For many years, we’ve watched our state lawmakers indulge locally elected officials by hearing out the latter’s concerns and complaints at least once or twice a biennium. Topping the list of grievances: unfunded mandates by the Texas Legislature — laws requiring that cities, counties and school districts undertake some particular course of action without the Legislature’s providing the money to fund it. This means local taxpayers get stuck with the bills. And, to add insult to injury, the more poorly informed of taxpayers promptly blame the local governing entities for subsequent tax hikes while then re-electing the very state officials responsible for this bit of chicanery. Worse, there’s little indication that state officials who loudly claim to be principled conservatives actually grasp the unprincipled demands they make of local entities. Why should they? They can pretty well count on the public not figuring all this out.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is offering a prime example of this by including in his lengthy agenda for a special session of the Texas Legislature this month a proposal giving $1,000 pay raises to Texas teachers, possibly over three years. Only problem: He doesn’t quite specify where the money to pay for all this will come from. If the past session of the Legislature is any indication, little will come from state coffers. The expectation is local school boards will come up with all or at least much of the money — and at the same time that Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Republican lawmakers are making political hay by blaming local governing entities for recklessly raising property-tax rates. Even more outrageous, the state of Texas has been quietly reducing its own share of public-education funding, as Texas Tribune reporter Ross Ramsey has outlined in a series of excellent pieces.
Abbott’s surprising proposal to add pay raises for teachers to his special-session agenda no doubt seeks to obscure the heavily punitive tone conjured up as he, Lt. Gov. Patrick and state senators press schemes to publicly finance vouchers for private schooling, further complicating ebbing state funding of public education. Matters might be different had lawmakers — including the pair who listened to then-Waco Independent School District Superintendent Bonny Cain during a forum on local priorities in Waco last fall — fixed the state’s wildly inequitable and inadequate school finance system before trying to commit public dollars to any private schooling ventures. However, the Texas Senate torpedoed a House plan to do just that in May. Nobody won.
Few people would argue most teachers don’t deserve $1,000 pay raises. But no one should be fooled by Abbott’s gesture. And his suggestion that school districts should be able to fund teacher pay raises through better fiscal management must insult any school trustees who already do this. If Abbott and lawmakers are not willing to commit state dollars to his idea, then his gesture must be branded hollow. If any of the governor’s agenda items rate serious consideration, it’s his proposal that a special commission be assembled “to craft serious reforms for our obsolete school finance system.” We only hope this, too, is not some political shell game to advance school vouchers before state financing of public schools is sufficiently overhauled.