AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that $1.6 billion in teacher raises are coming in a deal partly driven by classroom unrest across the U.S. and Republicans who sharply changed course on public education ahead of 2020 elections.
Abbott trumpeted the pay hikes near the end of an unusually muted session of the Texas Legislature, where a weakened GOP majority largely retreated from culture wars that had made the state Capitol a recurring national battleground over abortion, immigration crackdowns and LGBT rights.
But after losing more than a dozen seats in the 2018 midterms — and barely hanging onto others — Texas Republicans who have angered teachers over spending cuts and appeals to religious and private campuses announced they would prioritize public education. The system of funding schools for more than 5 million students was declared barely constitutional in 2016.
"In the inauguration I made some pretty bold promises to the people of Texas," said Abbott, who was sworn into a second term in January. "I said we must reward teachers in school districts that achieve results, we've done that. I said we must prioritize spending in the classroom, we've done that."
A spending bill is not yet signed but is expected to reach Abbott's desk before lawmakers adjourn Monday until 2021.
It makes Texas the latest state — and now the largest — to pour significant new dollars into classrooms in wake of teacher revolts across the U.S. since 2017. Public school teachers in Texas don't collectively bargain and never went on strike, but teacher unions said they made their resentment known at the ballot box last year.
Teacher salaries in Texas are currently about $7,000 below the national average, according to the National Education Association. Lawmakers who worked on the new spending plan says the raises amount to roughly $4,000 for teachers with more than five years in the classroom, and that raises will also be given to librarians and school staff.
Teacher unions met the news with caution, saying they needed to see details.
But they also found reason for optimism just two years after Texas' last legislative session was upended by failed efforts by Republican leaders to pass a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender students .
"We've been working to elect a new Legislature that would take schools seriously and not give us bathrooms and vouchers, and it appeared that was the direction we were moving in," said Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Low teacher pay has also become an issue in the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates, with some calling for a federal investment in classroom salaries.
Republicans said the changes in Texas include a merit pay program that could pay exceptional teachers even more.
"Eventually they could make a six-figure living and not have to go into being a principal or administration," said Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty, the Texas House chairman over public education.
Abbott announced the raises as part of a broader deal that includes a school finance overhaul and reforms to slow rising property taxes. That the plan includes $5 billion for tax relief and $4.5 for classroom dollars left some education observers disappointed.
"Very clearly the priority of this bill was tax cuts and future tax cuts, not education," said Chandra Villanueva, an education policy analysis for the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities.