Author Archives: Monty Exter

Senate committee approves budget proposal

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe committee substitute to Senate Bill (SB) 1, the Senate’s budget bill, was voted favorably out of the Senate Finance Committee on a vote of 15 to 0 this morning. The SB 1 committee substitute, which appropriates $106.3 billion in general revenue, reflects all of the recommended modifications to individual articles of the budget made by the work groups and adopted by the full Finance Committee.

In her comments, committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) stated that SB 1 fully funds the Foundation School Program (FSP), including $2.6 billion for enrollment growth. Nelson also touted $25 million in spending for broadband expansion through the e-Rate program; $65 million to a new public / private partnership for pre-K (the committee substitute cuts $180 million in pre-K grants from SB 1 as it was originally filed); and $316 million to fund SB 788 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which would reform TRS-Care.

Senator Royce West (D-Dallas) probed staff from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) on how to reconcile claims that SB1 fully funds the FSP while spending nearly $1.4 billion less in general revenue on the program. In response, LBB staff confirmed that SB 1 does fund the amount that current law calls for in FSP entitlements, but the funding level is $1.4 billion lower this session because increases in local property values mean that less funding is required through state general revenue. Due to this continued supplanting of state funding with local property taxes, the proportion of the state’s share of FSP funding is projected to decline to 38% or less by the end of the biennium.

SB 1 as substituted is expected to be brought up for a vote on the floor of the full Senate on Tuesday, March 28.

House committee hears from ATPE, others on education funding challenges

Dollar fanThe House Appropriations committee began meetings this week for its subcommittees assigned to work on various parts of the Texas state budget. This includes the Article III Subcommittee, which covers education funding and began taking testimony on Monday, Feb. 20. The subcommittee’s first day agenda involved looking at funding for the Texas Education Agency (TEA), including the Foundation School Program; the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), including both pension and health insurance funds; the state schools for the visually impaired and the deaf, the Windham School District; and community and junior colleges.

After the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) laid out the budget documents on TEA and the Foundation School Program, the committee heard from Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. Commissioner Morath began by thanking the committee and restating his dedication to the goal of improving student outcomes for all students. The commissioner then laid out his agency’s priorities beginning with ensuring and improving teacher quality as the “most important in-school factor” in a student’s education outcomes. Next, Morath addressed the agency’s second key priority to promote a strong foundation in reading and math, and spoke about the affect of achieving this goal on closing the achievement grant. To facilitate this goal, the commissioner talked about continuing to push for expanding high quality pre-K. He also promoted TEA’s goal to scale the math innovation zones program statewide. The agency’s third priority is to connect K-12 education to higher education and career opportunities. The next priority is to improve struggling schools, Morath explained. He reported that TEA is working to do this through systemic system-wide improvements. In addition to budget items tied to the agency’s larger priorities, Morath also addressed specific targeted budget requests like funding the E-rate match to complete the build-out of statewide broadband access.

Early Childhood EducationThe Commissioner was well received by the subcommittee. The majority of questions to the commissioner from committee members tended to focus on supporting pre-K. In responding to an offshoot of this questioning, the commissioner indicated that the State Board for Educator Certification will likely institute a new certificate for grades EC-3 that would be more focused on early childhood education.

Later in the hearing, the committee heard from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie. Guthrie gave brief remarks about the overall performance of the TRS trust fund before turning to the more pressing issue of the billion dollar shortfall in the TRS-Care fund. He impressed upon the committee that TRS has done everything it can do internally to control costs without legislative action. On TRS-Care the plan laid out to the House budget committee would include a “shared pain” approach where the state would cover half of the cost of the shortfall, retirees would cover 25 percent of the costs, and districts and active teachers would each cover 12.5 percent of the cost. While this plan is more generous than what has already been laid out in the Senate, it still puts additional pressure on active teachers, many of whom are drowning in the cost of their own health insurance premiums. Additionally, the strategy laid out did not contemplate changing the state paid formula for TRS-Care, which is currently set at 1 percent of payroll for all school districts statewide. The TRS board of directors is also meeting this week.

After hearing from LBB and invited witnesses, the Article III subcommittee took public testimony, including testimony from ATPE. Our testimony focused on the need to address active teacher health care costs through additional state funding, not just a denigration of benefits; the benefits of closing the education gap early in a student’s career thorough pre-K; and finally the need to address equity through more appropriately funding students based on their needs, individually and at the campus level.

TRS healthcare bill offers fewer options, no savings

Drugs and MoneyLast fall, ATPE reported on an interim legislative study of healthcare programs administered through the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). Now that the 85th legislative session is in full swing, we’ve had a chance to see actual legislation pursuing some of the dramatic proposals outlined in that interim report. The primary vehicle for these changes would be Senate Bill (SB) 789  by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which seeks to reorganize TRS-ActiveCare, the current health insurance program for many of our state’s actively employed educators.

Under current law, all school districts that did not previously opt out of TRS-ActiveCare offer their employees access to two health insurance options through ActiveCare: one high-deductible plan and one traditional plan featuring co-insurance and co-payments. The state contributes $75 per employee toward the monthly premiums associated with either plan and requires school districts to cover an additional $150 per employee towards premiums; many districts cover more than the minimum $150 contribution that is required, however.

If passed, SB 789 would limit districts that may participate in TRS-ActiveCare to those with 1,000 or fewer employees or fewer. The bill would also eliminate the traditional co-payment insurance plan option, leaving only the high-deductible option for employees who remain covered through ActiveCare. The bill also would give those districts with fewer than 1,000 employees another one-time opportunity to voluntarily opt out of TRS-ActiveCare.

SB 789 does not increase the amount of money the state will be spending toward employee health care premiums, nor does it increase the requirement for the amount that districts must spend toward those premiums. This is significant because compared to the private sector, our state’s employer contribution (the combination of state and district payments) toward public education employees’ health care premium cost is dramatically underfunded. When the TRS healthcare program was started years ago, the ISD/state contribution was in line with average private sector employer contributions. However, as private business has worked to keep pace with healthcare inflation, the state has never increased its contribution on behalf of school employees.

Falling US MoneyIt is also worth noting that SB 789 does not save the state any money. TRS-ActiveCare is considered a pass-through program. That means the state puts in a fixed amount of money and any increases in premiums get passed directly down to educators for them to cover. Restructuring ActiveCare as proposed in Sen. Huffman’s bill will not change this dynamic. The state pays the same amount and any changes in overall premium costs will only impact educators.

Thus, SB 786 takes away choices without saving educators money. The cost for the new high-deductible plan is estimated to be more expensive than the cost of the high-deductible plan offered under the current system. While premiums for this new high-deductible plan may be slightly less than the cost for the traditional co-pay plan under the current system, the premium combined with out-of-pocket costs for educators could very likely be more. Additionally, educators who have currently selected the traditional co-pay plan have voluntarily chosen to pay a higher premium at no additional cost to the state and no required additional cost to the district. Taking away this option without any resulting savings to either the school district or the state makes little sense.

For the 82 school districts that will be required to exit ActiveCare if this bill passes, their administrative costs will increase. Those districts will now have to hire additional personnel to administer an employee healthcare plan at the district level. That additional cost will in turn reduce the amount of money these districts will have to spend in the classroom on other needs. The same will be true of any districts that voluntarily opt out of ActiveCare because they prefer to offer their employees the option of more than one health insurance plan.

SB 789 decreases benefit options for educators while increasing district expenses, and it does so without increasing state support to educators, lowering the healthcare cost for educators, or decreasing the cost to state taxpayers. Therefore, we can find no reason for ATPE to support this bill.

Dan Patrick’s voucher bill

Near the beginning of session before senators starting filing their bills, the lieutenant governor routinely reserves a block of the first fifteen to twenty bill numbers for high priorities. This year, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reserved numbers one through thirty for his preferred bills. While Lt. Gov. Patrick cannot file bills himself, he works with various senators to carry what are unquestionably his priorities and marks them as such with one of his low bill numbers.

Vouchers have always been a top political priority for Lt. Gov. Patrick. This session, Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) is the state budget bill; SB 2 is the lieutenant governor’s tax relief bill; and third on the list, SB 3, is the lieutenant governor’s voucher bill.

SB 3 contains both an education savings account (ESA) and a tax credit scholarship. While each program funnels public tax dollars to private, non-transparent, and largely unaccountable education settings, making both programs clearly voucher programs, the mechanics of how they shift those dollars are separate and distinct. Here’s a more detailed look at each program contained in SB 3:

Dan Patrick’s ESA program:

The ESA program as proposed in SB 3 would apply to any child who either has been in the public school system during the preceding school year or has never been in the public school system but was born after September 1, 2012. It would give those children access to a bank account from which their parent or guardian can at their discretion pay for “educational expenditures” using a debit card. The amount that a child would receive under the program is dependent on two factors, household income and student disability. Here is an approximate breakdown based on a family of five (two parents, three kids):

  • A family with a household income over $105,118 would receive $5,510 for each eligible child.
  • A family with a household income under $105,118 would receive $6,888 for each eligible child.
  • A child who is eligible to participate in an ISD special education program or has a Section 504 designation would receive $8,266 regardless of household income.

The numbers above are based on a percentage of the average state and local public education funding a child receives in Texas, which is approximately $9,184*. That amount does not include federal funding; nor does it include additional weighted funding a student in the free or reduced price lunch program or a student identified as needing special education services may receive. For reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653.

In every circumstance, a student receives less funding under an ESA program than the child would receive as a student of a public school.

As stated above in the ESA plan, parents may legally spend entitlement dollars on “educational expenditures.” These would include:

  • Tuition and fees at:
    • an accredited private school (ex. – IQA, Winston School);
    • a postsecondary educational institution; or
    • an online educational course or program (ex. – K-12 Inc.);
  • Textbooks or other instructional materials
    (Under an ESA neither the content nor quality of textbooks or instructional materials is publically vetted as they are for public schools. Here are examples of some texts that could be published using tax dollars under an ESA program for use in a non-public school: Sharia Law, Wicca, Young Earth Science.);
  • Curriculum
    (Much like textbooks, neither the quality nor content of curriculum is vetted under an ESA program. Here is an example of a commercially available curriculum program that could be paid for with public money under an ESA, although it would never be found in a public school - ATI (what is ATI);
  • Fees for classes or other educational services provided by a public school, if the classes or services do not qualify the child to be included in the school ’s average daily attendance;
  • Fees for services provided by a private tutor or teaching service (so vague it could cover almost anything);
  • Fees for educational therapies for a child with a disability;
  • Computer hardware and software and other technological devices, not to exceed in any year 10 percent of the total amount paid to the program participant’s account that year (ex. $551 – $826, multiplied by the number of children with a voucher, toward a new flat screen TV);
  • Fees for a nationally norm-referenced achievement test or examination, an assessment instrument adopted by the agency under Section 39.023, an advanced placement test or similar examination, or any examination related to college or university admission; and
  • Fees for the management of the participant’s account charged by a financial institution.

Swiping Credit CardSome parents will, of course, seek to cash in their student’s entitlement or directly spend the taxpayers’ money on unsanctioned purchases, such as rent, food, or even less scrupulous items. The primary means of deterring financial mismanagement on behalf the parent or guardian, assuming they get caught, is criminal prosecution. Having an incarcerated parent is not typically a precursor to improved academic performance.

The competing plan in SB 3 is a Tax Credit Scholarship.

Dan Patrick’s Tax Credit Scholarship program:

This part of SB 3 would allow an insurance company to redirect tax dollars out of state general revenue and into the coffers of a private vendor, which would then use those dollars to selectively grant scholarships for private schools. The bill also creates the bureaucratic framework under which the vendor would be awarded this lucrative administrative contract from the state.

Under SB 3, the Texas Comptroller would select a single 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity (such as a religious organization or private school operator) to serve as the states “Educational Assistance Organization” (EAO). In exchange for a 10% administrative fee retained on all the money it takes in, the EAO first receives dollars from insurance companies and issues those companies a receipt they can give to the comptroller for a dollar-for-dollar deduction on their taxes, up to half of their total tax bill. The EA then disperses those scholarships directly to private schools in accordance with SB 3. So for every $100 million the EAO takes in, it gets to keep $10 million in administrative fees right off the top. Additionally, the EAO can hold onto the money it collects for up to two years meaning that it could also quite easily invest that money (e.g. in a jumbo CD or other investment that carries virtually no risk) and collect yet another $1 -$3 million in profits off the earnings. All in all, this is a pretty good deal for the vendor that lands the contract.

The initial cap on the Tax Credit program in SB 3 is $100 million, but it would rise to approximately $260 million over the first 10 years and more than a billion dollars within 25 years. At that point, the EAO vendor would be able to draw approximately $130 million off the program annually.

Under the tax credit scholarship plan, the EAO vendor can make two different types of payments:

  • a scholarship payment of either 75 percent of average ADA ($6,888 for 2015-16) or 50 percent of average ADA ($4,592 for 2015-16); or
  • an educational expense assistance (EEA) payment of $500 (this amount increases by 5% each year).

An eligible student may be awarded both a scholarship payment and an educational assistance payment. In order to be eligible a student must meet the following eligibility requirements:

Income: The family’s income cannot exceed double the free or reduced lunch guidelines, which is $105,118 for our family of five.

The student must also:

  • be in foster care;
  • be in institutional care; or
  • have a parent on active duty in the military

Additionally, the student must:

  • have attended public school the preceding year;
  • have never attended public school, but be starting school in Texas for the first time (this could be a kindergarten student, first grader, or out of state/country student); or
  • be the sibling of an eligible student. (This would make students who had been attending a private school but who have a sibling who is eligible under the former bullets also eligible.)

Using 2015-16 numbers, a private school could be awarded a scholarship of $4,592 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five with an income between $78,839 and $105,118. A private school could be awarded a scholarship of $6,888 plus $500 in EEA money for a student from a family of five earning less than $78,839. Again for reference, the median household income in Texas is $55,653. A public school could be awarded $500 in EEA money for a student from a family earning less than $105,118. However there is no requirement, or even encouragement, in SB 3 to award any money to public school students.

Unlike SB 3′s ESA plan, these tax credit scholarships, don’t go to parents, but rather they go directly from the private EAO to the private school(s). This vendor preference and enhanced level of control have made this the voucher of choice for the Catholic Dioceses of Texas and its network of private religious schools, as well as for the Private School Association of Texas.

What if the Legislature were to pass both provisions of this bill?

NO VOUCHERS

If both of Gov. Patrick’s vouchers were to come to fruition under the current language of SB 3, many students would be eligible to double dip from both programs.

In any scenario, these vouchers are a reckless choice for the 85th legislature to pursue.

* There are many ways to calculate average state and local funding which result in variations in the total.

Senate Bill 1: The budget’s starting point

Background with money american hundred dollar billsThe Senate Finance Committee this week began a string of meetings to flesh out plans for a Texas state budget for the next two years. Following an organizational meeting on Monday, the committee began hearing testimony Tuesday on Article III of the budget, which includes public education. Both in her written statement and over and over again in comments during Monday’s and Tuesday’s hearings, committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) called Senate Bill (SB) 1 a “starting point” from which the senators on the finance committee, and eventually the entire Senate, can work to produce the Senate’s eventual budget proposal.

So where did Chairwoman Nelson and her colleagues start?

On Monday, Nelson began by laying out a budget that spends roughly $3 billion less in general revenue than its predecessor over the last biennium (House Bill 1 of 2015) and $4-6 billion less than would be needed to maintain the level of services funded during the current biennium considering inflation and population growth. She also started lowering expectations by laying out a budget proposal that spends about a billion dollars less than the revenue the state is projected to bring in, according to the comptroller.

While the numbers were not promising, the chairwoman also started the process by announcing two work groups that would be tasked with proposing solutions for two of the state’s most pressing budgetary and policy trouble areas, school finance and the out-of-control cost of health care. The two areas of the budget that these issues impact account for more than 85 percent of the state’s discretionary budget.

On Tuesday, the actual work of going through the budget one agency at a time began. First up; Texas Education Agency (TEA), which includes the $42 billion Foundation School Program (FSP), followed by the Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS), and Texas’s schools for the visually impaired and the deaf.

Several members of the committee spent the majority of Tuesday morning trying to prove, while convincing no one, several points: (1) That the state is not under-funding education; (2) thet neither local property taxes nor recapture dollars have been spent outside of the education budget; and (3) that high property taxes and the disparity between significant increases in local revenue dedicated to education versus much smaller increases in state revenue going to education should be blamed on local tax assessors and school boards, not the legislature. The committee also heard from TEA staff about spending on the various projects administered by the agency outside the Foundation School Program. Many of these standalone programs are funded at levels below the current biennium, and several have been zeroed out completely in the base budget.

Tuesday afternoon, the committee heard from the Commissioner of Education and from executive directors of TRS, the Texas School for the Visually Impaired, and the Texas School for the Deaf. Each presented their exceptional items, budget requests above and beyond the agencies’ base budget needs. Brian Guthrie, the executive director of TRS, had the most challenging reception from the senators, several of whom would like to abandon Texas’s defined benefit pension system and replace it with a defined contribution 401(k)-style system that would both reduce state liability and result in increased profits for wealthy campaign donors. Ultimately, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) redirected questioning away from the TRS pension trust fund, which is in reasonably good health, and toward the separate TRS-Care health insurance fund, which over the years has become unsustainable in its current form and will run out of money in the upcoming biennium without significant structural changes and increased funding.

After the committee concluded the testimony from the state agency heads, they heard public testimony, including from ATPE. In addition to a general plea for prioritizing education spending, we requested the committee’s consideration in three specific areas. First, we asked that the senate approve TEA’s full funding request of $236 million for the high quality pre-kindergarten grant created last session, for which the current draft of SB 1 provides only $150 million. Second, we asked that the legislature increase state funding for health insurance for active educators. The state has not increased its share of funding for TRS-ActiveCare since that program began in 2001, and funding that was once in line with what private employers provide is now far less than the private market and woefully inadequate. Finally, ATPE echoed much of the rest of the education community in requesting that additional school property tax revenue collected due to increased property values be used to increase the education budget instead of being used to replace state dollars that legislators want to spend elsewhere – in other words, the concepts of “supplement not supplant” and property tax transparency.

If this was the Senate’s starting point, what are the next steps?

Today, Jan. 27, the work group tasked with reimagining the school finance system will meet for the first of what will likely be several times. It is a joint meeting with the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). They will be taking invited testimony from several stakeholder and school finance experts. At some point in the coming weeks, the Article III (education) subcommittee will also meet and begin to negotiate potential changes from the base budget. The work of these two groups will eventually inform both the budget and a separate school finance bill that would then have to be negotiated with the House, before a final budget and possibly and school finance bill finally makes its way to the governor’s desk.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and atpe.org/advocacy for updates as the budget-writing process continues.

Both chambers release versions of proposed Texas budget

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confirmed yesterday that Senator Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound) will continue to serve as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee for the 85th legislative session. Upon her reappointment, Sen. Nelson filed the Senate’s budget bill, Senate Bill 1.  SB 1 spends $103.6 billion in state revenue over the next two years, which is $1.3 billion less than the Comptroller’s 2018 and 2019 revenue projection.

The Senate issued a press release highlighting the fact that the budget includes “$2.65 billion to cover enrollment growth in public schools and $32 million more for high-quality pre-k programs.” This is $86 million less than the additional $118 million that would be needed to extend current pre-k funding to cover both years of the upcoming biennium.

Girl showing bank notesAs filed, SB 1 represents a continuation of current school funding formulas. However, according to the Senate press release, Nelson calls  “making sure the school finance system better meets the needs of students” a critical decision to be made by lawmakers this session.

Other specific items outlined in the budget per the SB 1 press release include:

  • $1 billion to address state hospital and mental health facility needs;
  • $63 million to clear the waitlist for community mental health services;
  • $20 million for a program to help veterans dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues;
  • $260 million to improve Child Protective Services;
  • $25 million for high caliber bulletproof vests for Texas law enforcement officers;
  • $800 million for border security measures approved last session; and
  • A 1.5 percent across-the-board spending reduction for all expenditures not related to public education.

The Senate press release on SB 1 can be found here.

On the House side, Speaker Joe Straus has not yet named which representative will replace former Rep. John Otto (R – Dayton) as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Otto did not seek re-election in 2016. Still, the House did release its version of a plan for the base budget yesterday, too. The Speaker’s press release touts the House budget plan as one that “puts additional resources into public education, child protection and mental health while increasing state spending by less than 1 percent.”

The House budget proposal:

  • Funds enrollment growth of about 165,000 students over the next two years;
  • Includes an additional $1.5 billion for public education that is contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system; and
  • Includes $108.9 billion in general revenue.

The Speaker’s press release can be found here.

And so begins the tenure of the 85th Texas Legislature…

ThinkstockPhotos-99674144Today marked the first official day of the 85th legislative session. At noon today, 181 legislators were sworn in before their families and other invited guests in their respective chambers. In the upper chamber, Senator Kel Seliger (R) of Amarillo was elected President pro tempore, while across the rotunda, Representative Joe Straus (R) of San Antonio was re-elected to his fifth consecutive term as Speaker of the House.

In a dramatic show of strength, Speaker Straus was elected by a vote of 150 to 0. He is now tied with Gib Lewis and Pete Laney as the longest serving Speaker in Texas history. In his comments today, Speaker Straus called on his fellow House members to be thoughtful with tax dollars but also smart with regulation, doing their part to ensure that the legislature creates a government that works. In his remarks on crafting education policy this session, the Speaker called on legislators to partner with teachers and not treat them as adversaries.

For the sake of educators and schoolchildren alike, we hope the sentiment of cooperation with the state’s teachers prevails over the remaining 139 days of the 85th legislative session. Either way, your ATPE lobby team will be here every step of the way to report back on what the legislature is doing with regard to public education and to represent you with passion and professionalism at your Texas capitol. We encourage you to join us in our efforts by talking to your own lawmakers about ATPE’s legislative priorities. ATPE members can use our convenient grassroots tools on Advocacy Central to track the progress of bills, send messages to lawmakers, and even receive mobile updates. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and ATPE.org for more as the legislative session continues.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was at the Capitol to welcome legislators back for the start of the 85th legislative session.

Rep. Dan Huberty shows off a celebratory cookie he received during a visit from Humble ATPE’s Gayle Sampley on opening day of the 85th legislature.

ESAs: A bad deal for students in need

NO VOUCHERSEarlier this month, I participated in a debate on the political TV show Capital Tonight about school vouchers. Hosted by Karina Kling and featuring opposing guest Randan Steinhauser, who heads the pro-voucher group Texans for Education Opportunity, the show focused specifically on the topic of education savings accounts (ESAs). During the show I touched on the problem ESAs pose to students with special education needs. Unfortunately there is no way to fully respond to such a complex issue in a 30-second response, so let’s take a closer look here on our blog.

How exactly do ESAs work?

An education savings account is literally a bank account set up for an individual student into which the state puts money for a parent to purchase private education services. The amount of money that goes into the account is a percentage of the state’s average per-pupil expenditure based on state and local funds. The base number does not account for federal dollars or charitable dollars. Additionally, the base number does not account for student weights, meaning it does not reflect what the student accepting the voucher would have actually been entitled to under the public school formulas. While there is no bill language yet filed, the numbers that have been most talked about by proponents of the voucher suggest that a Texas ESA would entitle a student who is neither a special education student nor on free or reduced lunch 70% of the statewide average per student expenditure. A student who is on free or reduced lunch but not receiving special education services would receive 90% of the statewide average per student expenditure, while students identified as needing special education services would receive 100% of the statewide average per student expenditure under ideas being floated.

On the surface, it sounds like special education students come out pretty well under this scenario,. But the truth is that students in every category of students would get far less funding than they would if they attended a public school.

At only 70 percent, it’s easy to see that the student who isn’t entitled to either a free or reduced lunch or special education services is getting a significant reduction in what they would receive under the public school formulas (an amount that is already in the bottom 10% of per pupil expenditures nationwide). However, students who are entitled to the free or reduced lunch program or special education services would also be getting significantly less under this proposal, perhaps even to a greater degree than their peers entitled to 70% – here’s how. The combined effect of student weights, federal funding, charitable funding, and federal special education law creates a scenario where students on free and reduced lunch and students identified as needing special education services draw down far more individual funding through the public system than the statewide average per pupil expenditure that would be used to calculate an ESA.

For students receiving a free or reduced lunch, in addition to only receiving 90% of what is an already underfunded average, they would also lose the benefit of the compensatory education weight. Additionally and perhaps more importantly, they likewise lose the effect of federal Title I funding. Federal funding, which is not included in calculating the statewide average per pupil expenditure, makes up about 10% of the total education funding in Texas, which may not sound like much on a per pupil basis. However, federal dollars are not distributed evenly to all students; rather, they are highly concentrated on children of poverty. Additional, there are federal provisions that preclude the state from using federal dollars to supplant state dollars.

The result is that schools serving kids on the free and reduced lunch program, children of poverty, are getting significant federal dollars in addition to state and local dollars to spend educating those children. We have made these expenditure choices as a society because research very clearly shows that these kids need additional programs, which cost additional dollars, in order to successfully receive a quality education. ESAs, and vouchers in general, do not account for this funding, and children on an ESA voucher would simply lose this funding.

The loss for children receiving special education services is potentially even more dramatic. Kids who have been identified as needing special education services can have some of the highest student weights – as much as 500 percent of what the average student in a Texas school district receives. But it is the effect of federal law with regard to special education students and the loss of those rights under an ESA voucher program that is potentially the most troubling issue. Both the courts and federal statute require public schools to provide students identified as needing special education services a free and appropriate public education. Essentially what that mandate boils down to is a requirement that districts spend whatever is necessary to provide the services these children need to be able to learn. This spending requirement is really separate from the amount of funding districts receive for these students. In fact, most districts currently spend substantially more on special education services than the amount of money they receive from the state funding formulas to provide those services, despite the current special education weights. All of that is to say that special education students frequently have far more than 100% of the statewide average per pupil funding through the public school system under current law, which is clearly more than they would receive under an ESA voucher.

A bad choice can be worse than no choice.

The ESA voucher proponent I was debating on the show pointed out that an ESA is a school choice option and that parents who don’t believe it’s the better choice for their student don’t have to take it. While that is strictly speaking true, it’s a choice with some harsh consequences that many parents may not fully realize until it’s too late. Two universal features of ESA legislation have been the requirement to waive your rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and your right to attend a public school during the year in which you receive ESA funds. What this means for all voucher recipients is that if they take a voucher and then find that what they can buy with it doesn’t in fact meet their needs they will have to sit out of the public school system for an entire year, potentially a real and permanent setback in a child’s education. This is of particular concern in the context of special education. The ESA program allows parents to purchase piecemeal services, which are often very expensive, much more than the average per pupil expenditure. Unlike the public education system that is required to provide a comprehensive program of general education and special education/therapeutic services for an entire school year regardless of overall individual cost, if a parent spends all their ESA funding on ad hoc therapeutic expenses, they will not receive additional state dollars or logistical/administrative assistance to provide for the academic component of their child’s education or even continued therapeutic services should they run out of funding before the next school year.

There are some genuine areas of needed improvement in the delivery of special education services and identification of students with special needs, but dramatically underfunding these or any, students through an ESA voucher program and encouraging parents to relieve their sometimes justified frustrations by giving up their child’s legal right to a free and appropriate education and simply going it alone is not the answer.

Related: If you live in the Austin viewing area and subscribe to TWC-Spectrum cable, you can watch a rebroadcast of this episode of Capital Tonight on Dec. 19, 2016. Also, check out ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey’s recent op-ed article about private school vouchers here.

State election results recap

Elections 2016 Card with Bokeh BackgroundElection Day 2016 was historic. Nationally, yesterday’s contest may have been considered a change election, but here at home in Texas there were few alterations in the balance of power. Only a small handful of incumbents or incumbent parties lost their elections yesterday. Those included one judicial race and five house races.

In the Texas State House, Democratic challenger Victoria Neave beat incumbent Rep. Kenneth Sheets (R-Dallas) in House District 107 by half a percentage point. In House District 117, Democratic challenger Philip Cortez re-won the seat he lost to Rep. Rick Galindo (R-San Antonio) two years ago. Democratic challenger Mary Ann Perez did the same in House District 144, winning back the seat she previously lost to Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena) in 2014.

There are currently two Texas House seats in which a former Democratic incumbent stepped down during the current term of office, necessitating a special election this year that resulted in Democrats’ losing those seats. Somewhat predictably, however, those losses turned out to be temporary, with Democratic candidates taking back those seats as a result of yesterday’s election. Rep. John Lujan (R-San Antonio) won a special election in January 2016 after former Rep. Joe Farias (D-San Antonio) resigned in House District 118; but before getting a chance to serve during a legislative session, Lujan was defeated yesterday by Tomas Uresti (D), who is the brother of incumbent Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio). Similarly, House District 120 was vacated earlier this year by former Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), and the special election to fill the remainder of her current term was won by Laura Thompson, an independent candidate. Thompson was defeated yesterday by Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D), who will take over the seat in January.

Outside of the races mentioned above there were no party shifts. Even in the several races where there was no incumbent running due to either the former legislator retiring or being defeated in the primary, the new legislator elected yesterday hails from the same party as the former or soon-to-be-former legislator.

All incumbent State Board of Education (SBOE) members won re-election yesterday, too. Two open SBOE seats were won by Georgina Perez (D) in District 1 and Keven Ellis (R) in District 9.

For those interested, here are the complete 2016 election results for those Texas House, Senate, and SBOE races that featured two major party candidates.

Did you “exercise” today on this last day of early voting?

Record numbers of voters have turned out to the polls during early voting. Despite that, there is little doubt that many potential voters have been turned off by the extreme partisan rancor of this election. It’s understandable that some might consider simply staying home this election. We urge them to reconsider!

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The single most important aspect to a healthy democracy is participation. That’s why ATPE has been steadfastly working with Texas Educators Vote, a coalition of education advocates, to encourage educators to vote and help create a culture of voting in the Texas education community.

There is wisdom in the phrase “exercising your right to vote.” A healthy democracy requires a strong active electorate. The only way to foster such an electorate is for each of us to vote every chance we get, to view voting not as an option but as an American imperative. When we don’t vote, we instead allow our electoral muscles to atrophy and the results aren’t positive. The electorate becomes smaller and those on the edges of the political spectrum both left and right gain an outsized voice in selecting candidates. Those candidates, who go on to become office holders, in turn tend to feel less accountable to the majority of their constituents who didn’t participate in electing them. They are instead much more likely to concern themselves with big money special interests and those voters whom they perceive as controlling the primary selection process but who may not share the view of the majority of Texans.

Kate_Vote_WEBAs with exercising any muscle, you are unlikely to see major improvements after going to the gym one time. The same can be said about voting. You may not feel that voting this time, in this election will change much; but when more of us vote every time in every election it will begin to make a big difference, both in the makeup of our elected officials and in the way we interact with them.

The best way to start forming any habit is to stop thinking about it in future terms and start practicing that habit in the present. The same is true of voting. The best time to begin that mental shift to viewing voting as an American imperative, to begin making voting a habit, is not the next election —it’s this election, and it’s now.

So if you haven’t voted yet, now is the time. Most polls are open today until 7 pm and will be open again from 7 am to 7 pm on Election Day, Tuesday (Nov. 8). As long as you are in line by the time the polls close, you will be allowed to cast your ballot.

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Before you cast your vote, visit the 2016 Races page here on Teach the Vote to view candidate information, then head to the polls and exercise your right.