Texas House Prohibits Vouchers, Approves $150 Billion Budget - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

04/02/07 - Austin, Texas

Texas House Prohibits Vouchers, Approves $150 Billion Budget

Teachers and education groups Friday hailed a surprise legislative effort to gut a Republican-championed performance pay program, instead giving schools enough money for an additional pay raise of about $800 each for teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians.

The proposal was one of two unexpected victories for educators in a two-year state budget approved early Friday in the House.

But, Republican leaders warned that the proposal could backfire on teachers.

That's because the budget would allocate the money to schools, but would not necessarily require schools to use it on teacher pay, said Republican Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who worked on the education section of the House budget.

Teacher advocates downplayed the concern.

"It's just really blowing smoke," said Rob D'Amico, a spokesman for the 56,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers. "The legislative intent is pretty crystal clear."

Reward bonuses are expected to land in the pockets of about half of all Texas teachers by the time they are fully implemented, D'Amico said.

"Considering the fact that incentive pay probably won't end up in most teachers' pockets is a far greater problem," he said.

It's not a certainty that the measure will be in the final budget. The budget next moves to the Senate, where a committee will send its version to the full chamber for a vote.

After that, selected members from each house will negotiate a compromise budget between the two versions in a conference committee, made up of members appointed by leaders of both chambers.

Both Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Tom Craddick have supported merit-pay plans.

Teachers groups have long opposed incentive-pay initiatives, which first surfaced in Texas when Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order in 2005 that directed about $10 million to teacher performance bonuses.

The House last year expanded the program to include $583 million in incentive pay programs to be phased in by the end of this year. That was the money that was gutted in the state budget Thursday and redirected to school districts for teacher pay.

Of the 1,161 campuses that were awarded grants this year, a small percentage rejected the state money, arguing that the extra focus on test scores and pressure to do well would be a distraction.

Conservative policy analysts called the House move a teacher punishment.

"The House's action last night was shameful," said Jamie Story, an education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "They slashed the pay of our best teachers, precisely the ones we need to encourage to stay in the classroom."

In another unexpected move during the budget debate, the House voted 129-8 to prohibit any state education dollars from being spent on school vouchers, a highly contentious issue that was influential in last year's legislative elections.

Both vouchers and merit-pay initiatives have been Republican policy staples in recent years. But, Thursday's move was a decided change of tone in the Republican-led House that approved the reward program last year.

"What we saw with the last election was that public education was a priority," said Jack Kelly, a legislative analyst for the Texas State Teachers Association. "We began to see last evening the Legislature responding to that position."

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The budget proposals are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1.

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.

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