Author Archives: Mark Wiggins

Finance commission working group talks expenditures

Members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance’s working group on expenditures met Tuesday morning at the Texas Capitol. The working group is lead by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee. Other members of the working group are commission chair Justice Scott Brister, Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas).

Texas Commission of Public School Finance working group on expenditures meeting March 20, 2018.

The working group met for the first time the day after all 13 members of the commission met Monday for the body’s first and likely only day of public testimony. At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Justice Brister indicated the purpose of the working group is to make proposals for the full commission to consider. Huberty then began the commission by outlining a number of potential vehicles to increase school funding, such as increasing the basic allotment, creating a “silver penny” that deals with recapture issues, and adjusting the funding formulas.

Chairman Huberty drew the group’s attention to a reform bill proposed by former House Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock that would have represented a $3 billion funding boost through an increase to the basic allotment, elimination of the cost of education index (CEI), and addressing additional state aid for tax relief (ASATR). Huberty also noted that the House passed a $1.8 billion school finance reform bill last session. That legislation was killed by the Texas Senate under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Representatives from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and Texas Education Agency (TEA) led off Tuesday’s testimony with a high-level overview of the Foundation School Program (FSP), which is the state’s system for funding public schools. Chairman Huberty asked LBB staff directly what the state’s share of school formula funding is, according to the state’s accountants. Staff from LBB answered the state provides 38 percent of education funding – a number Sen. Taylor repeatedly tried to dispute on Monday. Huberty emphasized the importance of members agreeing upon a number from which to begin constructive conversations about the budget.

Huberty and Sen. West pointedly questioned LBB why it has failed to update the CEI since 1991. Staff from LBB explained they were unable to reproduce the methodology used in 1991, despite an attempt to do so in the 2000s. Dr. Ellis suggested the commission should consider what an updated CEI or similar index might look like before weighing whether to eliminate it. The working group also sought clarification regarding the functions of the new instructional facilities allotment (NIFA), the high school allotment, and the transportation allotment. Sen. West suggested the working group add addressing the transportation allotment’s function in Chapter 41 districts, which are subject to “Robin Hood” recapture, to its to-do list. The group also asked about weights for special education and compensatory education, with a view to incorporating weighted funding for dyslexia and autism.

A representative from the Texas Association of School Business Officers (TASBO) suggested commissioning a working group comprised of veteran school district CFOs and their associated curriculum counterparts to assess whether the state’s various funding programs are accomplishing their intended objectives. A Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) member testified that money matters, and funding levels make it increasingly difficult for districts to do their jobs. Members also heard from representatives from the Fast Growth School Coalition and the Equity Center, he latter of whom offered plan for simplifying the school finance formula. A charter school representative refuted the suggestion that schools could pay teachers higher salaries if they simply reprioritized their budgets. Huberty noted the claim that charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools is “just not true,” and warned charter operators to change their talking points.

The working group’s next meeting is expected to be conducted via conference call, and a third meeting will be scheduled in person to follow up.

Finance commissioners get earful from public

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Monday for the fifth time, kicking off what is expected to be the only meeting during which members of the general public will be given the opportunity to speak to the 13-member body.

Roughly 50 invited witnesses were scheduled to speak before the commission opened up for public testimony Monday. Invited witnesses were allocated five minutes each, while members of the public were given three minutes each.

Former House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock was the first invited witness to testify, and called for eliminating the outdated cost of education index (CEI). Aycock also suggested funding charter schools based on the allotment given to their constituent feeder campuses as opposed to the current practice of allocating funding based upon the state average. Former House Public Education subcommittee chair Paul Colbert emphasized that money does indeed matter when it comes to funding public schools.

Chandra Villanueva, Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, urged the commission to study the actual cost of funding public education. Villanueva noted that the Perot Commission, which studied Texas school finance in the 1980s, considered how much it would cost to fund the ideal Texas school.

The majority of invited witnesses were comprised of traditional public education stakeholders, including representatives from educator organizations, administrators, school board members and business interests. By and large, these stakeholders pointed out that money is important in public education, and argued for the state to resume its fair share of the burden of funding local schools after years of gradually dumping the lion’s share of funding responsibility into the laps of local taxpayers. This view saw vigorous pushback from state Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifies before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance on March 19, 2018.

When public testimony opened up Monday afternoon, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter pointed out new polling data that show Texans agree money is important in public education and that the state should pay its fair share. Exter testified there are multiple realistic pathways to get the state’s share up to 50 percent from the current 38 percent. It could do so through increases to the sales tax, expanding the tax base, eliminating some of the roughly $30 billion of “corporate welfare” built into the state tax system, or some combination thereof. To wit, Exter suggested lawmakers could get to fifty percent by adding one penny of sales tax, combined with a small expansion of the tax base and eliminating some corporate welfare.

During public testimony, parents and teachers expressed nearly uniform dissatisfaction with the current level of school funding – often delivering heated lectures to members of the commission. Many echoed the opinion that the state should spend more on public education in order to take pressure off of local taxpayers who are currently saddled with the majority of the burden of funding public schools. Public testimony is expected to last well into the night. The commission working group on expenditures, which is chaired by House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston), is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning at the Texas Capitol.

Poll: Texans support more school funding

Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC) and public education advocates unveil new polling data.

On the same day members of the general public will be allowed to testify before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, education advocates unveiled new polling data indicating a broad, bipartisan majority of Texans believe the state should spend more money on public schools.

A study by a prominent GOP polling firm commissioned by the Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium (TEGAC) surveyed 501 registered voters between January 20 and 23. It found:

  • Initially, 67 percent of Texans favor the state increasing its share of dollars going to education in order to provide property tax relief for local taxpayers. After hearing more about it, 71 percent favor increasing the state share in order to provide property tax relief.
  • 81 percent of Texans favor a requirement that local education tax dollars sent to the state must be used for public education, and not used to fill other budget shortfalls or fund other programs. After hearing more about the issue, 86 percent favor this requirement.
  • 54 percent of Texans favor increasing the state’s share of public education dollars from the current 38 percent to 50 percent. After hearing more about the issue, 68 percent favor increasing the state’s share.

Lewisville ISD school board member Kristi Hassett said, “The state’s financial contribution has declined significantly over most of the last six to eight years, leaving local taxpayers to should a disproportionate amount of the burden. It’s time for the state to step up and increase funding for public education.” More poll results can be found here.

Now that you’ve voted in the primaries…

Congratulations, you made it through the March 6 primaries!

Okay, now what?

I’m glad you asked! But before we get to the answer, let’s start with a 30,000-foot review of what went down last Tuesday.

Less than 24 hours before the polls opened on primary election day, the Dallas Morning News reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had escalated his attempts to intimidate educators and suppress their vote. It was the latest assault by a band of politicians bought and paid for by Empower Texans, a funded by a handful of West Texas billionaires and obsessed with attacking educators and their allies.

Turns out, they had good reason to want to shut educators up.

When the dust cleared Wednesday morning, the anti-education organization and its accomplices lost more than a dozen races. As politics watchers surveyed the fallout, most reached similarly damning conclusions regarding the erstwhile political puppet-masters at Empower Texans. At the same time, 72 percent of pro-education candidates supported by ATPE PAC won their races outright, and another eight percent are headed to May 2018 runoffs as the top vote getters.

Compounding the troubles facing public education opponents, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) filed a public information request this week seeking to uncover communications between Empower Texans and Paxton, as well as state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and others “regarding possible coordination to intimidate voters.”

“Scare tactics, intimidation, and voter suppression have no place in our democracy,” said Beth Steven, director of TCRP’s Voting Rights Program. “Unfortunately, the Orwellian-named ‘Empower Texans’ apparently believes that by scaring educators away from teaching young people about civic participation, they will stem the tide of a new and upcoming generation of voters. More jarring, however, is the possibility that our state’s chief law enforcement official is enabling these dangerous efforts. We sent this request to uncover any communications between the Attorney General’s Office and groups that are trying to suppress the vote. We need to restore trust and faith in our democracy, and that begins with finding out who is attempting to keep Texans away from the ballot box — and why.”

The education community’s biggest antagonist, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, survived his primary intact – yet not necessarily unscathed. As Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey pointed out, more than 300,000 Texas Republicans voted against Patrick and for public education supporter Scott Milder. After losing the primary, Milder announced he would split his ticket in November to vote for the Democrat, Mike Collier, in that race.

Ultimately both Republicans and Democrats exhibited record turnout, but University of Texas Professor Joshua Blank warns against reading too much into how turnout on either side translates to performance in the November general election. Professor James R. Henson offered a more in-depth analysis in this post for The Hill.

But before we turn our focus to November, there’s still some unfinished business in the party primaries – and THAT’S what’s next!

We’re watching 17 races in which no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote. The top two vote getters in each of these races will show down in a May 22 runoff election to determine who will represent their party on the November ballot. Early voting for these races runs from May 14 to May 18. You may only vote in the runoff of the party in which you cast your primary ballot. For example, if you voted in the Republican primary, you can only vote in the Republican runoff. Likewise, if you voted in the Democratic primary, you can only vote in the Democratic runoff. You cannot vote in the Democratic runoff after voting in the Republican primary, or vice-versa.

Just as with the March 6 primaries, the outcomes of the May 22 runoffs are incredibly important. We encourage everyone to consult our CANDIDATES page and make plans to vote!


  • HD4: Former Rep. Stuart Spitzer (46%) vs. Keith Bell (26%)
  • HD8: Cody Harris (45%) vs. Thomas McNutt (39%)
  • HD13: Jill Wolfskill (39%) vs. Ben Leman (36%)
  • HD54: Rep. Scott Cosper (45%) vs. Brad Buckley (42%)
  • HD62: Reggie Smith (46%) vs. Brent Lawson (34%)
  • HD107: Deanna Metzger (45%) vs. Joe Ruzicka (27%)
  • HD121: Matt Beebe (29%) vs. Steve Allison (26%)


  • GOV: Lupe Valdez (43%) vs. Andrew White (27%)
  • SD17: Rita Lucido (49%) vs. Fran Watson (35%)
  • HD37: Rep. Rene Oliveira (48%) vs. Alex Dominguez (36%)
  • HD45: Rebecca Bell-Metereau (45%) vs. Erin Zwiener (31%)
  • HD46: Chito Vela (40%) vs. Sheryl Cole (38%)
  • HD47: Vikki Goodwin (34%) vs. Elaina Fowler (29%)
  • HD64: Mat Pruneda (42%) vs. Andrew Morris (39%)
  • HD109: Deshaundra Lockhart Jones (45%) vs. Carl Sherman (40%)
  • HD133: Sandra Moore (49.92%) vs. Marty Schexnayder (41%)
  • ED12: Suzanne Smith (48%) vs. Laura Malone-Miller (26%)

Runoffs typically see some of the lowest turnout, as far as elections go. It’s not unusual for runoffs to see half of the voter turnout typically seen in the primaries. The problem is that the enemies of public education are counting on educators continuing this trend and sitting at home May 22. There is a very real risk that your efforts to support pro-public education candidates in these races will be for nothing if educators do not show up again in force.

The bottom line: Educators made a statement on March 6. The job isn’t finished yet, but we’re getting there.

Your chance to talk to the school finance commission!

If you’re a regular Teach the Vote reader (as you should be!), you’ve probably been following our updates from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Now’s your chance to participate!

The commission was created as part of HB 21, which passed during the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature. The bill was a consolation prize to public education supporters disappointed with the Texas Senate’s decision to kill a school finance reform bill containing $1.5 billion in additional public school funding for the 2018-2019 budget biennium.

The commission’s titular purpose is to discuss and make recommendations for how to improve the state’s “lawful but awful” school finance system. The first few meetings have focused on broad issues such as demographics, funding, educator retention, and charter schools. While some of the invited witnesses – including ATPE executive director Gary Godsey – have provided important perspectives, the commission has also served as a forum for outside actors with a financial interest in promoting vouchers and other schemes that would weaken the public school system.

Members of the public will now get the chance to address the 13-member commission at the upcoming March 19 meeting. This will likely be the only time educators, parents, students, and other community members will be allowed to speak their minds in front of this group.

The commission will present its recommendations to the governor and legislature at the end of the year. These recommendations may include everything from how much to pay teachers to how many students can be assigned to a single classroom, or whether taxpayer dollars should be transferred from the public school system to subsidize private school tuition. Details of the meeting are as follows:

Texas Commission on Public School Finance

Monday, March 19, 2018 – 9:00 a.m.

William B. Travis Building, Room 1-104

1701 N. Congress Avenue, Austin TX

The commission will hear from invited witnesses before opening testimony to members of the public. Public testimony will be limited to three minutes per person. A sign-up sheet will be posted on the commission’s webpage two days prior to the meeting. Sign-up sheets will also be available at the meeting. Those who are unable to attend the meeting can e-mail their comments to The Texas Education Agency (TEA) will provide a livestream of the meeting that can be viewed here on Monday.

This meeting is expected to last well into the evening, but it is important that educators provide input. Consider that the state currently contributes just 38 percent of the cost for educating our students, down from a roughly 50-50 split a decade ago. As state lawmakers have gradually decreased the share the state chips in, school districts have been forced to increasingly rely on local property taxes to make up the difference. At the same time, some lawmakers are openly discussing ways to remove even more money from the system through vouchers and other forms of privatization. Here are some questions to think about when crafting your message if you plan to testify before the commission:

  1. What resources do you need to meet your students’ needs?
  2. What sorts of programs, benefits, or incentives would help attract and retain quality teachers?
  3. How would you explain the importance of making sure education dollars are spent on our public schools and not funneled out to private entities or used for other non-education purposes?
  4. Are you also a homeowner who pays property taxes? Increasing the state’s share of education funding to at least 50 percent would place less burden on school districts to raise local property taxes in order to keep their schools operating. How might this change help you as a taxpayer while also meeting the needs of our public schools?

There are plenty of resources available if you’d like to do your own research. You can search numerous articles here at Teach the Vote covering the entire universe of public education issues. You can also check out good primers such as this one by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. ATPE members who are considering testifying are also invited to contact our lobby team for any additional guidance.

We hope you take the time to stop by the meeting to testify or e-mail comments if you’re unable to make it. Let’s make sure our teacher voice is heard loud and clear!


House panel report includes education recommendations

On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness released its formal report containing recommendations for ensuring Texas remains the nation’s most desirable destination for relocating or opening up new businesses.

Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) formed the committee in October 2017 in response to concerns that the 85th Texas Legislature pursued a number of legislative proposals that resulted in Texas dropping precipitously in the rankings of America’s Top States for Business.

“Texas has long enjoyed a booming economy and staggering job growth. Our economic strength has been predicated on a number of factors: high oil prices, geography, the tax and regulatory environment within the state, and the can-do attitude of millions of Texans,” Straus explained when he announced the committee. “However, there are forces, if left unchecked, that could derail the success our state has enjoyed.”

The committee conducted several hearings and weighed testimony from 42 prominent and influential witnesses from the business, law enforcement and local communities. The committee documented several findings related to education. Most notably, the report underscored the important role public schools play in ensuring the educated workforce necessary to sustain businesses operating in today’s economy. The following passage is taken directly from the committee’s report:

Public education teaches students basic skills before entering the workforce and fosters innovation. Policymakers must deal with school finance, examining not just the amount of money allocated for education, but how we distribute it — and how we can better incentivize public educators and institutions. The governor’s recently proposed 2.5 percent cap on property tax revenue will be detrimental to school funding since school districts receive 40 to 60 percent of property taxes across the state. The Texas House passed a 6 percent cap during the 85th Legislature, but the measure was killed by the Senate; this new proposal will severely reduce school resources unless more funding is appropriated by the legislature.

House Bill 21 of the 85th Legislature would have increased the state’s share of school funding and reduced the need for higher property taxes — easing the burden on homeowners — but the legislation died after being altered by the Senate. After all, how can the challenges facing the future competitiveness of the state’s workforce be addressed if Texas turns its back on its public school system, or does not address its method for allocating resources to public schools?

The importance of local control for school districts was stressed with the explanation that local control granted from the state is important for hiring staff and providing a safe campus for students. Educators want their graduates to meet the specific needs of where their district is located, which makes local control imperative for creating curriculum and making decisions about how to meet those needs. Testimony also demonstrated the need for presenting high school students with information about technical programs, rather than only promoting four-year universities. Public schools must address the needs of students with disabilities, but programs to help them transition to the workplace and speech, occupational and physical therapies are consistently underfunded.

Based upon these observations, the committee included a number of proposals specifically related to public education. From the report:

Recommendation: The legislature must prioritize funding for public education that is regularly adjusted to account for growth in population and inflation. Policymakers should closely examine the effectiveness of public education expenditures to ensure that dollars are used to maximize student success, and ensure the state’s academic accountability system increases the performance of schools and students.

  • In response to declines in state tax revenue, the 82nd Legislature reduced entitlement funding for public education by $5.4 billion. While subsequent legislatures have increased funding for public education, the majority of funds have been used only to cover costs created by the growth in the number of students.
  • Adjusted for increases in population and inflation, state spending on public education has decreased by nearly 16 percent since 2008. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of students who are classified as “economically disadvantaged” and are therefore more expensive to educate.
  • As the majority of new funding provided by the legislature simply addresses population growth, there have been few opportunities to invest in programs that have proven to increase academic achievement — such as technical career education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM courses, dual-credit offerings, and bilingual education.
  • As the state’s share of public education funding has declined, the burden on local property taxes and recapture payments has grown, eliminating any opportunity for local property tax rates to be reduced. About 54 percent of all property taxes paid in Texas are collected by school districts. Therefore, the fastest and most effective way to reduce the property-tax burden is for the state to pay more of the cost of public education.
  • Many of the school finance formula weights and allotments — such as the Cost of Education Index or Transportation Allotment — have not been updated or adjusted for the effects of population and inflation in more than two decades. Increases in state funding should be tied to regular adjustment of these weights, combined with the elimination of funding elements that are inefficient or no longer represent the diverse needs of Texas’ public education system.
  • The legislature must increase funding for special education programs and Early Childhood Intervention programs so that children with disabilities can successfully enter pre-kindergarten programs, while also providing more reliable funding for programs that help students with disabilities transition to the workplace.

Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) submitted the report Tuesday. It will be presented to the 86th Texas Legislature, which is scheduled to meet in January 2019. You read the full report here, courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

School finance commission focuses on charters

The Texas Commission on School Finance met for the fourth time Wednesday in Austin. After a late start due to members trickling in the day after the state’s heated primary elections, the commission quickly launched into a debate about just how much of its activities will be open to members of the public.

Texas Commission on School Finance meeting March 7, 2018.

Chairman Justice Scott Brister began by informing members of the commission that commission subcommittees will be free to hold meetings without posting notice to the public. Brister gave members specific guidance in order to avoid having to comply with state open meetings laws, and led a vote expanding the number of members who can attend committee meetings out of the public eye.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, argued for greater transparency, suggesting members of the public have an interest in what the commission is doing behind closed doors. State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) joined in highlighting the importance of transparency. Arguing for more secrecy, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) noted members of the Texas Senate regularly hold secret meetings.

The committee also discussed logistics for the next meeting, March 19, when members of the public will be able to testify. Before public testimony, the commission plans to invite various stakeholders and interest groups to testify for up to five minutes. Brister stated the list of potential invited witnesses compiled by members and Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff numbered roughly fifty, and asked for help whittling down that number. He warned the March 19 meeting will be long, and members should expect to work well into the evening hours. Sen. Bettencourt asked to reduce the amount of time allotted to public witnesses to avoid a lengthy meeting, and Brister expressed interest in doing so based upon the number of witnesses who sign up.

The topic of Wednesday’s meeting was “efficiency,” with panels dedicated to efficiencies at the classroom, campus and district levels. The first panel featured witnesses from Cisco and Pasadena ISDs to discuss blended learning programs, which combine classroom time with self-paced digital learning incorporating technology such as computers and tablets. Todd Williams, an advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, asked whether blended learning would enable a single teacher to teach more students. Pasadena ISD Deputy Superintendent Karen Hickman indicated that may be possible, but had not been her district’s experience.

The next panel featured witnesses from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, along with Dallas County Community College and the Dallas County Promise program. College partnership programs allow students to earn industry credentials or college credits by taking courses through local higher education institutions. While praising the work of PSJA ISD, Williams suggested college completion rates in these programs are not always where many would like to see them. DCCC Chancellor Joe May testified that the Dallas program is an efficient way to get students to a four-year degree at a quarter of the typical cost.

The final panel on district-level efficiencies was led off by San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who highlighted new innovative campuses and advanced teacher training. Martinez made a compelling argument against basing too much accountability on end-of-course exams, pointing out that SAT scores have a far greater impact on the future trajectory of individual students. Martinez also laid out a nuanced way of tracking income demographics for the purposes of equalization within the district. More controversially, Martinez discussed bringing in charter operators from New York to take over a local elementary campus. These types of arrangements receive financial incentives from the state as a result of SB 1882, which was passed by the 85th Texas Legislature despite warnings raised by ATPE over the potential negative impacts on students and teachers. In consideration of these criticisms, Martinez suggested adding Dallas ISD’s ACE model or similar teacher retention programs as a third option under SB 1882. Martinez further acknowledged that charters are not interested in taking on the task of educating the most economically disadvantaged students.

The commission also heard from Paul Hill, a Washington-based policy consultant whose work has been affiliated with handing campuses over the charters and supporters of broader education privatization, including vouchers. Midland ISD Superintendent Orlando Riddick spoke of districts of innovation (DOI), and confirmed that districts are eager to waive requirements for maximum class sizes and teacher certification. ATPE has repeatedly warned of DOI being used to hire cheaper, uncertified teachers and assign larger classrooms.

The meeting ended with testimony from IDEA Public Schools charter founder Tom Torkelson. While acknowledging that well-trained teachers should earn more money, Torkelson also suggested that class size limits designed to protect students should be waived in order to place more students in a single classroom. Torkelson also suggested eliminating regional education service centers (ESCs), which were designed to increase efficiency by consolidating various support tasks in order to service multiple districts. Torkelson gave no indication what should replace the ESCs in his estimation.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, concluded Wednesday’s hearing by directing members to the task at hand: Finding a way to pay for public education for all Texas students. Anything short of that, he reminded members, will not help Texas out of its current predicament. The commission will next meet March 19, and members of the public will be allowed to testify.

Why March 6 Matters: Retirement

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at your retirement.

Everyone who decides to become an educator enters into a special agreement with the State of Texas. It goes something like this: If you devote your life to preparing our children for the future, Texas promises to be there for you when you retire at the end of a long career of service.

Only that promise is constantly under attack.

Let’s start with some basics. Your retirement is administered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS), which oversees the pension trust fund. The state and individual educators each contribute to the fund, and a team of professional staff supervise a diverse investment portfolio that makes up the body of the fund. These full-time agency employees ensure the fund’s health and safety. After paying for the cost of administration and benefits, the money from those investments is plowed right back into the fund.

TRS is structured as a “defined benefit” retirement plan, which means that an individual who pays into the plan is guaranteed a set amount of money each month in retirement that will last for the rest of his or her life. The more common type of retirement plan is a “defined contribution” plan, such as a 401(k). Unlike the promise of a stable monthly pension check upon retirement offered by a defined benefit plan, a defined contribution plan promises merely a set contribution into an employee’s retirement account while the individual is actively working. Investment returns on that account are subject to the whims of the market. The level of retirement that can be provided by those funds at the end of an educator’s career is not guaranteed. Under a defined contribution scenario, there is a real threat that a retired educator may outlive the retirement funds accumulated during his or her career, and end up with nowhere to turn for help — not even Social Security.

You may have noticed that most businesses in the private sector have gone the defined contribution route. The reason is largely because 401(k) plans are cheaper and don’t require dedicated staff to administer. Most are run for a profit by large Wall Street corporations, and advisers often have a financial stake in the investments they recommend. This leaves plenty of opportunities for others to make money, but little guarantee of stable retirement income for the retiree. The defined benefit plan administered by TRS is, by contrast, of great value to retirees, who can rest easier knowing that they will receive a guaranteed income for as long as they are alive.

As with most big pots of public money, the TRS pension fund has unfortunately become the focus of those looking to brag about shrinking government while making a few bucks for their friends.

In 2017, the Texas Senate confirmed Josh McGee as chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), which oversees state pension systems including TRS. Prior to being appointed to that position by Gov. Greg Abbott, McGee worked as a professional advocate for converting public pensions to defined contribution plans that would reduce the money guaranteed to retirees, and his position at the helm of PRB naturally raised alarm bells.

Adding to the concern, lawmakers have filed a number of bills in 2017 and in prior legislative sessions that would likewise weaken TRS. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) – who made headlines recently with his objections to efforts to improve voter turnout among educators – filed a pair of bills last year aimed at converting TRS from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan or a hybrid of the two. Both bills died without a hearing, fortunately, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is keeping the idea alive as part of his interim charges for the Texas Senate to study before the legislature reconvenes in 2019.

Most troubling is recent news from the TRS Board of Trustees that it intends to vote to lower the assumed rate of return for the $147 billion pension fund from 8.0 percent down to 7.25 percent. The decision was based on observations of current market forces, and while fiscally prudent, it radically changes the plan’s outlook on paper. Like all pension plans, the TRS fund must be considered solvent before the legislature or board can consider any potential increases in benefits. With the lower assumed rate of return, TRS will head into the 2019 legislative session needing an additional $1.5 billion for future solvency, and they’ll be asking for that money from lawmakers who frequently are looking to cut spending, not increase it.

Politicians like Sen. Bettencourt frame their attacks on educators’ pensions by claiming the defined benefit structure is too expensive for the state to maintain into the future. In fact, the state’s share of an educator’s pension (at 6.8 percent) is less than half the teacher retirement contribution rate set by the next lowest state that is not paying into Social Security. The truth is that a more conservative assumed rate of return, coupled with a proper contribution rate, will guarantee TRS stays healthy well into the future.

The bottom line: Like public education as a whole, Texas gets a phenomenal bargain for what it spends, but more funding is necessary to fully realize the implicit promise made to educators.

Lawmakers will face tremendous pressure in 2019 from investors and politicians who want to gamble with teachers’ retirement. Unless Texans elect more pro-public education lawmakers and statewide elected officials, the legislature may very well look to your pension as an area to further cut corners. Texas will only keep its promise to educators if lawmakers respect educators’ voices at the polls in this pivotal election year.

Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on educators’ retirement and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election taking place now. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Why March 6 Matters: School Finance

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at school finance.

Perhaps no issue impacts every Texan more than school finance. For all of the lip service politicians pay to reducing property taxes, the only way Texans will ever see meaningful property tax relief is if the legislature puts more state money into public education.

Journalists such as Texas Monthly‘s R.G. Ratcliffe and the Texas Tribune‘s Ross Ramsey have exhaustively reported how state lawmakers have gradually reduced the share of state dollars spent on schools, shifting the burden instead onto the backs of local taxpayers. School funding has gone from a roughly fifty-fifty split between state and local funding sources a decade ago to a situation in which local taxes make up more than half of the burden, with the state ponying up just 38 percent. That’s an inconvenient reality for some incumbent lawmakers who want to place the blame elsewhere for the rising costs on Texas homeowners, even going so far as to characterize well-documented reports of the decline in state funding as “fake news.”

The current school finance structure that relies so heavily on locally generated property taxes is a great deal for legislators: First, they run campaigns promising to lower property taxes and rein in government spending. Then they get points for reducing state spending, and let local officials face the music when they’re forced to jack up property taxes to make up for the state’s miserliness. The budget signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 actually reduced the amount of state dollars spent on public schools by $1.1 billion, and let the balance fall once again into the laps of local taxpayers.

Yet some legislators have shown an interest in restoring the balance. Under the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus, the Texas House passed legislation during the 85th Texas Legislature that would have put as much as $1.9 billion in new dollars into the public education system. The infusion of new money was intended to begin the long process of fixing the state’s “lawful but awful” system of public school finance. The Texas Senate slashed that amount to $530 million, then ultimately killed the legislation as payback for the House’s refusal to pass a voucher bill.

Those hoping for school finance reform in 2017 had to settle instead on a new state commission created to study school finance. Some fear this commission could devolve into yet another vehicle for those pushing school privatization, and educators are watching closely.

The next chance to fix the school finance system and lighten the load on local taxpayers will come when the legislature meets in 2019, but public education supporters will have their work cut out for them. The next two-year state budget is expected to be even tighter, and lawmakers will have to carefully prioritize spending in order to meet even their most basic funding obligations.

What this means is simple: Texans will only see lower property taxes and better-funded schools if they elect legislators and leaders who will prioritize public school funding as a core principle. Without additional public education supporters in the Texas Capitol, the current leadership can be expected to continue the trend of defunding public schools and dumping the load onto local taxpayers.

Our kids deserve better.

Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on school finance and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!


Speaker Straus denounces voter intimidation efforts aimed at educators

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) is sending a strong message to educators across Texas: The Speaker stands with educators who are encouraging a culture of voting across the state, and against recent voter intimidation efforts directed at the education community.

“Put me down as supporting a culture of voting, among teachers and all eligible Texans,” Straus said in a newsletter dated February 23.

As the first week of early voting continues, Speaker Straus reminded voters that the polls are open this weekend for those who would like to vote early in the March 6 primary. Early voting continues through March 2, and polls will be open again from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day, March 6.

In his letter, the Speaker explicitly called out voter intimidation efforts aimed at educators. It’s no secret that educators are mobilizing like never before ahead of the March 6 primary elections, and many school districts are enthusiastically exercising their legal obligation to encourage voting and civic engagement. As a member of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, ATPE has worked alongside other education and civic groups to increase voter turnout among educators and share nonpartisan election resources with school employees. These efforts came under attack earlier this year when state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) engaged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a naked attempt to chill these efforts.

Soon after, the state’s most notorious privately funded special interest group staged its own voter intimidation campaign directed at teachers. The campaign backfired spectacularly, with the internet uniting behind the social media hashtag #BlowingTheWhistle to highlight the impactful stories of dedicated educators making a difference. ATPE wrote about the Twitter backlash on our Teach the Vote blog.

In his letter Friday, Straus wrote:

“I’ve often said that we need more Texans voting in primaries so that candidates are responsive and accountable to a broader set of Texans and their concerns. Unfortunately, some elected leaders in Austin and their allies have been trying to discourage voting among one important group of Texans: School teachers.

Some members of our community have received a letter from an Austin special interest group criticizing local school leaders for promoting a “culture of voting.” This group apparently feels threatened by the fact that education leaders are encouraging civic participation.

It’s easy to understand why educators and others who support public schools want to vote. Those of us who have prioritized public education have been met with resistance from other elected leaders. As a result, our school finance system still desperately needs reform, and the lack of state dollars going into public education is driving local property taxes higher and higher.”

During the 2017 legislative session, Speaker Straus led the Texas House in blocking harmful bills aimed at weakening the public education system and fought to pass a school finance reform bill that would have increased school funding by as much as $1.9 billion. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate killed that bill, which would have benefited 5.4 million Texas students, as payback.

ATPE lobbyists presented House Speaker Joe Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates in July 2017.

Speaker Straus was honored as “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News for his efforts to avoid controversial crusades and keep the legislature focused on the business of improving Texans’ lives. This week, he was awarded “International Citizen of the Year” as well by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio. During the 2017 special session, ATPE also presented Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by our House of Delegates last summer in recognition of his support for public education.

The Speaker has indicated he will not be running for reelection, which means those who vote in the primary elections underway now will determine what type of leader takes his place.

Educators MUST VOTE NOW or risk facing a hostile legislature in 2019. ATPE encourages you to look up who’s running in your area on the CANDIDATES page of our website, then go to the polls and use your teacher voice!