Every Texan is a public education stakeholder, and because all public education issues are decided in the realm of public policy, we all have a voice if we choose to use it. Through Teach the Vote, ATPE is highlighting issues that are of great importance to the education community, but we believe the information presented here is relevant to all public education stakeholders.
Under each issue, you'll find:
We encourage you to become more familiar with the state of public education today and to formulate your own viewpoints. Visit our Teach the Vote blog for updates on developments at the Capitol and more information about how you can help advocate for public education. You can also sign up to receive email and RSS alerts whenever new blog content is posted, and you can follow @TeachtheVote and ATPE's lobbyists on Twitter. In addition, the information on our Take Action and Resources pages will help you communicate with officeholders and other stakeholders about these and other issues.
OUR PRIORITY: ATPE urges the legislature to repair and stabilize the state's broken school finance system and provide adequate and equitable funding for all public schools. We believe that every child deserves access to an exemplary public education and that the state must fulfill its financial obligation to make that a reality for all Texas schoolchildren, now and in the future.
Funding determines everything in our public schools. If policymakers do not allocate the resources necessary for the next generation to meet future challenges, then they have done a disservice to Texas children. We all want the best education possible for our children and the best economic environment to foster quality job growth. We can only achieve the best by setting high, yet reasonable, standards and providing educators and our public schools with the funding necessary to meet those objectives.
During the 2013 legislative session, the legislature chose to increase public education funding by approximately $3.4 billion. However, the additional funding did not make up for the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education in 2011, when the legislature also declined to fund enrollment growth for the first time in history, forcing many school districts to lay off staff and eliminate student programs. (See "Defining the Funding Cut of the 82nd Legislative Session," Moakcasey.com, Sept. 27, 2011.) ATPE advocated for fully restoring the cuts in addition to funding enrollment growth. At that time, the comptroller projected that the state would have $101.4 billion, including an $8.8 billion surplus from 2012-13, in discretionary dollars to spend on state priorities in 2013. That amount was more than enough to fully restore the $5.4 billion previously cut—as well as allocate additional funding needed for the state's schools. In addition, Texas was projected to have nearly $12 billion in the Rainy Day Fund at the end of the 2014-15 biennium.
Going into the 2015 legislative session, the comptroller is projecting that we will have another $8 billion surplus as well as more than $8 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. However, the state constitution imposes a ceiling on the amount of money each legislature may spend, unless it votes to exceed the spending cap, which requires only a simple majority vote. Thus, the 84th Legislature may only increase spending by the same rate that personal income is expected to grow over the next biennium. For 2016-17, that rate of growth is projected to be approximately 11 percent, meaning that the legislature has nearly $10 billion in unrestricted funds that can be spent on any priority, including public education. The bottom line is that even in a low-tax state such as Texas, the revenue exists to restore the cuts made in 2011 to public schools; the issue is whether there is the legislative will to do so in 2015.
For several years now, Texas's school finance system has failed to generate sufficient revenue to meet state-mandated educational goals and standards. One reason is that an ever-increasing structural deficit exists in our state budget. It's caused by a faulty tax system that can't adequately support our educational needs. In addition, per-pupil funding in districts across the state ranges from less than $5,000 per student to more than $12,000. Against the backdrop of this funding inequity and inadequacy, Texas is once again embroiled in a major school finance-related lawsuit. For the second time in 10 years, a court has declared our state's method of funding public education unconstitutional. The litigation is pending an appeal, and it remains to be seen whether the 84th Legislature will take steps to address the underlying problems.
ATPE's position: ATPE supports a public education funding system that is equitable and adequate to provide every student an equal opportunity to receive an exemplary public education. ATPE also supports any form of state revenue enhancement and tax restructuring that accomplishes this goal, empowers the state to be the primary source of funding, and creates a more stable funding structure for our schools. We strongly support efforts to increase funding levels to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and changing population and to increase funding equity for all students.
Legislative developments related to this issue:
Both the House and the Senate budget writing committees are in the final stages of developing their respective budgets before sending them to the full chambers for debate. The House version contains funds for enrollment growth as well as an additional $2.2 billion that is designed to be used to increase equity within the public education system. Further, the House includes $768 million for retiree healthcare (TRS-Care) in a supplemental appropriations bill. TRS-Care funding is one of ATPE's top priorities for the legislative session and we have lobbied to the legislature to include this additional funding in the final version of the state budget.
OUR PRIORITY: ATPE opposes the privatization of public schools. We object to using public tax dollars to pay private entities to operate Texas public schools and take over the authority and accountability that have been vested in locally elected school boards. We urge the legislature to continue to reject any type of voucher, scholarship, tax credit, or similar program aimed at enrolling pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students in private, home, or for-profit schools at the public's expense.
Private school vouchers, tuition tax credits, "taxpayer savings grants," and similar programs seek to direct public funds to private, home, or for-profit schools.
ATPE's position: ATPE opposes any program or initiative, tuition tax credit, or voucher system that would direct public funds to private, home, or for-profit virtual schools.
ATPE opposes the selective participation of home school and private school students in public school activities and classes, except through the Virtual School Network. We also oppose legislation that would require the University Interscholastic League (UIL) to open its membership to all private and home schools.
Legislative developments related to this issue:
Several voucher-related bills have been filed this session:
For additional information, check out our blog post, A voucher by any other name.
OUR PRIORITY: ATPE urges the legislature to provide sufficient funding to meet the healthcare needs of active and retired educators while preserving the solvency and the defined-benefit structure of the Teacher Retirement System.
TRS was created in 1937 as a retirement system for Texas educators. Since the mid-1980s, TRS has also been responsible for administering health insurance programs for educators. The TRS pension fund is one of the largest, most stable, and healthiest funds in the nation. It has more than 1.4 million members and net assets over $130 billion. (As of Aug. 31, 2014, TRS net assets totaled $132.8 billion.) In 2014, investment returns for the pension fund were nearly 17 percent, far above the assumed rate of 8 percent.
TRS is a defined-benefit pension plan, with retirement benefits determined by a pre-established formula. Its defined-benefit structure provides predictable retirement income for educators and enables the average retiree to receive a pension of approximately $2,000 per month. The TRS benefit package available to educators, though not rich, is a major recruitment and retention tool and entices qualified individuals to enter and remain in public education. TRS is also a robust economic engine. It affects more than one in every 20 Texans, generates $15.4 billion for the Texas economy, and creates and sustains more than 96,000 jobs (Teacher Retirement System of Texas: A Great Value for All Texans, June 2014).
The TRS pension fund is supported by contributions from active educators, contributions made by the state, and investment revenues. In the 2013 legislative session, public education employees displayed their dedication to maintaining TRS as a healthy defined-benefit plan by agreeing to both benefit changes and contribution rate increases. In 2015, the active member contribution rate will increase from 6.4 percent to 6.7 percent; in 2016, to 7.2 percent; and, in 2017, to 7.7 percent. As of 2014, the state has been contributing 6.8 percent and school districts have begun contributing 1.5 percent of employee compensation to TRS. Thanks to the legislation passed last session with ATPE's help, the pension trust fund is actuarially sound and able to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for thousands of retirees.
There have been some proposals in recent years to convert TRS from a defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution plan, which would be similar to a 401(k) retirement plan with benefits not guaranteed. However, the sound management and healthy investment returns achieved by TRS demonstrate that TRS should be maintained in its current form as a defined-benefit plan. TRS is well-run, stable, reasonable, and cost-effective—in other words, what every Texan should expect from the management of state funds.
Unfortunately, the outlook for educators' healthcare programs administered through TRS is not as positive on account of several years of legislative underfunding. TRS-Care, the health insurance plan for retirees, is projected to completely run out of funding in 2016 unless the legislature acts. This bleak forecast can be attributed to the budget cuts of 2011 and to our state's meager funding of employee benefits in general. Texas spends $969 per pupil on employee benefits, including contributions to educators' retirement and healthcare funds, which puts us at the bottom of the list compared with other states. Neighboring states Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana spend $1,425 per pupil, $1,648 per pupil, and $2,943 per pupil, respectively, for employee benefits (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2012, G12-CG-ASPEF, released May 2014).
TRS staff has asked the legislature for more than $700 million in supplemental funding to keep TRS-Care operating for two more years. During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers must take action to increase funding for TRS-Care, or the program will cease to exist. Further, if the legislature chooses to require all current sources of funding to increase proportionately, active educator contributions would increase by a third during 2016-17 and retiree premiums would spike by 34.8 percent in 2016-17 and by another 20 percent in 2018-19.
State funding for TRS-ActiveCare, which covers public education employees who have not yet retired, has been static since the program was first created in 2001. During that time frame, employees' premiums have increased more than 250 percent. In fact, active employee premiums for Texas educators are higher than their private sector counterparts, largely because state contributions have been frozen at $75 per employee per month since 2003. In recent attempts to make the program more affordable, benefits have been redesigned and enrollment has increased in the low-cost, high-deductible plan. Again, much like TRS-Care, legislative inaction has led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial.
In November 2014, TRS released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. The study outlines numerous options for the legislature to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Solutions to the problem are likely to be expensive for both the state and program participants, but ATPE will be urging the legislature to increase funding and to minimize the impact of any changes on both active employees and retirees.
ATPE's position: ATPE strongly believes that the state should maintain the existing defined-benefit pension structure provided to all current and future retirees. (TRS members contribute a defined amount—6.4 percent, increasing to 7.7 percent by 2017—from every paycheck and receive a formula-driven annuity based on experience and final average salary.)
ATPE supports the dedication of all available revenue to maintain the pension fund's actuarial soundness using contributions from the state, local school districts, and the educators who are system members. Doing so will help provide all active and retired TRS members with improved benefits, such as an annual cost-of-living increase for retirees. We support an increased state contribution rate, an increase in the retirement formula multiplier for educators who remain in the profession beyond their eligibility for full retirement, the establishment of TRS benefits comparable to state employee retirement benefits, and continued control of TRS funds at the state level.
ATPE also supports federal reforms to eliminate provisions that reduce retirement benefits of educators, and we oppose mandatory participation in Social Security for employees of public school districts in Texas.
ATPE supports providing public school employees with high-quality, competitive health insurance benefits that are fully funded by the state at a level equal to or greater than the benefits provided to state employees
Legislative developments related to this issue:
The TRS pension trust fund is fully funded in both the House and Senate versions of the budget and is still projected to be actuarially sound. There are various bills that have been filed that would increase benefits for retirees; however, the cost to the trust fund would likely be significant, making those bills less likely to succeed.
TRS-Care is scheduled to run out of funding in 2016 unless the legislature acts to increase funding and/or change the plan design and benefit structure currently offered. There are several proposals to change TRS-Care, including some significant changes outlined in legislation that has been filed in the Senate. Although the proposed methods by which the funding is obtained varies from the House to the Senate, both chambers have supplemental funding bills that would fully fund TRS-Care for the next two years until a more long-term financing plan can be developed.
At this time, there is no additional funding contemplated for active employee healthcare above the traditional statutory levels provided since 2001. ATPE is urging the legislature to increase this amount by at least double the current contribution level.
OUR PRIORITY: ATPE supports efforts to reduce the time and emphasis placed on high-stakes testing in Texas public schools. We oppose the use of state standardized test scores as the primary measure of student achievement, educator effectiveness, or school performance.
Texas was one of the first states to develop school accountability laws, which now exist in all 50 states and at the national level. Federal accountability requirements for schools are primarily found within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Originally enacted by Congress in 1965, the bill was reauthorized in 2001 and became known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The ESEA/NCLB holds states and local schools accountable for student progress and requires that all students be tested.
The Texas accountability system assigns ratings to school districts and campuses based on academic and financial performance, as well as a self-assigned community engagement rating. "A" through "F" ratings centered on student test results and academic performance are assigned at the school district level. Similarly, campuses are rated "exemplary," "recognized," "acceptable," or "unacceptable" based on student test results and academic performance. Academic and financial ratings are assigned every year.
For schools that fail to meet state or federal accountability targets, the consequences can be harsh. Interventions and sanctions may include agency investigations, public notice and hearings, implementation of improvement plans, monitoring of school operations, appointment of a board of managers to take over the duties of the school board, and consolidation or closing of schools. Sanctions that involve contracting with private entities to take over the operations of a school are especially controversial.
The enactment of state and federal accountability laws led to the birth and rapid expansion of an entire industry related to standardized testing and longitudinal measurement of student growth using test scores. Testing and ranking schools based on standardized test scores have become the primary state and federal mandates in public education and drive spending, learning, and behavior in public schools.
In addition to the inordinate amount of time spent on testing, many school districts have complained about the burden of complying with two separate accountability systems simultaneously, with the state and federal systems containing differing goals, measures, and penalties for low performance. The education community has been waiting for Congress to make changes to ESEA/NCLB, which was supposed to have been reauthorized in 2007 and has become outdated and unworkable in many ways. As a result of congressional inaction, most states have appealed to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers of some ESEA/NCLB requirements. Texas received a conditional waiver that requires the state to adopt new methods of evaluating educators, with greater emphasis placed on measuring student growth.
The Texas legislature did make some important changes to our state's testing and accountability systems with the passage of House Bill (HB) 5 in 2013. The bill succeeded largely as the result of growing backlash against the overemphasis on standardized testing; educators and parent groups convinced the legislature to reduce the number of required tests at the high school level, and graduation requirements were also changed in HB 5 in an attempt to give students more flexibility. Additionally, HB 5 changed the state's accountability system by altering the academic and financial accountability measures used for campuses and school districts and adding a self-evaluation of each district's level of community and student engagement. For students in elementary grades and their teachers, however, HB 5 offered little relief from the high-stakes testing regime, since the federal ESEA/NCLB still requires frequent assessments of all students.
ATPE's position: ATPE supports a testing and accountability system developed with educator input that maximizes student learning and helps educators meet the individual needs of students. We support state and locally developed alternative assessment instruments provided that teachers are afforded adequate resources to develop them. ATPE believes the state should allow appropriate test-related flexibility for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with special needs. We believe the state should not require state-developed end-of-course exams to be included in a student's course grade. Most importantly, ATPE urges the state and federal government to reduce the amount of mandated testing at the elementary and middle school levels.
ATPE opposes using high-stakes standardized test scores as the primary determinant for campus and district accountability. We recommend that the state's accountability and data systems, including any growth models, be based on statistically valid principles. ATPE opposes the use of value-added modeling at the individual teacher level for teacher evaluation purposes or decisions about continued employment of teachers.
Legislative developments related to this issue:
Several bills have been filed relating to accountability and student testing, including the following:
OUR PRIORITY: ATPE supports initiatives to improve educator quality through selective recruitment, training, compensation, and retention. Specifically, we support raising the standards for educator preparation and certification; state-funded mentoring for all new teachers; increasing teacher compensation while preserving the integrity of the state's minimum salary schedule; and making evaluations less punitive and more supportive of individual teachers. We also urge the legislature to allow educators to set and enforce high standards for their own profession through an independent board made up of Texas educators.
ATPE has been a steadfast leader in advocating for educator quality and equitable distribution of high-quality teachers across Texas public schools. Research has shown the importance of having high-quality teachers, including two studies on teacher quality commissioned by ATPE in 2008 and 2010. As in prior legislative sessions, we believe the 84th Legislature must take steps to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality teacher.
First, the state must set high standards for entrance into the profession. Texas must require selective admissions criteria for educator preparation programs (EPPs), ensure that EPPs provide high-quality training to certification candidates, and hold EPPs accountable for preparing teachers to face the rigors of the classroom. ATPE has been a leading proponent for raising the GPA and college coursework requirements for EPP candidates. Rigorous screening is particularly important in alternative certification settings where EPP candidates become teachers of record almost immediately, well before they have completed their training or passed state certification exams. The 83rd Legislature passed a bill aimed at raising the standards for EPP admission, but the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), which oversees educator preparation, declined to change its rules and is looking to the 84th Legislature to clarify its intent and provide further guidance.
After entering the classroom, teachers need intensive support and ongoing professional development. One of the most effective means of improving teacher quality and supporting novice teachers is mentoring. Despite research that mentoring can improve the effectiveness of beginning teachers in a way that translates into improvements in student achievement data, the legislature has never prioritized funding for mentoring of new teachers. To address its teacher quality gap, Texas must invest in a mentoring program that is mandated to cover all new teachers.
Retaining high-quality teachers is another well-documented challenge for our state, considering estimates that up to 50 percent of teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years on the job. Again, research supports mentoring as a solution, which improves not only student achievement but also teacher satisfaction and retention. Moreover, mentoring makes sense financially: the cost of replacing a teacher who walks away from the classroom in frustration is more than double the cost of mentoring a first-year teacher. It's been estimated that teacher turnover costs our nation more than $7 billion each year. (Read the 2007 "Policy Brief: The High Cost of Teacher Turnover" released by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future at www.nctaf.org.) ATPE will continue to advocate for state-funded mentoring programs to improve teacher retention.
Employment rights and benefits also have a profound impact on whether great teachers stay in the classroom. Texas public school teachers generally receive less compensation than the national average, and there have been attempts to do away with laws that protect teachers' pay. For instance, some advocate replacing the state's minimum salary schedule with performance-based pay. Teacher contracts are also a frequent target during legislative sessions, based on the misconception that it is too difficult to remove poor-performing teachers. In reality, Texas teachers do not enjoy tenure benefits that exist in other states, and they can be removed from employment with relative ease. Teacher contracts actually help schools and students as much as teachers; contracts insulate districts against costly litigation and help ensure continuity in the classroom, since teachers cannot simply walk off the job in the middle of a school year.
When a Texas teacher's contract is non-renewed, it's usually because budget cuts have necessitated a reduction in force, or because the teacher received poor evaluations. Under state law, evaluations are used to assess teachers' performance, identify strengths and weaknesses, prescribe supplemental training where necessary, and dismiss educators who are underperforming. Texas's current state-recommended teacher evaluation system, the Professional Development and Appraisal System (PDAS), has been criticized for its lack of emphasis on the performance of students taught by individual teachers. Critics also argue that the PDAS is flawed because it allows an overwhelming majority of teachers to be deemed proficient and fails to provide meaningful feedback on how teachers might improve their performance.
As a condition of the ESEA/NCLB waiver that the federal government granted Texas, our state is in the process of developing and piloting new teacher and principal evaluation models known as T-TESS and T-PESS. They are intended to meet the requirements of President Obama's administration that evaluations treat student growth as a "significant" factor. Under T-TESS, 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student growth. For teachers of state-tested grades and subjects, value-added modeling (VAM) will be used to measure student growth by analyzing their students' STAAR test scores over time. It is controversial method, and ATPE has cautioned policymakers against using VAM at the individual teacher level for evaluations that may impact employment. Although helpful in providing data about performance at the campus level or higher, VAM is considered unreliable at the individual teacher level due to the limitations of standardized testing and access to sufficient longitudinal data. Furthermore, since approximately 70 percent of all teachers teach a subject or grade level in which there is no state standardized test, there are concerns about the fairness of using VAM for high-stakes employment decisions affecting some teachers and the possibility of creating a campus environment that is more competitive than collaborative.
With lingering concerns about new evaluations and since the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is targeting the 2016-17 school year for statewide implementation of T-TESS, it is highly likely that the 84th Legislature will consider bills relating to evaluation in 2015. Issues of concern include the resources available to districts for proper implementation of new evaluations, the training and selection of appraisers, the frequency of teachers' observations, and the ways in which teachers' evaluation scores may be used. While evaluation is important, it is merely one element in a broad spectrum. To be useful, evaluation systems must work in conjunction with other comprehensive initiatives to selectively recruit and retain high-quality teachers, including programs to provide ongoing professional development of teachers and a compensation and benefits package that is both stable and competitive with other industries.
ATPE also believes educators should have the right to regulate their profession. Most aspects of the profession are governed currently by SBEC, which oversees educator preparation, certification, and conduct. Heading into the 2015 legislative session, efforts are being made by some to eliminate SBEC. The Sunset Advisory Commission, which is tasked with examining the functions of state boards and agencies and determining whether they should remain in existence, has recommended that SBEC be abolished. The commission would prefer the board's duties to be performed by the commissioner of education with assistance from an advisory committee. The State Board of Education (SBOE) has also recommended that the legislature abolish SBEC and transfer its responsibilities to the elected SBOE instead. ATPE opposes turning over the authority for educator certification and discipline to a single state official who is appointed by the governor and is not necessarily an educator. We will continue to advocate for allowing an independent board of Texas educators (ideally elected by their peers) to govern the education profession.
ATPE's position: ATPE supports a certification process that ensures educators are appropriately trained and certified exclusively by the state. We oppose mandatory national certification. ATPE urges the state to increase the standards for entrance into the profession. We also recommend that the state fund programs to reduce the financial burden on teachers pursuing certification and initiatives to recruit and retain educators in shortage areas.
ATPE supports mandatory state-funded and research-based mentoring programs for beginning educators. We recommend that the state compensate mentors and give them sufficient training and resources to be successful. ATPE also supports professional development programs that are comprehensive, high-quality, affordable, and accessible to all school district personnel. We encourage the development of interactive professional development learning communities.
ATPE supports evaluations composed of multiple measures that will help identify teachers who are struggling and provide timely, meaningful feedback to all teachers. ATPE opposes the use of value-added modeling (VAM) at the individual teacher level for evaluations or employment decisions. We support incorporating student growth measures at the campus level or higher into evaluations as long as the measures are developed with educator input, piloted, and deemed statistically reliable. ATPE also supports the creation of evaluation standards for administrators that include a survey of campus staff.
We support improving educator compensation as a tool for recruitment and retention. Further, we support a career compensation and benefits package for all certified, licensed, and contracted public school employees with salaries that are equal to or greater than the national average and competitive with private industry. The state should employ a minimum salary schedule that provides for step increases over a 30-year period to recognize longevity in the profession. In addition to minimum salaries for professional and paraprofessional staff, ATPE supports differentiated pay for educators who undertake advanced training or other professional duties outside normal instructional activities. However, ATPE opposes performance pay programs unless they are equitably designed by educators on the campus. ATPE opposes using high-stakes standardized test scores as the primary determinant for educator compensation and employment.
ATPE supports vigorous enforcement of educator contract laws and due process for employment decisions. ATPE recommends that the state prohibit districts from reducing an employee's pay through the imposition of additional duties or extension of the school day, week, or year. The state should also prohibit districts from changing their local policies after teachers' deadline for resignation, if those changes would reduce educators' compensation or benefits. ATPE also supports due process protections for paraprofessional educators.
Finally, ATPE supports the maintenance of a separate, independent state board that allows educators to govern their own profession and enforce the Educator Code of Ethics. We recommend that a majority of the board's voting members be public educators elected by the profession.
Legislative developments related to this issue:
Several bills have been filed that relate to education profession, including the following:
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