Public schools gutted of $5.4 billion two years ago would recapture about half of that lost funding under spending plans offered by the Texas House on Thursday, and top Republicans have not ruled out restoring even more before Gov. Rick Perry signs a new state budget.
Teachers groups that have marched on the Capitol, demanding the Legislature reverse historic classroom cuts that resulted in thousands of layoffs, applauded another $1 billion for schools in a 2014-15 state budget plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee.
School districts are hopeful lawmakers can cough up even more money following the unexpected moves by the House, which came after education emerged as the dominant issue of the 140-day session.
Republican Rep. Jim Pitts, the chief budget-writer in the House, didn't dampen that optimism.
"It's not over 'til it's over," Pitts said.
Yet there are realities. Although the extra $1 billion approved Thursday is on top of $1.5 billion the House and Senate previously committed toward undoing the 2011 cuts, Pitts cautioned that it was unlikely that all funding slashed two years ago would be restored in the final two months of the session.
Democrats and teachers say the money is there — notably in the projected $12 billion socked away in the state's Rainy Day Fund. But Perry and Republicans who control the Legislature are opposed to tapping that piggybank for anything other than one-time expenses, and school funding is a recurring tab.
The Senate did not include the extra $1 billion in the budget plan it overwhelmingly passed earlier this week.
"The more I talk to the House members, it is the priority of the Texas House, both Republicans and Democrats, to restore public education," Pitts said. "We challenge the Senate to have that same priority."
Pitts also revealed Thursday that he wants to slip schools another $500 million immediately with a supplemental spending bill. That would let the House boast of putting a total of $3 billion extra toward education, though the extra money in the supplemental bill wouldn't repeat in the 2014-15 budget.
"We like what Chairman Pitts is talking about. It's certainly a step in the right direction," said Clay Robinson, spokesman for the Texas State Teacher Association.
The House budget spends a total of $93.5 billion in general revenue, which comes largely from sales taxes collections and is the pot of money that lawmakers wield most control over how to spend. The Senate budget passed Wednesday spends about $600 million more than the House version.
PATRICK TEARFULLY VOWS SCHOOL CHOICE FIGHT
The head of the Senate Education Committee broke into tears Thursday as he promised to fight for dramatically expanded "school choice" in Texas.
But Sen. Dan Patrick also announced he was softening his high-profile bill to allow an unlimited number of charter schools to operate statewide, instead taking a more gradual, tiered approach to their expansion.
The tea-party backed Republican from Houston became emotional as students told his committee of dropping out of school but then returning thanks to charter schools and other facilities specializing in at-risk youth.
Bertha Vasquez, an 18-year-old former dropout in Austin who returned to school is now set to graduate this year and hopes to become a nurse. She cried as she detailed being raised by a single mother.
Patrick instructed a committee clerk to hand her a box of tissues — then said he needed them back as tears ran down his own face.
"Today has been a tough day because everybody up here (on the committee) wants to support choice and options in schools," Patrick said, his voice cracking.
"Sometimes the adults get in the way with fighting and politicking in the adult world," he continued.
Then, directly addressing Vasquez and another student who testified, Terrance Wigfall, Patrick added: "What you have done has probably turned around some people's thinking."
"You have inspired me," he said. "I am going to fight for you and thousands like you."
Patrick has pushed for the most-dramatic overhaul of charter school since Texas began allowing them in 1995. Patrick he called the witnesses, "perfect people, at the perfect time, with the perfect stories."
"We're going to try to change a lot of things this session," he said.
Patrick is sponsoring two sweeping "school choice" proposals. One would lift the current cap of 215 licenses Texas issues to operate charter schools and creating a special board to oversee a flood of new charter applications he expects will follow. The other is a voucher plan that would allow businesses to earn tax credits for donations that help poor and at-risk children leave public schools for private or religious ones — diverting public money to private schools.
During the hearing, though, Patrick also modified his charter proposal to call for 10 new charter licenses issued next school year and 20 new ones given out in 2014-2015, as well as 35 in the 2015-2016 academic year and beyond. He said he still supports an unlimited number of new charters, but understands that such a plan could be opposed by some in the Legislature.
Patrick also altered his bill to give the state the authority to issue five new charter licenses for every one that is revoked from an existing school because of poor performance. The Texas Education Agency says authorities only close about three charters in a typical year.
The committee, which could have referred the modified bill to the full Senate, instead left it pending Thursday. It will take it up against next week.
FORMER STATE GOP HEAD PAUKEN RUNNING FOR GOVERNOR
Gov. Rick Perry has drawn his first major primary opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
Former state Republican Party chairman Tom Pauken appointed a campaign treasurer Thursday. That allows a candidate to raise and spend campaign funds.
Neither Pauken nor his treasurer responded to calls seeking comment.
Pauken is an Army veteran with deep conservative credentials.
He served as a White House lawyer under President Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, he helped guide the party's ascendance in Texas.
More recently, Pauken served six years as a Perry appointee to the Texas Workforce Commission.
Perry campaign spokeswoman Teresa Spears said the governor "was focused on the legislative session."
Perry says he'll announce in June whether he plans to seek a fourth full gubernatorial term. He's also mulling another presidential run.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"I think I know how to add, and I think I know how to read and I think I understand what the rules are," Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, asking colleagues why a $161 million tab for fighting wildfires that went unpaid in 2011 would not come out of the state's Rainy Day Fund reserves when it was clearly a one-time expense.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.