Governor Abbott expands 3rd special session agenda

With only a week left in the third special session this year, the disagreements concerning school choice, teacher pay raises, and public school funding have created a near-impossible impasse for Texas lawmakers, but the governor’s recent expanded call could help pass school choice.

In a new proclamation, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would be expanding the third special session for “universal school choice” to include school finance, teach pay raises, school safety, and special education. He said this came about after “productive discussions” with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

“Working with Speaker Phelan and his House leadership team, the Speaker and I reached an agreement on school choice for Texas families, and I am expanding the agenda for Special Session #3,” said Governor Abbott. “The legislation will create an Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program with universal eligibility for all Texas schoolchildren and will be entirely voluntary for families and schools to participate.”

Some details of the new ESA plan include $10,400 for participating students, which will be administered by an “education organization.” Abbott added that the STAAR Test will be “phased out” and that there are plans to replace it with an “improved assessment system.”

Abbott’s announcement also includes the addition of “billions more in funding” while “staying within the constitutional spending limit.”

Both the House and Senate have proposed their own school choice plans, each with their own detractors.

Particularly in the House, an Abbott spokesperson said previously that he and the speaker would continue to work together “on the agreed-upon principles of school choice until a deal is reached.”

Phelan spokeswoman Cassi Pollock issued a statement following the expansion, saying, “Speaker Phelan and his office have worked daily with the governor and his team to get the call for the current special session expanded so that a discussion on these issues can take place in the House.”

“Speaker Phelan thanks the governor for expanding the call and looks forward to having robust discussions on school funding, teacher pay and other critical education issues with his House colleagues. All members will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.”

At a press conference on Tuesday after the lower chamber again lacked a quorum for the second day in a row, House GOP Caucus Chairman Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) said at a press conference that the expansion cannot even be received without a quorum — meaning its business cannot be taken up.

“The Democrats last night were told not to be here today by their own caucus leadership and that’s unacceptable,” Goldman said. “Included in this call are teacher pay raises. We can’t bring it up without a quorum so this is on the Democrats for them not being here today … and we certainly hope they’ll be here tomorrow so we can take up this important item.”

State Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Salado) said that he intends to bring the House’s education omnibus plan, which includes school choice, up for a committee hearing this week provided that a quorum is reached. 

The Texas House Democratic Caucus hit back with its own statement from Chair Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio): “I know math is hard, but you don't get to blame House Democrats for a lack of quorum when 20 Republicans were not present on the House floor.”

There were 77 out of 149 members present on Tuesday, 23 short of a quorum. Of those absent, 21 were Republicans and 51 were Democrats; even with all those absent Republicans in attendance, the quorum still wouldn’t have been reached with the Democratic absences.

A Monday evening email from Martinez Fischer to his caucus read in part, “Members, I would not feel compelled to change your existing travel plans based on today's floor proceedings.”

At the press conference, state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) said in reference to the 2021 quorum breaks, “We’ve seen this movie before … it is not a legislative maneuver, it is a hijacking,”

Tensions are running high as the third special session nears its expiration date of next Tuesday. While the gridlock is not nearly as dramatic as the Democrats’ 2021 flight to Washington, D.C., the House again lacks the quorum it needs to advance the rest of the Legislature’s pending business.

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