Back in September, we reported to you that the national fact-checking website PolitiFact had reviewed claims by Sen. Dan Patrick, a candidate for Texas Lieutenant Governor, about his education-related record in the State Senate. The PolitiFact journalists rated Patrick’s claim that he had worked to restore public education funding in 2013 as ridiculously false using its “Pants on Fire” rating. In researching the claim, PolitiFact turned to education experts, including ATPE’s lobby team for details about any efforts that were made in 2013 to restore massive funding cuts to public education the previous session.
Once again, PolitiFact has called into question an education-related claim by Patrick and interviewed several education experts, including ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter, to uncover the truth. Patrick’s most recent claim, offered in a television campaign ad, is directed at his opponent in the contentious race for Lieutenant Governor, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. Patrick claims in the ad that Van de Putte “voted to stop schools from removing teachers convicted of a felony,” but PolitiFact rated Patrick’s claim as “Mostly False.”
The controversy stems from a bill passed in 2011 that relates to school district employees who have been convicted of felonies. House Bill (HB) 1610 enables schools to fire educators convicted of felonies almost immediately without going through the normal due process channels that exist for other educators with employment contracts. Attorneys for school districts requested the legislation, insisting that it would save them the time and money of dealing with termination hearings and appeals for those employees. Several educator groups, including ATPE, voiced opposition to the bill because it called for a strict, zero-tolerance approach that would automatically terminate the employment of anyone with a felony conviction, regardless of the nature of the offense, how long ago it might have occurred, or whether it was the result of a plea bargain or deferred adjudication agreement. The bill did not give school districts the right to fire employees with felonies because they already had that right; in fact, under a major school safety bill passed in 2007 (Senate Bill 9), districts were already required to investigate educators’ criminal backgrounds and remove any dangerous employees from the classroom.
Patrick’s claim about the 2011 vote largely fails because of the fact that districts already had the ability to fire teachers before HB 1610 was proposed. As passed, HB 1610 now allows schools to void a teacher’s contract based on an offense that might be unrelated to the classroom or may have happened decades ago. ATPE and other educator groups were early opponents of the bill, since it cuts off contract rights owed to every other teacher because of an event potentially unrelated to the educator’s job performance. Further, the 2011 bill at the heart of Patrick’s claim was largely unnecessary, because under SB 9 that preceded HB 1610, school districts already know about any felony offenses in an educator’s background at the time of hire or contract renewal and can make the appropriate decision.
In 2011, Van de Putte voted for HB 1610 at one stage but voted against the bill when it moved through the Senate floor. She wanted to amend the bill to allow educators who had been convicted as a result of deferred adjudication to retain their due process rights under the contract laws and be entitled to a hearing prior to being terminated, but Patrick defeated her proposed amendment. Deferred adjudication cases often differ from ordinary convictions handed down by a judge or jury, because defendants may accept deferred adjudication simply because they cannot afford the time and money it takes to hire lawyers to defend their cases in court. It is, ironically, the same reason cited by school districts that pressed the legislature to make it easier for them to fire teachers without due process. As Van de Putte stated during Senate floor debate on HB 1610, “Deferred adjudication does not imply guilt.” When her amendment was killed, Van de Putte and eight other senators subsequently voted against the bill.
PolitiFact asked education experts to weigh in on whether a vote against HB 1610 could be considered a vote to prevent schools from firing teachers with felony convictions, as Patrick claimed in his campaign ad. They universally agreed that HB 1610 merely dealt with the due process provisions in existing law, not the schools’ underlying ability to fire teachers. ATPE’s Exter told reporters, “Voting down HB 1610 would not have stopped schools from removing teachers convicted of a felony; it would have simply required districts to continue to observe the teachers’ due process rights in situations not already covered by” the 2007 law (SB 9) that serves to keep violent and sex offenders out of our schools – a bill that that ATPE and other educator groups supported and Van de Putte voted in favor of passing. ATPE has consistently defended educators’ due process and contract rights, which have been slowly eroded over time, especially during budget crises. We and the legislators who opposed HB 1610 believed that educators employed under contracts should be entitled to due process before being systematically fired and that districts should consider the specific circumstances of each case before ultimately making the employment decisions that are best for their students and staff.
Based on factual information from ATPE and other sources about HB 1610, PolitiFact concluded, “There was never a vote to stop schools from firing teachers convicted of a felony.” They noted that “Van de Putte voted against making it easier to terminate such teachers – a toughening that was supported by Patrick to wipe out the right of teachers to request an independent hearing before being let go.” Patrick’s claim was rated by PolitiFact as “Mostly False.”