While many have spent the post-election weeks revisiting their copies of the Constitution to figure out exactly what a president can and cannot do, Texas legislators have been practicing their own governing powers.
Lawmakers around the state have begun to file bills that will set the agenda for the 2017 Legislature. Topics range from the use of fireworks in celebration of Juneteenth, to the compensation of prison inmates, to the renaming of a highway in Dallas to honor former Gov. Ann Richards, all the way to regulations for oyster boats.
While few of these bills will actually become laws, a perusal of the bills filed offers useful insight into how the decisions made in Austin might affect our lives more immediately than the slow churn of Washington, D.C.
“State Legislature is often kind of under the radar,” State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) said. “A lot of people don’t know how the issues are divvied up between federal, State, and local governments.”
Education isn’t the only topic Bernal is targeting, but it is a big one. As one of the most significant issues primarily legislated at the State level, it falls to Texas legislators to resolve funding and accountability in an equitable way. In the wake of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision not to require overhaul of Texas’ inadequate school finance system, a handful of legislators are taking the task into their own hands. However, this may not happen in the sweeping manner that some would hope.
“Sometimes progress can look like a big leap, and sometimes progress can look like a single step,” Bernal said.
One bill Bernal filed, HB 186, calls for a study to investigate the real cost of educating English language learners and special education students. Currently, those two populations do receive a percentage of increased funding from the State, but experts consider the formulas inadequate. The formulas have been in place for decades now, with little or no real data supporting their original allotments.
“The weights haven’t been adjusted since the mid-80s,” Bernal said. “Why don’t we actually study how much it costs to educate these student populations?”
Having reliable data in hand is half the battle when it comes to school funding.
Considering the current climate – a Republican majority in the State House and Senate and projected budget cuts – Bernal anticipates more baby steps.
Bills need to be proposed by representatives with enough clout to drive them through, and the bigger the changes, the more momentum they need behind them. Oftentimes a senior legislator will propose a more complete bill, and junior members who share that interest will file bills that address bits and pieces of the issue, hoping for a small win to get the ball rolling.
“You have to understand the terrain if you’re actually there to do real work that’s not just defense,” Bernal said. “The approach we’re taking is ‘Let’s try everything.’”
It is likely that any call for increased spending on education – or any other area – will be met by a budgetary wet blanket. Anticipating this, Bernal filed HB 182 and HB 379.
HB 182, a refile of Bernal’s predecessor Mike Villarreal’s bills, calls for the State comptroller to conduct a study into revenue that would be generated by increasing tax revenue from commercial properties.
HB 379, originally filed by former State Sen. and State Rep. Jeff Wentworth, would require sale price disclosure of commercial properties to create area comparisons, or “comps,” like in residential real estate. Currently, in the absence of these comps, the appraisal district assigns a value without complete information.
“Because commercial property sales are not required to be disclosed, the appraiser has to guess,” Bernal explained.
Creating comps will prevent the common practice of buyers filing suit against the appraisal district and eventually being able to bring their assessed value to a false minimum, thus eliminating most of their tax requirements.
Those tax burdens, instead, are passed on to private homeowners.
“Let’s just make sure everyone is paying their fair share,” Bernal said.
This revenue could be used to fund education initiatives or other needed programs facing a lean year.
HB 286, a bill filed by Matt Rinaldi (R-115), would eliminate the practice known as “recapture” under Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code. Without the income from high property-wealth districts, the State would be forced to investigate other revenue streams for their obligations to property-poor districts.
Alamo Heights ISD Superintendent Kevin Brown led the Texas School Coalition, which represents property-wealthy schools affected by Chapter 41, also known as the “Robin Hood” plan. With 50% of AHISD’s income going back to the State, the district was operating at a deficit. Brown and others argue that the State has other funding streams that could fulfill its commitments to property-poor districts, and should stop the relatively recent practice of relying on recapture.
The bill was filed last year as well, and Brown admits it has little chance of going anywhere. Since 1993, recapture has provided a $20 billion revenue stream to the State.
Bernal has also filed bills to reduce pre-K class size (HB 188) and require reporting on principal turnover in struggling schools (HB 185).
“I believe now that school finance is a big – maybe even the largest – piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the entire piece of the puzzle,” Bernal said. “Leadership matters, the culture takes time to build…I believe that there’s a relationship between turnover and the ability of a school to work its way up the accountability ladder.”
Bernal’s listening tour informed some of his legislative priorities.
HB 353 calls for the State to assign and pay for social workers and mental/behavioral health professionals in schools that meet certain poverty and performance requirements. This would put professionals into schools that are in need of the many benefits resulting from such experts’ presence. It would allow teachers to teach by “focusing on whole students and the issues they bring into the classroom.”
Again, this is a bill that needs to be funded. Bernal intends to file a bill that would free up money currently allocated to text book purchasing to be used on high-touch, or non-administrative, personnel, if campuses feel they need it.
Rep. Jarvis Johnson (D-139) has also filed a bill to bring more whole-student support into schools. The State Compensatory Education program entitles students who meet eligibility criteria to additional instruction to improve their educational outcomes. HB 310 would allow schools to use money set aside for special instruction to fund district counseling and guidance programs.
HB 367 is a high-priority bill for Bernal. Having witnessed the detrimental effects of chronic hunger while literal tons of food are wasted by school meal programs every day, Bernal wants to see a square peg fit into a square hole.
“We’re in a situation now (where) schools have identified hungry students, and they are giving them food to last for the weekend through partnerships with food banks, church groups, and nonprofits,” Bernal said. “At those very same schools they are throwing away hundreds of pounds of usable food.”
The bill aims to “clear the legal fog” for schools to get packaged, edible, ripe food to students identified as food insecure. Bernal says that this is possible without violating health codes.
Bernal is not the only legislator filing education-related bills, of course.
Dan Huberty (R- 127) filed a bill to allow open carry by superintendents and board members at school district board meetings. His was among several bills to address open carry, but the only one (so far) to suggest further expansion of the practice into educational institutions.
Some of the more startling or obscure bills might sometimes function like position statements, as they allow lawmakers to say that they filed a bill on an issue, thus proving their support. Whether the issue is women’s health or open carry, some of the more far-reaching bills are not intended to do much more than show support, Bernal explained.
Spend some time looking through the bills up for discussion this year and get in contact with your representatives if you see something that is important to you. If, for example, you’d like your school district board members to be able to brandish semi-automatic weapons at meetings, you can let Huberty know you support his bill.