Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 15, 2019

It’s been another busy week in the Texas capital. Here’s a wrap-up of this week’s education news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


School finance reform continues to dominate the conversations taking place within multiple committees during this 86th session of the Texas Legislature.

On Monday, Feb. 11, the Senate Finance Committee met to continue its review of state budget proposals. The committee heard from the leaders of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) before inviting stakeholders to weigh in on the topic of education funding. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified about the need to prioritize funding for teacher compensation, healthcare, and the TRS pension fund. Read more about Monday’s hearing in this blog post.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 12-13, the House Public Education Committee heard two days’ worth of invited testimony from stakeholders about school finance. Witnesses included former chairs of the committee, school superintendents, and representatives of education groups, who shared input on the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance that lawmakers are considering whether or not to adopt this session. Again, ATPE’s Monty Exter provided invited testimony, focusing his remarks on proposed changes to the state’s funding formulas, teacher quality considerations, the need for across-the-board salary increases, and concerns about outcomes-based funding. For a detailed summary of the hearings, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


ATPE has joined with 14 other groups in releasing a joint policy agenda for charter schools. The coalition that has spent several months looking at current laws and regulations on charter schools includes associations representing educators, school board members, school districts, and community partners. The groups agreed on seven major findings and recommendations for ways to increase the transparency and efficiency of charter schools. Read more about the effort and download a copy of the joint policy agenda in this blog post.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s Texas House District 125 went to the polls this week for a special election on Tuesday to fill the unexpired term of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez. Because none of the five candidates vying for the seat received a majority of the votes needed for an outright win, a runoff will be necessary to fill the seat. Those advancing to the runoff will be Republican businessman Fred Rangel, who garnered 38% of the vote, and Democratic former city council member Ray Lopez, who earned 19% of the vote. A third-place finisher trailed by only 22 votes in the close race.

The San Antonio district is one of two whose voters are currently unrepresented in the Texas House of Representatives due to vacancies. Another special election is pending in Houston’s House District 145, where two Democratic candidates, Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales, are awaiting a runoff election on March 5, 2019. Early voting for that runoff election will begin Feb. 25.

 


 

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Major Texas education groups agree on charter school policy agenda

This month, 15 major education groups in Texas agreed on a policy agenda for charter schools.

The groups include the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas Association of School Administrators, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the Texas American Federation of Teachers, the Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association, the Coalition for Education Funding, Pastors for Texas Children, Raise Your Hand Texas, the Fast Growth School Coalition, the Texas Association of Community Schools, the Texas Association of Midsize Schools, the Texas School Alliance, and the Intercultural Development and Research Association.

In Texas, 5.5% of students attend charter schools yet they receive 10% of state funding for education. Because charters cannot levy taxes, charter schools are 100% funded by the state. Each charter school student generates the sum of the statewide average adjusted allotment (basic allotment adjusted using various weights for special populations and circumstances) and the statewide average property tax revenue across school districts. Last session, charters gained access for the first time to $60 million in facilities funding, or about $200 per student.

While charters are subject to the same accountability as traditional school districts, there are many differences in how charters operate. Texas law allows charters to accept and expel students based on academics and discipline, to employ non-certified teachers, and to choose whether or not to employ any counselors or school nurses. Additionally, the majority of charter expansion is under the charter amendment process, which allows for uninhibited growth of charter schools.

The joint policy agenda of the groups listed above focuses on increasing the transparency and efficiency of charter schools through seven recommendations for lawmakers:

  1. Allow for public transparency and input before any new charter amendments are approved in a certain community.
  2. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) should consider creating a standard charter application process and maintain an accurate charter school wait list to correctly document the number of unique students desiring charter admission.
  3. Charters should not be able to admit and expel students based on academics and discipline, as this creates inequality between charters and traditional school districts despite the fact that both receive public funds and are expected to educate all students.
  4. The Commissioner of Education should adopt procedures to analyze and report on the expected fiscal, academic, and program impact of each new charter school in order to maintain efficiency of the entire public school system.
  5. Since charters receive nearly $3 billion in public funds each year, they should publicly disclose their financial dealings, including leases, mortgages, contracts, and bond debt.
  6. Parents need to make informed decisions about where to enroll their children and should therefore have access to information on each charter school’s website such as student rates of expulsion, teacher certification and attrition rates, and the percentage of special education students.
  7. Charters received an estimated $882 million more than the school districts in which they reside during the last biennium. It is important to equalize this funding and require charters to pay into the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) just as districts do in order to create parity.
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ATPE and others testify on school finance commission recommendations

This week, the House Public Education Committee received feedback from various stakeholders regarding recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Tuesday and Wednesday, committee members heard testimony from panels including three former House Public Education Committee chairs, superintendents, trustees, teachers, and representatives of education associations. Rural, suburban, and urban districts were represented, as well as charter and traditional public schools.

The overwhelming majority of testifiers expressed support for the commission’s recommended increase in the spectrum weight and the dual language weight. These would help create equity by funding certain student populations at higher levels. Most witnesses also commended the commission’s recommendation to fund early childhood education, but were concerned with its sustainability and with tying it to third-grade reading scores.

Among the concerns commonly expressed by stakeholders was outcomes-based funding. District leaders said they would like  local flexibility in implementing merit-based, outcomes-based, or performance-based funding mechanisms for their teachers. Apprehension with outcomes-based funding derived from mistrust or lack of confidence in the current assessment system’s ability to accurately capture student learning. In fact, an equal proportion of Tuesday’s discussions seemed to focus on assessment as on school finance. Some leaders expressed that tying funding to tests would reinforce teaching-to-the-test, and some stakeholders suggested that base teacher pay be addressed before additional incentive mechanisms.

Stakeholders representing small and midsize districts (up to 5,000 students) also expressed concern with the commission’s recommendation to move the small and midsize funding adjustment out of formula, which could alter funding to these special student populations, affecting the districts’ ability to meet federal obligations for financial maintenance of effort under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Overall, stakeholders also expressed concerns with any funding changes that were not part of the base formula, given that similar funding approaches in the past have been less reliable. An example cited was Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) funding under House Bill (HB) 4 of 2015, which created an optional grant program should districts decide to offer high-quality Pre-K. Another potential funding change discussed this week was the Cost of Education Index (CEI). While some testified that they were uncomfortable with the idea of the CEI being eliminated, Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) reiterated his intent for definite removal of the CEI in any school finance overhaul this session.

While this week’s testimony nearly always touched on teacher compensation, an important aspect of teaching beyond pay arose in the conversations: mentoring. A few witnesses expressed that the best first-year investment is a mentor teacher and that having mentor teachers is another way to provide extra compensation. Special education is another topic that came up during the hours of testimony, even though it was not widely broached by the commission last year other than through a discussion of funding for dyslexia. In testimony, several special education advocates suggested revamping the way special education is funded, which is currently done by placement rather than services. Chairman Huberty was favorable to the ideas presented.

Monty Exter

ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, was last to testify Wednesday evening. He shared that ATPE supports the commission’s recommended changes to the weights, local flexibility in spending weighted dollars, and increases to the basic allotment. He expressed concerns with outcomes-based funding and suggested an adequate base increase for teachers and others on the education team first. Exter also offered that inputs should be incentivized as well, in a similar way to how high-quality Pre-K was incentivized through the HB 4 grant program. Lastly, Exter testified that teacher quality is related to educator preparation, another topic that cannot be forgotten when discussing increasing teacher effectiveness.

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Senate Finance Committee takes up public education funding in Article III of the budget

On Monday, Feb. 11, the Senate Finance committee heard testimony from the state agencies affected by Article III, the education portion of the state budget. Excluding those representing higher education, the committee heard from representatives of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

Chairwoman Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) opened the hearing with the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) layout of the TEA budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

Sen. Nelson’s budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, proposes approximately $6 billion in the TEA portion over current formula funding, including $3.7 billion for an educator pay raise and $2.3 billion for property tax relief.

Several members of the committee voiced displeasure with what they view as a mischaracterization by many in the public that the state’s share of education funding has fallen to 38 percent. The members noted that this figure only represents the state’s share of Foundation School Program (FSP) funding and that there are other state dollars being spent on public education outside of the FSP. To be fair, it is true that the 38 percent figure specifically refers to the state’s share of FSP funding and that the state also pays into other sources of school district funding, such as for facilities and TRS. However, the local share of facilities funding, for example, is much greater than the percentage that local districts pay toward FSP funding. Also, educators and school districts pay a significant percent of the money going to TRS for pension contributions and health insurance costs.

Senators also pointed out that they don’t control local property tax rates or rising property values, which under current law have pushed state general revenue funds out of public education. Both of these facts are true, but again, lawmakers have failed to modify existing formulas to drive increased state spending above what current law requires. This effectively starves public schools, leaving locally elected school boards little option but to maintain or raise their local property tax rates.

Following testimony of the LBB, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath walked the committee through the TEA presentation. The commissioner highlighted agency funding requests to deal with school safety and the agency’s special education corrective plan. The latter was necessitated by recent enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Education and a ruling out of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, both highlighting our state’s failure to properly address the needs of its special education population.

The commissioner’s testimony included a lengthy back and forth discussion with committee members on Monday. Chairwoman Nelson engaged Commissioner Morath on the topic of third-grade reading, an emphasis in the final recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Responding to questions about STAAR and third-grade retention, Morath pointed out that grade retention, which is no longer a mandatory result of failure to pass STAAR in the younger grades, is neither an efficient expenditure of money nor a particularly effective remediation tool.

When asked about the dual management of the Permanent School Fund, which has recently resulted in a feud between the Texas Land Commissioner and the State Board of Education (SBOE), the commissioner indicated that the current set-up probably costs the fund around $200 million a year in lost investment opportunities. Finally, in an exchange with senators about boosting performance among the state’s low socioeconomic student population, the commissioner touted the benefits of funding pre-kindergarten and Dallas ISD’s ACE model.

Next in the committee, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie laid out his agency’s presentation on the budget. He covered the TRS board’s action in lowering the pension fund’s assumed rate of return and the need for increased contributions to bring the fund back into near-term actuarial soundness. He also covered state cost issues related to TRS-Care and the educator affordability issues related to TRS-ActiveCare. Guthrie reiterated his agency’s request for additional staff, some of whom would be used to increase TRS customer service, while other positions would be used to bring additional investment management tasks in-house, for a projected savings of $1.4 billion over a five-year period.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who in addition to serving on the Finance Committee chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, had a lengthy discussion with Mr. Guthrie. She covered last session’s TRS-Care bill, which she authored in the Senate, as well as the need for additional funding in the current budget and the need for continued reform to prevent the state from being right back in the situation it was in last session with runaway costs. Huffman then turned her attention to the pension system and discussed her plan to pass legislation that would increase contributions to the fund over a number of years. Her plan would reduce the funding period of the pension from 87 years down to 24 years and bring the plan back into a condition of actuarial soundness by 2020. Currently, the plan will not reach actuarial soundness or be able to offer retirees a cost-of-living adjustment for approximately 57 years.

After the committee concluded hearing testimony from the invited agencies, public testimony was entertained, including from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter. Exter’s testimony focused on funding teacher compensation, the TRS pension system, and educator healthcare. He concluded by encouraging the committee to focus on equity when addressing new discretionary spending and deciding how best to go about reducing recapture and property taxes. Exter’s full testimony can be seen here (at the 2:40 mark in the broadcast).

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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 8, 2019

Here’s your chilly edition of this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations staff:


Andrea Chevalier

ATPE is excited to welcome Andrea Chevalier, the newest lobbyist to join our Governmental Relations team.

Andrea joins us most recently from the office of state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), where she served as Legislative Director and oversaw a host of issues, including public education. She is also a former classroom teacher with experience working in both the traditional public school and charter school environments. Andrea attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied chemistry; earned her Masters of Education in Secondary Education at the University of North Texas; and is currently working on completing her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from UT.

Andrea will be lobbying and reporting on a variety of issues being debated by the legislature this session, working closely with the House Public Education Committee, and covering educator quality regulations considered by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Watch for her blog posts here on Teach the Vote and follow her on Twitter at @ATPE_AndreaC.

 


On Tuesday, Gov. Gregg Abbott addressed a joint session of the 86th Legislature, delivering his traditional “State of the State” address. He outlined his legislative priorities for the session, punctuated by the declaration of six issues as emergency items that would warrant expedited action by lawmakers. All six of the issues bear close ties to public education, including most notably school finance, school safety, and teacher pay. Abbott’s declaration of these school-related emergency issues is a testament to the impact of the 2018 election cycle in which the Texas public education community was much more noticeably vocal and active. Tuesday was also the day for President Donald Trump to deliver his State of the Union address. That speech, which had been postponed due to the recent federal government shutdown, contained far less education-related content. Read more about both the State of the State and State of the Union speeches in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


The two legislative committees that oversee public education policy issues in Texas have begun holding regular meetings and hearing testimony. The Senate Education Committee held its first meeting of the legislative session this week, receiving an overview presentation by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The committee also learned about the status of special education programs in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this detailed summary for Teach the Vote.

The House Public Education Committee, which began its work a little earlier this session, held two meetings this week, both heavily focused on the topic of school finance. The committee similarly heard from Commissioner Morath, along with members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Read more about those hearings in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The committee is slated for two more meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the agenda will include testimony by stakeholders about school finance and the recommendations of the commission that studied the issue last year. ATPE has been invited to testify on Wednesday, and we’ll provide details next week here on our blog and on @TeachtheVote on Twitter.

 


On Monday of this week, the House Appropriations Committee announced its subcommittees that will work on various sections of the state budget. Committee members were also briefed by staff of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS). ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided an in-depth report here for our blog. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee has also been holding several meetings to review the draft budget. Next week, Senate Finance committee members turn their attention to Article III, which contains the education budget. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter will be there for those meetings starting Monday and will provide updates next week for Teach the Vote.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s House District 125 will head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new state representative. Early voting has taken place this week for the special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez, after he resigned to serve as Bexar County Commissioner. The five candidates vying for the HD 125 seat are Steve Huerta (D)Ray Lopez (D)Fred Rangel (R)Coda Rayo-Garza (D), and Art Reyna (D).

There also remains a vacancy in Houston’s HD 145, where Democrats Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales have advanced to a runoff in that special election. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced, but is likely to be held in March. Read more about the two runoff candidates in this article from the Houston Chronicle.

 


 

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Senate Education committee holds first meeting

Senate Education Committee meeting Feb. 7, 2019.

The Senate Committee on Education held its first meeting of the 86th Legislative Session on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the Texas Capitol. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) kicked off the meeting by welcoming members to “Season Three, Episode One” of his tenure as the committee chair, and introduced new and returning committee members.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath provided high-level testimony on the “State of the State of Public Education” report produced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This report focuses on demographics, challenges, and progress toward the state’s “60×30” goal of ensuring 60 percent of students graduate high school with an industry certification or post-secondary credential by the year 2030. Commissioner Morath again stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in order to achieve this goal.

The commissioner also walked members through the current “A through F” accountability system, which is largely based upon different calculations of STAAR test results. Related to that, the commissioner explained efforts to develop STAAR test questions aligned to student expectations. Morath discussed the negative impact of poverty on student learning, which prompted comments by the vice chairman, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), on related factors such as hunger. Both have a direct impact on the cost to educate a child.

In acknowledging criticisms of the STAAR test, including the high stakes attached to it, Commissioner Morath suggested the test could be broken into multiple, shorter sessions, or move away from multiple-choice answers. The commissioner noted that either could pose problems with regard to legal requirements and the time and money necessary for development.

TEA’s State Director for Special Education Justin Porter followed up with a briefing on special education, beginning with enrollment numbers. The agency documented a sharp decline in special education enrollment around 2004. Enrollment has increased in recent years, which coincides with corrective action the agency was forced to take after an investigation revealed the agency had been illegally implementing a de facto cap on enrollment. Despite the current upward trajectory, special education enrollment remains significantly below the national average.

Under the current accountability system, special education students are performing “significantly behind” their non-special education peers. Porter suggested this potentially could be ameliorated by changes to the current college, career, and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators.

The majority of Porter’s testimony focused on the strategic plan put in place as a result of the corrective action order. Under federal pressure, the agency has increased monitoring activities and identifying areas of noncompliance and improvement. Under federal law, all students have a right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE), and TEA has made efforts to inform local education agencies (LEAs) of their responsibilities. The agency is also hiring a contractor to launch a statewide media campaign to provide information about special education and parents’ rights. Sens. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked questions regarding the marketing program, including the total cost and whether districts and stakeholder groups had been recruited into the process.

Porter indicated there is also a shortage in evaluation personnel, which has resulted in many LEAs paying for contract personnel. The agency has responded with a $10 million grant to Education Service Center (ESC) 20 in San Antonio to provide services and reimbursements to LEAs without access to evaluators.

In addition, the agency has focused on professional development geared toward administrators and general education teachers, as well as training for school board members. The agency has also set up a call center to answer questions related to special education.

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House Public Education Committee dives in on school finance

The House Public Education Committee held its second and third meetings of the session this week, Feb. 5 and 6, both designed to get committee members up to speed on the school finance system ahead of beginning their work attempting to improve the system.

During the first of this week’s two meetings, the committee heard invited testimony from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB). The topics covered included implementation reports on previous education bills, a school finance and legal overview, and an education budget overview.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath reported on a range of topics including the status of two bills that were passed in the 84th session back in 2015. House Bill (HB) 1842, in addition to creating districts of Innovation (DOIs), altered the school turnaround process and created the A-F accountability rating system. Senate Bill (SB) 313 was a bill that ended up being vetoed, but the State Board of Education (SBOE) still implemented its requirements of reviewing and narrowing the content and scope of each foundation curriculum subject.

Commissioner Morath testifying before the House Public Education Committee

The Commissioner also touched on the Dallas Independent School District’s “ACE” program and Achievement School District models as potential alternative options for school districts before they reach their fifth (and final) year of “improvement required” status under the accountability system.

Finally, Commissioner Morath addressed the school accountability system for the second time in as many hearings. This time, the discussion included the interplay between state and federal law and where it would be possible to trim our accountability and assessment system without running afoul of the feds.

TEA General Counsel Von Byer presented on Texas’s school finance court cases that have shaped our current system, most notably Edgewood and West-Orange Cove. The system of Recapture was created through these court cases. TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez gave a high-level overview of the school finance system, including how some of the elements are outdated. For instance, the bilingual education funding weight hasn’t changed in 35 years, the special education weights haven’t changed since 1993, and the weight for low-income children hasn’t changed since 1989.

Yesterday, the House Public Education Committee met for the second of its two hearings this week to hear invited testimony from three members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

Todd Williams, CEO of the Commit Partnership in Dallas, presented on the changing demographics in Texas and how the investment of public education funding will help to reach our education goals. Some of Williams’s suggestions are broadly supported, such as utilizing a more nuanced approach to differentiating degrees of poverty and focusing resources on campuses with high concentrations of harder to educate students. Other suggestions, like teacher evaluation and pay systems based heavily on student performance and outcomes-based funding, are significantly more controversial.

Dr. Keven Ellis, who is also an elected member of the SBOE, testified on the commission’s findings about expenditures. He shared that the commission was recommending a $100 million appropriation for dyslexia identification and support, $50 million for dual language, transportation funding based on mileage, and reallocating the cost of education index funding, among others.

Nicole Conley Johnson, Chief Finance Officer for the Austin Independent School District, presented the commission’s findings regarding revenue. She shared that the commission had several suggestions, including using the state’s Economic Stability (or “rainy day”) Fund, allowing districts to tap into sales tax revenue, and providing more flexibility on spending rules (e.g. allowing the bilingual allotment to be used for teacher salaries).

Next week, on Feb. 12 and 13, the House Public Education Committee will hold two additional meetings to hear invited testimony from stakeholders such as ATPE, school district leaders, and teachers. We look forward to contributing to the conversation.

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State of the State and Union: Where does education fit in 2019 priorities?

On Feb. 5, 2019, both the Texas Governor and President of the United States delivered high-profile speeches in front of a large audience of lawmakers and the public. In his 2019 State of the State address Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott began by touting the “economic prowess” of Texas.

The U.S. Capitol, where Pres. Trump delivered his State of the Union address, Feb. 5, 2019

Later that same day, in his 2019 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump similarly expressed sweeping admiration for the successes of our American economy. Despite the idea that the foundation of a great economy is a stellar education, our governor and president differed greatly in the amount of attention they focused on educating our children.

Pres. Trump mentioned education twice during his address. In one instance, the president expressed that our schools were overburdened due to immigration. In another, he said, “To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.” Other than these two remarks, the president gave no other details regarding education.

Standing ovation for teacher pay during Gov. Abbott’s 2019 State of the State address

Gov. Abbott spent a large portion of his address speaking on the importance of improving student outcomes. He said that, in order to address low rates of third-grade reading readiness and similarly low rates of college and career readiness, we must target education funding to the people who matter most (other than parents). These are our educators.

According to the governor, nobody plays a more vital role in our children’s education than teachers. He noted in his address that he wants Texas to recruit and retain the best teachers, pay teachers more, provide incentives to put teachers in the classrooms that need them the most, and create pathways to earn a six-figure salary. Gov. Abbott even declared teacher pay an emergency item, along with school finance reform and school safety.

Perhaps we can consider ourselves lucky that education is mostly left up to the states and that – at least for the early weeks of this legislative session – our governor is talking about making teachers and students a priority and not prioritizing harmful distractions such as private school vouchers. As we move forward with the legislative session, it is important to continue making the voice of the teacher heard on topics such as pay, incentives, and recruitment and retention. ATPE members can help by using our tools at Advocacy Central to send messages to lawmakers about these issues and our legislative priorities.

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Governor Abbott declares emergency items, includes teacher pay

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a total of six emergency items in Tuesday’s State of the State address to a joint session of the 86th Texas Legislature. The State of the State is traditionally delivered by the governor at the beginning of each legislative session, and is the state equivalent to the national State of the Union address delivered by the president.

The governor often uses the State of the State as an opportunity to announce emergency items for the current legislature. The first 60 days of the legislative session are meant for organization and bill filing, and legislators cannot vote on bills until after 60 days have passed. Emergency items declared by the governor are the only exception.

Standing ovation for teacher pay announcement during State of the State address, Feb. 5, 2019.

Governor Abbott listed six emergency items on Tuesday: School finance reform, teacher pay, school safety, mental health, property tax relief, and disaster response.

What does this mean functionally? The legislature may vote on bills under these emergency headings immediately instead of waiting for the March 8 deadline, theoretically granting them a one-month head start ahead of other bills. Yet few of these bills have been filed, and none have begun the committee process that marks the first major step in a bill’s journey to becoming a law. For this reason, the practical impact of designation as emergency items has more to do with sending a signal to legislators and the public that these are the governor’s top priorities.

In addition, each of these items is expected to require a significant amount of state funding. The budget offered by the Texas House would provide $7.1 billion in new revenue for public education, contingent upon spending a significant portion of that money on providing property tax relief, ostensibly by rebalancing the state and local share of education funding. Increasing the state’s share will ease the burden on local property taxpayers, but will not increase overall public school funding. To increase overall school funding will require spending additional money on top of what is required to ease local tax pressure.

Increasing teacher pay will require another tranche of state funds. The Texas Senate has proposed Senate Bill (SB) 3, which would grant teachers a $5,000 annual raise. The bill’s cost is tagged at $3.7 billion for the first biennium. Gov. Abbott’s comments today on teacher pay implied that he prefers a plan under development by House leaders to provide a differentiated pay program that could create a path for select teachers to earn as much as $100,000. This would apply to far fewer teachers than the Senate’s plan and consequently carry a much smaller price tag.

School safety, mental health, and disaster response will each require further funding. Fortunately, the biennial revenue estimate delivered by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in January projects legislators will have roughly $12 billion more than they budgeted the previous two years. It’s important to note that some of that money will be taken up by inflation and population growth. Some of the emergency items, such as disaster response, are prime targets for one-time spending from the Economic Stabilization Fund. The state’s “rainy day fund,” as it is often called, is projected to total $15.4 billion by the end of 2021.

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House Appropriations hears from TEA and TRS

The House Committee on Appropriations met Monday to hear from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) on the issues of school safety, school finance, the teacher pension system, and active and retiree educator health insurance. Before delving into the meat of the hearing, Cmomittee Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulsher) also announced membership of the subcommittees that will be overseeing separate subject areas of the budget.

The subcommittee on Article III that oversees public education funding will be chaired by Rep. Greg Bonnen, and include Vice-chair Armando Walle and Reps. Mary Gonzalez, Donna Howard, Matt Schaefer, Carl Sherman, Lynn Stucky, and Gary VanDeaver.

House Appropriations Committee meeting Feb. 4, 2019

Other subcommittees include: the subcommittee on Articles I, IV, V; the subcommittee on Article II; the subcommittee on Articles VI, VII, VIII; and a new subcommittee on  Infrastructure, Resiliency, and Investment.

The committee heard first from Texas Education  Commissioner Mike Morath on the topic of school safety, including physical precautions such as metal detectors and alarms. Morath noted there is no single investment in school safety that will address all current weaknesses and that the agency isn’t and hasn’t traditionally been tasked or resourced to help districts with regard to mental health components of school safety.

TEA’s Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez followed with a high-level overview of how public schools are funded. Lopez explained how the basics of tax rates, weights, allotments, and adjustments work to together to create a districts M&O entitlement; facilities funding; charter funding; and recapture. Also mentioned during the discussion were statutory quirks and system complexities like the fact that the basic allotment is set in statute, but legislators each session have the option of funding at higher levels through the appropriations bill. The committee also discussed how in 2011 the legislature created a mechanism called the Regular Program Adjustment Factor that allows lawmakers to decrease the entire Foundation School Program (FSP) entitlement for every district with a single adjustment.

TR) Executive Director Brian Guthrie walked committee members through pension fund operations. Guthrie explained the TRS board’s decision to lower the assumed rate of return last summer to 7.25 percent down from 8 percent, which came as a result of market forecasts and input from the fund’s actuary. This caused the funding period for pension fund liabilities to extend from 32 years up to 87 years. Under state law, the TRS fund cannot offer a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to retirees unless the amortization period noted above is within 31 years.

Guthrie noted that the agency is requesting a 1.8 percent increase in the contribution rate in order to achieve a 30-year amortization period, which would allow for the possibility of a future increase in benefits, such as a COLA. This would cost $1.6 billion for the biennium from all funds.

Responding to a question from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Guthrie estimated the average pension payment for a TRS annuitant to be about $2,000 per month. This average figure covers all classes of public education employees, including auxiliary staff, such as bus drivers and custodial staff. For classroom teachers who have worked in Texas schools for 30 years, that amount is closer to $4,000 per month.

Guthrie then explained the healthcare programs under the agency’s umbrella: TRS-Care for retired educators and TRS-ActiveCare for active educators. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed in Texas, despite rising at a level slightly below the national average. This resulted in a $1 billion shortfall for TRS-Care heading into the previous legislative session, which was addressed by a temporary infusion of additional state funding, coupled with a significant increase in fees and reduction in benefits. The fund continues to run at a deficit.

Rep. Schaefer asked what impact a pay increase would have on the pension fund. Guthrie indicated that if all teachers saw a raise, there would be a negative short-term impact for TRS as a result of higher salary calculations for retiring members without the benefit of higher contributions. Guthrie suggested this could be mitigated by phasing in the salary increases’ impact on the calculation of a member’s highest five years of earnings. Guthrie suggested the short-term impact on TRS-Care would be positive.

Asked by Rep. Stucky how much it would cost to make TRS-Care sustainable, Guthrie suggested it would take more than $12-15 billion to create a corpus sufficient to produce funding as a result of investment returns. Even then, that process would take some time to get up and running. The deteriorating value of TRS-Care has led many retirees to leave the program, which exacerbates the financial stresses facing it. Guthrie added that the population was beginning to stabilize.

TRS-ActiveCare, which allows smaller and mid-size school districts to enjoy the benefits of group coverage through a combined risk pool, also faces affordability challenges due to statutory restrictions on how that program is funded. Five percent of districts – primarily the state’s largest districts, such as Austin and Houston – have opted out of TRS-ActiveCare. Last session, legislation was considered to allow districts a one-time opportunity to opt in or opt out, but such a bill was not passed ultimately.

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