We’re counting down the last few days of the 85th legislative session. Here are the latest updates:
The 85th Texas Legislature is set to adjourn sine die on Monday, May 29. As the clock winds down on the regular session, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins provides this update on the ongoing state budget negotiations:
Lawmakers are within sight of fulfilling their only constitutional obligation: To pass a state budget for the next two years. Despite all the threats regarding bathrooms and tax elections, failure to pass a budget during the 140 days of regular session is the only circumstance that would automatically trigger a special session.
This week conferees from the House and Senate have busily worked to iron out differences between the two chambers on SB 1, the general appropriations act – AKA the budget. On Thursday, the ten negotiators released their conference committee report, the last step before the budget receives a final vote in the House and Senate. Earlier this week, the committee posted issue docket decisions outlining the negotiation points within each budget article.
The final budget agreement allocates $216.8 billion in total state and federal funds over the next two years, including $106.7 billion in state general revenue. The budget funds public education at current levels adjusted for enrollment growth, but does so in part by taking advantage of rising local property values to further reduce the share of state funding. A proposal by House leadership to provide roughly $1.8 billion in additional funding to public schools contingent upon a school finance reform bill was killed by the Senate, which stripped the proposal down to $500 million before killing the bill altogether by refusing an offer by the House to negotiate.
Lawmakers reduced funding in a number of areas, including eliminating funding for the governor’s high quality pre-K program. The budget will draw $1 billion from the $10 billion rainy day fund and defer a $2 billion payment to the highway fund in order to avoid further program cuts.
The state budget is eligible for final consideration before the full House and Senate on Saturday, at which point each chamber may either approve or reject the bill by an “up or down” vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates this weekend.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there has been movement on drafting a federal budget. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann offers this report on the week’s developments:
President Donald Trump’s full budget proposal was released Tuesday, and, as was outlined in his budget blueprint released earlier this year, he wants to cut the federal education budget by more than 13 percent. The cuts would total $9.2 billion under the most recent proposal and would include slashing over $2 billion for a program aimed at teacher and principal training as well as more than $1 billion for after-school programs.
The proposed federal budget would also maintain regular Title I funding at current levels, but dedicate just under $1.5 billion to pet programs of Secretary of Education Betsy Devos under the guise of “school choice.” Within that amount, $250 million would go toward creating the beginnings of a federal voucher program for private schools. (It is expected that the administration and Secretary Devos will separately push a type of voucher known as a tax credit scholarship when President Trump pushes forward with a tax reform plan.) The remaining money would go toward a funding structure known as Title I portability and charter schools, with the vast majority going to the former. Title I portability would allow public school students to take their federal funding with them as they go to the public schools of their choice. ATPE has expressed concern over this type of funding in a letter to members of Congress because “focusing funding on individual students would divert funding from schools that serve students living in high concentrations of poverty” and are in most need of the additional federal funding.
However, President Trump’s full budget proposal is just that, a proposal. Following the release of the proposal, U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander stated, “Congress will write the budget and set the spending priorities. Where we find good ideas in the president’s budget, we will use them.” It is now up to Congress to develop a federal spending plan they can advance to the President for a signature. More details on the full proposal from the president can be read here.
Hopes for improved school funding and property tax relief were dashed this week when the Senate opted to doom House Bill (HB) 21, a school finance bill by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), rather than continue to negotiate its fate.
As we have been reporting on Teach the Vote, Huberty’s bill had broad support from the education community when it was approved by the House, offering an additional $1.6 billion in funding for public schools, hardship grants to help districts facing the loss of ASATR funding set to expire, and additional aid to students with dyslexia. However, the Senate chose to strip funding from the bill and use it instead as a vehicle for an educational savings account (ESA) voucher to pay for students with special needs to attend private or home schools. The Senate passed its version of HB 21 in the overnight hours Monday night/Tuesday morning by a vote of 21-10.
On Wednesday, the House discussed the Senate’s controversial changes to the bill. Chairman Huberty spoke passionately about the House’s efforts to find a school finance fix and lamented that the Senate had gutted the bill and stripped out its method of finance. House members also acknowledged the fact that passage of a school finance reform bill would be the only “direct” way that lawmakers could lower local property taxes. Rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, Reps. Huberty, Trent Ashby, Ken King, Gary VanDeaver, and Diego Bernal were then appointed to serve on a conference committee for HB 21.
The House also voted on a few motions to instruct their conferees, which serve to give guidance to the conference committee on the will of the House as negotiations continue on a bill. The first motion to instruct was made by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Fulshear) who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee. It called for the conferees to reject any voucher language in the school finance bill, and the House approved that motion by a vote of 101-45. Next, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) offered a motion to instruct the conferees to look for ways to offer school choice (vouchers) to students with special needs. The House rejected that instruction with a vote of 47-89. The House also adopted a motion to instruct by Rep. Ken King urging conferees to seek additional money for hardship grants to help districts that are losing ASATR funds; that motion passed on a vote of 132-12.
With the House having sent another strong message rejecting vouchers in any form, HB 21 was again in the hands of the Senate to appoint its five members of a conference committee to try to hammer out an agreement that would offer some school finance relief. Senate leaders announced quickly that same afternoon that they would not appoint members to a conference committee for further negotiations on the bill, effectively sealing its fate.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was quick to point the finger at House leaders for killing the bill, saying he was “appalled” that the Senate’s voucher plan to help students with special needs was rejected. House Speaker Joe Straus responded that the House had tried to work on school finance until the Senate abandoned that effort. “The Senate has chosen to focus on sending taxpayer dollars to private schools,” Straus wrote in a statement. “Most House members don’t support that idea, as today’s vote once again showed.” Straus added, “Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse.”
The only real school finance-related legislation still alive at this point is in the form of an amendment the Senate added to HB 22, the A-F accountability bill still being considered. The Senate added language to that bill pulled from SB 2144 calling for the creation of a commission that would study school finance during the interim.
In a signing ceremony yesterday, Gov. Gregg Abbott enacted Senate Bill (SB) 7, a bill aimed at stemming and strengthening penalties for educator misconduct, including inappropriate relationships with students. The bill by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which ATPE and other educator groups supported, will take effect September 1, 2017.
SB 7 requires automatic revocation of certificates of any educators who are required to register as sex offenders and requires educators applying for a new teaching job to disclose in an affidavit if they have ever been charged with or convicted of a crime involving misconduct with students. Some educators convicted of certain crimes involving children would lose their TRS pensions, too. The legislation expands current requirements for superintendents to report teacher misconduct to the State Board for Educator Certification by adding some new reporting requirements for school principals. SB 7 also requires school districts to adopt a policy on electronic communications between teachers and students, which many districts already have in place.
In an op-ed yesterday for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, Gov. Abbott wrote, “We will protect our children from sexual predators in our classrooms. We will not allow a few rotten apples to abuse this position of trust.” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath also praised the new law in a blog post:
“Parents should be confident that our schools are places of learning and trust for all students. When violations of that trust occur, there should be consequences. Senate Bill 7 provides the Texas Education Agency, law enforcement and local school districts with additional tools to continue our work in combatting educator misconduct.”
The 85th Legislature has finally passed a bill to prevent the TRS-Care healthcare program for retired educators from going under. House Bill (HB) 3976 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) received the approval of both the House and Senate and has been sent to Gov. Abbott for his review. The bill raises costs and limits options for retirees, but it was viewed as must-pass legislation by ATPE and other educator groups concerned about saving the TRS-Care program from going bankrupt. If the bill becomes law, these changes will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2018, and the TRS Board of Trustees will have a few months to iron out the details of the new plan. For more on the history of the TRS-Care legislation, view this recent blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter who has followed this issue throughout the legislative session.
Among the bills that remain up in the air in these waning days of the legislative session are Senate Bill (SB) 463 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo). The bill would extend the law allowing for Individual Graduation Committees to decide if certain students may graduate despite failing a STAAR test. That law, enacted in 2015, is set to expire unless the legislature acts. Sen. Seliger’s bill as filed would have made the IGC law permanent, but some senators objected and gave it merely a two-year extension instead. House members, under the leadership of Chairman Huberty, voted to extend the bill’s life to 2021. Now the Senate has an opportunity to concur in the Senate’s changes to the bill or appoint a conference committee if further negotiations are desired. It is up to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to decide if he will give Sen. Seliger an opportunity to bring up the bill and allow the Senate to make such a choice. If the Senate declines to take any action, the bill will die and the IGC law will expire.
Also pending is House Bill (HB) 22 by Chairman Huberty, aimed at improving the state’s A through F accountability system. The Senate passed its version of that bill at around 2:30 am early Wednesday morning, and Chairman Huberty asked the House this afternoon not to concur with the Senate’s changes to the bill. The House therefore has appointed Huberty to serve on a conference committee for HB 22, joined by House Public Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, Rep. Ken King, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, and Rep. Harold Dutton. Check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter for more on HB 22 and where it stands today.
Another bill most likely headed to a conference committee is Senate Bill 1839 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), which pertains to educator preparation and certification laws. It’s one of several ed prep bills that have been watched closely this session and undergone a number of changes.
Yet another bill still being considered is Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s (R-New Boston) HB 515, which began its life as a bill aimed at reduced state-mandated student testing. Along the way, the bill gained an amendment adding language from Rep. Ashby’s HB 1776 that would replace the state’s EOC test for U.S. history with the test administered nationally for citizenship purposes. The Senate made dramatic changes to the bill, stripping out much of the language pertaining to testing and instead calling for the State Board of Education to conduct an interim study of the social studies curriculum across multiple grades. This afternoon, on a motion by Rep. VanDeaver, the House voted to reject the Senate’s changes to the bill and appoint a conference committee instead. As with other bills, the conference committee must strike a deal by Saturday night to be voted on no later than Sunday by both the House and Senate. Otherwise, that bill will be declared dead, too.
A conference committee was already appointed on SB 179 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio), an anti-cyberbullying bill that ATPE supported. That conference committee has completed its work and submitted a report containing the agreed-upon bill language to be voted on by the House and Senate this weekend.
Of course, there is also legislation dealing with high-profile political issues that have been identified by Lt. Gov. Patrick and Gov. Abbott as “must pass” bills before the session deadlines run out, including restrictions on the use of bathrooms by transgender students, changes to local property tax laws, and voter ID requirements, which remain undecided at this point. Also, bills to keep some state agencies operating for the next two years are dependent on the passage of sunset legislation that has not yet been finalized. Many will be watching this weekend to see if deals can be struck to avoid a special session. As always, stay tuned to Teach the Vote and @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest news.