Category Archives: Legislative Update

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 16, 2017

School is out for the summer, but education news keeps churning; here is your weekly wrap-up:


ThinkstockPhotos-187006771-USCapAs we reported extensively last week, Governor Abbott has called a special session to address 20 anticipated issues, a number of which involve your career, your students, your classrooms, and your schools. After five months of fighting hard and ultimately defeating policies that would establish vouchers in a number of different forms and selectively prohibit educators’ right to utilize payroll deduction, the Governor is now calling legislators back to Austin to reconsider both issues and encouraging them to act on these issues he considers priorities. He wants legislators to consider these policies while also addressing ways to merely study school finance (despite the existence of bills to overhaul and improve the system), give teachers a $1,000 pay raise (that he doesn’t expect the state to put new money towards), and offer administrators more flexibility to hire, fire, and retain teachers (an issue that received little to no discussion during the regular legislative session and on which the Governor has offered no additional information).

Your legislators need to hear from you on all of these special session issues!

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1ATPE urges educators and supporters of public education to contact their legislators on all of these issues. Teachers deserve a pay raise, but they deserve a real one – one the state intends to pay for! Students deserve a public school system that is fully funded and not parsed into a system that sends public funds to unaccountable private schools! Educators deserve respect, not to be targeted by policies that seek to suppress their collective voice under the false pretense that payroll deduction costs the state money! ATPE members may visit Advocacy Central to call, tweet, email, and send Facebook messages to representatives and senators on these issues. Your legislators need to hear from you!

Related content: From the Texas Tribune this week, Ross Ramsey offers analysis on another issue added to the special session call: property tax reform. As the legislature sets to again discuss property tax reform, Ramsey warns property owners not to get too excited. “That does not mean your tax bill is going to get any smaller,” he writes. As ATPE has pointed out in the past with a growing chorus of other public education advocates, Ramsey explains how funding public schools at the state level lowers the tax burden on homeowners locally. Read the full piece here.

 


U.S. Dept of Education LogoThis week the U.S. Department of Education (ED) offered initial feedback to three states that have already submitted state plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act as the primary federal education law governing education policy for pre-K through grade 12 schools, and each state is required to develop a plan for its own implementation of the new federal law.

States must submit their final ESSA plans to the department later this year, but 13 states took the optional opportunity to submit a draft plan in April and get initial feedback from the feds. The department released its initial input for three of those states on Tuesday, which took many by surprise due to the extensiveness of the response. (The Trump administration has said only that it will follow the letter of the law, repealing several regulations established under the Obama administration and not writing any new regulations to more specifically define elements of the law Congress wrote.)

Delaware was one of the three states that received initial feedback, and one piece might be of interest to Texas as it continues to write its own ESSA plan (since Texas was not one of the 13 states to submit a plan for initial review). Delaware wanted to include student performance on state math, English, science, and social studies tests as a part of its accountability measures to satisfy federal perimeters, but ED responded that Delaware should rethink the addition of social studies and science. Based on this, it seems ED is interpreting ESSA to say that state accountability systems should only utilize math and English tests as indicators. Texas tests students in all four subjects as well, and our state accountability system currently takes the results of all tests into account. As the Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to develop Texas’s ESSA plan, this could influence decisions made with regard to including student performance targets in science and social studies.

Further complicating the discussion, Texas lawmakers considered the elimination of certain social studies exams during the 85th regular legislative session, although no such bill passed. Stakeholders and lawmakers alike were ultimately successful in maintaining the exams based on the concern that what isn’t tested, might not remain a focus of classroom learning through textbooks, teaching, etc. How these developments will play into Texas’s ESSA plan remain uncertain.

A group of ATPE state officers and lobbyists will be in Washington, D.C. next week meeting with ED officials and members of Congress to discuss ESSA and other issues. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

 

From The Texas Tribune: Analysis: “Tax relief,” maybe, but no savings for taxpayers

In the midsummer special session, Texas lawmakers will be talking about your rising property taxes again. Don’t get excited: That does not mean your tax bill is going to get any smaller.

by Ross RamseyThe Texas Tribune
June 12, 2017

Photo from The Texas Tribune

Photo from The Texas Tribune

State officials are talking once again about your property taxes. Like you, they hate those taxes. A lot.

But they’re hoping to fool you, once again, into thinking they are going to lower the price of local government and public education.

None of their proposals or their recent actions would do that.

School property taxes are the biggest part of every Texas property owners’ tax bill. They are also the only local property tax that goes up and down primarily because of what happens in Austin.

State officials don’t set your school property tax rate; they just decide how much money local officials are required to raise.

In practice, it amounts to almost the same thing.

If the state spends less money per student, the local districts have to spend more. They get their money from property taxes, so property taxes go up.

And then, state officials complain — alongside property taxpayers across Texas — about rising property taxes.

The current long slide in state funding started in 2007 — right after lawmakers rejiggered the formulas and balanced state and local funding, with each covering 45 percent of the total cost of education and the federal government picking up the remaining 10 percent.

The numbers ten years later: Locals pay 52 percent, the state pays 38 percent and the feds are still at 10 percent.

According to the Texas Supreme Court about a year ago, local property taxes and the system they finance remain constitutional. Lucky for the state that’s not a criminal court, though: Taxpayers clearly feel robbed.

State officials can feel the heat of that ire. But their new budget doesn’t address the school finance problem. They killed legislation that would have put another $1.5 billion into public education — the only bill in the regular session that would have moved school taxes, if only indirectly and only a little bit.

It wouldn’t save you any money — contrary to the rhetoric billowing from the Senate — but it could lower the speed at which your property taxes grow. It’s like promising a gazelle you can make the lions a little slower.

And their effort to limit growth in property taxes levied by other local governments failed, too. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will put that one on the agenda of the midsummer special session. One version, passed by the Senate and apparently favored by the governor, would have required voter approval for any local property tax increases of more than 5 percent.

It wouldn’t save you any money — contrary to the rhetoric billowing from the Senate — but it could lower the speed at which your property taxes grow. It’s like promising a gazelle you can make the lions a little slower.

Texas lawmakers have replaced the idea of lowering state taxes with a new one: Complaining alongside taxpayers who want lower taxes. Actually doing something about it has remained out of reach.

They could replace an unpopular tax with a less unpopular one, but they have few options — none of them particularly lucrative. The Texas Lottery was an example of this, and it served mainly to underscore our widespread innumeracy: A surprising number of Texans thought state-run gaming would cover the full cost of public education in Texas. In fact, the Texas games earn the state about $2.5 billion every two years, about as much as taxes on alcoholic beverages and less than half as much as the (also) unpopular business franchise tax. Lawmakers budgeted $41 billion for public education over the next two years; the lottery will cover about 6 percent of that.

They could cut spending, except it has proven nearly impossible to do that in Texas, partly because the state budget is, relatively speaking, pretty tight, and partly because when you get down to it, the programs that would be cut are more popular than the tax cuts that might result.

People want roads and schools and prisons and whatnot, and the political experts who run the government — give them their due for getting into and then remaining in office — have ascertained that it’s more rewarding to keep current programs alive than to cut taxes.

That’s a safe assumption, isn’t it, since they haven’t cut those programs or whittled those taxes?

But state leaders can hear the voters, too, so they’re trying to force local governments to hold the line on taxes. They can’t provide any relief themselves, but maybe they can make someone else do it.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/12/analysis-tax-relief-maybe-no-savings-taxpayers/.

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The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 9, 2017

Here’s your latest news wrap-up from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:

 


IMG_8509On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his plans for a special session beginning July 18. This “overtime” period for the 85th legislature is needed only because lawmakers failed to pass an important, time-sensitive agency sunset bill that affects the licensing of medical professionals, a failure many are attributing to deliberate stall tactics and the “bill kidnapping” approach taken by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the final week of the regular session. Lawmakers could address the sunset issue within a matter of days and head home to enjoy the dog days of summer with their families, but Abbott is calling on them to take up 19 additional issues during the 30-day special session, which is estimated to cost taxpayers about $1 million.

During the governor’s press conference, he led off his laundry list of topics for the upcoming special session with a surprise announcement that he wants lawmakers to mandate a $1,000 annual pay raise for teachers. The catch, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins explains in this blog post, is that no additional money would be appropriated for the salary increase. Gov. Abbott made it clear that he intends for school districts to find money within their existing budgets to cover the proposed pay raise. For many districts, that would necessitate cuts in some other area, which would very likely be expenditures for staff pay or benefits, such as healthcare programs that are already becoming increasingly hard for educators to afford. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter added in this video for Twitter that potential offsets could include staff layoffs or higher class sizes, depending on each district’s financial circumstances and priorities.

If the governor planned to use this special session as another shot at meaningful school finance reform, then perhaps legislators could find ways to fund a teacher pay raise and other critical needs of our public schools. Unfortunately, the only school finance-related issue on the governor’s call is legislation to appoint a statewide commission to study school finance during the next interim.

Another surprise topic added to the governor’s agenda for the special session is giving districts greater “flexibility” in their hiring and firing decisions. Teacher contract rights have been targeted in prior legislative sessions, but the topic was hardly broached during the 2017 legislative session.

ATPE representatives testified against a bill to eliminate teachers' payroll deduction rights during the regular session.

ATPE representatives testified against an anti-educator bill to eliminate teachers’ payroll deduction rights during the regular session. The contentious issue is being revived for the upcoming special session.

The remaining school-related items in the special session outline are a trio of controversial, highly partisan scorecard issues from bills that failed to garner enough support to pass during the regular session:

  • One is the anti-educator legislation to do away with teachers’ rights to pay their voluntary professional association dues using payroll deduction. In Tuesday’s press conference, Gov. Abbott revived tired rhetoric from his Jan. 2017 State of the State address that has already been proven false – the claim that taxpayer dollars are being spent to collect “union dues.” We will continue to refute this unfounded claim and fight this harmful, unnecessary measure aimed at silencing educators’ voices by making it more difficult for them to join associations like ATPE.
  • Also on tap for this legislative overtime is yet another push for private school vouchers for students with special needs. With the Texas House of Representatives having already voted multiple times to reject this idea, it is hard to fathom a sudden change of heart that would give this legislation a greater chance of passing during the special session.
  • Lastly, the governor is also asking lawmakers again to try to restrict local school districts’ adoption of policies on bathroom usage. Both chambers passed versions of a bathroom bill during the regular session, but they could not agree on the extent to which the state should infringe on local control over these decisions. In other words, get ready for even more potty talk.

To read the full list of the governor’s priorities for the special session, view ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann’s blog post here. Also, check out ATPE’s press release, and be sure to follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter for new developments.

 


SBECThe State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) has been meeting today in Austin, and ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann is there. She provided an update in this blog post on the items being discussed today by the board. They include plans to add a new early childhood teaching certificate mandated by the legislature recently, plus how Districts of Innovation are claiming exemptions from certification laws.

 


 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 2, 2017

Texas state legislators have gone home, at least temporarily. When might they return? Here is the latest advocacy news from ATPE:

 


ThinkstockPhotos-144283240On Monday, May 29, the 85th Legislature adjourned sine die, following a 140-day regular session marked by considerable conflict over important and not-so-important issues. The Legislature did reach an agreement on the state’s budget, which was the only bill constitutionally required to pass. However, the House and Senate took decidedly different approaches to their other priorities this session, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday wrote in this blog post on Monday. School finance reforms sought by the House fell victim to a push for private school vouchers by the Senate. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both made late-session declarations that lawmakers needed to pass a bill regulating public bathroom use by transgender Texans and a bill changing requirements for elections before property tax increases, but neither measure made it beyond the finish line.

Another bill that did not pass was a sunset “safety net” bill designed to keep certain state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, from ceasing to operate during the next two years. The failure of that bill to pass could alone force Gov. Abbott to call a special session, leading to speculation about which other topics might be added to the types of bills that could be considered during a special session. Lt. Gov. Patrick warned during the last week of the regular session that he would be urging the governor to include on any special session call various other “priorities” that the Senate passed but the House did not approve; those could include not only state-mandated bathroom restrictions to which many school districts and business leaders objected, but also private school vouchers and the anti-educator bill that would eliminate payroll deduction for educators’ professional membership dues. All of these were ATPE-opposed bills that were shut down during the regular session, largely thanks to the more moderate, common sense approach of the Texas House under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus.

After hinting that he would make an announcement by the end of this week, Gov. Abbott told reporters today not to expect any announcement either today or during the weekend about his calling a special session. Be sure to tune in to Teach the Vote next week and follow us on Twitter for updates.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-177774022-docThe Legislature managed to pass important bills to keep the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators afloat for a few more years, and the TRS board of trustees now has responsibility for implementing the changes directed by lawmakers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended today’s meeting of the TRS board and penned a blog post outlining the many changes that will take effect in 2018.

While the legislature passed no major bills pertaining to TRS-ActiveCare this session, the board is taking steps now to mitigate an anticipated shortfall for that program, too. Fortunately, no bills that would negatively affect the TRS pension plan, such as converting the defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution or hybrid design, gained traction this session. Check out Mark’s blog post for more on the legislative changes that will affect TRS and educators’ healthcare.

 


One of the most significant bills approved by the 85th Legislature this year was House Bill 22, aimed at reworking the A-F accountability system for school districts and campuses. On our blog this week, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter answers a number of questions about what the bill does and areas in which Commissioner of Education Mike Morath will be tasked with rulemaking and additional interpretation of HB 22. Read Monty’s blog post for more information about changes coming soon to the A-F system.

 


Male lecturer looking at students writing in a classroomYet another topic that garnered significant discussion by the 85th Legislature this year was educator quality. The results were mixed, as ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann analyzed this week for our blog. A high-profile bill to stem educator misconduct and the problem often called “passing the trash” got the approval of lawmakers and has already been signed into law by Gov. Abbott. For more on that bill and several others relating to educator preparation and certification, check out Kate’s latest blog post here.

 


Next week, the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) will be meeting on Friday, June 9. We’ll have a report for you on that meeting, plus ongoing analysis of the legislative session that ended this week. ATPE will also bring you up-to-the-minute reporting on any announcements of a special session. As always, you can follow @TeachtheVote and individual members of the ATPE lobby team on Twitter for the most timely news from our team.

17_web_Spotlight_SummitATPE members are also encouraged to register to attend the ATPE Summit, July 10-12 in Austin, where our lobbyists will be presenting an in-person legislative update wrapping up the 85th legislative session and what it means for Texas public education.

 


 

TRS board approves major healthcare changes

TRS logoThe board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas met Friday to make changes to healthcare and retirement following the actions of the 85th Texas Legislature, which adjourned sine die on Monday.

Before delving into plan information, the board approved new contracts with CVS Caremark as the pharmacy benefit management (PBM) administrator for TRS-Care Standard, TRS-Care Part D, and TRS-ActiveCare. Staff then reviewed the two major pieces of legislation that will define healthcare and retirement benefits under TRS moving forward:

Senate Bill (SB) 1

The state budget covered roughly $480 million of the estimated $1 billion shortfall facing TRS-Care by increasing contributions by both the state and school districts, including one-time state supplemental funding of $182.6 million. While this prevented a worst-case scenario for retirees, the balance will unfortunately have to come from higher premiums and benefit reductions.

House Bill (HB) 3976

This bill represents a major structural overhaul of TRS-Care. It establishes two separate plans: A single High Deductible Plan for non-Medicare participants and a Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D Plan for Medicare participants.

Under HB 3976, TRS cannot charge a premium during the 2018-2021 plan years to disability retirees who retired as a disability retiree effective on or before January 1, 2017, who are currently receiving disability retirement benefits, and who are not eligible to enroll in Medicare. The bill eliminates the statutory requirement to provide a free healthcare plan for retiree-only coverage, but will provide free generic preventative maintenance medications for enrollees in the high deductible plan. The new program provides an opt-in window for retirees under the age of 65 who choose coverage elsewhere to opt-in to the Medicare Advantage Plan at age 65.

What’s next

On Friday, the board approved the new TRS-Care plans created under HB 3976. From September 1, 2017, to December 31, 2017, the agency will maintain the current TRS-Care 1, TRS-Care 2, and TRS-Care 3 Plans, such that FY 2017 will be an extended 16-month plan year. Deductibles and out-of-pocket accumulators will not restart on September 1, 2017. The agency plans to maintain current retiree premium contributions by plan, Medicare status, family size, and years of service.

New TRS-Care plans

Non-Medicare participants on the TRS-Care 1, TRS-Care 2, and TRS-Care 3 plans will be absorbed into the new TRS-Care Standard Plan. In-network coverage will include a $3,000/$6,000 deductible, $7,150/$14,300 maximum out-of-pocket limits, and 80/20% coinsurance. Out of network coverage will include a $6,000/$12,000 deductible, $14,300/$28,600 maximum out-of-pocket limits, and 60/40% coinsurance.

Medicare participants will be absorbed into the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage/Medicare Part D Plan, which includes a $500 deductible, $3,500 maximum out-of-pocket limit, 95/5% coinsurance, $500 IP hospital copay per stay, $250 OP hospital copay per visit, $65 ER copay, $35 urgent care copay, $5 PCP office visit copay, $10 specialist office visit copay, $0 preventive services copay, $5/$25/$50 retail pharmacy copay, and $15/$70/$125 mail order pharmacy copay.

TRS will make an alternative plan available for certain participants who are Medicare eligible but not enrolled in either Medicare Part A or Medicare Part B, or cannot access a provider through the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage Plan.

New premiums are scheduled to take effect January 1, 2018. A non-Medicare retiree only will see a monthly premium of $200, and a Medicare retiree only will see a monthly premium of $146. Premiums for retiree and spouse are $739/$590, retiree and children $433/$504, and retiree and family $1,074/$1,106.

The TRS-Care Medicare Advantage network is a PPO plan network with an out-of-network benefit equivalent to the in-network benefit. Providers do not need to be in network as long as a provider accepts Medicare and agrees to bill Humana, the TRS-Care vendor.

The agency has already begun the first phase of implementation, which involves communicating to participants the changes that will take effect January 1, 2018. These communications will include a monthly e-newsletter, direct mail correspondence, and online information. While these changes will increase the burdens on plan participants, they are estimated to keep TRS-Care positively funded until 2021.

TRS-ActiveCare Changes

The legislature did not pass any legislation affecting TRS-ActiveCare, which is a self-funded program, but the board did make significant plan changes on Friday.

The sole source of funding for TRS-ActiveCare is premiums. The state contributes $75 per month per employee through the school finance formulas, and districts contribute a minimum of $150 per month per employee, with some districts contributing more. Employees contribute the remainder of the projected gross premiums. Funding requirements for the state and districts have not changed since the program’s inception in 2002.

While in much better shape than TRS-Care, TRS-ActiveCare is facing a shortfall of just under $100 million in 2018, which has placed pressure on premiums. The agency’s goal is to balance premium increases against the need to build the fund balance to protect the plan. The target fund balance at the end of FY 2018 is one month of claims, or $158 million. Without plan design changes, staff suggested an average rate increase of 9.9 percent would be required to achieve the target ending fund balance.

With that in mind, the board approved a number of changes based on agency recommendations. Those on the TRS-ActiveCare-Select and TRS-ActiveCare-2 plans will see increased costs associated with out-of-network providers, and will see ER copays increase to $200 from $150. There are no changes planned regarding prescription drug benefits.

These changes will allow for a slightly smaller 8.1 percent average rate increase. TRS-ActiveCare-1HD rates will increase 2.9 percent for employee only, 8.4 percent for employee and spouse, 9.1 percent for employee and children, and 6.9 percent for employee and family. TRS-ActiveCare Select rates will increase 6.2 percent for employee only, 10.2 percent for employee and spouse, 7.1 percent for employee and children, and 16.8 percent for employee and family. TRS-ActiveCare-2 rates will increase 10.7 percent for employee only, 9.1 percent for employee and spouse, 1.9 percent for employee and children, and 25.5 percent for employee and family.

Other legislative changes

At Thursday’s meeting, executive director Brian Guthrie told board members “we are very pleased” with how the legislative session turned out for TRS. Three key bills related to the system passed within minutes of a crucial deadline late in the session. Debriefing the board, TRS governmental relations director Merita Zoga identified several additional items passed by the legislature related to TRS:

  • HB 89 prohibits governmental entities from contracting with or investing in a company that boycotts Israel.
  • SB 253 adds to the existing divestment statute, prohibiting TRS from investing in companies designated as terrorist organizations.
  • SB 252 prohibits government entities from contracting with companies doing business with Iran, Sudan, or a foreign terrorist organization.
  • SB 7, the teacher misconduct bill, includes language related to TRS. The bill strips the service retirement annuity from a TRS member who is convicted of felony sexual abuse, sexual assault, or improper relationship between educator and student. All or part of the annuity may be awarded instead to an innocent spouse.
  • SB 500 would strip the service retirement annuity of a member of a public retirement system, such as TRS or ERS, if the member is an elected official and is convicted of certain qualifying felonies, including bribery, corruption, perjury, and other offenses related to their official capacity.
  • HB 1428 would allow TRS to act as a mediator in balance billing disputes.

Staff pointed out that the legislature did not pass any bills related to a cost of living adjustment (COLA), TRS-ActiveCare, or pension studies. Other major bills affecting TRS include the following:

SB 1954

This bill allows Optional Retirement Program (ORP)-eligible employees who are not notified properly additional time to elect ORP participation. The proposed bill creates an error correction process for reporting an ORP employee to TRS when the employee is not eligible for TRS. The person would be restored to ORP participation and member, state, and employer contributions related to the incorrect reporting, plus interest, would be paid to the employee’s ORP account. Amounts contributed to TRS that are in excess of participant contributions due to ORP would be refunded to the individual.

SB 1663

SB 1663 provides a number of member friendly benefit and administrative changes. It allows the TRS board to go into executive session to discuss particular investment transactions, strategies, portfolios, and other potential transactions related to private investments if the board determines that deliberating or conferring in an open meeting would have detrimental effect on TRS’s negotiations with third parties or place TRS at a competitive disadvantage in the market. The bill provides TRS with the authority to charge late fees on late reports by reporting entities.

It further allows TRS to add an additional five years of service credit when determining whether an early age reduction is applicable and the amount of the reduction, for a 100 percent joint and survivor annuity payable at the death of an active member. The bill amends current law to provide that disability retirees with less than 10 years of service credit who choose a $150 per month annuity for the number of months of membership to allow their beneficiaries to receive any remaining member contributions as an additional death benefit if the disability retiree dies before the period ends. The bill also moves the TRS sunset review to 2025.

SB 1664

SB 1664 bill provides IRS code compliance, statutory corrections, and member friendly benefit changes. It provides additional time for TRS members to purchase sick and personal leave service credit at retirement and corrects an error referencing the TRS board rather than the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to certify state contributions to the ORP.

SB 1665

This bill continues the use of derivatives and external managers capped at 30 percent of total assets and repeals the sunset dates on the authorities.

Did lawmakers make the grade on updating the accountability system?

skd282694sdcDid lawmakers make the grade on updating the accountability system? You be the judge.

House Bill (HB) 22 by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) is likely the most broadly impactful piece of education legislation passed this session. It represents a compromise that was crafted by a conference committee of 10 legislators after the House and Senate passed differing versions of the accountability bill. Over the next two years, HB 22 will affect every district, campus, and charter school. Below are questions and answers about how ATPE perceives this latest iteration of the accountability system will work.

Does HB 22 maintain an A-F accountability system?

Yes, despite parents, educators, administrators, board members, students, and a host of other advocacy groups expressing their concerns about moving forward with an A-F accountability system, the Senate, largely at the direction of the Lt Governor, made it clear that no bill eliminating A-F would be allowed to pass.

When does the new bill go into effect?

Having been passed by more than two thirds of each chamber, HB 22 will go into effect as soon as the governor signs it. However, not all portions of the bill are immediately applicable. Most of HB 22’s provisions will first begin to be implemented during the 2017-18 school year, including assignment of district-level A-F ratings.  Campus-level A-F ratings will not be assigned until the 2018-19 school year. However, the commissioner of education will produce a report that will include non-official campus level ratings using 2017-18 data to be turned into the legislature by Jan. 1, 2019.

Is the HB 22 accountability system based on STAAR test scores?

At least in part, yes. To what degree depends largely on how the commissioner writes the administrative rules to implement the new law. HB 22 certainly allows the commissioner to develop a system that is highly dependent on STAAR test data, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels.

What will the new domains be under the state accountability system?

HB 22 calls for a system with three state-level domains, down from five.  The domains include the following:

Student Achievement This domain includes students’ absolute performance on the STAAR test. For high schools, it also includes the following other factors: TSI, AP, and IB tests; completion of dual credit courses; military enlistment; earning an industry certification; being accepted into certain post-secondary industry certification programs; successful completion of a college prep course under TEC 28.014; “successfully [meeting] standards on a composite of indicators that through research indicates the student ’s preparation to enroll and succeed, without remediation, in an entry-level general education course for a baccalaureate degree or associate degree;” graduation rates; successful completion of an OnRamps™ dual enrollment course; and award of an associate’s degree.
School Progress This domain includes student growth as measured by the percentage of students who met the standard for improvement on the STAAR test and an evaluation of performance as compared to similar districts or campuses. It is unclear whether the “performance” being compared is exclusively STAAR performance or if it will be broader.
Closing the Gaps This domain measures the differences for various categories of sub-populations such as racial, socioeconomic, special education, low mobility, and high mobility students. The bill does not specify which differentiated data is too be used for this purpose. Will it be only STAAR data, or will other data be used as well? The statute is also silent on how the sub-populations will be compared. For example, will gaps be compared to similar districts, or will they be compared within individual districts over time to determine if the gaps are closing, widening, or staying about the same?

Note: there is nothing in the statute as changed by HB 22 that would preclude the commissioner from creating a state-level accountability system that evaluates elementary and middle school campuses entirely on different manipulations of STAAR data.

What is a local accountability system?

Under HB 22, a district may create locally developed accountability domains and may use those domains in addition to the domains required by TEA to award district and campus accountability ratings, including overall ratings. Local domains must be assigned an A-F rating, must be valid and reliable, and must be capable of being audited by a third party. The commissioner of education will write administrative rules on the use of local accountability plans, and TEA will have authority to review and approve those plans.

Districts choosing to use a local accountability system are responsible for producing district and campus report cards locally.

How will the summative or overall grade be calculated under the new accountability system?

Each of the three state-level domains will receive a letter grade. At least 30 percent of the summative grade must be based on domain three (Closing the Gaps). The better of the two grades for domain one (Student Achievement) and domain two (School Performance, a/k/a student growth) will make up the remaining calculation for the summative grade, up to 70%. There is an exception, however, if a district or campus receives an F grade on either domain one or domain two; in that case, the highest grade it can receive for that part of the calculation is a B.

In case it’s not immediately clear, much will depend on the commissioner’s rules to implement HB 22. If the commissioner goes with a breakdown of 30% and 70% as contemplated above, the effect will be that a higher grade in domain three can never bring a district’s or campus’ summative grade up a letter; by contrast, a lower grade in domain three would always bring a district’s or campus’ summative grade down a letter. #AintMathFun

If that’s not already complex enough, here is where it gets really tricky. If one or more districts choose to develop one or more local domains to add to their accountability system, the commissioner can, but does not have to, write rules that would allow for up to half of the overall performance rating for that district or campus to be based on the ratings of the local domain(s). That is unless the campus or district would receive a D or an F on the overall performance rating using only the state level domains. The statute is not really clear what overall performance rating the district or campus would receive under that scenario.

How do A-F ratings relate to acceptable and unacceptable performance?

There are several laws in the Texas Education Code that continue to reference either “acceptable” or “unacceptable” performance as triggers for various actions to occur. As opposed to changing all of those references throughout state law, legislators simply benchmarked the new A-F labels to the existing terms.

When A-F was first rolled out, the cut point between acceptable and unacceptable was between grades C and D. In the current accountability system as it exists prior to HB 22, improvement required (IR) constitutes unacceptable performance. IR correlates to an F, not a D, under the A-F system. Because of this, setting unacceptable performance at a D under the new system would represent an expansion of what the state considers unacceptable performance. This would result in spreading state resources for turning around struggling schools among a larger group of campuses and districts, which would take the focus off those with the greatest need for intervention. HB 22 has resolved this issue by resetting the unacceptable cut point at the F rating.

The new A-F labels will coordinate with previous labels as follows:

Acceptable level of performance

A

Exemplary Met Standard
Acceptable level of performance

B

Recognized Met Standard
Acceptable level of performance

C

Acceptable Met Standard
Acceptable level of performance

D

Needs Improvement* Met Standard
Unacceptable level of performance

F

Unacceptable Improvement Required

* This is a new label created by HB 22 that does not correspond to an older system.

What is the difference between a D and F grade under HB 22?

Before HB 22, there was little to no differentiation between getting a D or an F in terms of consequences. Under HB 22, getting a D will no longer trigger the immediate accountability sanctions associated with an unacceptable level of performance. However, there are some requirements attached to this next to lowest ranking.

Year 1 of a D rating in either a single domain or overall The Commissioner shall instruct the district’s board of trustees to develop a local district or campus improvement plan.
Years 2 and beyond with a D rating overall The Commissioner shall implement interventions and sanctions that apply to an unacceptable campus until the district or campus is ranked C or higher on the overall rating.
Years 2 and beyond with better than a D rating overall but a D rating in a single domain The Commissioner shall instruct the district’s board of trustees to develop a local district or campus improvement plan.


How will stakeholders be involved under the new law?

Through multiple, sometimes broad grants of rulemaking authority, the Commissioner has been given a massive amount of latitude in structuring how the new accountability system under HB 22 will actually work. Thanks to amendment language requested by ATPE, this authority will be balanced at least to some degree by a statutory requirement to involve a stakeholder group in those decisions. HB 22 requires that the group must include  school board members, administrators and teachers employed by school districts, parents of students enrolled in school districts, and other interested stakeholders.

 

Additional changes made by HB 22:

Public education grants and mandatory access to transfers

A student at a campus that receives an unacceptable rating in both the student achievement and school progress domains must be allowed to transfer to another campus in the district and will be eligible for public education grant (PEG) funding.

Extra- and co-curricular indicator study

The commissioner shall study the feasibility of including an indicator that accounts for extracurricular and co-curricular student activity. By the year 2022, the commissioner shall either incorporate the indicator into the accountability system or present a feasibility report to the legislature.

Adopting indicators and setting cut scores

The commissioner may adopt indicators for the accountability system or standards (cut scores) at any point during the school year prior to evaluation of the district or campus. In setting the cut score for all indicators yearly, the commissioner shall consult with educators, parents, and business and industry representatives. The standards are to be modified in a way that promotes continuous improvement in student achievement and closing education gaps.

Reporting

Each school year, the commissioner shall provide each school district a document in a simple, accessible format that explains the accountability performance measures, methods, and procedures.

Thanks to language requested by ATPE, the commissioner, in consultation with stakeholders, must also develop language for each domain that clearly describes the district and campus performance on the indicators used to determine those assigned performance ratings.

85th Texas Legislature adjourns sine die

Today the 85th Texas Legislature ended its 140-day regular session. While all legislative sessions provide the backdrop for intense political battles, this session seemed marked by more conflict than usual, especially among the leadership of the two chambers.Austin, Texas

On education issues, the House chose to focus its energy on fixing the state’s troubled school finance system and improving an unpopular accountability system. The Senate prioritized passing a private school voucher bill and legislation to regulate the use of school bathrooms by transgender individuals. In the end, only one of those four objectives made it beyond the finish line, with House Bill 22 becoming one of the very last bills approved this session and offering changes to the A-through-F accountability system.

The impasse between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus spelled ultimate failure for some key sunset legislation to keep certain state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, operational for two more years. That alone will necessitate the calling of a special session to keep our state’s doctors in business. Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated that he will make an announcement later this week about a special session.

The governor and lieutenant governor both waited until the final week of the session to declare that providing property tax relief and passing a bathroom bill would be treated as two “must pass” items before the regular session ended. But both chambers finished their work today without achieving either objective. The Senate dealt with the two issues by passing high-profile bills earlier this spring. The House offered alternative proposals on each issue, which the Senate rejected. The governor is facing tremendous pressure from conservatives to add both of these issues to any call for a special session. Lt. Gov. Patrick has already said that he will ask for many more of the Senate’s conservative priorities, including private school vouchers, to be added to any call for a special session. It’s unclear whether the governor will bow to that pressure and authorize a special session filled with hot-button ideological battles, or if he will direct lawmakers to focus only on legislation that is truly “must pass.”

Of course, school finance reform is one of the most obvious ways to address concerns about soaring property taxes. That was the approach taken by the House this session when it proposed a comprehensive rewrite of the state’s system for funding our public schools in legislation spearheaded by House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty. But the Senate largely refused to negotiate on the school finance bill, taking a hard-line stance in favor of vouchers. It is certainly possible that lawmakers will have another chance to discuss the complex issue of school funding in the near future.

Of the bills that did pass during the regular legislative session that ended today, HB 22 and another measure to keep the healthcare program for retired educators afloat for a couple more years are among few standouts for public education. Lawmakers also agreed to allow Individual Graduation Committees to exist for two more years, helping students graduate who otherwise would not. ATPE and other pro-public education groups successfully stopped all voucher legislation and the anti-educator bills to do away with payroll deduction for professional membership dues. The remainder of the bills that passed offer a mixed bag for public education.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote this week for complete analysis from the ATPE lobby team on the entire legislative session and its anticipated impacts on public education. We will also bring you any news about special session plans when they are announced.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 26, 2017

We’re counting down the last few days of the 85th legislative session. Here are the latest updates:


The 85th Texas Legislature is set to adjourn sine die on Monday, May 29. As the clock winds down on the regular session, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins provides this update on the ongoing state budget negotiations:

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashLawmakers are within sight of fulfilling their only constitutional obligation: To pass a state budget for the next two years. Despite all the threats regarding bathrooms and tax elections, failure to pass a budget during the 140 days of regular session is the only circumstance that would automatically trigger a special session.

This week conferees from the House and Senate have busily worked to iron out differences between the two chambers on SB 1, the general appropriations act – AKA the budget. On Thursday, the ten negotiators released their conference committee report, the last step before the budget receives a final vote in the House and Senate. Earlier this week, the committee posted issue docket decisions outlining the negotiation points within each budget article.

The final budget agreement allocates $216.8 billion in total state and federal funds over the next two years, including $106.7 billion in state general revenue. The budget funds public education at current levels adjusted for enrollment growth, but does so in part by taking advantage of rising local property values to further reduce the share of state funding. A proposal by House leadership to provide roughly $1.8 billion in additional funding to public schools contingent upon a school finance reform bill was killed by the Senate, which stripped the proposal down to $500 million before killing the bill altogether by refusing an offer by the House to negotiate.

Lawmakers reduced funding in a number of areas, including eliminating funding for the governor’s high quality pre-K program. The budget will draw $1 billion from the $10 billion rainy day fund and defer a $2 billion payment to the highway fund in order to avoid further program cuts.

The state budget is eligible for final consideration before the full House and Senate on Saturday, at which point each chamber may either approve or reject the bill by an “up or down” vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates this weekend.

 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there has been movement on drafting a federal budget. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann offers this report on the week’s developments:

cutting budget with scissor on wooden backgroundPresident Donald Trump’s full budget proposal was released Tuesday, and, as was outlined in his budget blueprint released earlier this year, he wants to cut the federal education budget by more than 13 percent. The cuts would total $9.2 billion under the most recent proposal and would include slashing over $2 billion for a program aimed at teacher and principal training as well as more than $1 billion for after-school programs.

The proposed federal budget would also maintain regular Title I funding at current levels, but dedicate just under $1.5 billion to pet programs of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos under the guise of “school choice.” Within that amount, $250 million would go toward creating the beginnings of a federal voucher program for private schools. (It is expected that the administration and Secretary Devos will separately push a type of voucher known as a tax credit scholarship when President Trump pushes forward with a tax reform plan.) The remaining money would go toward a funding structure known as Title I portability and charter schools, with the vast majority going to the former. Title I portability would allow public school students to take their federal funding with them as they go to the public schools of their choice. ATPE has expressed concern over this type of funding in a letter to members of Congress because “focusing funding on individual students would divert funding from schools that serve students living in high concentrations of poverty” and are in most need of the additional federal funding.

However, President Trump’s full budget proposal is just that, a proposal. Following the release of the proposal, U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander stated, “Congress will write the budget and set the spending priorities. Where we find good ideas in the president’s budget, we will use them.” It is now up to Congress to develop a federal spending plan they can advance to the President for a signature. More details on the full proposal from the president can be read here.

 


Hopes for improved school funding and property tax relief were dashed this week when the Senate opted to doom House Bill (HB) 21, a school finance bill by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), rather than continue to negotiate its fate.

As we have been reporting on Teach the Vote, Huberty’s bill had broad support from the education community when it was approved by the House, offering an additional $1.6 billion in funding for public schools, hardship grants to help districts facing the loss of ASATR funding set to expire, and additional aid to students with dyslexia. However, the Senate chose to strip funding from the bill and use it instead as a vehicle for an educational savings account (ESA) voucher to pay for students with special needs to attend private or home schools. The Senate passed its version of HB 21 in the overnight hours Monday night/Tuesday morning by a vote of 21-10.

On Wednesday, the House discussed the Senate’s controversial changes to the bill. Chairman Huberty spoke passionately about the House’s efforts to find a school finance fix and lamented that the Senate had gutted the bill and stripped out its method of finance. House members also acknowledged the fact that passage of a school finance reform bill would be the only “direct” way that lawmakers could lower local property taxes. Rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, Reps. Huberty, Trent Ashby, Ken King, Gary VanDeaver, and Diego Bernal were then appointed to serve on a conference committee for HB 21.

NO VOUCHERSThe House also voted on a few motions to instruct their conferees, which serve to give guidance to the conference committee on the will of the House as negotiations continue on a bill. The first motion to instruct was made by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear) who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It called for the conferees to reject any voucher language in the school finance bill, and the House approved that motion by a vote of 101-45. Next, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) offered a motion to instruct the conferees to look for ways to offer school choice (vouchers) to students with special needs. The House rejected that instruction with a vote of 47-89. The House also adopted a motion to instruct by Rep. Ken King urging conferees to seek additional money for hardship grants to help districts that are losing ASATR funds; that motion passed on a vote of 132-12.

With the House having sent another strong message rejecting vouchers in any form, HB 21 was again in the hands of the Senate to appoint its five members of a conference committee to try to hammer out an agreement that would offer some school finance relief. Senate leaders announced quickly that same afternoon that they would not appoint members to a conference committee for further negotiations on the bill, effectively sealing its fate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was quick to point the finger at House leaders for killing the bill, saying he was “appalled” that the Senate’s voucher plan to help students with special needs was rejected. House Speaker Joe Straus responded that the House had tried to work on school finance until the Senate abandoned that effort. “The Senate has chosen to focus on sending taxpayer dollars to private schools,” Straus wrote in a statement. “Most House members don’t support that idea, as today’s vote once again showed.” Straus added, “Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse.”

The only real school finance-related legislation still alive at this point is in the form of an amendment the Senate added to HB 22, the A-F accountability bill still being considered. The Senate added language to that bill pulled from SB 2144 calling for the creation of a commission that would study school finance during the interim.

 


In a signing ceremony yesterday, Gov. Gregg Abbott enacted Senate Bill (SB) 7, a bill aimed at stemming and strengthening penalties for educator misconduct, including inappropriate relationships with students. The bill by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which ATPE and other educator groups supported, will take effect September 1, 2017.

SB 7 requires automatic revocation of certificates of any educators who are required to register as sex offenders and requires educators applying for a new teaching job to disclose in an affidavit if they have ever been charged with or convicted of a crime involving misconduct with students. Some educators convicted of certain crimes involving children would lose their TRS pensions, too. The legislation expands current requirements for superintendents to report teacher misconduct to the State Board for Educator Certification by adding some new reporting requirements for school principals. SB 7 also requires school districts to adopt a policy on electronic communications between teachers and students, which many districts already have in place.

In an op-ed yesterday for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, Gov. Abbott wrote, “We will protect our children from sexual predators in our classrooms. We will not allow a few rotten apples to abuse this position of trust.” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath also praised the new law in a blog post:

“Parents should be confident that our schools are places of learning and trust for all students. When violations of that trust occur, there should be consequences. Senate Bill 7 provides the Texas Education Agency, law enforcement and local school districts with additional tools to continue our work in combatting educator misconduct.”

 


Drugs and MoneyThe 85th Legislature has finally passed a bill to prevent the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators from going under. House Bill (HB) 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) received the approval of both the House and Senate and has been sent to Gov. Abbott for his review. The bill raises costs and limits options for retirees, but it was viewed as must-pass legislation by ATPE and other educator groups concerned about saving the TRS-Care program from going bankrupt. If the bill becomes law, these changes will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2018, and the TRS Board of Trustees will have a few months to iron out the details of the new plan. For more on the history of the TRS-Care legislation, view this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter who has followed this issue throughout the legislative session.

 


Among the bills that remain up in the air in these waning days of the legislative session are Senate Bill (SB) 463 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo). The bill would extend the law allowing for Individual Graduation Committees to decide if certain students may graduate despite failing a STAAR test. That law, enacted in 2015, is set to expire unless the legislature acts. Sen. Seliger’s bill as filed would have made the IGC law permanent, but some senators objected and gave it merely a two-year extension instead. House members, under the leadership of Chairman Huberty, voted to extend the bill’s life to 2021. Now the Senate has an opportunity to concur in the Senate’s changes to the bill or appoint a conference committee if further negotiations are desired. It is up to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to decide if he will give Sen. Seliger an opportunity to bring up the bill and allow the Senate to make such a choice. If the Senate declines to take any action, the bill will die and the IGC law will expire.

Also pending is House Bill (HB) 22 by Chairman Huberty, aimed at improving the state’s A through F accountability system. The Senate passed its version of that bill at around 2:30 am early Wednesday morning, and Chairman Huberty asked the House this afternoon not to concur with the Senate’s changes to the bill. The House therefore has appointed Huberty to serve on a conference committee for HB 22, joined by House Public Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, Rep. Ken King, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, and Rep. Harold Dutton. Check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter for more on HB 22 and where it stands today.

Another bill most likely headed to a conference committee is Senate Bill 1839 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which pertains to educator preparation and certification laws. It’s one of several ed prep bills that have been watched closely this session and undergone a number of changes.

Yet another bill still being considered is Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s (R-New Boston) HB 515, which began its life as a bill aimed at reduced state-mandated student testing. Along the way, the bill gained an amendment adding language from Rep. Ashby’s HB 1776 that would replace the state’s EOC test for U.S. history with the test administered nationally for citizenship purposes. The Senate made dramatic changes to the bill, stripping out much of the language pertaining to testing and instead calling for the State Board of Education to conduct an interim study of the social studies curriculum across multiple grades. This afternoon, on a motion by Rep. VanDeaver, the House voted to reject the Senate’s changes to the bill and appoint a conference committee instead. As with other bills, the conference committee must strike a deal by Saturday night to be voted on no later than Sunday by both the House and Senate. Otherwise, that bill will be declared dead, too.

A conference committee was already appointed on SB 179 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), an anti-cyberbullying bill that ATPE supported. That conference committee has completed its work and submitted a report containing the agreed-upon bill language to be voted on by the House and Senate this weekend.

ThinkstockPhotos-476529187-hourglassOf course, there is also legislation dealing with high-profile political issues that have been identified by Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott as “must pass” bills before the session deadlines run out, including restrictions on the use of bathrooms by transgender students, changes to local property tax laws, and voter ID requirements, which remain undecided at this point. Also, bills to keep some state agencies operating for the next two years are dependent on the passage of sunset legislation that has not yet been finalized. Many will be watching this weekend to see if deals can be struck to avoid a special session. As always, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest news.

 


We wish you all a peaceful Memorial Day!

A-F reform: Will they or won’t they act?

House Bill (HB) 22 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) has been filed to try to modify the state’s recently adopted “A through F” accountability system, which has been widely panned by parents, administrators, and teachers. It passed the House with broad support but underwent some fairly significant changes in the Senate. In its current form, the bill is eligible to cross the finish line in the legislature and head to the Governor’s desk this evening at 7:20 pm. However, there is some question as to whether or not Huberty, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, will accept the Senate’s version of his bill.

ThinkstockPhotos-478554066_F gradeAs the bill progressed this session, both chambers decreased the number of domains in the accountability system and increased what criteria can be considered within each domain. However, the House version of HB 22 was structured in a way to ensure more reliance on non-test-based measures than in the Senate’s version. Likewise, both versions of the bill created differentiation between a D and an F rating, but the Senate version places punitive measures on a D rating that the House version did not include; ostensibly, the House wanted the state, or the Texas Education Agency (TEA), to focus all of its limited resources on the most struggling schools. The Senate’s version of the bill would keep in place a largely unpopular requirement that schools and districts receive a summative or overall accountability grade, while the House version of HB 22 stopped at grading only the individual domains.

Chairman Huberty must decide if he will recommend that the House accept the Senate’s language through a motion to concur in Senate amendments to HB 22, or ask the House to reject the Senate’s version of his bill and appoint a conference committee to work on compromise language before time runs out. Under House rules, that decision must be made by midnight tonight. If no action is taken on the Senate amendments by midnight tonight, then the bill dies and the legislature loses its ability to make statutory changes to the current accountability system for two more years.

If Chairman Huberty chooses to send HB 22 to a conference committee to continue negotiating, that move will only buy the bill about 24 more hours of life at this late date in the session. A conference committee could allow Huberty and his House colleagues an opportunity to improve the bill, but a deal would have to be struck with the Senate conferees by midnight Saturday night; otherwise, further inaction would kill the bill. Should Chairman Huberty decide that HB 22 in its current form as passed by the Senate is better than no change at all, he can accept the Senate amendments and finally pass the bill tonight. Then, it would be up to Governor Abbott to either veto or sign the bill, or let it pass into law without a signature.

As it currently stands, HB 22 contains two amendments specifically added at ATPE’s request. One adds a teacher quality measure into the accountability system that would be based on criteria other than value-added measures of student performance via test scores. The other ATPE-requested change would require TEA to add additional explanations beyond merely a letter grade to describe how each school or district has performed in each domain. HB 22 also contains language about inclusion of a stakeholder group that ATPE requested, but the Senate’s version of the bill limits the role of that stakeholder group considerably compared to the preferred House language.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote this weekend for updates and follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest developments.

Update: The House voted Friday afternoon to appoint a conference committee for HB 22.

Latest education developments in the 85th legislature

DASIHSWU0AA4SAhIt was a busy weekend for the Texas House and Senate, which took action to move forward several pieces of high-profile education legislation during meetings on Saturday and Sunday that stretched into the overnight hours. The regular legislative session is slated to end in just one week on Memorial Day, May 29, 2017. Here’s a look at some of the latest activity from ATPE’s lobbyists:

Budget

The House was in session for most of the day Saturday. Late that afternoon, senators and representatives serving on the conference committee for Senate Bill (SB) 1, held a public hearing to openly discuss the terms of a compromise for the state’s budget bill. The discussions lasted beyond midnight amid late calls from the governor for additional funding of governor’s office initiatives for economic development. The SB 1 compromise includes adding $480 million for retired educators’ healthcare (consisting of $350 million from the state and $130 million from school districts), which is contingent upon final passage of the TRS-Care bill. The conferees agreed on tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund for one-time expenditures to repair aging state hospital facilities and purchase bulletproof vests for law enforcement officers. They’ll also use a payment deferral method to free up some needed cash.

The budget compromise entails a $530 million increase for public education, but that’s far less than the additional $1.6 billion that the House had proposed in its budget, contingent upon passage of Huberty’s school finance reform bill, House Bill (HB) 21. The final funding available for public schools will depend largely on what becomes of HB 21 now that the Senate has made dramatic changes to that bill, most notably by harnessing a private school voucher plan to it.

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) told senators this afternoon that while the conference committee has adopted its report, there are still some housekeeping items to be worked out before the report is presented to the full House and Senate. She directed senators to the Legislative Budget Board’s website to view documents related to the report on the budget compromise.

Bathrooms

The House was back in session on Sunday, and one of the most watched moments was the debate on a school safety bill that became the vehicle for an amendment relating to gender-based bathroom policies for schools. SB 2078 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) and sponsored in the House by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) was a noncontroversial bill intended to help school districts address their multi-hazard operations plans. But Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) successfully added a floor amendment to address bathroom usage in schools.

As adopted by the House on a 91-50 vote last night, the Paddie amendment requires schools to provide a single-occupancy restroom or changing facility for any student who requests an accommodation because he or she does not wish to use the facility corresponding to the student’s biological sex. Questions remain as to whether school districts will be forced to adopt or change any of their existing policies on bathrooms aside from any such requests for accommodations. The bill as amended passed on second reading late last night, and the House approved SB 2078 with the amendments on third reading today.

Now the bill heads back to the Senate for a determination of whether the House’s language, with its added bathroom-related amendments, will be acceptable or will require referral to a conference committee. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has already called the new language “ambiguous” in a statement to reporters today.

Healthcare

The full Senate took Saturday off and reconvened at 7 pm last night, taking up a couple of bills of great interest to the education community. First, the Senate unanimously passed HB 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) to reform the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators. The proposed changes are a tough pill to swallow for many retirees, but will prevent the program from completely running out of money during the upcoming biennium. For more on the TRS-Care bill, read ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter’s blog post here.

Vouchers and School Finance

At around 11 pm Sunday night, the Senate began debating HB 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), the school finance bill that is now hosting the Senate’s controversial language calling for an education savings account voucher for students with special needs.

Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the bill’s Senate sponsor and author of the voucher language, emphasized his opinion that the voucher likely would only be used by 5,000 students, or one percent of the current public school student population. He fielded questions from several senators, notably Sens. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), who pointed out the problems with private school vouchers, such as parents being forced to give up the many rights and protections of state and federal law that students with special needs enjoy when they attend public schools. Opponents in the Senate also pointed out that voucher utilization rates have been considerably higher (and costlier) than one percent in other states that have passed vouchers, making the Senate’s version of HB 21 likely to produce a much higher price tag than being claimed. The Senate tabled a Rodriguez amendment that would have stripped the objectionable voucher language from the bill, and similarly rejected a Menendez amendment that called on private schools that receive voucher funds to comply with the laws that would otherwise protect special needs students attending public school. A handful of other floor amendments were added to the bill, mostly representing less significant bills that had died on the calendar this session.

The Senate passed its substitute version of HB 21 on second reading at around 1 am this morning. After adjourning for a couple of minutes and reconvening, the Senate passed its version of HB 21 on third reading at around 1:30 this morning. The final floor votes on the bill were 21-10 with all Republican senators plus Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) voting for HB 21; all other Democratic senators opposed the bill. The bill now heads back to the Texas House where it’s likely to receive a chilly reception.

This afternoon, the House advanced another school finance-related bill on second reading. SB 2144 by Sen. Larry Taylor, sponsored in the House by Rep. Huberty, would create a commission to study school finance during the interim and make recommended fixes to the next legislature. Laying out the less significant study bill today, Rep. Huberty used the opportunity to complain about the Senate’s changes to his HB 21, which had the effect of stripping out much of the extra funding proposed by the House for public schools.

Testing

Upon adjournment of the Senate in the overnight hours, the Senate Education Committee called a last-minute meeting to take a vote on a pending bill relating to student testing. Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s (R-New Boston) HB 515 as filed was an ATPE-supported bill designed to eliminate some state STAAR tests not required by federal law. Earlier this month, the full House amended the bill to add language from another bill (HB 1776 by Ashby) that would call on school districts to administer the test for U.S. citizenship in lieu of a state-adopted history test. The Senate committee approved a substitute version of HB 515 early this morning that strips out the citizenship test requirement and instead calls for the State Board of Education to study the alignment and coursework of required social studies curricula for grades 8-12. The Senate’s committee substitute bill also allows school districts to use SAT, ACT, and TSI tests as alternative assessments for graduation purposes. The full Senate must still pass HB 515 by Wednesday.

Today, the House gave preliminary approval to Sen. Kel Seliger’s (R-Amarillo) SB 463 aimed at extending the law allowing individual graduation committees for certain students unable to pass STAAR tests required for graduation. The House agreed to a floor amendment by Rep. Huberty that will extend the ATPE-supported law until 2021. The bill must pass on third reading, and then as with many of these other bills, the Senate will have a chance either to accept the House’s version of the bill in its current form or send the bill to a conference committee during this last week of the legislative session.

Now what?

There is a lingering question on many stakeholders’ minds now: “Will there be a special session?” Last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made public demands for a special session if the House failed to pass a property tax reform bill and a bill on transgender bathroom policies. Over the weekend, Gov. Abbott took unusual steps to declare an emergency on changing the state’s voter ID laws, signaling that issue as another “must pass” item for the regular session. Now that the House has added language relating to all three of these issues onto other bills, it remains to be seen whether those measures will be deemed acceptable by the Senate or if the governor will be inclined to call a special session. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.