The final days of the Texas Legislature have always been a little crazy but none so much as the 87th Legislative Session. With only 18 days left in the session, the legislation seems to be “flying or dying” in Austin. And not all of it makes sense.
Two bills aim to give “final and unappealable” authority to the Commissioner of Education Mike Morath over the accountability ratings of school districts including the decision to appoint a “conservator or management team” to replace the duly elected school board. When HB 3270 by House Public Education Chairman Harold Dutton was blocked, the Senate sprang into action by moving SB 1365. Public school advocates say that the legislation stems from court rulings that have stymied the state’s attempt to take over the Houston ISD and that it’s foolhardy to grant the Commissioner such power.
Bills also seem to return once they are voted down this session. Take HB 1348 for example. When concerns were raised that the bill might be interpreted to grant charter schools eminent domain, lawmakers voted the bill down. Later that evening, the vote was slated for reconsideration under a House rule that one person from the prevailing vote could request it. “This is the Michael Myers session,” said public school advocate Charles Luke referencing the seemingly invincible villain from the 1978 horror film Halloween. “Just because you’ve killed a bill and it’s lying on the lawn doesn’t mean it’s actually dead.”
The failure of a bill multiple times in past sessions is not necessarily an indicator that it will fail in this session. HB 547, colloquially known as the “Tim Tebow Bill” would allow home school students to participate in University Interscholastic League (UIL) sanctioned events in public schools. Similar bills have failed in the legislature for years but the bill passed the House on Thursday with an 80-64 vote. An amendment to the bill even allows students in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department system to participate leaving one advocate to opine, “If you get a 69 in a class you can’t participate, but if you are in jail for something I guess you can.” The Texas High School Coaches Association (THSCA) points to eligibility concerns saying on their Twitter feed, “In fact, we believe that the permissive language added to the bill, further blurs the lines of statewide standards for participation and broadens the gap for circumventing UIL standards for eligibility.”
Other bills that are moving seem to be at cross-purposes with each other. HB 1342, a bill that has passed the House and would require the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) to provide certain healthcare data to school districts who are interested in alternative benefits plans was heard before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday. The bill was highly praised by Senators and witnesses alike for allowing competition in healthcare plans for school districts. A bill that seems to run counter to this, SB 1444 restricts districts from using their district of innovation status to easily offer alternative plans to employees by requiring an unreasonable notification period for districts that wish to opt-out and requiring to opt-out for at least five years. This bill sailed through the Senate where it was highly praised – by the exact same Senators and advocates!
There is much more activity on the floor than in past sessions. Floor activity in the House seems especially brisk. One Chief of Staff for a state representative said, “Usually this stuff gets killed in committee, but this session it all seems to get pushed the floor of the House.” Privately, House members complain that they seem exposed, vulnerable, and unprotected by having to take so many floor votes to kill bad bills. Many of them place the responsibility for this on the Speaker, Rep. Dade Phelan for what they consider to be certain poor committee chair selections. The rule in the House has always been that the Speaker has one job – to protect the members and committee chairs have the same job regarding their committee members. That doesn’t seem to be the case this session.
As one state representative confided to me, “I’ve been thrown under the bus more than once this session.”