AUSTIN -- School districts will be able to pay public school teachers less and furlough them without pay beginning in 2012 under a bill passed by the House on Thursday.

The measure also allows the education commissioner to consider budget cuts in allowing larger class sizes in some schools. The bill now goes back to the Senate to consider amendments added by the House on Thursday.

Lawmakers have slashed public school spending in order to balance the state budget without raising taxes or spending the Rainy Day Fund. The proposed law is designed to help school districts adjust to lower per-student funding.

Opponents claim it allows school districts to mistreat teachers. Supporters say the measure is necessary under the current economic situation and will expire when school funding returns to 2010-2011 levels.

Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, sponsored the bill in the House and said it was needed to allow school districts to cope with the state's financial problems.

"We've asked our schools to educate our children to a higher standard and in return, we need to give them the flexibility to meet our expectations."

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, spoke against the bill, which he argued passes on to the school districts the financial problems the Legislature failed to address.

"Teachers are at the center of the target, and we are attacking them," Turner asked during the debate Thursday. "This is nothing but another attack on our teachers."

The bill would allow school districts wait longer before notifying teachers that their contracts will not be renewed, giving districts more time to figure out how much money they'll have the following year. Teachers complain, though, that they won't have enough time to find a new job with another district under that schedule. Currently, teachers can't seek employment elsewhere while under contract, or else they risk losing their teaching certificate.

A teacher's contract would no longer have a salary minimum under the bill, allowing districts to pay teachers less than they were paid in the 2010-11 school year. Right now, school districts can only cut salary costs by eliminating teaching positions. School districts could also furlough teachers for up to six days without pay under the proposed law.

Schools would no longer be required to lay off teachers in order of least seniority, giving districts the opportunity to lay off more senior, higher-salaried teachers.

The law does maintain a maximum class size of 22 students for elementary schools, but expands the circumstances in which the education commissioner may grant a waiver to include the impact of budget cuts.

All of the measures expire when school funding exceeds 2010-2011 levels. An earlier bill removed a requirement that the state pay a minimum level per student and pay only what the state has available for public schools.

Opponents complain the measures will have no impact on the 2011-2012 school year, since contracts have already been signed under current law. They are also concerned it sets a dangerous precedent for how the state treats public school teachers.

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