It’s been a busy week in the Texas Capitol for the ATPE Governmental Relations team as the Senate held a handful of big issue hearings in the Senate Education and State Affairs committees. The serving of hot topics included vouchers, districts of innovation (DOI), individual graduation committees, and payroll deduction.
Senate Education Committee
The education committee kicked the week off on Tuesday with an interim charge on access to digital learning opportunities in Texas classrooms. Invited testifiers lauded the advantages of using technology programs in the classroom, discussed ways some districts and education service centers (ESCs) have overcome limited broadband access, and dove into the federal e-rate program. The e-rate program is currently offering a 10 to 1 match for states that seek to expand broadband infrastructure. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter, who handled testimony in the Senate this week, encouraged senators to take advantage of the limited-time arrangement offered through the e-rate program. He also reminded the committee that while digital learning is a great tool, it is important to not consider it a panacea, and training and support for teachers, among other things, must be paired in order for it to be effective.
The committee also received an update on the individual graduation committees that were created last session by Senator Kel Seliger’s SB 149. The bill received strong support from both education committees last session and was voted out of each chamber by overwhelming majorities, taking immediate effect after being signed into law by the Governor. The law is set to expire unless the Texas Legislature chooses to renew it in 2017. ATPE expressed support for continuing the committees, recognizing that state standardized tests should not be the only thing that stands between a qualified student and a diploma.
On Wednesday, the committee held a marathon interim hearing covering vouchers, DOI, and a bill that altered the minimum school year standard from days to minutes. ATPE joined other public school advocates in opposition of the voucher charge, which instructs the committee to study “education savings account and tax credit scholarship programs” in other states. Exter stressed to senators our concerns about the funding issues with a voucher proposal, which not only uses public dollars to support non-public schools, but also fails to address the real funding problem: the students who need the most resources are the students most underfunded. Under any form of a voucher, it would still be the lowest-income students receiving the fewest amount of resources; such a plan would only exasperate the problem for most.
Exter also testified on DOI, a new Texas law allowing acceptably-rated districts to opt themselves out of large amounts of the education code. A bipartisan handful of senators (those who were left in the room at the late hour) agreed with Exter’s testimony that raised alarm to the fact that essentially no checks and balances exist under the law and additional transparency should be fostered through the application process.
Senate State Affairs Committee
Also on Wednesday, the Senate State Affairs Committee held a hearing on payroll deduction. The committee, chaired by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), was given an interim charge from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) to “examine the practice of using public funds and employees for the payment processing of union dues” and “make recommendations on whether Texas should end this practice.” Sen. Huffman authored a bill last legislative session that would have prohibited most public employers, including school districts, from allowing their staffs to use payroll deduction for payment of their voluntary dues to professional associations such as ATPE. That 2015 bill passed the Senate on a party line vote but died in a House committee. On Wednesday, the Senate State Affairs Committee first heard testimony from the State Comptroller’s office about the criteria that must be met for organizations to qualify for payroll deductions through government employers. Following that testimony, representatives from the Texas affiliate of the National Federal of Independent Business (NFIB) and the Texas Association of Business (TAB) both urged the committee to prohibit the use of payroll deduction for dues payments but admitted that there was virtually no cost to the state or taxpayers associated with that practice. The committee then heard testimony from several public employees and representatives of groups that could be affected by payroll deduction legislation. ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday testified that public employers’ payroll offices routinely process a host of deductions from their employees’ paychecks, including insurance premiums and voluntary payments to charities and professional associations like ATPE. She emphasized that ATPE is not a labor union and does not engage in collective bargaining, calling efforts to prohibit payroll deduction in our state for hardworking public servants such as teachers, police officers, and firefighters an “unnecessary” and “misdirected” objective.
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education (SBOE) convened a few blocks away to cover an agenda that included its own high profile issue: a controversial proposed new Mexican-American studies textbook. Look for more on the SBOE meeting in Friday’s wrap-up and stay tuned as the House and Senate committees are poised to convene regularly in the upcoming months.