With less than a week before the start of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out a proposal Thursday to give teachers bonuses and increase their retirement benefits, with plans to pay for both long-term using money from the Texas lottery.
Patrick called a press conference to roll out his own priorities for the next 30 days and tear down the House's plan for revamping a faulty school funding system as a "Ponzi scheme."
Patrick's plan, in part, would provide $600 to $1,000 bonuses to long-term and retired teachers, inject $200 million into the Teacher Retirement System, give $150 million to struggling small, rural districts, and provide $60 million for new facilities for fast-growth school districts and charter schools.
Over the next two years, Patrick said, $700 million to pay for the plan would come from a deferral of funds to managed care organizations. Over the long-term, $700 million would be directly allocated from the Texas Lottery if voters approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution to ensure that transfer of funds continues indefinitely.
Currently, about $1.3 billion annually, or 27 percent of lottery funds, goes to public schools. Patrick is currently proposing taking the $700 million from that $1.3 billion rather than reallocating additional lottery revenue.
Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, called Patrick’s plan “hollow” because it does not include any new state dollars.
“Every teacher and education retiree has earned and deserves a real pay raise, paid for with real state dollars, not a mythical, pie-in-the-sky promise,” he said in a statement.
Patrick also called on school districts to reprioritize 5 percent of their funds over the next four years to increase teacher salaries. Districts, he said, "have to be better about how they spend the money. They have to put more focus on teachers."
Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, will author the bill on teacher pay and retirement, while Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, will author the bill on school funding.
Mark Wiggins, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said most schools don't have the financial wiggle room to reallocate funding without additional money from the state. "We haven't seen any of these proposals. That's why it's tough to say where our members would come out on them," he said.
The House passed a bill during the regular session that would have put $1.5 billion into public schools, in part by deferring a payment to schools to 2019. Patrick on Thursday called that budget trick a "dangerous political stunt" and a "Ponzi scheme."
In a statement Thursday, House Speaker Joe Straus said he was encouraged by Patrick's "newfound focus on school finance reform."
"Nothing could be more important in this special session than beginning to fix our school finance system so that we improve education, keep more local dollars in local schools, and provide real property tax relief, just as the House overwhelmingly approved in the regular session,” Straus said.
Patrick also said Thursday that he wants the state to address the “Robin Hood” program, which requires wealthier districts to pay to subsidize poorer ones. He suggested lawmakers work towards picking up the tab for all of those payments, though he did not say exactly where the money would come from. “If we could just find less than 2 percent savings…across the entire budget, the state can pay the recapture payments. The schools will not have to pay them,” he said.
Chandra Villanueva, an analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based policy organization, said getting rid of “Robin Hood” would decrease equity between school districts and open the state up to yet another round of litigation on how it funds its schools. “Adequacy and equity are two different things. The problem is schools don’t have enough money in general,” she said.
The Senate tacked a "private school choice" provision to the House's school finance reform package, effectively killing both issues in the regular session, since House members oppose public subsidies for private schools.
Straus and top House education leaders have appeared before education groups in the last month, chastising the Senate for not approving key reforms to the school finance system and refusing to change their positions on controversial issues such as "private school choice."
Gov. Greg Abbott announced a 20-item agenda for the a special session beginning on July 18, including several education issues that the House and Senate clashed over during the regular session. Patrick stressed Thursday that he supported all 20 items, while pitching a multi-layered plan beyond the governor's agenda.
Soon after Patrick's press conference, Abbott praised the lieutenant governor's efforts.
"My office has been working with lawmakers in both the Senate and House these past six weeks, and if these items do not get passed, it will be for lack of will, not for lack of time," Abbott said.