Texas public schools need a big funding boost far more than bathroom policing for transgender students, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus told more than 300 school board members and superintendents Wednesday (June 14).
At the summer conference of the Texas Association of School Boards in San Antonio, Straus said he is trying to be optimistic about school finance reform in a July special legislative session.
He hopes the Texas Legislature will repair the system -- plus add back a spending boost of $1.8 billion the House had backed, but not the Senate, in the regular session that ended May 29.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who dictates the issues in a special session, included a bill to establish a commission to study school finance that had died in the House.
Straus said it's time for action, not more study.
"The Texas House has been studying this for years," Straus said. "We already passed a bill that's a very strong step. We can't keep kicking the can down the road."
Straus compared his optimism that Abbott will include reform of a school finance system the Texas Supreme Court says is constitutional, but badly flawed, to that of a young boy who told his psychiatrist he was excited by "a room full of horse manure."
"The boy said, 'With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere,'" Straus said. So he'll continue his "optimistic approach to the special session, and keep looking for that pony," Straus said to laughter.
In Gov. Abbott's call, the school finance reform study commission was among 19 matters for legislators to consider, after they first pass a "Sunset Safety Net" bill to continue a handful of state agencies for two years.
The agencies, including the Texas Medical Board that licenses doctors, will cease September 1 without the extension. The Senate, under presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, held the sunset bill hostage at the end of the regular session to force a special session.
Patrick wants another try at passing his pet "bathroom bill," dictating which bathrooms transgender students can use. Abbott dutifully included it among the 19 issues for legislators to consider behind the sunset bill.
Straus thinks Patrick's pet "privacy" bill, as he calls it, is not only unnecessary and discriminatory, but would hurt the state economically.
"We are starting to send the wrong signal about who we are as a state," Straus warned.
"Too often, we knowingly walk right into controversies that repel jobs and opportunity," Straus said. "We seem determined to repeat mistakes that other states have made."
North Carolina passed a similar law last year, and the state's economy sagged due to boycotts by businesses, sports contests, concert performances, civil rights groups, and tourists. The state has since rescinded the law.
"I don't know exactly what all the issues are with bathrooms in schools," Strauss told the school officials, "but I'm pretty sure you can handle them. And I know that you have been handling them."
Another bill that died in the regular session that Abbott put in the call is one to discourage local property tax increases.
Straus said local property taxes are directly connected to the need to reform the school funding system.
The failed property tax bill called for an automatic rollback election if a local tax hike exceeds five percent. Current law allows petitioning for a rollback election if the increase reaches eight percent.
City, county and school district officials say the "Robin Hood" school finance system makes property-rich districts subsidize property-poor districts because the state isn’t paying its share of the cost.
In 2007, the Legislature had balanced state and local funding: locals and the state each paid 45 percent, the federal government 10 percent.
A decade later, the locals' share is up to 52 percent, the state's dropped to 38 percent, with the feds still at 10 percent.
That's what Straus had hoped to cure, by having the state increase its share – with $1.8 billion from the state's rainy day fund – and let local school property taxpayers send less to the state.
He urged the educators to speak out for issues important to public schools — and to act.
"There have been a few of you who would make good members of the Texas Senate," he half-joked, which provoked laughter and applause.
Later, to reporters, Straus again called on Abbott.
"I'm hoping he'll add this to his call so we can do something significant to reduce problems with property taxes," Straus said, "and at the same time fund our schools better and reform a system that is badly out of whack."