Tag Archives: lawsuit

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 24, 2017

It’s time for our weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE’s Governmental Relations team:

This week the Senate Education Committee approved a sweeping voucher bill that would provide corporate tax credits to help fund private education and allow parents to receive public tax dollars to be used for private or home school expenses. Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) is one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s top three priorities for the 85th Legislature to pass.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifies before the Senate Education Committee

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying

On Tuesday, March 21, the committee spent 10 hours listening to witnesses on both sides of the voucher debate. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified against SB 3. Read more about the hearing and our testimony in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann. The SB 3 hearing had originally been scheduled for the previous week during which many public school educators and students would have been on spring break. Fearing that a larger contingency of pro-public education witnesses would come to the hearing to testify against SB 3, the hearing was postponed to this Tuesday instead.

The Senate Education Committee met again Thursday, March 23, to vote on pending bills, including SB 3. Chairman Taylor shared a new committee substitute version of the bill, which modified the language in an effort to reduce the bill’s massive fiscal note. The new version tightens up qualifications for some providers of education services such as tutoring that could be funded via the bill; removes automatic funding increases for the corporate tax credits, and changes the Education Savings Account (ESA) program to give parents access to an online payment portal instead of a debit card. While the switch to an online portal could make it less likely for parents to use ESA funds for illegitimate purposes, it also creates a potential new hurdle for rural or low-income parents with limited internet access. The committee voted to send the new substitute version of SB 3 to the full Senate by a vote of 7 to 3.

Sens. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), Royce West (D-Dallas), and Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) voted against SB 3 after expressing concerns about the voucher bill. Sen. West pressed representatives of the Legislative Budget Board for details on the bill’s negative fiscal impact to the state. Sen. Seliger observed that SB 3 would most likely have the largest fiscal note of any bill approved by a Senate committee other than the Finance committee, which hears budget bills. Seliger went on to raise alarms about the lack of accountability provisions for private entities that would benefit from the voucher money and the likelihood that SB 3 would lead to state funds being spent on indoctrinating students through religious institutions.

The only Democrat on the committee who voted for SB 3 was the vice-chairman, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville). He was joined by Chairman Taylor and Sens. Van Taylor (R-Plano), Bob Hall (R-Canton), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston). Sen. Donna Campbell (R-San Antonio) was not present during the committee’s vote.


It is not clear whether there are enough votes in the Senate to bring SB 3 up for a floor vote in the near future, which requires three-fifths of senators present to agree to hear the bill. We encourage ATPE members to keep contacting their senators about opposing SB 3 and other bad bills such as the legislation to eliminate educators’ right to use payroll deduction. Find sample messages and other communication tools at Advocacy Central.

Related: Other bills getting a favorable vote from the Senate Education Committee yesterday were SB 579 by Sen. Van Taylor regarding the use of epi-pens in private schools, SB 826 by Chairman Larry Taylor dealing with the sequencing of high school math and English courses, and a committee substitute to SB 490 by Sen. Lucio that requires districts to report the number of school counselors providing counseling services at a campus.


While the Senate Education Committee devoted its attention this week almost entirely to the private school voucher bill, the House Public Education Committee and its Subcommittee on Educator Quality heard a number of bills this week dealing with issues such as testing and accountability,  educator misconduct, and improving school finance.


ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testifying

First, the subcommittee met on Monday, March 20, to hear bills pertaining to educator misconduct, certification, and the benefits of mentoring for new teachers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testified at the hearing and penned a blog post this week summarizing the discussions. The subcommittee will meet again on Monday, March 27, to hear additional bills on educator misconduct, including SB 7 that has already passed the Senate.

On Tuesday, March 21, the full House Public Education Committee conducted a hearing that was almost as long as the Senate’s voucher hearing, but the House committee discussed some two dozen bills, most relating to state standardized testing and how schools are rated under our accountability system. Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) House Bill (HB) 22 was the most high-profile bill heard, and ATPE testified for the bill. Check out this blog post from Mark Wiggins for complete details on the hearing, including a list of smaller bills that were voted out favorably.

Next week, the House Public Education Committee is turning its attention to charter schools with a hearing Tuesday, March 28, mostly on bills pertaining to funding, facilities, and authorization of charters. The committee will also hear additional testimony on Chairman Huberty’s school finance reform bill, HB 21, for which a committee substitute is expected to be released next week. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote next week for updates.


Save Texas Schools rally 2017Tomorrow, March 25, is the Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas State Capitol. Supporters of public education are encouraged to attend the event that starts at 10 a.m. and will feature appearances by legislators, remarks by Superintendent John Kuhn who also spoke during ATPE at the Capitol, and student performances. Visit savetxschools.org for more information.


This week the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved SB 1, the state budget bill. The full Senate is expected to debate the budget on the floor next Tuesday. For details on the Senate’s proposal for funding state services during the next two years, read this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.


ThinkstockPhotos-455285291_gavelIn national news this week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a landmark ruling in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, which focused attention on how school districts must accommodate students with disabilities under federal law. The lawsuit was brought by the family of a student with autism who felt that the public school’s individualized education program (IEP) did not meet the student’s needs and wanted funding for private education instead. At issue was the extent to which an IEP must produce educational benefits for the student in order for the school district to be considered compliant with the law.

The unanimous SCOTUS ruling is expected to spur school districts to do more for students with disabilities, but the decision was also newsworthy because of the fact that it overturns prior lower court rulings, including one 10th Circuit appellate decision written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, now going through U.S. Senate confirmation for a seat on the nation’s highest court.

ATPE will have more on the ruling and what it means for special education programs in public schools next week on our blog.


Don’t forget to following us on Twitter for the latest updates!


Houston throws down gauntlet on school finance reform

I lived in Houston for ten years.

It’s where I finished high school, graduated from college, and began my first career as a fuzzy-cheeked radio broadcaster. It’s where I gleefully watched my alma mater, the Houston Cougars, win a C-USA title, my beloved Astros make their World Series debut, and the Rockets come devastatingly close to a championship season after season. It’s a fantastically diverse and dynamic city; yet to many Houstonians, it seems that no matter what Houston does, few outside its boundaries ever seem to notice.

Now a vote on a relatively obscure proposition on Tuesday’s ballot has arrested the attention of many lawmakers in Austin.

ThinkstockPhotos-481431733On Tuesday, Houston voters decided not to authorize the city’s first recapture payment of $162 billion, part of a roughly $1 billion obligation over the next four years. Under the state’s school finance equalization formula, referred to as “Robin Hood” by some, school districts that are considered “property-wealthy” must return some of the money collected from their local property taxes to the state, which in turn delivers that money to poor districts that lack the tax base necessary to support healthy schools. Ironically, some of those property-wealthy districts still enroll high numbers of students from families living in poverty. Houston ISD officials argue that instead of sending away the funds, their district needs that money instead to educate a high proportion of low-income students in their own district.

It’s a predicament endured for years by Austin ISD, another property-wealthy district that serves a high proportion of economically disadvantaged children, yet is expected to pay more than $400 million in recapture this year. The number of Texas districts paying recapture stands at 250 and rising, and it is a major reason many districts are lobbying the 85th Texas Legislature to reform the school finance system when it convenes in January.

But things are complicated.ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcash

In response to a lawsuit filed by more than 600 school districts, the Texas Supreme Court in May ruled that the state’s school finance system met the minimum requirements under the Texas Constitution. While the final opinion from Justice Don Willett urged lawmakers to fix a “Byzantine” and “undeniably imperfect” system, it removed the threat of a court mandate to do so.

Houston’s new Mayor Sylvester Turner is no stranger to the Texas Legislature. The long-time state representative and former vice-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee spearheaded a campaign urging Houston voters living within HISD boundaries to reject authorization of the recapture payment this election and force a standoff — gambling that state legislators will be spurred into action by voters and constituents in Texas’s largest school district publicly rejecting the state’s school finance system.

It’s a big gambit.

After Houston voters on Tuesday declined to authorize the recapture payment, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath notified HISD trustees early Wednesday that under the law, $18.2 billion in taxable property needed to meet the recapture amount will be detached from the district and annexed to one or more property-poor districts.

So will the ruckus raised in Houston Tuesday ring in the ears of important folks beyond Space City’s orbit?

Falling US MoneyThe question of whether the move will increase pressure on lawmakers to initiate a long and complicated school finance overhaul is a big unknown. The recapture amount owed by Houston is dwarfed by Austin’s, yet lawmakers have thus far been unmoved by AISD’s many pleas for change. While some House leaders have expressed interest in reform, a requested four percent across-the-board reduction in state agency spending will complicate things significantly.

ATPE has long advocated for meaningful school finance reforms to make the system more responsive to our students’ needs, as illustrated by our member-adopted legislative program, which includes the following:

ATPE supports a public education funding system that is equitable and adequate to provide every student an equal opportunity to receive an exemplary public education. ATPE also supports any form of state revenue enhancement and tax restructuring that accomplishes this goal, empowers the state to be the primary source of funding, and creates a more stable funding structure for our schools. We strongly support efforts to increase funding levels to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and changing population and to increase funding equity for all students.

Ultimately, school finance reform could come by degrees, and meaningful progress could be made this session. I expect calls for legislation to update the decades-old Cost of Education Index (COI) and the similarly vintage transportation allotment, as well as a bill by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) that would amend the Texas Constitution to require the state to shoulder at least half the cost of public education. We’ll be keeping an eye out for you. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and ATPE.org for updates.

From The Texas Tribune: Analysis: A Game of Chicken Between Texas, Its Biggest School District

by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
September 26, 2016

Houston, Texas

Houston, Texas

Voters in Texas’ biggest school district in Texas might do what the nine Republicans on the state’s Supreme Court wouldn’t do: Force the Legislature to overhaul the way it pays for public education.

Such a move would require some daring. Voters in the Houston Independent School District will have a choice in November to approve spending $165 million raised locally from school property taxes on other, poorer school districts in the state.

The ballot language is opaque, and a pretty good argument for improving the writing skills of the people in charge of state and local governments: “Authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenues.”

The actual choice presented by that ballot measure? Vote “for” spending $165 million of the district’s money in other districts, or vote “against” spending that money and risk taking $18 billion of the district’s commercial properties from the tax rolls and assigning them to the tax rolls of another district.

A “No” vote in November — urged by many of the HISD’s trustees, the city’s mayor, and others — would spark some political drama.

About one Texas school district in four spends some of its locally raised money to help educate students in districts that can’t raise enough money from their own tax bases. It’s called recapture by the policy wonks, but because it takes from “property rich” districts and gives to “property poor” districts, it’s more commonly called the Robin Hood system.

When a district’s voters refuse to go along — something that hasn’t happened — the Texas Education Agency is required to move part of that district’s property tax base to another, poorer district.

The agency obviously doesn’t move the real estate, but it would assign some of one district’s biggest commercial property taxpayers to pay taxes in another district. The law gives a preference to closer districts.

In HISD’s case, a “no” vote would mean taking an estimated $18 billion in property from that district’s rolls. The TEA would start with the most valuable properties and work its way down until it has taken away enough property to cover the $165 million or so that HISD owes under the Robin Hood system.

Houston’s biggest commercial property taxpayers would be paying taxes in another school district — and they could be asked to pay at a different tax rate up to 15 cents higher than what they’d be paying in HISD.

It means that some school taxes — those used to pay borrowing debts — would probably rise for the taxpayers left behind. The district still has to pay what it owes even with $18 billion pulled out of the tax base. The taxpayers left behind would pay more.

The commercial taxpayers are mobilizing against being moved to a tax roll in another district where they might not own any property. The Austin-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which represents many of them, is warning policymakers of the consequences, both to the departing taxpayers and to those left behind.

So, one might ask, why would anyone in HISD cast a vote that could result in higher tax bills for every taxpayer now in the district?

Because they think the Texas Legislature will blink.

Some of Houston’s political leaders think the combination of big, angry taxpayers and a multitude of incensed voters will be enough to force state lawmakers to rework the formulas used to pay for public education and to make sure each district in the state has a reasonably equal financial foundation for its schools.

So, one might ask, why would anyone in HISD cast a vote that could result in higher tax bills for every taxpayer now in the district? Because they think the Texas Legislature will blink.

“I’m counting on the business community to step up,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “And I’m counting on conservatives, too. This would be a redistribution without the consent of the people. I have not found one elected official, including the trustees themselves, that is advocating a yes vote on this deal.”

So, one might ask, why would anyone in HISD cast a vote that could result in higher tax bills for every taxpayer now in the district? Because they think the Texas Legislature will blink.


If he and others are right, Turner’s former colleagues in the Legislature might take on school finance.

The system is unfair and broken — so much so that half of the state’s districts went to court to try to force an overhaul. The Texas Supreme Court agreed in a May ruling that the financing schemes are “byzantine” and “imperfect” but said the system is not unconstitutional. At the same time, the court’s opinion suggested lawmakers should enact “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid.”

Cool idea, but Texas lawmakers simply don’t make major reforms to school finance — this is something that arises every decade or so — unless their hands are forced by the courts.

Or, perhaps, by a game of chicken with taxpayers and voters in the state’s largest school district.


This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/09/26/analysis-game-chicken-between-texas-its-biggest-sc/.
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 26, 2016

Here’s a look at some stories that made news this week in the world of Texas education:

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashTexas’s much-maligned standardized tests were once again the focus of media attention this week. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced this week that it is imposing harsh financial penalties against the vendor that administers the state’s STAAR tests after a number of problems occurred during test administrations this spring. Also this week, a judge assigned to a lawsuit filed by parents objecting to the STAAR test refused to grant the state’s motion to have that case dismissed. Read more about the latest STAAR-related developments in this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter. Exter also discussed the testing company fines in an interview with KVUE News, which you can view here.


Texas lawmakers involved in the biennial budget-writing process are starting to look more closely at education funding as the 85th legislative session approaches. ATPE Lobbyist Josh Sanderson and ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz attended a meeting this week of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the education portion of the state budget. Wednesday’s hearing was a discussion of an interim charge dealing with public education programs that are funded outside the Foundation School Program (FSP). Learn more about the hearing in our blog post from yesterday.


ATPE_Logo_Stacked_Tag_ColorATPE members and employees have been showcased in a number of media features this week with the start of a new school year. Round Rock ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe talked to KEYE TV in Austin about how she engages students using popular “Pokemon Go” characters. Stoebe also joined ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey on Time Warner Cable Austin to discuss how the use of technology in the classroom can also increase opportunities for bullying. They urged educators and parents to talk to children about the risks of cyberbullying, which some lawmakers hope to address in the upcoming legislative session. Also on TWC news, a number of ATPE members contributed to a recent story about how teachers can talk to their students about difficult currrent events, such as problems of racism and violent attacks. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter also talked to KSAT about new education laws that are taking effect this school year. Be sure to follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and ATPE on Facebook for coverage of these and other stories about how ATPE members are making a difference in the lives of students.



An eventful week for STAAR

In a statement released yesterday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced just short of $21 million  in penalties against the state’s new testing vendor, ETS. The company will have to fork over $5.7 million in fines and spend $15 million of its own funds on improvements related to a number of failures of the testing system during the last school year. To put the $21 million in penalties into context, ETS’s STAAR contract with the state is worth $280 million over a four-year period. The areas to be improved include online testing system enrollment; shipping; online testing; precoding; and scoring and reporting. ThinkstockPhotos-455285291_gavel

In other STAAR related news, District Judge Stephen Yelenosky this Monday denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it by a group of parents over continued dissatisfaction with STAAR testing. The state claimed that the parents lacked standing to bring the suit. Judge Yelenosky disagreed with that argument, and the case will move forward.

The lawsuit against the education agency seeks to invalidate the 2015-16 STAAR scores and is based on the premise that the exams were not administered in compliance with House Bill 743 (2015) by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble). That bill passed last session requires the state to design STAAR exams so that a majority of elementary and middle school students can complete them within a specific time frame. The time standard is two hours for third- through fifth-graders, or three hours for sixth- through eighth-graders. TEA has maintained that it needs more time to collect test-related data before the exams can be redesigned.

TEA’s statement on the ETS penalties announced this week can be found here.

For more on the STAAR-related lawsuit, check out this article from the Texas Tribune.

House speaker directs committees to keep school finance on the front burner

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashIn May, the Texas Supreme Court issued a long-awaited ruling in litigation over the way Texas funds our public schools. Finding the school finance system to be (barely) constitutional, the court emphasized in its ruling that it is the primary responsibility of the legislature – not the courts – to address how the state’s school funding needs are to be met. In the absence of a court ruling compelling the legislature to make changes, many have wondered if any significant improvements will be proposed next session.

Today, Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) directed two committees to jointly study two broad-reaching aspects of the Texas school finance system. More specifically, the House Appropriations Committee and the House Committee on Public Education are tasked with working jointly to study state funds that are used for paying to reduce school district property taxes and how local property taxes that are used for public education affect educational quality and taxpayers.

In its recent school finance ruling, the Texas Supreme Court stated that while the system meets minimum constitutional standards, it “is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.” Since that opinion was released, Speaker Straus is the first of our state leaders to take action in furtherance of the daunting task of improving funding for the public education system available to over 5 million Texas children. Funding provided by the Texas legislature, local taxpayers, and the federal government determines whether students are in portable buildings or permanent classrooms, whether students have up-to-date instructional materials, whether employee benefits such as salary and health insurance premiums are competitive with other industries, and whether school administrators have the resources necessary to address the many safety precautions that must be considered on campuses.

Aside from the new studies announced this week, Speaker Straus had earlier issued interim charges for House committees to study the Cost of Education Index (CEI) and school districts’ facility needs. When underfunded and mismanaged at the state level, all of these funding factors place immense pressure on local taxpayers, classroom teachers, and students. Our system can and should be improved, and the direction given by Speaker Straus sets the tone for what public education supporters hope will be a productive legislative session beginning in January 2017.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 27, 2016

The week was dominated by big election news. Read the latest from ATPE and Teach the Vote:


American voting pins

The May 24 primary runoff election included some high-profile races of special interest to the education community.

The Republican primary runoff for SBOE District 9, where incumbent Thomas Ratliff (R) did not seek re-election, became one of the most anticipated contests in Texas but garnered attention from the media here and around the country. Outspoken and controversial candidate Mary Lou Bruner, who had been the front-runner in the March 1 primary and almost escaped a runoff, was defeated Tuesday night by Dr. Keven Ellis. Between the two elections, Bruner had angered many educators within and even outside the northeast Texas district with questionable claims about school conditions there and an apparent refusal to fact-check or correct her misstatements. At least one Tea Party group that endorsed Bruner early on withdrew its support for her, while educators rallied around Ellis, who had been endorsed by the pro-public education group Texas Parent PAC, to help him secure the win. Other closely watched races this week included Republican primary runoffs in Texas Senate Districts 1 and 24, where voters chose Tea Party-backed candidates Bryan Hughes and Dawn Buckingham, respectively, over their Texas Parent PAC-endorsed opponents David Simpson and Susan King

With extremely low voter turnout, several Texas House runoffs produced slim margins of victory, and at least two of those races are headed for a recount. Check out our blog for more from The Texas Tribune on anticipated recounts in House Districts 128 and 54. Candidates have until June 6 to decide if they will seek a recount. HD 128, a seat currently held by Rep. Wayne Smith (R), was one of the runoffs Tuesday night in which incumbent legislators were ousted by more conservative challengers; Rep. Doug Miller (R) in HD 73, another Texas Parent PAC-endorsed candidate, is the other incumbent who lost his runoff on Tuesday in a winner-take-all race where there are no candidates from other parties seeking the seat this November.

For a complete list of Tuesday’s outcomes in state legislative and SBOE runoffs, read our runoff election recap blog post from Wednesday.


Monty Exter

Monty Exter

On Wednesday, the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability held another meeting in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter attended the commission’s day-long work session. The inability to reach consensus yet on a number of questions relating to how Texas tests students is causing the commission to add another meeting in June to its schedule. Read Monty’s blog post from this morning to learn more about the ongoing deliberations of the commission.


Josh Sanderson

Josh Sanderson

With the dust settling on the Texas Supreme Court’s school finance ruling, many are wondering what, if anything, lawmakers will do to change the funding system that justices described as “Byzantine” and “undeniably imperfect.”  This week, ATPE Lobbyist Josh Sanderson appeared on Time Warner Cable’s Capitol Tonight program to talk about school finance. Josh explained ways in which past budget cuts, that were never fully restored, have affected classrooms and noted that per-pupil funding has not kept up with rising standards for students, schools, and teachers over the years. Check out video of the episode here.


Girl (3-5 years) riding tricycle with USA flag along path, low sectionEnjoy the Memorial Day weekend!

Celebrate the end of the school year!

Stay safe if you’re hitting the road!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 9, 2015

Happy Friday! Here’s what is making news this week in the Texas education world.

Commissioner asks feds to reconsider “high-risk” label given to Texas

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has requested that the U.S. Department of Education reconsider its recent decision to place the state of Texas on “high-risk status” relative to an ongoing application for a waiver of federal accountability requirements. Texas has sought and received temporary waivers of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but the Obama administration has conditioned those waivers on the state’s promising to change the ways it evaluates teachers and principals. Although TEA has developed and is currently piloting new evaluations in several school districts, Texas lawmakers have not been inclined to change state laws that give local school districts flexibility to choose how they will evaluate their educators. That local control approach has not satisfied the federal government, which wants Texas to mandate the use of the new evaluation models statewide. As we reported on our blog last week, Texas’s refusal to meet all of the Department of Education’s appraisal-related conditions has resulted in the new “high-risk” designation.

In a letter yesterday to the Department, Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams wrote, “In a state with over 5 million students, 8,600 campuses, and 1,200 independent school districts and charter schools – including some districts as large as 210,000 students and some as small as 13 – state education policy must strike a balance between meeting the collective needs of the students of Texas, providing the support educators need, and allowing the flexibility districts deserve to respond to the context of their communities. Some districts will want and need an appraisal system with a slightly different focus than the state-recommended systems, and Texas law provides them that flexibility and control.”

Also this week, Williams wrote a letter to school administrators explaining potential consequences of the loss of the ESEA/NCLB flexibility in the future, if Congress fails to reauthorize the long overdue federal statute. “Absent reauthorization, current ESEA requirements would remain in place,” Williams wrote. “As a result, you should be aware that loss of our state’s ESEA waiver would carry some potential consequences for every school district and charter in Texas.”

Senate interim charges begin trickling out

This week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) began issuing interim charges to Senate committees. The charges, often requested by legislators with input from outside groups, delineate specific issues that the various legislative committees are expected to study and report on prior to the start of the next regular legislative session in January 2017. As of the initial publication of this blog post, interim charges had not yet been released for the Senate Education committee but were expected soon.

Committees that did receive their charges this week include the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which Lt. Gov. Patrick has tasked with studying “Union Dues.” Specifically, the charge calls for the committee to “Examine the practice of using public funds and employees for the payment processing of union dues. Make recommendations on whether Texas should end this practice.” The State Affairs committee is chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who last session authored a bill that would have banned the practice of payroll deduction for payment of public employees’ voluntary dues to unions and even non-union professional associations such as ATPE. The highly politicized bill fortunately died in the Texas House this spring, but it’s expected to be resurrected by conservative members of the legislature next session.

Governor weighs in on school finance lawsuit

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has submitted an amicus brief to the Texas Supreme Court in the pending appeal of a district court decision finding the state’s school finance system to be unconstitutional. In the brief, Gov. Abbott argues that because of 2015 changes made by the 84th Texas Legislature to both school accountability laws and funding, the school finance case should be further delayed and sent back to the district court where it was initially heard for reconsideration. If the Supreme Court were to agree with Abbott’s plea, another class of students could graduate under a state funding scheme that has already been ruled unconstitutional. Former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson disagrees with the governor’s assertions and in a response brief states that the premise of Abbott’s arguments is incorrect largely because it is based on flawed funding data. Minor changes were made to education funding and accountability in 2015, but many school districts are still behind 2011 funding levels or are just now reaching those levels nearly five years later.

Commissioner announces plan to increase STAAR passing standards

Earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Michael Williams announced his intentions to set the passing standards higher for STAAR tests in 2015-16. In an Oct. 6 press release, the Texas Education Agency noted, “Each time the performance standard is increased, a student must achieve a higher score in order to pass a STAAR exam.” The cut scores have been scheduled to move up to a second and higher phase of implementation after remaining at the initial phase for the last four years. TEA explained the Commissioner’s plan as follows: “Under new proposed rules from the Commissioner, the traditional phase-in approach would be replaced with a standard progression approach from 2015–2016 through 2021–2022, the year final standards are scheduled to be in place. In other words, rather than larger jumps to more rigorous performance standards every few years, this progression approach would mean smaller, predictable increases every year through the 2021–2022 school year.”

The public will have an opportunity to submit feedback on the proposed increase during a 30-day public comment period that begins Oct. 16. Visit the TEA website for additional information on STAAR testing.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 18, 2015

Happy Friday! Here’s a review of some education stories that made the news this week.

This week ATPE Lobbyist Josh Sanderson provided an update on our efforts to address federal laws that reduce educators’ Social Security benefits. Sanderson writes, “The cost of completely repealing the GPO and WEP has proven to be prohibitive, and no federal legislation that would repeal either provision has ever been successful.” However, working alongside U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX) and the Texas Retired Teachers Association, ATPE is lobbying in D.C. for a bill that Sanderson explains “would repeal the existing arbitrary WEP formula and replace it with one that actually reflects the contributions employees have made to Social Security.”

We republished an article yesterday from The Texas Tribune‘s Kiah Collier about the pending school finance litigation. Collier writes that “the consensus among experts and insiders is that a decision will come early next year and likely will require a 2016 special legislative session because it will favor, at least in part, the 600 school districts suing the state. That could mean that a school finance fix is in place before the next school year.” The article also discusses the impact of the 2016 elections on the timing of such a ruling and a possible special session.

Don’t forget that the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is still accepting public comments on its proposal to allow superintendents to become certified despite having no prior experience as a teacher or principal. You may submit written comments via e-mail to SBEC now through Oct. 5. Click here for more details.

View additional stories you may have missed from Teach the VoteATPE, and other public education supporters on social media this week:

Tweets for 9-18-15 wrap-up


From the Texas Tribune: Experts: Expect Early 2016 School Finance Ruling

by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune
September 17, 2015

Earlier this month, the Texas Supreme Court heard hours of arguments in the latest challenge of the way the state funds its public schools.

Now, the big questions — other than exactly how the high court will rule — are when the court will rule and whether the decision will require the Legislature to come back to Austin to craft a fix before the 2017 regular legislative session.

Given past rulings and politics — three justices on the nine-member, all-Republican court are up for re-election next year — the consensus among experts and insiders is that a decision will come early next year and likely will require a 2016 special legislative session because it will favor, at least in part, the 600 school districts suing the state. That could mean that a school finance fix is in place before the next school year.

For the justices who will be on the GOP primary ballot, “the perfect situation” would be for a ruling to come after that March 1 contest, said Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller.

“If I were on the ballot, hypothetically, and I’m a justice, I want the election over with before big, monumental decisions are released,” he said, noting that judicial candidates now are expected to talk more openly about their rulings on the campaign trail.

So far, only one of the justices up for re-election — Debra Lehrmann — has a garnered a challenger, but the window to file to become a candidate has not opened yet. (It will close Nov. 14). The other justices up for re-election are Paul Green and Eva Guzman.

Any of them could be tasked with drafting a majority opinion in the school finance case, which experts say could give them some discretion as to how long the process takes but also put a target on their back during the campaign. (The justice who writes the majority opinion is decided at random, with justices drawing from a pile of “shuffled blue index cards” labeled with the appeals they’ve agreed to hear, explained court spokesman Osler McCarthy.)

A more important date than when the court rules is what deadline it might give the Legislature to come up with a fix, said Sheryl Pace, a senior analyst at the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association who specializes in school finance. (That’s assuming the court upholds at least part of a 2014 district court ruling that struck down the state’s school finance system as unconstitutional, which Pace thinks will happen.)

Past school finance rulings indicate the court is “usually concerned” not with elections but with giving the Legislature time to implement a fix before the next school year or until the end of the next regular legislative session, Pace said.

With no legislative session until 2017 — and considering the amount of time the court has taken to rule in the past — Pace is predicting a January 2016 ruling with a fix-it deadline six months after that.

The current school finance case is the seventh of its kind to reach the high court since the mid-1980s. In the six previous cases, the court typically has taken anywhere from two to eight months to rule from the time it hears arguments, according to dates provided by the research association.

But Houston-based lawyer David Thompson, who has worked on all seven school finance lawsuits, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the court takes longer to rule than usual — “early next spring is certainly reasonable” — because there are more parties involved who are “making some different argument than the court’s ever dealt with.”

Unlike in the past, when traditional school districts sued the state, this time the challengers include public charter schools and a coalition of parents, business interests and school choice advocates who believe that the traditional public school system is a monopoly. The charter schools say they should be funded the same as other public schools, while Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education says the state’s public education system is unconstitutional because it is inefficient and over-regulated.

Travis County District Court Judge John Dietz — a Democrat — ruled against the two non-school district parties in 2014, but they are appealing, meaning the state Supreme Court would have to address their arguments to some extent in any ruling.

At a three-hour hearing Sept. 1, lawyers for the state asked the court to toss the case — or at least to remand it to state district court given the funding increases and policy changes the Legislature has enacted during the two legislative sessions since 2011, the year school districts sued the state months after lawmakers slashed $5.4 billion from the public education budget.

“We are hopeful the court will end this cycle of endless litigation and recognize that Texas’ school finance decisions should be made by our Legislature,” the state attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Whatever the court’s decision, political consultants say it could have big political consequences for justices up for re-election.

“I think that there’s an equal price you will pay no matter what the decision is,” said Republican political consultant Todd Olsen, noting that polling has showed GOP primary voters favor spending more money on public education. “You will pay a heavy price if you essentially say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong’ and pay a huge price if you say, ‘The Legislature has to figure out a new way to fund this.’”

But Olsen and Republican political consultant Ted Delisi, who works for state Supreme Court Justice Jeff Boyd (who is not up for re-election next year), noted that one of the last state Supreme Court justices to garner political scrutiny and opposition over a school finance ruling — now-U.S. Sen John Cornyn — emerged unscathed. In 1996, the year after the court approved a Cornyn-crafted decision that upheld the divisive “Robin Hood” plan, he won re-election by a healthy six-point margin, beating out two challengers in the November general election.

It is difficult — and pointless — to anticipate the political consequences of a school finance ruling, Delisi said.

“I think the very best Supreme Court justices are the ones that make their determination according to the law and then figure how to make a case to the voters that their competency or their conservatism is worthy of re-election,” he said.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who heard four different school finance lawsuits during his nearly 17 years on the court, said the timing of a ruling may be shaped by certain “external factors” — like the need for a special legislative session — but that elections have “never been much of an issue.”

“The first goal is to get it right and the second goal is to get it out timely,” he said. “I don’t think (the court’s) up against any artificial deadline.”


This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/17/experts-expect-early-2016-school-finance-ruling/.  The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.