Tag Archives: senate

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 6, 2018

Here’s a wrap-up of your education news from ATPE:


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several announcements this week regarding the draft plan to address special education in Texas. In addition to accepting public comments on the latest version of the draft plan, TEA has scheduled two hearings where members of the public are invited to express their input. Information on the two meetings is as follows:

  • Thursday, April 12, at ESC Region 1 – 1900 West Schunior, Edinburg, Tx.
  • Monday, April 16, at ESC Region 10 – 400 East Spring Valley Road, Richardson, TX.

Both meetings will begin at 1 pm, and those wishing to share feedback are asked to register onsite beginning at 12:30 pm (registration will end when the meeting begins). Registered participants will be called in the order they are registered and will be limited to three minutes. The hearing will end when all have testified or at 3 pm, whichever comes first. Those unable to attend either hearing can submit their written comments by email at TexasSPED@TEA.texas.gov by April 18 at noon.

To learn more about the two public hearings and the chance to submit written testimony, view TEA’s full press release, visit TEA’s special education webpage, and read ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’s post from earlier this week.

 


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath sent a letter to school administrators today regarding three recent changes to how the spring 2018 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams will be administered. The three changes involve offering medical exemptions for qualifying students, allowing for the transcribing of student responses that are recorded in the test booklet onto a blank answer document, and relaxing the rules around classroom displays. His letter indicates these moves are being made in response to district feedback and in an effort to “do all I can to help make this a positive experience and reduce stress for students and school district and charter school personnel.” Read Commissioner Morath’s full letter to learn more.

 


It was a busy Wednesday at the Capitol this week, and your ATPE Governmental Relations team was there to cover all the action. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter covered the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, where pension and healthcare issues were the topic of discussion. That meeting included conversations about the factors affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. For more information on how the hearing unfolded, read Exter’s recap of the meeting or watch an archived webcast. You can find ATPE’s testimony, and other public testimony, at the end of the recording.

 


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week in Austin for a discussion on property taxes and their role in the school finance system. A smaller working group of commission members met Wednesday to discuss outcomes. The highlight of Wednesday’s meeting was former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Luce, who suggested it’s time to do “more with more, not more with less” when it comes to funding public schools in Texas. This was particularly compelling advice from Luce, considering he was a key player in the state’s last major school finance reform – all the way back in 1984.

All 13 members of the commission met Thursday to hear several panels discuss property taxes. While there was general agreement on the burden imposed by property taxes, the debate between some members over how to calculate the state’s share of public education spending continued anew. Importantly, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) requested the state prepare a list of school revenue sources that have been cut over the last 10 years. You can read a full recap of Wednesday’s working group meeting by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here, and a rundown of Thursday’s full commission meeting here.

 


The Senate Education Committee rounded out a busy Wednesday in Austin with a hearing to discuss interim charges related to virtual schools, “high quality education opportunities,” and the federal E-rate program. ATPE offered written testimony to the committee concerning the virtual education charge, cautioning against moves to further expand the Texas Virtual School Network without carefully considering the status of virtual schools’ performance. Recent research highlights concerns regarding these schools nationwide and a look at Texas accountability measures fail to paint a drastically different picture in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was at the hearing and offers more on the discussion here.

 


 

Senate State Affairs Committee discusses future of TRS pension fund

The Senate State Affairs Committee met in Austin this week to discuss interim charges about the health of various state and municipal pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. The committee heard invited testimony from the staff and members of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), as well as the heads of several pension systems, including TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie.

Some of the more general discussion included senators, including Sen. Charles Schwertner in particular, making the case that defined benefit pension systems are somehow inherently flawed and should be scrapped and replaced with 401(k)-style defined contribution systems. This now tired pitch, whose real aim is to line the pockets of private money managers, has been soundly refuted on many fronts, particularly as it applies to TRS. First 401(k)s have proven to be not so wonderful retirement vehicles. For the average American population which relies on them for the bulk of their retirement planning, these investment vehicles have proven to be a tool that generally leads to a woefully underfunded retirement account that is highly sensitive to market volatility and has left many in bad positions with regard to their retirement security. Second, 401(k)s were never meant to stand alone. They were really meant to be a supplement to a more traditional pension system, but even as that has gone by the wayside for many, they are still intended to be on top of Social Security benefits. However, most Texas educators will not receive full Social Security benefits because neither the educator nor the state is paying into Social Security on their behalf. This leads to the final falsehood promulgated by retirement privatizers, that defined benefit pension plans simply cost too much. The truth is Texas has been getting by on the cheap for decades.

Retirement experts will tell you that you should be putting away around 25 percent of your pre-retirement income for use in retirement. Half of that amount, 12.5 percent, is normally covered by contributions to Social Security. Any reasonably good private employer will put up a match of 4 percent, or better, toward an employee’s individual retirement account, in addition to paying the required 6.25 percent employer’s share of Social Security. This means that these private employers are on the hook for a little more than a 10 percent toward their employee’s retirement. Likewise, their employees must also put the required 6.25 percent into Social Security and typically an additional 4 percent or more into their own retirement accounts to access the employer’s match. For years the state of Texas only contributed 6 percent, the constitutional minimum, into the TRS pension system. Thanks in large part to the work of ATPE the state bumped that contribution up to 6.8 percent a few sessions ago. However, at only 0.55 percent above what the state would otherwise have to pay into Social Security, Texas still contributes less than half of what the next lowest state not paying into Social Security pays towards it educators’ retirements. Most Texas teachers are themselves contributing 7.7 percent, or just 1.45 percent above what they would otherwise be paying toward Social Security, into their pension system. When you add in the 1.5 percent districts are contributing into the TRS pension plan, the total contribution comes to 16 percent. At 16 percent, contributions into TRS are substantially less than what even average employers and employees are contributing toward retirement, and despite being many educators only source of retirement income, that is only 64 percent of what experts recommend putting away. So far from being “too expensive” as some lawmakers insist, the TRS pension system has been an exceedingly good deal for the state of Texas.

This discussion is of particular importance at this moment because while TRS has been reasonably healthy for a long time and has been on track to be actuarially sound (very healthy) within the next five years, those statistics have been based on TRS’s current assumed rate of return of 8 percent. Based on the advice of the external actuarial firm with which TRS contracts, the TRS board is considering lowering that assumed rate of return. In order to maintain the positive trajectory of the fund, legislators will need to increase the contribution rate going into the fund. Per the discussion above, these increased contributions are long overdue, and had lawmakers increased them previously, the fund would be in a much better place today. Additionally, many retirees wouldn’t have gone more than a decade without a cost of living adjustment. If TRS lowers its assumed rate of return, however, the decision to increase contributions will no longer be a luxury; it will be an imperative. ATPE is advocating for this process to take place gradually over a number of years so that the increased contributions, corresponding to a gradually decreased assumed rate of return on investments, won’t be a shock the system for either the state or educators who will both share the burden of increased contributions.

Whether a gradual approach is taken or a more “one and done” approach is used, as is being advocated by TRS, the important thing is that educators stay fully engaged with their legislators, and in choosing their legislators this election year, so that the health of the pension fund is secured.

Making better use of the state’s rainy day fund when it’s not raining

The Senate Finance Committee met today to take up a number of Senate interim charges. Among them, the committee took up the charge to examine options to increase investment earnings of the Economic Stabilization Fund in a manner that minimizes overall risk to the fund balance and to evaluate how the Economic Stabilization Fund constitutional limit is calculated; considering alternative methods to calculate the limit, and alternative uses for funds above the limit.

the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the state’s rainy day fund, is a mechanism that diverts a part of the severance taxes the state collects on oil and gas production and sets those monies aside to fill budget shortfalls resulting from temporary economic downturns. The fund, which has been used many times since its inception, has in recent years grown to approximately $11 billion, larger than at anytime in its history.

During the last session lawmakers facing stiff budget constraints began to discuss how they could better utilize the rainy day fund, other than continuing to stuff cash into the state’s proverbial mattress. One idea floated by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar was to take a portion of the fund and invest it as an endowment such that the investment returns could be used to help pay for state priorities, like shoring up the state’s pension funds. Legislators were not comfortable acting on that idea without more time to vet it.

In today’s hearing Hegar reintroduced the idea of investing the whole of the rainy day fund in very liquid assets that would allow for a return that roughly matches the inflation rate and investing a portion of the fund, in excess of what legislators think they might need quick access to, in less liquid assets that would generate a higher return. The Comptroller’s office predicts that an investment of $3 billion, with additional biennial investments over a certain threshold, would within 10 years accumulate to a fund that generates $1 billion a year in usable revenue. In 20 years, that projection jumps to more than $2 billion a year. The idea was received fairly favorably.

One of the things the state has used the rainy day fund for in recent years is to justify credit rating firms’ assignment of a AAA (the highest) credit rating to the state. Having a AAA rating allows the state and school districts through the Permanent School Fund (PSF) bond guarantee program to pay the lowest possible rate on bond debt. It was pointed out in the hearing however, that the rainy day fund is only one factor those firms look at when assigning a score. Another, more heavily weighed factor is the health/unfunded liabilities of a state’s pension funds. Both TRS and ERS need improvement to ensure the state is able to keep its current rating. A downgraded rating could cost the state billions in additional interest over the life of the state’s and school dostricts’ many bonds.

Texas primary election day reminders

Today is election day for the Republican and Democratic primaries in Texas. If you did not vote early, get out to the polls today! Here are some quick tips and reminders from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


  • Polls are open today until 7 p.m. tonight. You must vote in your assigned precinct unless your county offers countywide polling. Visit the Texas Secretary of State’s “Am I Registered” website to look up your precinct and polling location, or call your local registrar of voters to find out where you can vote.

  • You may vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary today – but not both! No matter which primary you choose, you can still vote for candidates of any party affiliation, including independent or third-party candidates, during the November general election.

    • Don’t forget to take your photo ID with you to the polls and any written notes or sample ballot you’ve created. You cannot use your cell phone while in the voting booth.

  • If you encounter any difficulty while attempting to cast your vote today, call the Election Protection Hotline at 866.OUR.VOTE.

  • Be prepared to share your input on the nonbinding propositions at the end of your ballot that will help shape the platform of the Republican or Democratic party this year. Learn more about them here.

  • If you early voted or are voting today in the Republican primary, consider participating in your precinct convention tonight after the polls close. It’s a chance to become a delegate for upcoming party conventions and propose or vote on resolutions to help shape the party platform on issues such as public education. (The Democratic party no longer holds precinct conventions but has a different process for becoming a delegate.) Learn more about the process for both parties here, and read tips from a Republican party precinct chair here.

  • Finally and most importantly, if you’re still undecided on candidates, use our search page to find your candidates for Texas House and Senate, State Board of Education, lieutenant governor, and governor. View their profiles here on Teach the Vote to find out how they answered ATPE’s candidate survey, view incumbents’ voting records, and more.

Your vote is your voice. Don’t be silent today! Texas schoolchildren are counting on you to exercise your right to elect sound leaders who will stand up for public education. Many races in Texas will be decided by what happens in today’s primary election and not the general election in November. There will also be many close races in today’s primaries, which could be decided by only a handful of votes. Your vote may be the one that makes the difference!

ATPE In-Depth: Learn about incumbent legislators’ voting records

In this critical election year, ATPE is urging educators and all voters who support public education to participate in both the primary election happening now and the general election in November. We created our popular Teach the Vote website in 2011 with the goal of helping voters make informed choices at the polls by learning more about the candidates’ stances, specifically on education issues. Our profiles of all candidates running for Texas House, Texas Senate, State Board of Education, governor, or lieutenant governor can be explored using our convenient search tools.

When you pull up a candidate’s individual profile, you’ll find a wealth of factual information that the ATPE Governmental Relations team has collected about the candidate, including links to the candidate’s own website and social media profiles. Upon request by the candidate, we share information about upcoming campaign events being hosted by the candidate or on his behalf on our Teach the Vote events calendar. We also provide background information on the candidates, such as how long they’ve been in office and whether they’ve been endorsed by other groups that rate educators on the basis of their education stances. (You will not find any endorsements by ATPE.) All candidates who have a known email address are invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey, which asks questions pertaining to top education issues such as school funding, private school vouchers, student testing, educator pay, and more. We also invite candidates to supply a photo of themselves for our website. Not all candidates choose to participate in the survey, but all are invited, and ATPE does not edit the candidates’ survey responses in any way. (We don’t even correct typos!) Our goal is to make the candidates’ views and platforms available to you to help you make your own decisions on how to vote.

Another highly valuable component of ATPE’s candidate profiles featured on Teach the Vote is the voting record section. Throughout each legislative session, ATPE’s experienced lobbyists and support staff track thousands of bills that could have an impact on public education, following the legislation through every step of the legislative process. To give you a sense of how much work that entails, there were 7,033 pieces of legislation filed during the 85th legislature’s regular session in 2017. However, only 1,314 of those measures actually passed, according to the legislative tracking service known as Telicon. Since most bills don’t make it all the way through the process, and even fewer bills generate “record votes” as opposed to general voice votes, there are limited opportunities for Texans to find out how their state legislators voted on issues of interest.

Members of the ATPE Lobby Team in 2017

That’s where ATPE’s work behind the scenes comes into play. During a legislative session, ATPE’s lobbyists use our Teach the Vote blog to report on developments as they are happening at the capitol, often providing links to unofficial vote counts when major bills are acted upon by the Texas House or Senate. After the conclusion of the session, our team compiles a spreadsheet to record and analyze some of the most significant votes taken on education issues. Because unofficial tallies announced immediately after a vote can sometimes turn out to be wrong, we painstakingly check and double-check the votes taken, relying ultimately on what is printed in the official House and Senate journals as the final word on how a legislator voted. ATPE also shares some historical voting records for those legislators who have served more than one term in office.

One way that ATPE’s staff goes the extra mile to provide you insights on voting records is by also reviewing and sharing information about legislators’ comments entered into the House or Senate journal. It is fairly common for a legislator to vote one way and then ask for comments to be recorded in the journal signaling an intent to have voted differently on the bill. Also, some legislators are absent when a record vote is taken, as they may have temporarily stepped away from their desks. Often, those temporary absences are unavoidable – especially during a long legislative day – but sometimes the lawmaker’s leave is intentional. He or she may wait to see what the outcome is on a particularly controversial bill and then record a statement of intent in the journal after the fact. We at ATPE believe it’s important for voters to know the full picture when it comes to record votes, and that’s why we research and provide you with those additional insights on a legislator’s intent. If a legislator changes his vote, constituents should be empowered to know about that and to ask why.

In all cases, ATPE provides detailed information to document the record votes that we have collected and chosen to include on our Teach the Vote candidate profiles. We provide the bill number and author; we indicate whether the vote was taken during a regular or special session; we include the date of the vote; we identify who filed the motion being voted upon; we give a brief explanation of the significance of the vote; we share any comments entered into the journal by the legislator after the vote that would provide insights behind the vote; and most importantly, we share enough information to allow viewers of our website an opportunity to verify our reports by looking up official records of the vote maintained by the legislature itself.

For instance, all votes taken by the 85th legislature in 2017 and highlighted in our Teach the Vote candidate profiles include a link to the specific pages in the House or Senate journal in which the official vote is recorded. Next to viewing hard copies of the journals themselves, accessing digital copies of the journals maintained online by the House and Senate are the most reliable and independent way to find out how a legislator voted, and that’s what ATPE uses to fill out the voting record section of our Teach the Vote candidate profiles. Click the image to the left to view a sample excerpt from a legislator’s voting record as showcased on Teach the Vote.

Collecting and reporting on voting records in this detailed and accountable manner is a monumental task, but ATPE believes it’s important to help educators obtain factual, non-biased information about their own legislators’ voting record. There are other groups that share voting record information, and quite a few that like to publicize their “scorecards” of lawmakers based on certain votes taken, but we believe ATPE’s voting records are some of the most carefully researched and responsibly reported data you can find during an election season. I highly encourage you to check out our candidate profiles today and find out how your legislator voted on education issues.

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: 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!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 26, 2018

It was a busy week in the world of public education, with your ATPE Governmental Relations team keeping tabs on various business at the state level. Here’s a rundown of this week’s developments:


ELECTION UPDATE: Are you registered to vote? There are just ten days left to register to vote in the upcoming primaries! Texans who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered to do so must sign up on or before February 5 in order to cast their ballot on March 6. Check the status of your registration here.

Also be sure to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. All candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Texas Legislature, and the State Board of Education have been invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey and have their views on education issues shared with voters through our website. New survey responses are being added to the site frequently as more candidates take advantage of this opportunity. If the candidates you are interested in learning about have not yet responded, please ask them to participate in our survey. Candidates or their campaign consultants may contact government@atpe.org for additional information about the survey.

Early voting for the March primaries begins Feb. 20. Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos has issued a new proclamation naming the first Friday of early voting period (Feb. 23, 2018) to be “Student Voting Day.”  Secretary Pablos is calling on communities “to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in
their county of registration.” The Secretary of State’s office has been an important partner in efforts to promote voter awareness within our public schools, and we appreciate his support.

Since we last reported on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities spearheaded by ATPE and other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, more Texans are speaking out in support of our coalition and expressing displeasure with the not-so-subtle efforts of some elected officials to try to rein in politically active educators. The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg wrote an opinion piece on Saturday, Jan. 20, in support of ATPE’s and the coalitions efforts to increase voter turnout and awareness. Falkenberg wrote that voter apathy “doesn’t stop if we do nothing. Some folks in this state are trying to do something. We should let them.” Falkenberg concluded, “No opinion from the Texas AG, or from Bettencourt, has dissuaded me from believing their efforts are vital for the young voters, to the public in general, and to the future of this state we love.” Retired Superintendent Joe Smith also expressed support for Texas Educators Vote on his TexasISD.com website, and educator Danny Noyola, Sr., an ATPE member, similarly wrote an opinion piece for the Corpus Christie Caller-Times defending the coalition’s work. Noyola called AG Paxton’s opinion “an intimidating assault on teachers, administrators, and educational groups to stifle citizenship and voting learning opportunities for all students in a non-partisan, pro-education, creative hands-on way.”

ATPE is pleased that school districts are continuing to support our nonpartisan coalition efforts with additional school boards adopting the coalition’s model resolution on creating a culture of voting, even after the issuance of General Paxton’s opinion. We appreciate the support of school leaders to continue to encourage public school employees and eligible students to be informed and vote in the upcoming primaries.

 


Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, January 23, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance held its first meeting Tuesday in Austin following its creation as part of House Bill (HB) 21, which was passed during the 85th Texas Legislature’s first special session. The first meeting quickly established the divide between members of the commission focused on improving public school performance and those solely focused on finding ways to cut taxes. House Public Education Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) correctly noted that school finance reform and property tax relief go hand-in-hand, and the Texas Senate abandoned a proposal that could have made progress on both fronts in order to pursue voucher legislation.

The meeting was restricted to invited testimony, which included a supporter of school privatization and the heads of a number of state departments, including Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. Read more about the meeting in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) held a formal hearing today, Jan. 26, to take public testimony on rules pertaining to school district and charter school partnerships. The regulation being considered is Proposed New Commissioners rule 19 TAC Chapter 97, Planning and Accountability, Subchapter EE, Accreditation Status, Standards, and Sanctions, Division 2, Contracting to Partner to Operate a District Campus, §97.1075, Contracting to Partner to Operate a Campus under Texas Education Code, §11.174, and §97.1079, Determining Processes and Criteria for Entity Approval under Texas Education Code, §11.174.

The bulk of the testimony was provided by educators, administrators, and parents. While there were charter advocates in attendance, none offered testimony. All testifiers opposed the rules as currently proposed. Common themes among those who testified included: agency overreach in defining “enhanced authority” that a district must give to a charter in order to enter into a partnership, despite no statutory authority or even implication in the law to do so; a lack of acknowledgment of teacher protections and pre-agreement consultation, which is required under the law; and a general lack of specificity about the approval process, including what factors TEA will consider and the timeline TEA will work under in approving the partnerships.

ATPE has turned in written comments to the proposed rules which you can read here. The text for the new rule can be found on TEA’s website.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened its online survey this week to solicit feedback regarding the agency’s initial draft plan to correct inadequacies in special education services. This comes in response to a directive from the U.S. Department of Education that Texas correct systemic denial of special education services due to a de facto “cap” uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation. The initial draft plan includes four main actions, with explanations for each.

The agency has been ordered to seek input from stakeholders, including parents and educators, which will be collected through an online survey available on the TEA website since Jan. 23. The agency will accept public comment on this draft plan through Feb. 18, 2018, after which a new Proposed Plan will be released on or around March 1. Public comments on this new plan will be accepted through March 31. The agency expects to submit a Final State Corrective Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Education on or around April 18, 2018. You can read more about the plan and find a link to the survey here.

 


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 22, 2017

Happy holidays! Here’s your week in review from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed into law a major tax overhaul bill approved by Congress this week. The president also signed off on a short-term funding bill to keep the federal governmental operational for a few more weeks until longer-term legislation can be passed. The final $1.5 trillion tax bill omits some provisions that were worrisome for educators employed in public schools, which ATPE urged our congressional delegation to remove from earlier versions of the legislation. For more on the tax law that was approved, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has announced his appointments to two key state commissions. First, the speaker revealed his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance, authorized by the legislature earlier this year. The House appointments include Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Ken King (R-Canadian). Fittingly, all three of the representatives chosen by the speaker also hold leadership roles on the House Public Education Committee: Huberty as committee chair, Bernal as committee vice-chair, and King as chair of the Subcommittee on Educator Quality. Also appointed to serve on the commission is Nicole Conley Johnson, who is currently employed as Chief Financial Officer for Austin ISD. Additional members of the school finance commission were previously announced by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Yesterday, Straus also announced that Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) would serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission, along with public member and retired accountant Ron Steinhart of Dallas. The commission is charged with overseeing and making recommendations to the legislature on periodic reviews of various state agencies.


Twenty Texas school districts will have an opportunity to take part in a pilot program using locally designed accountability measures. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath named the districts selected earlier this week from a pool of 50 applicants. The pilot program falls under Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 22 passed earlier this year. For more on the local accountability pilot study, view information on the Texas Education Agency’s website here.



 

Congress releases final tax bill

The U.S. House and Senate have finalized a conference tax bill that is expected to be voted on by each body over the course of next week. After the individual chambers passed their own bills pertaining to reforming provisions of the current tax code, a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences in the bills. The final bill must now receive the support of both chambers and the signature of the president before it becomes law.

ATPE wrote members of the Texas delegation last week to urge members of the conference committee and leaders in both chambers to stand with teachers on two issues: maintaining a credit for educators who spend personal money on classroom supplies and omitting a potential new tax on investments of public employee pensions like the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. ATPE is pleased to report that the final bill reflects our requests on both issues.

The educator expense deduction was maintained at up to $250 a year, giving educators who use money from their own paychecks a nominal but meaningful credit for at least a portion of what is spent to give all students and classrooms access to needed supplies. The House bill originally scrapped the deduction altogether, while the Senate bill doubled the max deduction to as much as $500.

The Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), as it related to public pensions, was ultimately scrapped under the final bill. The House bill would have applied the tax to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund, which could have weakened its financial soundness by subjecting it to new additional tax liability. The Senate’s bill did not apply the new tax to public pension investments.

Another issue that garnered significant attention was a provision termed to be one aimed at “school choice” and was included in varying forms under both bills. The Senate’s provision on the topic was added in the final hours of debate by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The final bill includes a negotiated version of the provision, which expands spending eligibility for 529 college savings accounts. If the bill becomes law, parents will be able to use the money they’ve saved in a 529 account to pay for up to $10,000 a year in K-12 education expenses, including at private schools.

ATPE appreciates the conference committee’s final decision on both the educator expense deduction and the UBIT. We also appreciate the help of legislators and leaders who advocated on behalf educators. High-profile provisions of the final plan include a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, a smaller top tax rate for individuals (at 37 percent instead of just under 40), omission of the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance, and a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) at $10,000.