AUSTIN -- Education is shaping up to be a dominant issue in the 2012 legislative elections as teachers and their allies begin seeking political retaliation for deep reductions in school financing and other measures perceived as unfriendly to educators.
"Cuts in education are going to be one of the biggest issues to be considered in the next election cycle," said Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.
His group will examine voting records and plan strategy to "get some teacher-friendly folks" elected, he said.
House members are scheduled to vote today on a so-called nontax-revenue measure and a school package that would implement $4 billion in reduced state payments to school districts over the next two years.
Lawmakers will also vote on measures that would allow increased class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade and shorten the amount of time required for school districts to notify teachers of layoffs. A bill by Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, would require districts to give top consideration to merit, not seniority, when laying off teachers.
Political payback for the reduction in state education funding has been a recurring theme in protests by parents and educators, including one that drew thousands to a rally in March outside the Capitol.
At a rally Saturday, about 200 demonstrators chanted, "We watch, we vote!"
Members of the Fort Worth-based United Educators Association of Texas, which represents nearly 19,000 teachers and school employees in North Texas, are getting the word out about what "the Legislature is doing on the backs of teachers to make up the shortfall," said Steven Poole, the association's deputy executive director.
Many members of his organization face layoffs and otherwise uncertain futures. "It's a tough time," he said. "I'm pretty confident they're going to take that anger out in November of next year."
The school finance package is part of larger measure intended to generate more than $3 billion through accounting changes, fee restructuring and a one-time deferral in state payments to school districts.
This "nontax-revenue" measure is needed to balance the $172.3 billion state budget passed at the end of the regular session.
Outnumbered Democrats, who blame the Republican majority for downsizing Texas education, make no secret of their plan to trumpet the issue in the 2012 elections.
"We're going to try to make the education cuts a huge issue," said Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
Democrats have no hope of prevailing in today's series of education votes, Veasey said, but "we're definitely going to get our talking points out there."
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who filibustered against the nontax-revenue measure at the end of the regular session, joined two other Senate Democrats on Wednesday in introducing what appeared to be largely symbolic legislation to eliminate the $4 billion in cuts.
Also backing the bill were Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. Their proposed "Responsible Budget Roadmap" recycled points made by the three Democrats during Senate debate on the school aid bill and appeared dead on arrival Wednesday.
"We're not going to retreat from our principles, we're not going to raise taxes and we're not going to renegotiate the budget," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer, said in response to the measure.
Republicans say their leadership has worked hard to protect both public and higher education funding in the face of a massive budget shortfall.
"I would love to give more money to schools, but the bottom line is we can't spend money we don't have, and we can't raise taxes," said Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford. "Democrats want to raise taxes. Republicans say no more taxes."
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294