Payroll deduction ban would silence teachers, not save taxpayers money

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott describes the items he wants addressed by a special legislative session during a press conference at the State Capitol on June 6, 2017. (TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott officially invited Texas legislators to head back to the pink dome July 18 for a 30-day special session to pass legislation that will keep five state agencies – including the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Medical Board – open.

Once those agencies are taken care of, Abbott wants lawmakers to turn their attention to several items that failed during the 140-day regular legislative session and others that weren’t a part of it.

While limits on local control – including a bill banning transgender-friendly bathroom policies – are among the most talked about issues on Abbott’s 19-point conservative agenda for the special session, Abbott also proposes lawmakers push for some troublesome public education measures.

Members of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, including executive director Gary Godsey, shared their concerns Monday with the American-Statesman’s editorial board about the upcoming special session.

For instance, while the ATPE supports Abbott’s call for improving the state’s school finance system, the organization – like many other public education advocates – hoped for real solutions during the regular session. Abbott wants lawmakers to establish a commission to study school finance reform.

“Our public schools deserve more than another interim study and local taxpayers deserve a reprieve from shouldering so much of the state’s obligation to fund public education,” ATPE said in a statement.

Two other items that worry the folks at ATPE and other pro-public education organizations are Abbott’s unfunded teacher raise mandate – an item that was not a part of the regular session – and a proposed ban on union due payroll deductions.

Yes, ATPE advocates for increased teacher salaries. As they see it, pay raises make sense. Not only do they help recruit and retain good teachers, but in some school districts, a pay raise could also help a teacher offset the high cost of healthcare, Kate Kuhlmann, an ATPE lobbyist told us.

If the state is going to mandate $1,000 raises for all Texas public schoolteachers, then the Legislature needs to help pay for the raises, Godsey said. Most school districts have strapped budgets. Demanding that struggling school districts comply with a state mandate could mean cuts to areas that can’t afford them – like teacher retirement plans or educational programs.

Godsey is right. We should all support teacher pay raises, but not like this.

Another point of concern for many public education advocates is a legislative push to ban union fees deductions from payrolls, a measure that some – including ATPE – say aims to silence teacher voices.

During the regular session, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) introduced “anti-union” bills designated as priority items by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get Texas out of the business of collecting union dues. Similar bills by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) are expected to be filed for the special session. Huffman’s bill proposed to deny some public employees – with teachers comprising the largest group – the ability to deduct membership fees to organizations from their paychecks. However, the bills exempted unions representing law enforcement, firefighters and first responders.

Why are police, firefighters and EMS union dues excluded from such bills, you ask? Some argue that it is because the exempted are public servants, Godsey told us. Under that rationale, educators belong as part of the exempted group. Teachers are the front line of public service.

The bill’s authors along with Abbott and Patrick have said such deductions costs taxpayer money. Groups who oppose such measures say taxpayers don’t pay to administer deductions because state statutes require organizations to pay that expense. (The deduction process is no different than when a state employee requests a payroll deduction for donations to nonprofit organizations like United Way).

Godsey shared with us that he’s asked lawmakers who support the measure: If payroll deductions are so bad, then why not cut them across the board and ban all state employees, not just some. The question merits an answer.

In short: There’s no need for such a measure other than politics.

“Educators have long fought to protect class sizes, strengthen school services, and reduce the emphasis on standardized testing,” Godsey wrote in an online-commentary in March. “By making membership in educator associations as burdensome as possible, these bills are designed to hurt teachers and students.”

Oh, and public schoolteachers also have fought against school vouchers.