-thirds majority, and they could only pull in 79 Repub­licans. Significantly, 17 GOPers – including Eissler – sided with the Democrats to derail the conservative plan.

Such philosophical divisions are not restricted to the House. Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Dan Patrick, R-Hous­ton, called public schools "an entitlement," and called the cuts a long-overdue spending reform. Earlier in the regular session, Shapiro seemed to be singing from the same hymn book when she called the cuts "the new normal." But while Sen. Dan Patrick remains as dogmatic as ever, Shapiro's bleak long-term outlook seems to have softened. On June 7, after the Senate passed teacher furlough reforms in SB 8, Shapiro quickly issued an official statement. Rather than "the new normal," she called the reforms a temporary response to the "current funding crisis."

Now SB 1 (with Rep. Diane Patrick's smoothing measure) and SB 2 (complete with the Howard Rainy Day amendment) head to a conference committee for final negotiations between the two chambers. However, the Legislature knows that it will have to come back for a real fix when it returns in 2013, and Rep. Diane Patrick is working to set that in statute. The real meat of her amendment was a sunset clause phasing out the changes to formula funding – technically known as the Regular Program Adjustment Factor – after the current biennium. If this survives the conference committee, then when lawmakers return in 2013 they will be using the 2010-11 figures as their baseline, not the reduced spending figures they are currently finalizing.

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Legislature, Eissler-Shapiro Plan, Rob Eissler, Florence Shapiro, Diane Patrick, Dan Patrick, Donna Howard, Rainy Day Fund

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