Texas House Advances Ambitious School Finance Bill
Teachers’ union celebrates shedding of merit pay provision
The House Public Education Committee passed a committee substitute for the big school finance bill, House Bill 3, through a unanimous vote on Tuesday afternoon. The substitute bill closely resembles the initial version of the bill filed March 5, but with one major change: the elimination of funding for a merit pay program. At the bill's first hearing on March 12, educators, school district officials, and the lobbying groups that represent them voiced concerns with the bill, focusing primarily on the provision that would have allowed school districts to pay educators more based on their performance and whether they chose to teach at schools with higher concentrations of low-income students.
Educator groups said measuring performance for merit pay programs would rely too heavily on state standardized tests, a measure they say does not fully capture the work educators do to help students. It would appear that testimony delivered within that 12-hour hearing broke through to the committee, because the substitute bill contains no mention of a merit pay program. Instead, it now contains language that would incentivize teachers to work in "high-needs" areas such as low-performing schools, rural districts, or academic subjects with a low number of teachers. The state branch of the American Federation of Teachers celebrated the passage of a substitute bill that excluded merit pay: "The rejection of merit pay sends an important signal that educator salaries should not be tied to standardized tests never intended for that purpose," said Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro. (Predictably, conservative-leaning advocacy group Texas Aspires was angered at the removal of a merit pay program, issuing a statement that they were "disappointed that teacher unions have won again.")
The battle over teacher pay isn't over, however. The substitute version of HB 3 also does not include any across-the-board pay increases for teachers, which puts it partially in conflict with Senate Bill 3 – the upper chamber's bill that would provide a $5,000 pay raise for all teachers and librarians. The House legislation provides funding for districts to increase teacher pay, but empowers local elected officials and school districts to decide how raises should be delivered. Those two approaches to teacher pay are fundamentally at odds, and will have to be resolved at some point later in the session.
Besides the notable merit pay exclusion, the substitute version of HB 3 also includes some minor fixes intended to clarify the intent of the original legislation. Among those changes, one in particular stands out: a provision that would require school districts to conduct an "efficiency audit" before going to voters with a tax ratification election. Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said at Tuesday's hearing that the audit was important for "transparency purposes" and that if school boards intend to ask voters for an increased tax rate, they should prove they've "been operating as efficiently as possible."