Texas Democrats successfully halted debate in the House late Friday night on a key Republican-backed education reform measure that would give school districts suffering from budget cuts more authority to deal with the lower funding.
After hours of debate, a point of order was raised against the bill and Speaker Joe Straus said he would take it under advisement, which ended debate. The bill is expected to come up Saturday for consideration.
School districts could increase class sizes, cut employee pay and give teachers unpaid furloughs under the bill by Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands. Schools could also wait until the 15th day before the end of the academic year to notify teachers that contracts won't be renewed. Current law says teachers have to be notified 45 days before the end of the year.
GOP House leaders said the bill would free schools from state mandates while saving teachers' jobs. They said districts have been begging for more leeway in dealing with lower funding because of massive budget reductions.
"These changes should have been made a long time ago," Eissler said, citing current law that only gives school districts the option of laying off teachers.
But key teacher groups statewide argued that the legislation will devastate educators and their ability to remain in the classroom. They say Eissler's bill is launching an attack on educators that will result in severe pay cuts and make it even easier to fire teachers.
One of the most contentious provisions would change the 22-pupil class limit in elementary schools to an average of 22 students per class with up to 25 allowed. The education commissioner would have to grant exceptions in such cases, and Eissler accepted an amendment that would require a district to send a letter to parents if their child's classroom size exceeds the 22-to-1 cap. The amendment also reinstates the current class cap in 2014.
Teacher advocates argue that the reforms Eissler is seeking should be temporary, much like a Senate bill that allows teacher furloughs and salary reductions only while the state faces a budget crisis. The Senate version of the bill has been stalled in that chamber.
House Democrats argued Friday that the bill was just paving the way for legislators to continue underfunding public schools.
"This is a conciliation bill that says we are prepared to downsize and dumb down the educational system of Texas," said Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. "It is nothing to do about quality education, nothing to do about excellence, and everything to do with us not wanting to spend one additional dollar from the Rainy Day Fund."
The state is facing a revenue shortfall of at least $15 billion over the next two years, and public education has taken some of the hardest hits. Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have passed budgets that underfund schools by billions. Conservative lawmakers, backed by Gov. Rick Perry, have vowed not to take any money out of the state's $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund to make up for some of the shortfall.
Democratic attempts to change provisions of the bill were repeatedly beat back by Eissler and his supporters. Even the teacher-backed changes embodied in an amendment by Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, were soundly rejected. The amendment would have made furloughs and pay cuts temporary, and required administrators also to be subject to them, among other changes.
Eissler did amend his bill to establish a $27,320 state minimum salary for full-time teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors rather than eliminating the minimum salary as he initially proposed.
"This bill is to save teacher jobs, don't forget that," Eissler told fellow lawmakers.