Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday added pay raises for Texas teachers to the agenda for the special session, but lawmakers have little time before the session ends.
The legislative session wraps on Nov. 7, giving lawmakers limited time to address what has been a priority for the state’s public school educators. Abbott called the third special session in Oct. 5, but pay bumps for teachers wasn’t on the agenda, despite bipartisan support.
The issue has become entangled in the governor’s push for education savings accounts, a voucher-like program that would let parents use taxpayer dollars for their child’s private education. Vouchers have been opposed by Democrats and some Republicans in the House, creating a hurdle for Abbott’s priority item.
The governor previously said he’d add the item and education funding to the call after vouchers pass, according to the Texas Tribune. That hasn’t happened in the House — the Senate passed its version of the policy earlier in October — but Abbott said in a statement Tuesday that he and House Speaker Dade Phelan had “reached an agreement on school choice for Texas families.”
The voluntary program would have universal eligibility and allow participating students to get roughly $10,400 each school year as an education saving account, Abbott said.
He expanded the agenda to include:
Legislation related to health coverage of certain public school employees
Special education in public schools
Measures to help educate public school students, including “certain educational grant programs, reading instruction, and early childhood education.”
Public school accountability
School safety measures and funding
Abbott also said lawmakers should phase out the STAAR test and replace it with an improved assessment system.
Cassi Pollock, a spokesperson for Phelan, said the speaker is looking forward to further discussions on school funding, including teacher pay. She declined to elaborate when asked if a deal had been reached between the speaker, the majority of House lawmakers and Abbott.
“Speaker Phelan and his office have worked daily with the governor and his team to get the call for the current special session expanded so that a discussion on these issues can take place in the House,” Pollock said in a statement. “Speaker Phelan thanks the governor for expanding the call and looks forward to having robust discussions on school funding, teacher pay and other critical education issues with his House colleagues. All members will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.”
Members of the House Republican caucus in a Tuesday news conference didn’t go into details on what exactly an updated bill that includes teacher pay, school safety, increased funding per student, accountability reform and education savings accounts would look like.
For the past two days, there haven’t been enough lawmakers to make quorum on the House floor. Seventy-seven lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — were marked as absent from the House floor Tuesday. During the news conference, Republicans blasted absent House Democrats.
Because they’re gone, lawmakers can’t move forward with the new items like teacher pay raises, said Rep. Craig Goldman, a Fort Worth Republican who chairs the caucus. He referenced a memo from Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, in which he told members he expected attendance to be low Wednesday because of other district business and family plans for Halloween. He said members shouldn’t feel compelled to change their plans, according to the note, shared by a reporter for The Texan, a conservative news outlet, on X.
“We certainly hope they will be there tomorrow so we can take this important item up,” Goldman said.
Some Republicans have suggested the Democratic lawmakers are attempting to block bills related to immigration and other topics on Abbott’s special session agenda.
House Democrats were quick to point out that there were both Republicans and Democrats gone Tuesday. Rep. Chris Turner, an Arlington Democrat, and Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., a Fort Worth Democrat, said there was no coordinated quorum break among Democrats.
“I know math is hard, but you don’t get to blame House Democrats for a lack of quorum when 20 Republicans were not present on the House floor,” said Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “That said, what the hell took House Republicans so long to realize what Democrats have known since day-one of the regular and special session: our teachers need a pay raise.”
The governor’s office publicly announced the new items about 20 minutes after the new conference’s noon start. Rep. Brad Buckley, a Kileen Republican and author of the House’s school finance proposal, which includes education savings accounts, said the lawmakers received the updated proclamation “a few minutes ago.”
Romero noted the sequence of events’ timing in an interview with the Star-Telegram. He described the new additions to the session’s agenda as a “last minute ditch effort” to try and get more House members to support his “voucher scam.”
“I don’t believe it’s going to work,” said Romero, who said he was at the Capitol Tuesday.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas State Teachers Association stressed their opposition of vouchers and encouraged lawmakers to take up teacher pay and school funding separately in Tuesday statements.
“The truth is ... that Greg Abbott has been holding public school funding and teacher pay hostage throughout this entire special session in an effort to pass his private school voucher scam,” said Turner, who was absent Tuesday because family is visiting this week and didn’t anticipate floor votes or committee hearings. “The idea that the hostage taker is now suddenly serious about helping public schools is laughable.”