Tag Archives: 85th session

ATPE’s Wrap-Up of the 85th Legislature’s Regular Session

ATPE at the Capitol squreWhile navigating challenges both new and familiar, and with the support of our members, ATPE has continued to fight for the rights of educators, teachers, and parents and to fend off threats to public education in the great state of Texas. This year, many ATPE members took swift and decisive action to protect their rights by calling, writing, and visiting members of the legislature (on more than one occasion) to inform their elected officials of the issues most important to Texas educators.

The 85th Legislature’s regular session was long and arduous, but ATPE persisted in keeping public tax dollars out of private institutions—despite strong pushes from some lawmakers, the lieutenant governor, and outside lobbying groups to do the opposite. The Texas House leadership stood with ATPE, the vast of majority of parents, and the education community to fight vouchers and champion improvements to Texas’s school finance system. Both chambers engaged in meaningful conversations about improving school accountability and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing.

Despite the numerous challenges presented during the 85th regular session of 2017, ATPE rose to the occasion and continued on our mission to provide every child equal opportunity to receive an exemplary education. Below are some highlights from this year’s regular legislative session.

Progress on ATPE’s Legislative Priorities for the 85th Legislature

  1. School Funding
  2. TRS and Healthcare
  3. Saving Payroll Deduction
  4. Stopping Privatization
  5. Promoting Educator Quality
  6. Reducing Standardized Testing
  7. Addressing Regulatory Exemptions
The ATPE Lobby Team

Members of the ATPE Lobby Team

1. School Funding: ATPE lobbied for dramatic improvements to the state’s school finance system and urged lawmakers to provide the resources necessary to allow every child in Texas access to an exemplary public education.

o  The state budget: Senate Bill (SB) 1 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

While the House and Senate each began this session with their own versions of the budget, the bills were worked out in a conference committee and resulted in the following new state budget for the next two years:

·       Lawmakers allocated fewer state dollars to school districts under this budget, requiring local schools instead to rely more heavily on property taxes just to stay open. The decrease in state funding coupled with the elimination of ASATR (Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction) is a one-two punch for districts that are already cash strapped, especially those in rural areas, and some have already stated they will either close or consolidate under this budget. This continues a trend of legislators shifting the burden of paying for public education from the state to the local level, which results in increased upward pressure on local property taxes to make up for the reduction in state funds. Legislators must realize that our outdated school finance formulas need to be reformed, and the state must shoulder its share of the burden if our schools are to meet the demands of rapid growth in population and enrollment.

·        The TRS healthcare program for retirees faced a billion-dollar shortfall going into the next biennium under its existing and inadequate funding mechanism. Lawmakers made modest increases to state and district funding formulas, in addition to providing a relatively small amount of one-time supplemental funding from the state, in exchange for passing a TRS reform bill that shifts the majority of the shortfall to retirees through increased premiums and decreased benefits. In all, SB1 includes $480 million above what previous formula funding called for, made up of $350 million from the state and $130 million from school districts.

o  School finance reform: House Bill (HB) 21 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble)

HB 21 was the first iteration of what Chairman Huberty planned to be a two- or three-session effort to completely overhaul the state’s school funding mechanism. A testament to the volatility of this session, HB 21 began as a school finance bill supported by ATPE and most of the education community. The bill would have increased the basic allotment of funding per student, lowered the recapture rate, created a Hardship Provision Grant to soften the elimination of ASATR funding for several districts, added a formula weight for students with dyslexia, increased the Career and Technology Allotment weight (CTE), and repealed hold harmless provisions in the current law. Coupled with companion legislation in the House’s state budget proposal, HB 21 could have provided as much as $1.9 billion in additional state funding for public education.

However, once the bill passed to the Senate, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, substituted it with language of his own that reduced the additional funding to $530 million and added in a controversial provision for vouchers for students with disabilities. This draining of public tax dollars into private entities through a proposed Educational Savings Account (ESA) voucher caused ATPE and other members of the education community to retract their support of the bill. The Senate passed the voucher-laden version of the bill on a mostly party-line vote. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), joined with all Republicans to support the bill.

The House refused to concur with the Senate’s changes to the bill, and Chairman Huberty called for a conference committee to work out the differences between each chamber’s versions of HB 21. However, over on the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Patrick and Chairman Larry Taylor declared the bill dead that same afternoon, refusing to appoint members of the Senate to participate in a conference committee. The Senate ultimately appointed conferees with just hours to spare on the last day of deliberations, but no agreement could be worked out in the few remaining hours, and the school finance bill died.

2. TRS and Healthcare: ATPE helped prevent the passage of bills that would change the defined benefit structure of TRS, raised awareness of the dramatically rising costs of educators’ healthcare programs, and helped secure additional funding for TRS-Care to prevent retired educators from losing their access to healthcare.

o  HB 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin)

As stated above, ATPE entered the 2017 legislative session with a looming crisis for the state’s healthcare program for retired educators. Facing a $1 billion shortfall, TRS-Care was slated to run out of funding during the next biennium without urgent action by the 85th Legislature. Combining $350 million in state funds along with $130 million in support from school districts, the passage of HB 3976 helped secure $480 million in new money budgeted for TRS-Care over the next biennium. In order to maintain coverage, this bill changes the current TRS-Care plan by splitting coverage into two groups based on retirees’ ages. While the enactment of the bill means higher costs for participating retirees, it prevents the worst-case scenario: The collapse of TRS-Care in its entirety. Read a more comprehensive summary of the legislative changes here, and also read here about how the TRS Board of Trustees is now undertaking the rulemaking process to implement the changes called for by lawmakers in greater detail.

o  SB 1750 and SB 1751 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston)

Sen. Bettencourt’s SB 1750 and SB 1751 revived the concept of converting the TRS defined benefit pension plan to a defined contribution program in the future, making it more like a 401(k) plan or a hybrid of the two. The first bill called only for an interim study of the idea, while the second bill would have authorized TRS and ERS (the agency overseeing a similar pension plan for state employees) to create such a program as an alternative for new employees. Bills like this are a common fixture in the sessions preceding when an agency is up for its sunset review. While both bills were referred to the Senate State Affairs Committee, neither received a hearing and both proposals died. Additionally, other legislation was passed that will move back the sunset date for TRS to the year 2025.

3. Saving Payroll Deduction: ATPE fought back against anti-educator bills that would do away with payroll deduction for voluntary professional association dues.

o   SB 13 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and HB 510 by Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston)

ATPE continued to defend educators’ rights to use voluntary payroll deduction for their association dues and to fight anti-educator bills that do away with that option in an attempt to make it harder for educators to join professional groups like ours. Bills eliminating payroll deduction were identified as priorities of both the governor and lieutenant governor. ATPE members mounted strong opposition, testifying in committee and meeting with individual members of both the House and Senate to demand fair treatment. The Senate version (SB 13) of the so-called “union dues” bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote. In the House, both SB 13 and HB 510 were referred to the Committee on State Affairs but did not receive a hearing and subsequently died there.

4. Stopping Privatization: ATPE helped defeat bills aimed at creating private school voucher programs.

o  SB 3 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood)

Having made school choice one of his top three legislative priorities this session, Lt. Gov. Patrick used SB 3 as the main vehicle to push for vouchers in the form of both corporate tax credits for donations to private school scholarships and educational savings accounts for parents to use for their children’s private and home school expenses. The bill was voted out of the full Senate after measures were added to make the bill more palatable to rural legislators who were concerned about the impact a major subsidy would have on their districts. SB 3 passed the Senate with the support of 13 Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville); the rest of the Senate Democrats and three Republicans, including Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), voted against the bill. While Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is recorded as voting against SB 3, she cast a key vote to enable the bill to come up for consideration on the Senate floor, which paved the way for its passage. Upon being received in the House, the bill was referred to the House Public Education Committee, where it later died.

o  The Senate’s voucher amendment to HB 21

Earlier in the session, the House passed HB 21 by Chairman Dan Huberty as a school finance reform measure and the policy component intended to guide the additional money allocated to education in the House’s version of the draft budget. As we discussed above, HB 21 was vigorously debated on the House floor and passed to the Senate, where Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) substituted the House version of the bill with his own bill demanding an ESA voucher for students with special needs. The Senate passed its substitute version of HB 21 and sent it back to the House, which refused to concur with the controversial amendments. Lawmakers were unable to agree to a final bill, and HB 21 died along with all other attempts to pass a private school voucher this session.

o  Record votes on vouchers. The House took multiple noteworthy votes against private school vouchers this session:

·        During the initial debate of SB 1—the budget bill—on the House floor, members voted 104-43 in favor of an amendment by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi), Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), and Rep. Kyle Kacal (R-Bryan) to prohibit the use of public funds from supporting school choice programs in any form.

·        The House voted against vouchers again upon receiving the Senate’s version of the school finance bill, HB 21. The vote occurred in response to a “motion to instruct” presented by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), a move intended to inform conference committee appointees of the desire of the body they represent while fleshing out the differences between differing bills. Chairman Zerwas filed the motion to urge House members of the conference committee to reject any voucher language in potential compromises on HB 21, and a supermajority of the House agreed. House members voted 101-45 to reject any compromises on HB 21 that would allow for ESAs, tax credit scholarships, or any other form of voucher.

·        Immediately following that vote, members squashed an alternative motion to instruct the conferees to “consider all methods of education choice and financing for special needs students.” The motion, presented by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton), failed with members voting 47-89 against it.

o  Related legislation: The “Tim Tebow” Bill, SB 640, by Sen. Van Taylor (R-Plano)

Once again, this session ATPE helped prevent the passage of a bill that would force public schools to allow homeschooled students to participate in extracurricular UIL activities. ATPE members have long opposed the uneven playing field that would be created with allowing the participation of homeschooled students in UIL, since those students are not be held to the same academic and disciplinary standards as public school students.

5. Promoting Educator Quality: ATPE advocated for maintaining high standards for the education profession and a compensation and benefits structure that promotes educator recruitment and retention.

o  SB 1839 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola)

Amended several times over, SB 1839 became the catch-all for bills that had otherwise failed in the legislative process. In its original form, the bill mandated that relevant PEIMS (Public Education Information Management Systems) data be shared with educator preparation programs, gave the commissioner more rulemaking authority with regard to out-of-state certificate holders, and required educator preparation programs to include instruction on digital learning. In the final version signed by the governor, the bill also includes measures to do the following:

·        Prohibit the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) from requiring educator preparation programs to deliver one or more face-to-face support visits for principal, librarian, counselor, and diagnostician candidates during their clinical experience;

·        Create an early childhood through third grade teaching certificate;

·        Require additional professional development for digital learning and teaching methods; and

·        Allow long-term substitute teaching to count in lieu of minimal field-based experience hours required of certain educator candidates before entering the classroom as the teacher-of-record on a probationary certificate. This
language was originally a part of SB 1278, a bill ATPE testified against because it watered down educator preparation standards raised by SBEC during the past year. As that bill made its way through the committee process, much of the SB 1278 content was stripped away; however, this remaining portion was improved and ultimately added to SB 1839.

 

6. Reducing Standardized Testing: ATPE supported bills to reduce the role of standardized test scores in our accountability system for schools, in teacher evaluations, and in high-stakes decisions for students. 

o  SB 463 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

During the 84th regular session of the Texas Legislature in 2015, ATPE worked with Sen. Seliger to enact legislation that would provide a safe harbor for eligible high school seniors otherwise prevented from graduating due to failure of two or fewer STAAR tests. Enacted by that 2015 law that was set to expire this year, Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs) take the student’s entire academic history into account and use that to work a path to graduation. This session, we successfully worked with legislators once more to secure access to IGCs for high school students through 2019 with the passage of SB 463. 

o  HB 657 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio)

This ATPE-supported legislation allows ARD committees to promote special education students who have failed an exam but have otherwise met the goals of their individual education plans (IEPs). The passage of this bill provides students in special education programs with additional relief from regimented standardized testing. 

o  HB 515 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston)

What started out as a bill to reduce the number of standardized tests that students are required to take lost much of its strength as amendments were added through the committee process. The bill’s focus was altered, causing it to place an emphasis on replacing state exams for high school social studies with the US Citizenship test, which would have presented problems due to a lack of alignment between the proposed test and the curriculum standards in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The author of the bill did not concur with Senate amendments when the bill was sent back to the House, and the bill died.

 

o  HB 1333 by Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs)

This bill called for a reduction in the number of standardized tests taken by public school students by requiring the state to seek a waiver of federal laws that require certain tests in grades three to 12, and bringing the number of standardized tests for high school students down to the federally required minimum. The bill also called for making test scores a smaller percentage of school accountability calculations and removing standardized test scores as a facet of teacher evaluation. This bill did not make it beyond a hearing in the House Public Education Committee.

7. Addressing Regulatory Exemptions: ATPE advocated for limiting, repealing, or adding safeguards to regulatory exemptions that have been granted to some public schools, including Districts of Innovation (DOI).

Several bills were put forth this session with the goal of closing loopholes associated with the advent of Districts of Innovation (DOI). ATPE successfully advocated for a new measure of transparency under DOI:

SB 1566 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham)

Included in SB 1566, an omnibus bill pertaining to district and charter governance, is the requirement that school districts designated a DOI must post and maintain their DOI plan prominently on the school district’s website. A school district now has 15 days upon adoption to post its DOI plan or any revisions to its plan.

However, none of the following DOI bills made it to final passage:

o  HB 972 by Rep. Helen Giddings (D-Dallas)

This bill would have partly disallowed districts from exempting themselves from teacher certification laws by preventing a district from assigning most students in first through sixth grades to an uncertified teacher for two consecutive years (unless the district gets permission from parents). The bill passed the House but was not given a hearing in the Senate.

o  HB 1867 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint)

This bill would have removed educator certification from the exemptions available to districts under the DOI law. The bill failed to pass either chamber.

o  HB 1865 by Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)

The bill would have removed school start date requirements from the list of eligible DOI exemptions, which would have eliminated a major enticement to districts considering DOI status. A desire to start the school year on an earlier date has been the most typical exemption sought by DOIs statewide. Despite the tourism industry vigorously lobbying in support of this legislation that would preserve a more predictable school calendar, the bill was left pending and eventually died after being heard in the House Public Education Committee.

o  HB 620 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano)

The bill would have allowed districts the option of moving the school start date to the second Monday in August, up from the fourth, and would have required instruction time measured in minutes, as opposed to days. HB 620 would have offered schools flexibility and eliminated an incentive to pursue DOI status. Like HB 1865, the bill was left pending and therefore died in the House Public Education Committee.

Other Legislative Victories:

·        ATPE supported changes to the A-F accountability system put in place for campuses last session (HB 22).

Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, filed HB 22 to try to revamp the state’s unpopular A-F accountability grading system for schools and districts. A version of the bill approved by the House had broad support from the education community, but stakeholders were less enthusiastic about changes made to the bill in the Senate. Ultimately, the bill was referred to a conference committee to iron out an agreement, and HB 22 became one of the last bills passed by the 85th Legislature before the clock ran out on the regular session. HB 22 as finally passed collapses the five domains down to three, allows districts to add locally designed aspects of their accountability plans subject to approval by the Commissioner of Education, and pushes back the rollout of the A-F rating system for campuses to August 2019. ATPE successfully advocated to require the rulemaking process include input from teachers. While ATPE is still not a proponent of the A-F system and had argued for eliminating the overall summative grade for schools, we support these changes in the final compromise version of HB 22, which should give districts more leeway and educators an additional opportunity for local input into the design of their schools’ accountability systems.

·        ATPE bolstered efforts to prevent and punish cyberbullying - David’s Law, SB 179, by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio).

Expanding on ATPE’s work in prior sessions to help curtail bullying of students, the act now known as David’s Law establishes criminal penalties for those engaged in acts of cyberbullying and requires schools to create secure channels for students to report cyberbullying. 

·        ATPE supported prohibiting the Texas Education Agency (TEA) from basing a school’s performance on the number of students in special education programs – SB 160 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso).

ATPE supported legislators’ efforts to end the de facto 8.5 percent cap on schools enrolling students in special education services. This legislation prevents TEA from monitoring school performance based on the percentage of students they enroll in special education services. 

·       ATPE worked closely with lawmakers to address educator misconduct – SB 7 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).

One of the first bills signed into law by Gov. Abbott this year, SB 7 aims to address the phenomenon sometimes called “passing the trash,” whereby educators accused of misconduct have been allowed to resign and find work in another school district thanks to lax reporting. Several amendments were added to the original version of this bill, including one to strip certain employees convicted of felony sexual offenses of their TRS pensions, amendments to add parental notification requirements, and an amendment that requires school job applicants to disclose any criminal charges or convictions in a pre-employment affidavit.

ATPE's 2016-17 State Officers

ATPE’s 2016-17 State Officers

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.

Education investment: The key to real tax relief

Mortgage calculator. House, noney and document.If there’s one thing most Texans can agree on, it’s that property taxes are too dang high.

What gets dicey is trying to sort through the myriad schemes put forth in the last few years by state lawmakers trying to cut local taxes over which they have little direct control. They’ve proposed tweaks to the rollback rate, increased the homestead exemption, and filed bills targeting local appraisal districts. That’s a lot of work by a lot of smart people you’ve sent to Austin with your tax dollars.

So.

Does your tax bill look any better?

In 2013, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy ranked Texas as having the 15th highest per capita property tax in the country. Despite our high property taxes, Texas ranks 45th in overall K-12 education spending and 49th in adjusted per-pupil expenditures, according to our performance on the “Quality Counts” state report card from Education Week.

Why is that?

Speaking to a joint hearing of the House Public Education and Appropriations Committees in September 2016, outgoing Appropriations Chairman John Otto (R-Dayton), put it simply. “The burden is shifting to the locals,” he said.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, local school spending, as approved by local voters and their elected school boards, increased 34 percent from 2008 to 2015. During the same period, the amount the state spent on local schools increased by just 4.8 percent.

The school finance relationship is like a see-saw, with state funds on one side and local tax dollars on the other. When state spending goes down, local school districts have to raise taxes in order to fund services at the same level. This year, the state will pay 38 percent of the cost to fund schools, while the burden that falls to local property owners will be 52 percent.

Under the state’s recapture rules for maintaining equity in our school finance system, those local taxes you pay are also tied to school districts all over the state. That means in cities with high property values such as Austin and now Houston, a significant chunk of local property tax revenue must be shipped out of town to help fulfill the state’s obligation to maintain funding equity in other districts.

The total amount of transfers under recapture – commonly referred to by some as “Robin Hood” – has grown to $2 billion, with Austin ISD accounting for $583 million of recaptured funds in 2016. The math works out to 28 percent of statewide recapture falling on the shoulders of local taxpayers in Austin alone.

This week, the House and Senate each submitted their proposals for the 2018-19 state budget, and financial wonks are still crunching the numbers to determine whether either plan would effectively fund school services at current levels. Both claim to do so.

What we do know is that in the House plan, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has proposed an additional $1.5 billion boost in education funding “contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system.”

If legislators are serious about reducing local property taxes, this is where it starts. It’s simple math.

Back to the see-saw: The only way to achieve meaningful property tax relief is for the state to assume more responsibility for the share of school funding it has passed on to you through local property taxes. Any other proposals you hear – and you will hear plenty – are empty measures meant to delay your outrage over your property tax bill for another two years.

In a December 2016 column, The Texas Tribune’s executive editor Ross Ramsey concluded, “Had the state kept its share of school funding constant for the past 10 years, voters might not be griping about rising property taxes.”

Tired of griping? Then let’s get serious. By boosting state investment along with taking a real shot at reforming the school finance system, the House is on the right track. We’ll find out if the rest of the legislature is serious as well.

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.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 13, 2017

The 85th legislative session began this week. Here are highlights from the week:


Tuesday marked the opening of the 85th legislative session. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter provided a report on the first day’s activities, including the unanimous election of Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) to a record-tying fifth term as Speaker of the House. Over on the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) will preside once again and is actively pursuing a number of controversial priorities he wants lawmakers to enact this session. Patrick’s 2017 wish list includes private school vouchers, naturally, and politically motivated bills to ban educators from using payroll deduction for their association dues.

Failing grade wrinkledOne thing that won’t be on the Senate’s agenda, according to Patrick, is repealing the “A through F” rating system that sparked outrage when school districts got a recent preview of how they might be graded when the system takes effect next year. In a pair of public speeches on Wednesday, the lieutenant governor insisted that A-F is “not going away” and seemed almost giddy about Ds and Fs being slapped on the same school districts that have “met standards” in the current accountability system. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has more about the reactions to A-F in today’s blog post.

The news from the state capitol wasn’t all negative this week. On Thursday, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) held a press conference to announce a bill, Senate Bill (SB) 463, to permanently extend the now temporary law on graduation committees. The committees create graduation pathways for students who cannot pass all STAAR tests but are otherwise qualified to move on post-secondary life. Seliger authored the original bill creating the committees in 2015, which ATPE strongly supported.

We encourage ATPE members who are interested in these issues to use our new grassroots tools on Advocacy Central to learn more about what’s at stake, follow related bills as the session continues, and send messages to their lawmakers.

Related: Check out ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey’s Jan. 12, 2017 editorial in the Austin American-Statesman about vouchers and why running public education like a business is a bad idea.

 


As one of the Texas’s largest areas of expenditure, the public education budget is frequently a target for possible budget cuts, and this session will be no exception, unfortunately.

On the eve of the 85th legislature’s first day in Austin, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar released the state’s biennial revenue estimate (BRE) Monday. The BRE reflects a forecast of future revenues and economic trends for the next two years, and it provides the budgeting framework within which lawmakers have to operate this legislative session. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins wrote for our blog on Monday, the $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending is less than we need and will force lawmakers to prioritize. The hard decisions on those priorities are a stark reminder that elections have consequences.

cutting budget with scissor on wooden backgroundEarlier this week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) was a featured speaker at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that has long supported education reforms like privatization, merit pay for teachers, deregulation, and limiting spending. In addition to boasting of the success of “A through F” accountability ratings as a means to a voucher end, Patrick pointed to healthcare and education as areas of the state budget that would be ripe for cuts. If talk of education budget cuts by the state’s second highest ranking elected official don’t alarm you already during this first week of the session, consider also that Patrick’s remark sparked a roomful of applause at the TPPF gathering.

As Mark stated in his blog post, “Get ready to tighten your belts.”

 


The United States Capitol building

The 115th Congress continued its second week of business this week, one that was originally slated to include the confirmation hearing for President-Elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee was scheduled to conduct the confirmation hearing for billionaire and alt-school-choice supporter Betsy DeVos on Wednesday, but announced late Monday that the hearing had been postponed for a week “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.” Calls for the postponement of confirmation hearings had surfaced after news broke that the Office of Government Ethics had not completed its ethics reviews for many of Trump’s cabinet picks, including DeVos. The hearing on her nomination to become U.S. Secretary of Education is now scheduled for Tuesday, January 17 at 4 PM CST.

Read more about the start of the 115th Congress and the DeVos hearing in ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann’s blog post from earlier this week. Kate’s post has been updated to include information on a letter that ATPE sent this week to the two newest members of the Texas Congressional Delegation. The letters welcome Congressmen Jodey Arrington (R) of Lubbock and Vicente Gonzalez (D) of McAllen to Congress and highlight ATPE’s top federal policy goals, namely the passage of Chairman Kevin Brady’s (R-TX) bill to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) for Social Security.

While the Department of Education (ED) awaits the appointment of a new boss, it is looking for qualified individuals to serve as peer reviewers of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans. The peer review process is required by law and serves to provide recommendations that will inform ED as it reviews states’ plans. ED is looking for teachers, principals or other school leaders, and specialized instructional support personnel, among other qualified educators to serve. Learn more about the peer review process, ED’s call for qualified reviewers, and how to apply here.

 


Monty testifying at a TEA hearingAs we have reported recently on Teach the Vote, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is proposing significant changes to the performance standards for STAAR tests. A public hearing was held today to give stakeholders another chance to weigh in on plans to accelerate a jump in the cut scores. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified at today’s hearing with concerns about the proposal. He’ll have a blog post coming up soon with more on the proposed rules and why they are drawing negative reactions from parents, teachers, and school district officials.

 


17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenATPE members still have a few weeks left to register for ATPE at the Capitol, our political involvement training and lobby day event set for March 5-6, 2017, in Austin, Texas. There is no registration fee to attend, and incentive funds are available to help defray travel costs. The deadline to register and reserve hotel rooms at our special group rate is Feb. 3. Visit Advocacy Central on the ATPE website (member login is required) to view all the details, including news about our speakers and panelists.

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 9, 2016

With the holidays quickly approaching, it’s been a busy education news week. Here are highlights:


ThinkstockPhotos-462761867Groups looking to ban educators from using payroll deduction have a newly filed bill, and school employees concerned about this need to speak up now! The move is part of a national effort to try to weaken unions and professional associations like ATPE that advocate for public employees. Here in Texas, efforts to ban payroll deduction are taking direct aim at the education community, apparently in response to our outspoken opposition to private school vouchers and other reforms favored by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and others.

Patrick has identified prohibiting payroll deduction for “collection of union dues” as one of his top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, reserving a low bill number (Senate Bill 13) for the yet-to-be-filed legislation in the Senate. On the House side, Houston-area Rep. Sarah Davis (R) pre-filed House Bill 510 this week to prohibit the use of payroll deduction for educators’ voluntary association dues. The bill exempts police, firefighters, and EMS workers, allowing them to continue to take advantage of the safety and convenience of payroll deduction, but punishes educators who choose to join professional associations by denying them the same rights.

ATPE is urging members to contact their legislators right away and ask them to oppose these politically charged bills that would serve no purpose other than to further devalue the education profession and attempt to silence the voices of teachers. Learn more in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, and use our new communication tools for members at ATPE’s Advocacy Central to take action today.

17_web_Spotlight_ATC_RegistrationOpenRelated content:  While you’re visiting Advocacy Central, check out the details on ATPE at the Capitol, our lobby day and political involvement training event in March. Registration is open now, and there is no registration fee for ATPE members to attend the event. This is a great opportunity to learn more about grassroots advocacy and meet with your lawmakers to discuss saving payroll deduction and other ATPE legislative priorities for 2017.


SBECThe State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today for its last meeting of 2016. After more than a year of meetings dedicated to revising rule chapters that pertain to educator preparation and certification, among other issues, the board’s agenda was notably shorter and involved very few action items.

On today’s agenda was a presentation from former Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson on the work of the Texas Teacher Preparation Collaborative; a discussion on developing a certification specific to early childhood education; and an update on the principal and teacher satisfaction surveys that are used to hold educator preparation programs (EPPs) accountable. The only actions taken by the board, aside from rulings on individual disciplinary cases, was adoption of the board’s legislative priorities and approval of EPP monitors. Board members also adopted three legislative priorities: expand reporting requirements on educator misconduct to principals, expand outcome-based accountability to EPPs, and consider other options for demonstrating proficiency with regard to educator certification reciprocity for educators coming from other states and countries.

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Kate Kuhlmann testifying at SBEC, Dec. 9, 2016

On the second priority, ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann testified at this morning’s meeting and successfully argued to remove some original language that would have specifically encouraged the use of teacher evaluation results to hold EPPs accountable. Board members understood our concerns that such a move would affect the confidentiality of appraisals, which are meant to serve as an informative and developmental tool for educators. Kuhlmann testified that, among other concerns, the formative nature of appraisals at the local level could be undermined if confidentiality of those results were compromised by legislative changes. To hear the full discussion on any of these topics or others discussed today, access an archived webcast of the meeting here.

The board welcomed two new members recently appointed by Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX). Dr. Scott Ridley, the Dean of the College of Education at Texas Tech University, and Tommy Coleman, a citizen member of the board who works as an assistant district attorney for the Polk County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, were sworn in before today’s meeting. Gov. Abbott also recently appointed Carlos Villagrana to serve in the non-voting role dedicated to a representative of an alternative certification program. Mr. Villagrana is the Director of the Alternative Educator Preparation Program at YES Prep Public Schools. He was not present for today’s meeting.

Related content:  The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released the latest version of its Teacher Prep Review this week. This go around, NCTQ decided to analyze programs based on their program type (as opposed to grouping them all together like in previous reports) in an effort to offer a more apples-to-apples comparison of data. The report released this week focuses only on 875 undergraduate elementary programs throughout the country. Two of the top rated undergraduate elementary programs, which all scored in the top 99 percentile, hail from Texas: Texas A&M University and the University of Houston. Learn more about the report here, and watch for future reports on the various program types beginning in Spring 2017.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) invited legislative staff and stakeholders to a briefing this week on its actuarial valuation reports for the period ending Aug. 31, 2016. The presentation also included data on the healthcare plans administered by TRS for active and retired educators. TRS officials reported that the pension fund earned a return of 7.3 percent in 2015-16 and ended the 2016 fiscal year at a market value of $134 billion compared to a market value of $128.5 billion in the previous fiscal year.

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While the pension fund investment returns are in good shape, there are more serious concerns about funding for TRS-Care and ActiveCare. This week’s briefing highlighted the fact that TRS-Care is not pre-funded and is facing a shortfall of between $1,088 million and $1,294 million by the end of the 2018-19 biennium. As we have previously reported on our blog, lawmakers are recommending dramatic changes to the design of the health benefit plans.

Learn more about the current status of the funds in these new reports supplied by TRS:

 


U.S. Dept of Education LogoThe U.S. Department of Education (ED) finalized its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) rules pertaining to assessments this week. The assessment rules were much less contentious than some of the other rules released by the department, with stakeholders who served as negotiators coming to agreement on the contents of the rule. ATPE submitted comments on the rules during the comment period, supporting the innovative assessment pilot and encouraging the use of sample testing. Our comments were taken and included, in part, in the final innovative assessment pilot rules. You can read ATPE’s comments and learn more about the rulemaking process for assessments here.

As we have previously discussed, the future of ESSA rulemaking remains very unpredictable at this point. When President-elect Trump and his administration take office in January, they will have the ability to carry on with the policies of the Obama administration, forgo them altogether, or pursue some combination of these options.

 


The 12th annual Friends of Texas Public Schools (FOTPS) gala took place Wednesday evening, Dec. 7, in Waco, TX. ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz contributed this report on the event.

ATPE leaders, volunteers, and staff members were honored to be a part of the FOTPS annual celebration where education allies were honored for their outstanding work supporting the Texas public education system. Three major awards were handed out at the event, which was held at Baylor University’s Baylor Club, located inside McLane Stadium. Those attending the event as part of the ATPE delegation were State President Julleen Bottoms, Region 12 Director Jason Forbis, Region 12 President Patty Reneau, Corsicana ATPE member Suzanne Waldrip, Executive Director Gary Godsey, Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday, Regional Representative Ginger Franks, Lobbyist Monty Exter, Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, and Exter.

The Friend of the Year Award is FOTPS’s highest award and is bestowed to individuals and organizations who step up as champions for those who work and learn in our Texas public schools. The award went to Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA) for their continued activism to reduce the state’s overreliance on high-stakes standardized testing. Their work has been instrumental in bringing awareness to the amount of time our students spend on standardized tests and the limited time that is actually left for instruction. During the last two legislative sessions, TAMSA has been a leader in advocating for a reduction in tests, helping to bring the number of required state tests from 15 down to five.

Also recognized that evening were Pamela & Rep. Gary VanDeaver who received the Ambassador of the Year Award. This award was established to highlight the efforts of an educator stepping up as a champion for the Texas public schools. Rep. VanDeaver and his wife are no strangers to the public education system having both worked as career educators and been an instrumental voice for the 5.3 million children who currently attend Texas public schools. Rep. VanDeaver’s work on behalf of public education during the last legislative session was relentless, and we look forward to working with him again during the 85th session. Their passion to serve our schoolchildren is inspiring!

Last but not least, the Founder’s Distinguished Service Award went to the Texas Education Service Centers for their outstanding work and support for the continued success of Texas public schools. The 20 Education Service Centers have tirelessly served public schools for the past 50 years by providing vital services that enable each district to educate students in an effective and efficient manner.

Congratulations to all of the honorees for their outstanding work!

FOTPS_2016

ATPE’s representatives at the FOTPS gala on Dec. 7, 2016, in Waco


 

TRS: fiscal year wrap and looking forward to session

Piggy bank with glasses and blackboardThe 2016 fiscal headline for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS): the fund continues to beat expectations.

TRS fund managers brought in $11 billion this year bringing the total fund assets to $132.7 billion. The one year rate of return was 7.38 percent, which is just shy of the long term eight percent expected rate of return. Still, it’s considerably better than last year’s percentage and a very good rate of return considering the 2016 market.

As a result of Senate Bill 1458 passed in 2013, TRS went through some major design changes, including changes in retirement age and funding rates. The bill was designed to dramatically improve the long-term health of the fund and move it toward being a fully funded pension system. As part of that long-term plan, there was an expectation that unfunded liabilities would increase slightly before beginning to decrease substantially.

As expected, the pension’s unfunded liability has moved from $33 to $35 billion and its expected funding date from 33 years to 33.9 years. The expectation at this point in the life cycle of the current plan was that the funding date would be closer to 36 years, which again points to the plan outperforming expectations.

The funded ratio has gone from 80 percent to 79.7 percent. While this slight decrease was fully expected, many of the board members lamented the drop below 80 percent, which is considered a psychological benchmark for the board as it relates to common perceptions of pension fund health. The staff projects that the fund will be back above the 80 percent threshold within approximately seven years.

TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie previews some of the agency’s legislative goals at yesterday’s board meeting: the TRS proposed omnibus bill for the 85th Legislative Session.

Each session TRS drafts a bill designed to take care of statutory inconsistencies, address the agency’s current needs, and streamline its statutory framework. Some sessions the bill is more significant than others. With SB 1458 only two sessions behind us and the agency going into sunset review (a process that essentially amounts to an audit of the agency and one that all state agencies undergo on a scheduled basis) in the 2019 legislative session, this year’s bill is expected to be fairly light. TRS staff shared four primary recommendations covered by the draft bill with the board:

  • Clarify statutes relating to certain plan terms, electronic communication with participants, IRS plan qualification & compliance, and reporting deadlines from reporting entities.
  • Correct statutory references from the TRS Board of Trustees to the Higher Education Coordinating Board regarding certifying contributions to Optional Retirement Fund.
  • Remove the requirement in the Education Code that the TRS Board of Trustees determine whether a school district offers group health coverage that is comparable to TRS Active-Care.
  • Clarify statute to ensure that additional and enhanced personal financial information required by the TRS Board of Trustees provided by key employees is not subject to public disclosure.

What could be major legislation around TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare will be brought forward as separate legislation likely by House Chairman Dan Flynn and Senate Chairwoman Joan Huffman. Their joint interim report on the subject has not yet been released.

Board members hears how TRS stacks up against its peers.

The board heard a presentation from outside consultant, CEM Benchmarking, on a study performed by the company that compares TRS with similar US pension funds. The take away was that TRS is extraordinarily efficient in delivering good service to its members. The agency’s service scores were right at the median but the agency spent on average only about one third as much as its peers to achieve that result.

The two standout areas in the report, in addition to the very low cost per member, were call center performance and efficient pension inceptions. At just over two minutes, hold times when calling into TRS were a full minute and a half less than the peer group average and have decreased by more than half in recent years. In addition, busy signals, dropped calls, and hang ups have been reduced from nearly 25 percent of all calls to less than eight percent.

In what may be the most important metric for new retires, TRS knocks efficient pension inceptions out of the park. The consultant considers an efficient pension inception to be one in which the beneficiary receives their first pension check within 30 days of notifying the fund of their intention to begin drawing retirement. This essentially means receiving the check within the same month as their final pre-retirement pay check, thereby avoiding any interruption of income. TRS achieves that result 99.9 percent of the time, compared to 86.7 percent for the peer group.

If you would like to watch the full TRS board meeting it can be viewed here.