Current Events

Fourth Special Session Ends As Abbott's Plans For School Choice May Be On Life Support For Now

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said during a Tuesday press conference that he would support a standalone school finance bill, only if a voucher-like program was already approved in future special sessions.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said during a Tuesday press conference that he would support a standalone school finance bill, only if a voucher-like program was already approved in future special sessions. Screenshot
Texas lawmakers failed to act again during this special session on several priority issues, including teacher pay raises, vouchers, and increasing funding for school safety measures.

House Speaker Dade Phelan gaveled in Tuesday afternoon as the House was set to take up bills passed in the Senate, including Senate Bill 5, which would provide $800 million in funding for school safety initiatives.

However, when Representative Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) asked if he could move to bypass the committee process and bring legislation addressing teacher pay raises to the House Floor, Phelan said he would not recognize Allison for this action.

Instead, the House adjourned soon after, followed shortly by the Senate, effectively ending the fourth special session.

Continued conflict between Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Phelan has been front and center throughout this session.

In a press conference held on Tuesday, Patrick called Phelan’s leadership an “absolute failure,” adding that the House speaker had the time to pass SB 5 and Senate Bill 6 – a measure unrelated to school funding meant to change the timeline of when courts hear election contest lawsuits after several were filed in Travis County challenging the results of November's election.

Instead, Patrick said Phelan couldn’t manage to do so within a roughly week-long period before the session ended and added that he didn’t deserve a leadership role for inaction.

“This is just obdurance versus obdurance, right?” Bob Stein, Rice University political science professor, said. “I think it’s getting to the point where the issues may be less important than the interpersonal relationships.

“The question is how much longer can the Republican Party continue to operate this way?” Stein added. “And we’ll see, but I don’t think it strengthens the governor’s position, I think it weakens it.”

Governor Greg Abbott had previously indicated that he would call lawmakers back, possibly through February if needed, to pass his priority issue: education savings accounts. He wants legislators to pass a measure that would allow Texas families to receive taxpayers' dollars to send their children to private schools or as most people term it, school vouchers.

However, he has not mentioned plans for an upcoming fifth special session since the House voted to strip House Bill 1, a massive school funding bill, of its voucher program.

“Somebody’s got to give and I don’t think the legislators are among them,” Stein said. “I think the governor is the one that is going to have to give in. And at this point, he expresses no desire to compromise.”

According to Stein, Abbott's unwillingness to back down will harm public school students and districts and affect the local economy in smaller areas of the state.

He added that school districts in these regions, such as Paris Independent School District, are already being forced to adopt budget deficits because the state dollars they need are currently held up in the Legislature.

Other districts will likely opt to raise money from parents or cut back on expenditures of "non-essential" services, Stein said, but receiving taxpayer dollars needed to try to make up for the state funding loss will be difficult.

He added that this is because the Legislature passed caps on tax rates for districts. Schools that can't increase this as needed and cut expenses will likely need to close down a couple of campuses.

Stein said this is already occurring in the Spring Branch ISD. The proposed campus closures include three charter schools: KIPP Courage at Landrum Middle School, YES Prep Northbrook Middle School and YES Prep Northbrook High School.

He added that school closures and expense cuts in more rural areas where school districts are a primary employer could leave many community members unemployed.

"At this point, I don't think the governor is any more likely to be persuasive," Stein said. "The only persuasion that's going to go on is the replacement of Republican state legislators who voted against school choice vouchers in the Republican primary."

"Now, what that will do is replace them [Republican anti-voucher voters] with pro-voucher legislators, but that won't affect anything until January 2025, the next time the state legislature is sitting," he added.

Stein said that Abbott's threat to challenge the more than 20 rural Republican legislators who voted to strip the education savings account program from House Bill 1 in the upcoming primary election could backfire on him if a Democratic anti-voucher candidate succeeded.

He added that Abbott may use a potential fifth special session strategically to keep candidates campaigning against those supported by Abbott from being able to do so or spending time with constituents.

According to Stein, the only real work he saw accomplished in this special session was the passage of the border bills, Senate Bill 3 and Senate Bill 4. This legislation provides additional funds for border security operations and creates a controversial criminal offense for illegal entry.

"I don't think much is coming out of these special sessions other than that a lot of people are angry at the governor," he added.

Abbott’s Communications Director Renae Eze issued this statement regarding the end of the fourth special session:

The fight for school for all Texas families will continue until it’s won. A majority of Texans across our state and from all walks of life support school choice, and Governor Abbott will not rest until school choice is passed. The governor will continue to work with Texas Legislators and at the ballot box to get school choice for all Texas families.

 House Speaker Dade Phelan issued this statement:

“Over the course of 2023, the Texas House has worked tirelessly to continue laying the groundwork for a safer, more promising future for all Texans. Whether historic property tax relief for home and business owners, expanding access to quality health care and behavioral health care services, investing in infrastructure expansion and improvement projects, boosting workforce development, and cost of living adjustments for retired teachers, Texas House members came together to address the most important issues facing out respective district and our state as a whole. As Texas continues to grow and lead the nation in economic opportunity I am confident the many wide-ranging achievements of the 88th Legislature will continue to keep our state the most promising in the nation.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.