Tag Archives: Dan Patrick

Senate school safety committee looks at mental health

The Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met yesterday at the Capitol. The committee has previously discussed resources and programs to help schools prevent school violence and school infrastructure and design to address school security. This time, the committee turned its attention to mental health, and expert after expert shared that more resources are needed. The complete committee charge:

Examine the root cause of mass murder in schools including, but not limited to, risk factors such as mental health, substance use disorders, anger management, social isolation, the impact of high intensity media coverage — the so-called “glorification” of school shooters — to determine the effect on copy cat shootings, and the desensitization to violence resulting from video games, music, film, and social media. Recommend strategies to early identify and intercept high-risk students, as well as strategies to promote healthy school culture, including character education and community support initiatives.

It is no surprise that the need for resources was a regular theme in yesterday’s hearing. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that up to 1 in 5 children in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year. That means up to 20% of the children in our Texas classroom and schools are faced with a mental issue of some kind. Those can interfere with a students ability to learn, result in classroom disruptions, or even become a threat to school security. Testifiers relayed resources in various forms to address these issues.

Suggested resources included more counselors, psychologists, programs, and training, all of which cost money – money that many on the committee didn’t sound keen on spending. In a previous hearing, a retired principal spoke about the effect large class sizes have on a teachers ability to know her students individually. Addressing this challenge is another issue that would require funding. Read more about the hearing and the issue of funding in this piece from the Texas Tribune.

The committee has one remaining charge to study prior to issuing a report to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick on its findings. The final charge asks the committee to consider whether Texas’s current protective order laws are sufficient or more should be done to aid the temporary removal of firearms from those posing an immediate danger. No hearing has been scheduled at this time.

Senate Education Committee hears from ATPE on teacher compensation

ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann gave invited testimony at the Senate Education Committee’s interim hearing, March 26, 2018.

The Senate Education Committee met Monday to discuss three interim charges assigned to the committee by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: teacher compensation, classroom conduct, and the Texas special education corrective active plan. ATPE served as invited testimony on a panel specific to teacher compensation.

ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann shared with committee members a number of things that should be considered when developing any compensation plan for educators, first and foremost that plans be funded, sustainable, and built from an adequate base. ATPE shared support for the minimum salary schedule and emphasized that levels of pay are more impactful when they are based on more meaningful step increases.

From a policy angle, ATPE shared that plans should be based on valid data and a meaningful picture of teaching, explaining that student standardized test scores are a woefully incomplete picture of a teacher’s success and that research has failed to validate the use of standardized test scores as a fair and viable measure. Kuhlmann also told legislators that any plan should be locally developed, transparent, and should involve participants in the development and revision processes.

Finally, ATPE stressed the need to consider and develop compensation plans in alignment with the entire teaching pipeline. For example, while pay is a critical component, working conditions remain another highly reported reason for teachers leaving the classroom. Efforts to support teachers once they are no longer novice, offer more time in the day for teachers to plan and prepare their lessons, and even enhance access to supplies can have an impact on retaining and recruiting our best teachers. Preparing teachers adequately before they enter the classroom and enhancing non-salary compensation benefits can have the same impact.

Panelists from Dallas ISD, San Antonio ISD, and Richardson ISD shared individual aspects of their respective compensation plans and discussed successes where they exist. Commissioner Morath presented data on the Texas teaching profession, confirming that on average teachers receive little to no increase in their salary when adjusted for inflation. It has become increasingly more concerning that while starting pay for a Texas teacher can be competitive, the lack of increase over time leaves little incentive to stay in teaching.

Watch the full hearing to listen to the discussion on compensation or to hear the conversation on the other two interim charges. The committee will reconvene next week, Wednesday, April 4, to discuss virtual education, “high quality education opportunities,” and the federal e-rate program.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 9, 2018

Here is this week’s wrap-up of education news from ATPE:


Tuesday was primary Election Day in Texas, and there is a lot to unpack. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter has an inital analysis of the primary results here, and he highlights two major takeaways after Tuesday night: voter turnout increased and incumbents did well.

Voter turnout hit record highs in both parties. Like Exter points out in his post, a Texas Educators Vote Coalition statement praising  voter turnout in the primary election also notes that turnout increased across Texas by almost 700,000 voters compared to the most recent midterm primary election in 2014. The number of Democratic voters getting to the polls exceeded 1 million, while Republican voter totals topped off at more than 1.5 million. Both parties saw an increase in their voter turnout, with Democrats nearly doubling the total number of voters since 2014 (a number that represented a midterm primary record high for the party not hit since 1994). Republicans experienced a more modest increase in the largely red state, but the party’s turnout still represented record numbers.

As a proud member of the Texas Educators Vote Coalition, ATPE is thrilled to see the uptick in civic engagement and encourages educators and other voters to maintain that energy through November and future elections. ATPE was also excited to see a large percentage of ATPE-supported candidates prevail in their elections; Exter’s recap of the election has more on those results. While many are focused on the bigger races at the top of the ticket, it is important to consider all of the great candidates elected further down ballot. One thing is clear based on voter turnout, the energy built among educators, and the impact already felt: this movement is only beginning!

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) submitted Texas’s final state plan to satisfy the new federal education law, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), this week. The final plan has been in the making for quite some time. Here is a quick recap:

The final plan submitted this week reflects a number of revisions required by ED in their initial feedback. TEA’s press release announcing this week’s submission can be read here. To read the final plan or learn more about the Texas ESSA plan and related content, visit TEA’s ESSA web page. The plan must now receive a final review by Secretary Betsy DeVos, but she is not tied to a certain time period for revisions. On Monday, DeVos addressed members of the Council of Chief State School Officers at their annual conference, offering them “tough love” over what she considered state ESSA plans that lacked creativity and innovation.

 


ATPE submitted comments this week on new proposed Commissioner’s rules regarding certain out-of-state educators. These rules would exempt educators that are certified out of state and who meet certain qualifications from Texas required certification assessments as they work to obtain certification in Texas. The rule proposal stemmed from legislation passed last session. ATPE encouraged the commissioner to raise the standard from one to at least two years of experience in order for an out-of-state educator to benefit from the exemption. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann writes more about ATPE’s comments, the proposed rules, and context for the legislation here.

 


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met again in Austin this week, this time to discuss “efficiency” at the classroom, campus, and district levels. A panel of invited witnesses was dedicated to each category. The classroom efficiency panel focused on blended learning, while the campus efficiency panel featured partnerships with charters and higher education. The district efficiency panel largely entailed discussions regarding charter schools. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and has a full report here.

 


 

Why March 6 Matters: Healthcare

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


In our first post of this series we examined teacher pay, which lags behind the national average. While paychecks are a major concern, Texas also spends less than any other state on employee benefits, funding them only at about $967 per pupil, which includes the cost of health insurance. In fact, Texas spends less than our neighboring states Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are both under the national average as well but are spending $1,505 and $1,905 per pupil respectively, despite having significantly less wealth per capita than Texas (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF, released May 2016).

The ever-increasing amount of money being taken out of educators’ paychecks for healthcare is primarily due to the fact that state funding and state-mandated district funding for health insurance, including the TRS-ActiveCare plan used by many districts for their employees, has remained unchanged since the program first began some 17 years ago.

When the Legislature first decided to subsidize teacher health insurance premiums back in 2001, the $225 contribution for each employee (made up of $75 from the state and $150 from the school district) was in line with what private employers were paying toward healthcare for their employees. Since that time, health insurance inflation generally has been between eight and ten percent per year, and educator premiums have increased more than 250 percent. Also during that time frame, many private employers have increased what they pay toward employee health insurance premiums, but Texas’s funding of the healthcare program for public school employees has fallen way behind.

Legislative inaction has now led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial, and for many educators, it amounts to a pay cut year after year. Back In November 2014, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. It outlined numerous options for lawmakers to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Despite those recommendations, the legislature has failed to address exploding healthcare costs for active employees.

One reason the legislature has neglected to address healthcare costs for active employees, including during the most recent 2017 legislative sessions, is the sad fact that the state’s health insurance program for retired educators, TRS-Care, is in even worse shape. After years of inadequately funding retirees’ health insurance, the legislature has now faced back-to-back sessions in which the program was at risk of running out of money and collapsing in on itself —a prospect that would leave hundreds of thousands of retired educators with no health insurance, dramatically limiting their access to healthcare when they most need it.

Back in 2015, the 84th Texas legislature opted not to address the funding formulas that determine how our state pays for TRS-Care. Instead, they made a $700 million supplemental appropriation to keep TRS-Care afloat for one more budget cycle.

By the time the 85th legislature arrived in Austin in January 2017, the TRS-Care shortfall had ballooned to $1.2 billion. Again, lawmakers were unwilling to address the underlying funding formulas, and they similarly declined to make even a one-time appropriation to cover the full cost. Instead, the Senate under the guidance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, who chaired the Senate Committee on State Affairs that oversees TRS, pushed forward a plan that cut the cost of TRS-Care to the state by shifting more costs to retirees.

It’s worth nothing that retired educators have not seen a cost of living adjustment to increase their pensions for over a decade, during which time they’ve also had to endure dramatic reductions in their healthcare benefits as a result of restructuring of the health insurance plan. That combination of dwindling purchasing power due to the effects of inflation on stagnant pension payments and crushing new healthcare costs caused such an outcry from retired educators that by the time legislators came back to Austin in the summer of 2017 for a special session, they felt compelled to put a modest amount of one-time extra dollars into the system to temporarily soften the blow of the impending changes to TRS-Care. However, those additional one-time funds were only a short-term band-aid on a much larger problem that remains.

Even with the draconian measures taken by the 85th legislature, resulting in significant rate hikes for many plan participants, TRS-Care is projected still to have a funding shortfall that will have to be addressed by the 86th legislature. In other words, lawmakers must act in 2019 if TRS-Care is to continue to exist for retired educators

Finding real solutions to the crisis of access to affordable healthcare for the state’s active and retired educators is a complex and expensive task. It cannot and will not be achieved by legislators whose singular priority is creating the appearance of cutting state spending without solving the problems faced by our state’s more than 1 million active and retired school employees. The elections that will determine who occupies those critical legislative seats and will have the power to decide the future of healthcare funding for educators are happening right now. Active and retired public school employees who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating our 5.4 million young Texans have the power to shape the outcome of this battle simply by voting in the 2018 primaries.


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

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

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

Why March 6 Matters: Retirement

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


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

Only that promise is constantly under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Why March 6 Matters: School Finance

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our kids deserve better.


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

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

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

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 23, 2018

Happy Student Voting Day! Here’s your update from the ATPE lobby team on what’s been happening in Texas this week:


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the 2018 Texas primary elections began this week and continues through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6.

Today, Feb. 23, 2018, is Student Voting Day in Texas, as designated by Secretary of State Rolando Pablos. Pablos issued a proclamation for Student Voting Day and has encouraged Texans to urge eligible students to vote today. We applaud all of the educators and parents who have worked hard to help students learn about and exercise their right to vote.

If you know a student voter or if you are new to voting in Texas, we’ve got some helpful basic tips on voting in this primary election. Check out this blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz, newly updated with some additional guidance about the prohibition on using cell phones in the voting booth. Looking for background information about those Republican and Democratic party ballot propositions? We’ve got a list of all the non-binding party platform propositions here, along with some analysis from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter here.

Have you checked at our new series of blog posts for Teach the Vote on Why March 6 Matters? ATPE’s lobbyists are writing about some of the top legislative issues at stake in the primary elections happening now, explaining why the choices made by voters at the polls over the next week and a half will have a gigantic impact on the future success or failure of bills dealing with teacher pay, retirement benefits, private school vouchers, and more. Check out the posts we’re published so far and watch for more analysis of “Why March 6 Matters” on the Teach the Vote blog next week.

ICYMI: ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was quoted in today’s brand new PolitiFact article about a claim made in one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s re-election campaign ads. Patrick raised eyebrows with the radio and television ads in heavy rotation right now when he claimed to have proposed a $10,000 pay raise for teachers last session. The journalists of PolitiFact investigated and rated the claim as “mostly false” on its Truth-o-Meter, concluding that “Patrick made no proposal to direct more of the state’s education budget to teacher salaries,” instead touting a preference for an unfunded mandate on school districts that did not pass. Read the full analysis here.


ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey and Lobbyist Monty Exter testified before the school finance commission on Feb. 22, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met again in Austin on Thursday, Feb. 22, and ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey was one of the witnesses invited to testify at the hearing. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided a report on the day’s discussions, which focused on the importance of the teacher pipeline and early childhood education. Godsey, joined by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter, urged the commission to consider recommendations for strengthening educator preparation, support, compensation, and retention in order to avoid the high cost of teacher turnover. Read more in Mark’s blog post here.


By now readers of our blog are probably familiar with the antics of Empower Texans, the dark money group that in addition to trying to influence elections through massive campaign spending has been at the center of efforts to intimidate educators and shut down get out the vote (GOTV) efforts within the education community. We’ve written recently on our blog about how Texas educators responded to the group’s threatening “whistleblower” letters with their own #blowingthewhistle social media campaign. Today, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus also took to social media and penned a newsletter urging educators to vote this weekend and expressing his support for our coalition efforts to create a culture of voting in school districts across the state.

This week we learned that Empower Texans is under criminal investigation for highly questionable tactics it has employed in an effort to convince Ft. Worth residents to vote against one of their state legislators, Rep. Charlie Geren. Geren is presently facing a challenge in the primary election by an Empower Texans-funded candidate, and the group has attacked the incumbent for being married to a lobbyist. As reported by the Texas Tribune, prosecutors are looking into a postcard mailed to voters in Rep. Geren’s House District 99 that was designed to look like an official state document and sent by an entity called the “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board.” The mail piece was paid for and sent by Empower Texans, which recently filed documents with the Secretary of State to use the name “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board” as an alias, giving unsuspecting voters the impression that the postcard was sent by an official government agency, which does not exist.

With Empower Texans spending so much money to try to unseat legislators that it deems to be too friendly toward public education, it’s no surprise that there has been growing interest in learning more about the sources of money being used by the group. Empower Texans is not required to disclose all of those who contribute money to the organization, but campaign finance reports for the Empower Texans PAC are publicly available, as is the case with all political action committees. One person who has spent considerable time reviewing those campaign finance reports and chasing the trail of money connected to Empower Texans is Chris Tackett, a former Granbury ISD trustee and parent who has written extensively about his findings. This week, we republished Tackett’s article entitled “Following the money in Texas politics: A citizen’s look at the influence of mega-donors in contested elections.” The piece illustrates how a small group of wealthy families have used the Empower Texans PAC and a few other PACs to steer millions of dollars in campaign contributions to certain candidates, giving the impression that they have broader support. Learn more in Tackett’s guest blog post here.

The Dallas Morning News also published an extensive article this week describing how west Texas’s Wilks family, the largest funding source for Empower Texans, has been using its wealth to influence contested races around the state in 2018. That includes nearly half a million dollars spent to help Sen. Bob Hall try to win re-election despite a serious primary challenge and targeted efforts to shape the election of a new Texas House Speaker when the 86th Legislature convenes in January 2019. The same family is profiled in a brand new website sponsored by an unidentified citizens’ group that also appeared this week called WhoOwnsTexas.com.

Voters can learn about candidates vying for their support in the primary elections happening now by checking out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. The profiles include detailed voting records for incumbents, responses provided to our ATPE candidate survey on education issues, links to the candidates’ own websites and social media accounts, and additional information such as endorsements from well-known groups or major newspapers. ATPE does not endorse candidates, so you won’t find endorsements from us, but we’ll tell you which candidates have received the endorsement of Empower Texans and other groups to help you make informed decisions at the polls.

 


The State Board of Education’s steering committee for the Long-Range Plan for Public Education also met this week. The meeting focused largely on the issue of educator preparation with a goal of improving recruitment and retention. Read more about the conversations in Wednesday’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


Today is the final day to submit comments to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). As we previously shared, the committee is working to rewrite the federal law that pertains to higher education, and several programs dealing with educator recruitment, training, and retention are housed under the law. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reports that while the Senate committee works to write its bill, its U.S. House counterpart has already advanced legislation to the full House that omits these programs. ATPE submitted comments to the Senate committee expressing our concern over the House omission and stressing the importance of programs like these. “Educator training that is held to high expectations and standards plays a vital role in ensuring every student has access to a well-prepared, productive educator. It also has a lasting impact on retaining those strong educators in the classroom.”

ATPE’s full comments encouraging the committee to maintain federal support of these programs can be read here.

 


 

Why March 6 Matters: Payroll Deduction

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


Politicians like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) have led the effort for two sessions now to make it more difficult for educators to join professional associations such as ATPE by attempting to ban educators from voluntarily deducting membership dues from their paychecks. Gov. Greg Abbott added his support ahead of last year’s special session when he followed Patrick’s lead in deeming the issue a “priority.”

Proponents have marketed payroll deduction bills as an effort to keep the government from collecting “union dues” with taxpayer resources. The truth is that it isn’t about unions or taxpayer resources at all; it’s about educators.

Consider this: The major bills on this topic have explicitly singled out educators, regardless of union status — but exempted major unions representing other public employees. These bills would actually have a greater impact on NON-union professional associations such as ATPE, and they specifically protect other public employee professionals who are members of unions that collectively bargain. Collective bargaining is illegal for school employees, and no one in Texas is forced to join a union or pay union dues thanks to our right-to-work laws.That’s why the legislative efforts to make it harder for educators to spend their own money to voluntarily join a professional association are so misguided here in Texas.

Further evidence of the politically motivated nature of these bills is the fact that payroll deduction of professional dues does not cost the state or taxpayers anything. That’s a fact that authors of the bills were finally forced to concede during the 2017 legislative sessions but other politicians have continued to ignore. Payroll offices exist regardless of whether association membership dues is among the long list of optional deductions available to public employees. Those other deductions include things like taxes, insurance, newspapers, health clubs, and charitable donations. Furthermore, a school district can even charge associations a fee if it determines there is any additional cost associated with deducting dues for the group’s members. (See Texas Education Code, Section 22.001.)


During debate on the issue last year, bill author Sen. Joan Huffman said she was comfortable exempting certain public employees deemed “first responders” because they “serve the community… with great honor and distinction.” Educators — just like firefighters, police officers, and EMS professionals — are public servants and everyday heroes. In the wake of last week’s tragic news stories of the horrific violence that took place at a Florida high school, it is hard to imagine educators, many of whom took bullets or sheltered their students to protect them from the gunfire, would be considered anything other than first responders who serve their communities with great honor and distinction.

The real goal behind discriminatory payroll deduction bills like these is to weaken the combined influence of educators (as well as public education supporters as a whole) at the Texas Capitol by attacking their ability to conveniently and safely support professional associations that fight to ensure teachers have a seat at the table when it comes to setting public education policy at the state level.

There are elected officials and candidates who respect your profession, and there are those who don’t — and who are already attempting to weaken your voice. Bills like these aimed at silencing educators at the Capitol will certainly be filed again in 2019. If Texans don’t turn out in force during the 2018 elections and select more officeholders who value educators and respect their service, those bills will become law and more of the doors of government will be closed to educators.


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

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

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

Guest Post: Following the money in Texas politics

Following the money in Texas politics:
A citizen’s look at the influence of mega-donors in contested elections 

By Christopher Tackett
February 2018

There is a saying that a fish rots from the head down. In Texas politics, there has certainly been something rotten going on, but I wasn’t quite sure where the smell was coming from until Jan. 11, 2018.

Learning about Texas State Rep. Mike Lang and the Wilks Family

I’m not a political wonk by any means, but I try and pay attention; and when I see something that I think impacts my community, I say something. I’ve had concerns with my current state representative, Rep. Mike Lang. It seems to me that the things he has supported while in office don’t line up with the interests of the bulk of his constituents in House District 60. When I looked at Lang’s campaign donations received since announcing his run for the office in March 2015, I was floored. Sixty-five percent of all his donations had come from one family, the Wilkses, who are billionaires from Cisco, Texas. The Wilks family members have very specific views and have advocated strongly for private schools and vouchers. They have given a lot of money to different political candidates, with Rep. Lang looking like the biggest recipient. Not surprisingly, Lang has acted and voted like a representative who has been bought and paid for by a big donor. If you look at the Wilkses’ goals for Texas, that is how Rep. Lang votes, every time.

I will not hide the fact that I’m a supporter of Dr. Jim Largent, who is challenging Rep. Lang in the 2018 Republican primary race for HD 60. But, I have been surprised at how Empower Texans and the Hood County Republican Party have attacked Dr. Largent after he announced his candidacy. Why would they attack someone who is so well respected in the community? I understand not agreeing with every aspect of a candidate’s positions, but this has been something different. My interest piqued, I decided to look at Empower Texans the same way I looked at Lang. I knew Empower Texans had been widely regarded as a vehicle for another billionaire, Tim Dunn, and I figured that’s what I would find in my research. I was wrong.

Pulling the campaign finance reports from the Texas Ethics Commission from the period of Jan 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, you have a really solid look at the Empower Texans PAC from the beginning of the 2016 election cycle and the beginnings of the 2018 election cycle. I found that the Empower Texans PAC has received $1,863,033.10 in total donations, broken down as follows:

  • $922,000 came from the Wilks family (49%)
  • $295,000 came from David Middleton (16%)
  • $180,000 came from Dick Saulsbury (10%)
  • $170,000 came from Kyle Stallings (9%)
  • $90,000 came from Tim Dunn (5%)
  • All other donors totaled $206,033.10 (11%)

The guy I thought was calling all the shots for Empower Texans, its chairman Tim Dunn, appears to have been relegated to being a minor player. The Wilks family and a few other big money followers are the drivers of Empower Texans, which portrays itself as a grassroots, “for the little guy in Texas” organization. I believe that people like the Wilkses typically give such large sums of money for a few reasons: To buy the necessary influence to impose their beliefs onto others, to make even more money, or both. Empower Texans’s propaganda, which is all any of their communications are about, is designed to sow fear and discord, and to convince people there are things in their community to be feared and mistrusted. The group promotes fear of things like public schools spreading a “liberal” agenda, local government, and teachers voting. They aren’t really about “empowering Texans” —the people like you, me, and those in our communities—at all. They are in it for themselves.

Now I understand why Empower Texans has been attacking Dr. Jim Largent, considering that Empower Texans is getting significant direction from the Wilks family. Now I understand why the Hood County Republican Party fears Dr. Largent. If he wins, their money and influence train will dry up, as Dr. Largent isn’t likely to toe a Wilks family line. Now I understand why politicians from other districts seem so interested in the District 60 race and so vocal in their social media criticism of Dr. Largent. Politicians like Reps. Jonathan Stickland and Briscoe Cain (and many others) have also been bought by Empower Texans andthe Wilks family, just like Rep. Mike Lang.

Let’s be clear about campaign finance. The Wilks family is giving a lot of money. Is it illegal? Nope. If it’s their money, can’t they spend it as they see fit? Yes.

The Wilkses have enough money to buy attention, and they are. They are pouring immense amounts of money into the political process to convince politicians, communities —almost the whole state —that their beliefs are the beliefs of the majority, and things that are different are to be feared. If the Wilkses were just doing it in their own name, that would be one thing, but they are instead creating confusion by funding and attributing their message to multiple sources. When people hear ominous messages from multiple sources, citizens start to think, “Wow, there are so many people who believe this. What I believe must have no chance, so voting seems like a waste of my time.” What voters in Texas don’t realize is that all those sources are being directed by the same family. So what feels like lots of voices telling you something, making you believe there is broad support is just a few people behind a curtain. It becomes propaganda.

The PACs and their Orbits

Digging through the campaign finance data, I realized that Empower Texans wasn’t the only PAC getting money from the Wilkses. From Jan. 1, 2015, through June 30, 2017, the Wilks family looks to have given $3,345,734 for political causes, which does not include the $15 million they gave to a Ted Cruz for President PAC. There are three PACs getting a large portion of those dollars:

  • $922,000 to Empower Texans PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Right To Life PAC
  • $475,000 to Texas Home School Coalition PAC

When I went and pulled the campaign finance reports on these PACs from the Texas Ethics Commission website, lo and behold, here were the same names that had been funding Empower Texans. What I have figured out also is that a handful of other big dollar families seem to run in the same “orbit” as the Wilkses. If the Wilks family gives to a cause or a candidate, the others seem to do the same. Granted, there is a candidate or a PAC here or there that doesn’t seem to have everyone pile on, but there is certainly a pattern among these families:

  • Wilks family is at the center ($3,345,734 in contributions)
  • Middleton ($827,014 in contributions)
  • Saulsbury ($708,825 in contributions)
  • Frost ($699,500 in contributions)
  • Stallings ($697,530 in contributions)
  • Tim Dunn ($590,000 in contributions)

What makes it challenging to find the totals here is that these folks make donations to campaigns and PACs and things get recorded differently. Say one donation is from the husband, the next is captured as the husband and wife, a third is captured with the middle name, etc., which means when these donations roll up, they may be credited as being from a “different” person. I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it makes it very hard to follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

These six families are pumping millions of dollars into Texas politics. They are giving directly to political campaigns; they are giving to PACs that are then giving to exactly the same political campaigns; and in some cases, they are giving to PACs that are then giving to other PACs that are giving to exactly the same political campaigns. If you want to talk about huge dollars being given and someone trying to amplify their voices to create the appearance of a whole bunch of people believing something — when it’s mostly six families behind a curtain — THIS IS IT.

The last PAC I will call out is called the Constituents Focus PAC. This one is interesting, in part because $55,000 of its donations came from the Texas Home School Coalition PAC. Yes, that’s the same one that I just detailed above.

If you look at every one of these PACs, they aren’t dominated by the little guy chipping in a few bucks every paycheck to have his voice heard. It’s a few big money donors buying influence and setting themselves up to make more money, which gives them the ability to gain even more influence and money. It’s a vicious cycle. It only gets broken when voters wake up and decide they are going to vote in what is actually their own best interest, not in what some big money PAC or billionaire tells them is good for them.

Let me reiterate one more time. When you hear ANYTHING from one of these PACs, remember it’s five rich families and one extremely rich family telling you what to do and what to think, not the grassroots organizations they pretend to be.

The Beneficiaries

This group of families has invested HUGE dollars into a handful of political candidates. I’ve consolidated the contributions to those candidates from what I call the “Wilks & Their Orbit.” Here is the list of those candidates who have received more the $100,000 as of June 2017 from this small group of people and the PACs they fund:

  • $528,500.00 to Attorney General Ken Paxton
  • $519,841.09 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
  • $502,250.00 to Rep. Jonathan Stickland
  • $425,575.62 to Rep. Mike Lang
  • $293,666.00 to Thomas McNutt, candidate for House District 8
  • $229,008.00 to Rep. Matt Rinaldi
  • $226,500.00 to Gov. Greg Abbott
  • $218,865.16 to Bo French, candidate for House District 99
  • $216,861.90 to Rep. Briscoe Cain
  • $208,502.29 to Rep. Valoree Swanson
  • $185,500.00 to Rep. Tony Tinderholt
  • $178,006.00 to Jeffrey M. Judson, former president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation
  • $137,000.00 to Sen. Bryan Hughes
  • $133,200.00 to Sen. Bob Hall
  • $128,700.00 to Sen. Konni Burton
  • $119,636.27 to Stuart Spitzer, former state representative/current candidate for House District 4
  • $117,542.36 to Rep. Kyle Biedermann
  • $117,044.90 to Bryan Slaton, candidate for House District 2
  • $115,006.00 to Molly White, former state representative

For example, take HD 73 Rep. Kyle Biederman, who received 30 percent of his campaign contributions since 2015 from the Wilkses and their orbit. Seems like a lot of influence, but it there is still 70% of his campaign funding coming from elsewhere. Compare that to HD 128, where 44 percent of Rep. Briscoe Cain’s campaign contributions came from the Wilkses & their orbit. In HD 92, Rep. Jonathan Stickland has broken the 50 percent threshold, with 53 percent of his donations coming from this group of people.

Now let me finish my examples with the representative I started this piece on: Rep. Mike Lang, HD 60. He had 65 percent coming from just the Wilks family, but when you consider the orbit as well, Lang’s campaign funding from this group of donors jumps up to 76 percent!

The numbers speak for themselves. If anyone believes that a representative who is getting 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 percent of his funds from one small group of millionaires / billionaires would ever make a move to upset those donors by voting against their interests, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Texans need to understand who is really being represented. Hint: It isn’t the little guy. The only way to beat this is to ignore the noise and vote for candidates who actually will represent you. Look at who is financing your candidate. Think about whether those funds are coming from inside your district. And then understand where and who your representative is really representing. One vote at a time, one election at a time, we can make a difference.


 

Christopher Tackett is a Granbury, Texas, parent and former trustee of the Granbury Independent School District who has been studying the relationship between money, influence, and Texas elections. You can learn about more of his findings at his website.

Why March 6 Matters: Vouchers

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


When it comes to issues facing public education as a whole, privatization remains one of the most existential threats. The endgame of those who are pushing private school vouchers is to defund the public school system in order to hand our kids over to faceless corporations that will crank them out cheaply and pocket the profits.

Think about it: In 2016, Texas spent $24 billion in state funds to educate our kids. Local taxpayers pitched in even more — $28.8 billion on top of that. It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider it was spread between 5.3 million students. That translated to just $11,133 per student, which puts Texas below the national average and among the states with the most miserly per-student spending.

Despite lagging below many other states, the money spent on Texas public schools is nonetheless a tempting target for predatory opportunists who see only dollar signs. Private schools that can ignore state and federal regulations are viewed by many as a cash cow. A warehouse with a skeleton crew of untrained staff could certainly churn out diplomas and graduate kids unprepared for college and careers for a fraction of the price of a quality public education. Pro-voucher legislators could brag about reducing spending while corporate stockholders rake in billions of taxpayer dollars, perfect for spending on fancy yachts and private planes – and campaign contributions to pro-voucher legislators!

Of course, the kids end up the losers in this scenario. And the 85th Texas Legislature witnessed the despicable lengths to which voucher supporters were willing to go to sell our kids down the road.

The legislative session began with fresh data indicating that Texans firmly oppose spending public taxpayer dollars to subsidize private school tuition. Led by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, voucher proponents instead focused on a voucher targeting students with special needs as a way to open the door. They also used terms like “education savings accounts” and “tax credit scholarships” to describe their voucher plans in the hope of garnering more support from those who traditionally oppose privatization. Voucher promoters even went as far as mailing fraudulent letters to lawmakers to promote their plan.

As ATPE pointed out, special education vouchers are especially troubling and would not come close to covering the full cost of services for children with special needs. In fact, they would give students far less money than the public school system is currently required to spend on their behalf. More importantly, they would force children with special needs to surrender their federal rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Parents of special needs students wisely rejected this cynical attempt to exploit their children for political purposes. With the backing of parents, teachers, ATPE, and the majority of Texans, the Texas House of Representatives led by Speaker Joe Straus stood firmly against each voucher scheme brought forth in 2017. Legislators punctuated their stance with multiple votes on the House floor to reject vouchers.

As payback, Lt. Gov. Patrick killed a bill authored by members of the House that would have provided $1.5 billion in additional funding to benefit all 5.4 million Texas students – signaling how far the lieutenant governor was willing to go to pass a voucher bill against the will of Texas voters.

While voucher supporters were unable to pass a bill in 2017, they have already begun laying the groundwork for a renewed push when the legislature meets again in 2019. Lt. Gov. Patrick has included the issue in his interim charges for Senate committees, and many fear that the Texas Commission on Public School Finance created by House Bill (HB) 21 will become an avenue for privatization proponents to continue their campaign during the interim.

The only reason powerful leaders like Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott were unable to pass a voucher bill in 2017 is because Texas voters elected just enough pro-public education legislators to stop those bills from becoming law. The reality is that unless Texans elect more legislators who promise to actively oppose vouchers, the threat of a voucher bill passing in the future remains high.


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

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

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