Category Archives: Legislative Update

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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 17, 2017

The weekend is here, and it’s time for your wrap-up of education news from ATPE:

 


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ATPE members were at the State Capitol Monday morning to express opposition to Senate Bill 13, an anti-educator bill aimed at weakening educator associations by doing away with payroll deduction options for certain public employees who join associations or unions.

This week, the Senate State Affairs Committee approved Senate Bill (SB) 13 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who is also that committee’s chairwoman. The bill aims to prevent educators and a handful of other public employees from using payroll deduction for their voluntary association dues, a longstanding practice that costs taxpayers nothing.

Huffman’s bill carves out a special exemption for fire, police, and EMS employees, allowing them to continuing using payroll deduction for their dues. That decision to favor some public employees over others is not sitting well with many public servants both in and out of the bill, as well as several of the legislators being asked to act upon the issue this session.

FU5A8751_SB13hearingDozens of ATPE members traveled to Austin on Monday, Feb. 13, to attend and testify at the SB 13 hearing. Read more about their testimony in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday from earlier this week. The pleas by educators and others were not enough to stop the committee from moving the bill forward, which happened yesterday on a party line vote. For more on this high-profile battle over public employee associations and unions, check out today’s column by Ross Ramsey, Executive Editor of the Texas Tribune, which is also republished here on Teach the Vote.

As Ramsey notes, the debate over SB 13 “isn’t about the paychecks. It’s about the politics.” ATPE agrees, and points out that political motives driving this bill aren’t even necessarily union-focused, especially since the bill creates exceptions for some union members. Backers of SB 13 say they are targeting the groups they perceive to be opponents of Republican candidates and supporters of state and federal legislation that would hurt businesses. In reality though, the largest group affected by the bill is ATPE – a non-union entity that exists only in Texas and gets no money from national or out-of-state affiliates. Furthermore, as ATPE members and lobbyists have pointed out in testimony and one-on-one discussions with lawmakers, our organization has not involved itself in business-related legislation and has always made bipartisan contributions to candidates and officeholders through our political action committee, which is not in any way funded with dues dollars.

If, as Ramsey describes it, the SB 13 debate boils down to picking “good eggs and bad eggs,” it is becoming abundantly clear that in the minds of many lawmakers and business groups, educators are the bad eggs.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-162674067-pillsThe 85th Legislature is considering some dramatic changes to healthcare options for educators. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter has written an analysis of a bill that would result in a major restructuring of TRS-ActiveCare, the primary healthcare program for actively employed educators in Texas. Read more about Senate Bill 789 and the changes being considered in this blog post.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) wants to hear from educators about potential changes to educator certification, particularly for teachers of early childhood students. We invite educators to take TEA’s survey between now and Feb. 24, especially if you teach in an elementary grade and might be affected by these changes under consideration. Learn more about the background of the issue and find a survey link in ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann’s blog post.

 


tea-logo-header-2School districts and charter schools around Texas received notice of their 2016-17 accreditation status from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Factors that count toward a determination of accreditation status include academic and financial accountability ratings, program effectiveness, and compliance with education laws and rules. Nearly all (98%) of the state’s school districts received a fully “Accredited” status. Nine districts or charters were “Accredited-Warned,” seven received an “Accredited-Probation” status, two were marked as “Not Accredited-Revoked,” and one district is still “Pending.” Learn more from TEA here.

 


Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates on legislative developments next week. ATPE members are also urged to visit Advocacy Central to learn more about specific bills and send messages to their lawmakers about priority issues like payroll deduction, private school vouchers, testing, healthcare, and more.

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.

Senate committee hears from dozens opposed to payroll deduction bill

On Monday, Feb. 13, the Senate Committee on State Affairs, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), conducted a public hearing on Senate Bill (SB) 13, Huffman’s own bill to eliminate the rights of some public employees to use payroll deduction for voluntary association dues. Dozens of ATPE members traveled to Austin to attend the hearing. Among the many witnesses who testified against SB 13 were ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey, State President Julleen Bottoms, State Vice President Carl Garner, State Secretary Byron Hildebrand, and State Treasurer Tonja Grey.

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Early in the hearing, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) questioned the bill’s author on why she chose to file a bill that would prohibit payroll deduction by some public employees (such as educators, correctional officers, and CPS workers) while exempting fire, police, and EMS employees from the prohibition. ”I just think it’s problematic to say this group of people does it this way and this group of people does it that way,” Sen. Estes said, noting that he would prefer to see a bill without an exception for first responders that would apply equally to all public employees. “Why?” Estes asked the bill’s author about the discriminatory impact of her bill.

 

In response to the questions from Estes and her other fellow senators, Chairwoman Huffman explained that she was comfortable excluding law enforcement and emergency personnel from the bill because they “serve the community… with great honor and distinction.” Huffman added that groups representing first responders don’t interfere with “business issues,” which was a complaint raised by a pair of business lobbyists who testified against SB 13.

It is not clear what type of “business interference” the supporters of this bill believe ATPE has been guilty of organizing. The examples cited by a representative of the National Federal of Independent Business (NFIB) were federal minimum wage and equal pay laws that she claimed unions were opposing nationally. ATPE has not taken a position on any such legislation in Washington, and ATPE’s Godsey pointed out in his testimony that our organization has been supportive of business. “We love small business,” Godsey emphasized to the committee. “We have never spent one dime lobbying against small business.”

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Sens. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) asked a number of questions during the hearing about why this bill was needed. They illustrated, for example, that no school board members or superintendents have complained about the current law requiring districts to let educators deduct association dues from their paychecks. Several of the teachers who testified during Monday’s hearing pointed out that their school leaders were supportive of leaving the current law alone and letting school employees continue the practice of using payroll deduction for their association dues. ATPE State President Bottoms, for example, noted that her own superintendent had even traveled to Austin Monday to support her appearance at the SB 13 hearing.

Although not a member of the committee, Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) also sat in on the hearing and  asked a number of questions about why the bill targets certain associations while allowing payroll deductions for other purposes, such as insurance premiums and taxes. ATPE appreciates the support of those senators from both parties who have taken issue with SB 13, principally for the discriminatory message that it sends to hardworking educators and the fact that the bill is wholly unnecessary. It solves no identified problems and does not produce any cost savings to the state. Interestingly, Chairwoman Huffman conceded during her opening remarks about SB 13 that there are no taxpayer costs associated with public employees using payroll deduction for their association dues. In admitting this, Huffman openly contradicted recent claims by both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott that this legislation would prevent “taxpayer resources” from being used to collect union dues.

While the committee heard testimony from numerous ATPE members and other educators on Monday, members of the law enforcement community were also on hand to express opposition to SB 13. Even though law enforcement officials are currently exempted from Huffman’s bill, they nevertheless urged lawmakers not to discriminate against teachers and expressed disappointment that the Senate was even hearing such a bill as SB 13. ATPE sincerely appreciates the support of police, fire, and EMS employee associations to defeat this unnecessary bill.

Click here to watch archived video of the hearing. Sen. Huffman’s introduction of SB 13 begins at the 13:45 mark during the broadcast. The testimony on this bill begins at 1:11:28 during the broadcast. Also, visit ATPE’s Facebook page for video highlights and links to news reports about the hearing. ATPE members are urged to continue calling and writing to their legislators about SB 13 and its House counterpart, House Bill 510. For additional resources on communicating with lawmakers, check out ATPE’s Advocacy Central.

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Speaker Straus announces House committee assignments

Today, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) shared his much-anticipated announcement of committee assignments for the 85th Legislature.

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Rep. Dan Huberty

Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) will chair the House Public Education Committee, a post vacated by the retirement of former chairman Jimmie Don Aycock. Huberty has served on the committee since being first elected in 2011, and he previously served as a school board member for Humble ISD. ATPE looks forward to working with Chairman Huberty on education issues and appreciates the experience he brings to the position. We’re also looking forward to having Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) in the vice chairman’s role this session.

The House Appropriations Committee will be chaired by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Simonton). This is yet another leadership position that opened up with the retirement of former chairman John Otto. The committee oversees state funding issues, including the public education budget.

Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) will continue to oversee the House Committee on State Affairs, which is likely to hear anti-teacher bills to eliminate payroll deduction for educators this session. Another chair held over is Chairman Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi), who will lead the House Calendars Committee that plays an important role in getting bills through the legislative process. Chairman Dan Flynn (R-Van) continues in his role as chairman of the House Pensions Committee, overseeing many aspects of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

View the complete list of committee assignments here.

DeVos nomination heads to Senate floor while opposition votes grow

 

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the Senate floor on Tuesday. The 12-11 vote broke down on party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed to the vote. However, two Republicans expressed some indecision during the hearing and later confirmed they’ll vote against her nomination on the Senate floor.

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The partisan breakdown over the nomination of Betsy DeVos has been on display since her confirmation hearing. The vote this week was no exception. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continued to express his support for the nominee and denied a request from Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) to delay the vote. Alexander called DeVos the “most questioned” education secretary in Senate history, which again had Murray pointing to the fact that this nominee is different from previous education secretaries and more time is needed in order to adequately vet the nominee.

This time, however, Alexander didn’t seem to have the full backing of all of his Republican colleagues on the committee. Two Republican Senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-WA) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), expressed uncertainty with regard to their position on DeVos’s nomination. Both ultimately advanced the nomination to the Senate floor, but acknowledged the nominee had not yet earned their full support.

Today, both Republican senators announced that they have decided to oppose DeVos’s nomination when a vote is taken on the Senate floor. This is a big development as now only one additional Republican would need to join Democrats in opposing DeVos in order to block her confirmation. A simple majority on the Senate floor is all that is needed to confirm DeVos.

Opposition has grown since DeVos fumbled her confirmation hearing and calls to Senate offices have increased. The opposition has expressed serious concerns over DeVos’s credentials, lack of commitment to public education, understanding of federal law, and financial connections and contributions, among others. Murray asked for Tuesday’s committee vote on the nominee to be delayed in order to have more time to review DeVos’s responses to questions senators were not given time to ask during her confirmation hearing. Answers to most of the follow-up questions asked of DeVos can be found here.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will now have a chance to vote on Betsy DeVos when her confirmation vote hits the Senate floor. ATPE members can access Advocacy Central to write, call, or contact their senators via social media and express their position on the nomination of Betsy DeVos. A date for the final vote has not been set.

Related Content: The U.S. House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education will meet tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017) for a hearing entitled, “Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice.” Among the invited testifiers is Former Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. Read more about the hearing and access to information to view the hearing live here.

The latest on the misguided fight over educators’ payroll deduction

As ATPE has been reporting on Teach the Vote and atpe.org, two bills have been filed this session aimed at preventing educators from using payroll deduction for their association dues. They are House Bill 510 by Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and Senate Bill 13 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). The legislation to ban payroll deduction has been declared a legislative priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). Dubbed an effort to keep the government from collecting “union dues,” these politically motivated bills actually have a greater impact on non-union professional entities such as ATPE. That’s why saving payroll deduction while educating lawmakers about the ugly political motives behind these bills is an ATPE legislative priority for 2017.

ATPE members should be familiar by now with the national movement to ban the use of payroll deduction by public employees. A controversial bill to keep school employees from using payroll deduction for their association dues, while allowing police, fire, and EMS workers to continue to payroll deduct their union dues, passed the Texas Senate in 2015 but never made it out of a House committee. This week, that same committee – the House Committee on State Affairs –shared its 2016 interim report, which includes a section on “union dues.” It’s an issue the committee was tasked with studying as an interim charge last year. The report notes that when the House State Affairs committee held a hearing on that bill last session, “Over 200 witnesses registered,” but only “17 were in support of the legislation.” The supporters of the 2015 bill included the same business groups who were invited to submit comments on the interim charge.

Excerpt from House State Affairs interim report

Excerpt from House State Affairs interim report

The House committee’s interim report summarizes arguments both for and against proposed legislation to ban payroll deduction, with supporters likening it to a taxpayer-funded “unfair political advantage” given to labor unions “that advocate against business in Texas” and “attack businesses that choose to remain union-free.” The report sums up arguments against the bills, including the facts that there is no cost to taxpayers since unions can be charged a fee for any dues collection-related costs and dues cannot be used for political contributions. The committee report concludes by acknowledging concerns about constitutionality of the legislation and notes that “one very essential question remains unanswered: What groups should be included in the bill, or, alternatively, what groups should be excluded from the bill?”

Knowing that a bill to ban payroll deductions would again be filed for consideration in 2017, the House State Affairs Committee’s ultimate recommendation on this interim charge was as follows: “The legislature should seek input about the policy rationale from both sides of the debate regarding the need for the law change and most importantly, what groups the bill should address.”

Clearly, the 85th legislature needs to hear from educators on why there is no actual need to change this law and no valid argument for taking away school employees’ right to use payroll deductions from their own wages as they choose.

ATPE members should explain to lawmakers why these bills are unnecessary, especially since no taxpayers dollars have ever been at risk as a result of the payroll deduction laws. Educators are also urged to ask their legislators why public school employees are the ones being targeted by these bills. If the proponents of these bills are truly concerned about unions that “attack businesses” and send their dues out of state to fund “anti-business policy campaigns,” as suggested by NFIB-TX in written testimony, then it makes no sense for them to pursue bills like SB 13 and HB 510 that punish groups such as ATPE, an organization not affiliated with any national union and a longtime supporter of right-to-work laws.

  • If you believe it’s unfair for lawmakers to single out educators for punishment because of their choices to join professional associations, then lawmakers need to hear from you.
  • If you think educators should be treated the same as other public employees like firefighters and police officers, then lawmakers need to hear from you.
  • If you are an educator who wants to continue to have options for managing your own money and believes the legislature has no business interfering with your personal choice to join a professional association, then lawmakers especially need to hear from you.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1ATPE members can log onto our website and use our tools at Advocacy Central to send quick messages to their legislators about this and other issues. We encourage you to call or write your legislators now, before these bills are on the move, and ask them to oppose this unnecessary legislation intended to silence the voices of the public education community. Let them know the facts behind payroll deduction and the people who would be affected by these bills if passed. If your representative or senator is one of the authors or co-authors supporting these bills, they still need to hear from you and understand that there are many voters who oppose the unfairly written SB 13 and HB 510.

Portrait of a young man with tape on mouth over colored backgroundToo often, the legislature makes decisions about public education based on input from non-educators. This could easily become another example of education laws and policies being steered by special interests outside of our school community because educators aren’t speaking up. And in this instance, if educators don’t speak up and oppose the ban on payroll deduction, their voices will carry far less weight in the future.

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.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 20, 2017

Here are education news highlights for this Inauguration Day edition of our wrap-up:


 

President Donald J. Trump took the oath of office today on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Immediately upon being sworn in as the nation’s 45th president, Trump gave a rather nontraditional inauguration speech more reminiscent of his days on the campaign trail, painting a bleak picture of the current state of U.S. economic affairs and vowing to help America “win again.” On education, Trump made reference to “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” Media pundits were quick to respond that measures such as graduation rates have generally shown improvement despite the fact that a majority of states have decreased their education spending in recent years.

The inauguration festivities this weekend cap off a busy week in Washington, where Trump’s cabinet picks have been undergoing confirmation hearings on the hill. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated to head the U.S. Department of Energy, fielded questions yesterday during a low-key and noncontroversial session with the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is expected to face little resistance to his confirmation. The same cannot be said of Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department (ED). Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos failed to temper growing fears at her confirmation hearing earlier this week. The hearing was held late Tuesday in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. While HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) praised her nomination and his Republican colleagues on the committee seemed in step with advancing her nomination as early as next week, Democrats expressed serious concerns.

As reported by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann in her full report of this week’s hearing, the questions DeVos refused to answer, or in some cases couldn’t answer, are getting the most attention. She failed to promise to preserve funding for public schools and expressed confusion over the nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Not surprisingly, she also dug in hard on her support for vouchers, refusing to tie apples-to-apples accountability and reporting requirements to public money sent to schools outside of the traditional public school system.

A mandatory ethics review on DeVos was also released today. The review identified 102 potential financial conflicts of interest, from which she has agreed to disassociate. Senators will have until Tuesday to look over information on these conflicts of interest; the committee’s vote is expected to be held that day. Look for more from Kate on the vote and the ethics review next week.

Following the hearing, concerns about DeVos grew outside of the Capitol as well, and the expressed dissatisfaction for her nomination grew significantly on social media. Texans can call or write their senators to register their disapproval for DeVos’s nomination. ATPE members, log in to Advocacy Central to access contact information for Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) if you’d like to send a quick message to your senators about Betsy DeVos.

 


U.S. Dept of Education LogoThe U.S. Education Department (ED) wrapped up its final days under the Obama administration this week. As we have been reporting on Teach the Vote, it is the department expected to be headed up soon by billionaire Betsy DeVos, who despite nationwide opposition from the education community has ample Republican support to achieve more than the votes needed for Senate confirmation. In the meantime, though, there will be a very temporary change in leadership at ED. It was announced this week that Phil Rosenfelt, the deputy general counsel for ED, will be the acting secretary between the end of Secretary John King’s term as of today, and the confirmation of ED’s next secretary.

In his final week of work, Secretary King oversaw the issuance of two new non-binding guidance documents (find those here and here) and withdrawal of the controversial proposed rule on “supplement, not supplant.” The latter is a piece of federal law that requires states to show that federal money is only used to bolster a state’s education budget, not replacing any dollars that would otherwise be dedicated to education. ED’s interpretation of the law as it was slightly altered under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) altered the way states must demonstrate compliance. While the department compromised on many elements of the original proposal as it progressed through the rulemaking process, the latest version still garnered considerable disagreement among stakeholders. Most expected the rule to face elimination under the Trump administration. The department explained that it simply ran out of time under the current administration.

 


Earlier this week, Texas Senate and House leaders shared details on their respective plans for writing the state budget to cover the next two years. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter shared highlights of the two proposals in a blog post earlier this week. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired once again by Sen. Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound), will commence hearings on its budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, next week. The committee is slated to begin taking testimony Tuesday on Article III, the portion of the budget that covers public education, and ATPE’s Exter will be there to share our input. Watch for more coverage of the budget hearings next week on Teach the Vote.

Dollar fanThe House budget proposal calls for spending a bit more money on public education than the Senate’s version, and leaders on the House side have even expressed interest in looking to the state’s Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund for additional resources this session. The House plan includes contingency language that would authorize an extra $1.5 billion for public education if the 85th Legislature passes a school finance bill that reduces recapture and improves equity. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins writes for our blog today, increasing the state’s share of education funding is the key to lowering property tax burdens at the local level, and that is expected to be a prominent talking point during Tuesday’s budget hearing.

 


The first major private school voucher legislation was filed this week. Senate Bill (SB) 542 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, and its companion House Bill (HB) 1184 by Rep. Dwayne Bohac, are a rehash of the tax credit scholarship legislation filed last session by Bettencourt, Bohac, and others. The tax credits for funding scholarships to be used at private schools are one of several varieties of private school voucher that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and like-minded senators have been pushing for multiple sessions. While a related voucher bill did pass the Senate in 2015 with significant assistance from the lieutenant governor, Bettencourt and others pushing for privatization found little appetite for vouchers in the House.

ATPE circulated this letter to lawmakers in 2015 opposing similar, though not identical, tax credit voucher bills in the 84th session. ATPE continues to oppose this and all forms of voucher legislation during the 85th legislative session and urges lawmakers in both chambers to do the same this year. For a preview of what is likely to the session’s other primary voucher vehicle, Education Savings Accounts, check out ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter’s recent blog post, ESAs: A Bad Deal for Students in Need.

CPS square logoRelated: The anti-voucher Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, will hold a legislative briefing and press conference on Monday, Jan. 23. A pro-voucher rally sponsored by Texans for Education Opportunity, Aspire Texas, and other groups is happening Tuesday at the capitol in connection with National School Choice Week.

 


Sen. Larry Taylor

Sen. Larry Taylor

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his Senate committee assignments for the 85th Legislature this week. There were few changes from last session in terms of committee leadership, with Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) continuing to oversee the Senate Education Committee and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) again chairing the Senate Finance Committee that will write the state’s budget. Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) stays on as chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, where her bill to take away educators’ right to payroll deduction for their association dues is expected to be heard.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) will no longer serve on the Senate Education Committee, having been tapped instead to chair the Senate Committee on Administration. She is one of three senators from last session’s education committee roster being replaced; also gone are Sens. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) and Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso). The new senators joining the education committee this year are Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Brian Hughes (R-Mineola), and Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio). These appointments reflect the lieutenant governor’s decision to change the Republican-Democratic split on the committee from 7-4 back in 2015 to its new party breakdown of 8-3. Patrick also stacked the committee with several supporters of privatization, hoping to clear a path for his priority voucher legislation to move quickly through the Senate.

For more on the Senate committee announcement and a link to the full roster, check out this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann. House committee assignments have not yet been released.

 


17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenFinally, ATPE members are reminded to register for ATPE at the Capitol, our upcoming political involvement training and lobby day event in March. This is the best chance for educators to learn more about the high-profile education bills being deliberated this session with presentations from ATPE’s lobbyists and legislative leaders like Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor. Best of all, ATPE members will be empowered to add their voices to the debate, meeting with their lawmakers face-to-face on Monday, March 6, at the Texas State Capitol. The registration deadline is Feb. 3, and complete details for ATPE at the Capitol are available on our website here.

Texas Senate committee assignments for the 85th legislature

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick released his Senate committee assignments yesterday for the 85th Legislature.

As expected, Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee, and Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) will continue to serve as vice-chair. Senators Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Brian Hughes (R-Mineola), and Carols Uresti (D-San Antonio) were added to the committee in lieu of Senators Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), and Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) who served on the committee last session but were not reappointed. The number of committee members stays the same, but the balance of power is tilted further toward Republicans who picked up a seat while Democrats lost one. Senators Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), Van Taylor (R-Plano), and Royce West (D-Dallas) make up the remainder of the committee.

The Senate State Affairs Committee, which is expected to receive Lt. Gov. Patrick’s priority Senate Bill (SB) 13 to ban payroll deduction for educators, also maintains a chair in Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), but newly elected Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) will take over as vice-chair. Chairwoman Huffman is the author of SB 13 and authored and passed out of her committee the same bill last session.

View all of the Senate committee assignments here.