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From The Texas Tribune: Texas’ coronavirus strategy is a patchwork of different local rules

While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.

Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.

That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”

Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.

To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.

Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.

According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.

Local decision-making

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.

That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.

Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.

It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”

She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.

Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.

That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.

But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.

“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”

Elected officials respond

Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.

Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.

“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.

“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”

Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”

“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”

But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.

“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/17/experts-say-texas-patchwork-strategy-coronavirus-problem/.

From The Texas Tribune: Most Texans want lower property taxes and more school spending, UT/TT Poll finds

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
Feb. 17, 2020

Illustration by Emily Albracht/The Texas Tribune

Texas voters still think that property taxes are too high and that the state spends too little on public education, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Local property taxes are a key source of funding for public education, and last year’s Texas legislative session was focused on those two issues. Lawmakers sought to increase the state’s share of public education spending and to increase incentives for local school districts to hold down property tax increases.

A majority of Texas voters said they pay too much in property taxes. Only 5% said they pay too little, and 26% said Texans pay about the right amount. Among Democrats, 45% said the property tax tab is too high; 63% of independents and 59% of Republicans said so. The “too much” number among all voters has dropped to 54%, compared with 60% in the June 2019 UT/TT Poll, but remains a majority view.

Overall, 50% of Texas voters said the state spends too little on public education, while 12% said spending is too high and 21% said it’s about right. Democrats, at 69%, were most likely to say spending is too low. Among Republicans, 32% agreed, but another 32% said spending is about right. Only 19% of Republicans said public education spending is too high.

“The results are slightly more positive on property taxes, stagnant on public education,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. The overall on property taxes hasn’t changed dramatically, however. “It’s an article of faith that taxes are too high,” Blank said. “It would take a pretty drastic change for that attitude to move.”

A plurality of Texans gave good grades to the quality of public education in the state. A total of 46% rated it “excellent” or “good,” while 42% rated it “not very good” or “terrible.” Praise was stronger in Republican quarters, where grades for the schools were 55% good and 34% bad. Among Democrats, the good-to-bad split was 41-47.

Most Texans, 54%, said the state government here is a good model for other states to follow, and they gave relatively positive ratings to two of the state’s top three leaders. Almost half of the voters said Gov. Greg Abbott is doing a good job in office, while 34% disapprove of the work he’s been doing. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won approval from 39% and disapproval from 35%, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was given good marks by 19% and bad ones by 27%. Bonnen, caught on tape last year plotting against some of his fellow Republicans in the House, isn’t seeking another term in the Legislature.

The University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet survey of 1,200 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9 and has an overall margin of error of +/- 2.83 percentage points, and an overall margin of error of +/- 4.09 percentage points for Democratic trial ballots. Numbers in charts might not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Reference
University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, February 2020 – Day 2 summary
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Reference
University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, February 2020 – Methodology
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/02/17/most-texans-want-lower-property-taxes-and-more-school-spending-poll-fi/.

From The Texas Tribune: Half of registered Texas voters turned out in 2018. Just 12% turned out this year.

This year, 12% of registered voters cast ballots, compared with 6% of the state’s 15 million registered voters who voted in 2017. Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Half of registered Texas voters turned out in 2018. Just 12% turned out this year.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas voters approved nine amendments to the state’s Constitution on Tuesday. Only 12% of registered voters actually cast ballots — a higher percentage from the 2017 election, but still overwhelmingly low overall.

A majority of Texas voters must approve any changes to the Texas Constitution. Getting a proposed amendment on the ballot requires support from more than two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature.

Voters in some communities also weighed in on important local issues. For example, Houston voters weighed in on a contentious mayoral race, while Travis County voters approved a proposition authorizing 2% of the hotel occupancy tax to go toward renovating the Travis County Exposition Center.

Turnout is — and has always been — historically low in elections that take place during odd-numbered years. Here’s what it looked like this year.

How easy is it to amend the Texas Constitution?

It’s fairly simple.

That simplicity, in part, is because few people vote in constitutional amendment elections. This year, 12% of registered voters cast ballots, compared with 6% of the state’s 15 million registered voters who voted in 2017. By comparison, 59% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the latest presidential election.

Unsurprisingly, turnout relies heavily on what’s on the ballot. Turnout in 2015 was higher than normal in part because of a Houston mayor’s race and a state ballot proposition dealing with property taxes. In 2005, nearly 18% of registered voters cast ballots. That year, voters overwhelmingly approved writing a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s Constitution. Twelve percent of registered voters voted in 2003, when a controversial amendment limiting lawsuit damages was on the ballot.

Do people vote on the whole ballot?

For the most part, yes. But they don’t have to.

Proposition 4, which would make it harder to enact a state income tax, received the most votes by a hair — roughly 1.97 million Texans who cast ballots weighed in on this change to the Constitution.

The closest race on the ballot was Proposition 9, which would allow the Legislature to create a property tax exemption for precious metals in state depositories like the Texas Bullion Depository. Proposition 9 also had the lowest turnout, with only 1.89 million Texans casting ballots — 79,057 fewer votes cast than there were on Proposition 4.

In 2005, more than 2.2 million people voted on the proposition concerning same-sex couples. The proposition with the fewest number of votes — an item focused on clearing land titles in Upshur and Smith counties — had only 1.9 million votes.

Turnout is hard to chart during constitutional amendment elections because of how the Texas secretary of state compiles data. A spokesman with the agency said voter turnout data is compiled based on a designated turnout race, even if it’s not the race with the most votes. This year, the designated race is Proposition 1.

Why was Proposition 4 so popular?

The proposition, authored by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, drew considerable attention in the lead-up to Election Day.

Supporters of the amendment said they wanted to provide assurance to residents and outsiders interested in doing business in Texas that the state is committed to a business-friendly environment; those in opposition argued the measure could tie the hands of future generations as they look to fund areas like education and health care.

Several left-leaning groups, including the Center for Public Policy Priorities, rallied against the proposal. CPPP says it launched digital ads in “targeted areas of the state” and sent a mail piece to tens of thousands of households.

Which counties had higher turnout than others?

Among the 10 counties with the most registered voters, Harris, Fort Bend and Travis counties had the highest turnout. Harris County had a 15.69% turnout this year, compared with 6.46% in 2017. Fort Bend County had a 14.69% turnout, compared with 6.6% in 2017.

One of the reasons for Harris County’s higher turnout is because its county seat, Houston, is the only major Texas city that holds its mayoral race in November. (Dallas and San Antonio held their elections in May.)

This year’s Houston race drew considerable attention as first-term Mayor Sylvester Turner sought to fend off several challengers, including high-wattage trial attorney Tony Buzbee, who self-funded his campaign to the tune of $10 million. It’s also the first mayoral race to take place since Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas coast. Turner received 47% of the vote, compared with Buzbee’s 28%, sending the two to a runoff election slated for next month.

In addition to the rollicking mayoral race, Houston-area voters living in two state House districts had high-profile special elections on the ballot.

After the resignations of state Reps. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Jessica Farrar D-Houston, some voters in the Houston-area districts voted for their next state representatives. (Only Houston-area voters living in District 28 and District 148 cast ballots in these two races.)

Farrar’s seat is solidly blue; Zerwas’ seat, meanwhile, was a target for Democrats well before he announced he was resigning and joining the University of Texas System. Eliz Markowitz is the sole Democratic candidate in the race. Six GOP candidates have also lined up for the seat.

In Farrar’s former district, Democrat Anna Eastman and Republican Luis La Rotta are headed to the next round; in Zerwas’ former district, Markowitz and Republican Gary Gates will go to a runoff.

Carla Astudillo contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities, Tony Buzbee and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/11/06/texas-2019-election-voter-turnout/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas lets struggling schools partner with nonprofits or charters for improvement. But many got Fs this year.

Kate Yetter teaches fifth grade writing at Ogden Academy in San Antonio ISD, which has been low-performing for seven years in a row. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Adrain Johnson was one of five Texas school superintendents last year to take a Hail Mary pass in order to improve two low-performing schools: He let a new nonprofit take over the management of Hearne ISD’s elementary and junior high, both of which had failed to meet state academic standards for years.

The partnerships, an idea lawmakers approved in 2017, are supposed to give the outside organizations — charter groups, private nonprofits or universities — flexibility to try out new educational models and hopefully lead to major gains in student test scores. In return, the low-performing schools get more money per student and a two-year pause from any state penalties, which are required after a school has underperformed for five years or more in a row.

But after a year being run by Hearne Education Foundation, and managed by a separate appointed school board of regional educators, Hearne Elementary School received its seventh consecutive failing rating from the state this month, meaning it may have to shut down unless it passes over the next couple of years.

In fact, seven of the 12 schools across the state in similar partnerships with nonprofits or charters received F ratings this year, including four that, like Hearne Elementary, that could face state sanctions if they don’t pass in the next couple of years. All 12 schools serve student populations that are between 70% and 100% economically disadvantaged, in school districts with higher rates of teacher turnover than state average.

Partnerships with charters and nonprofits show mixed results

The 2017 Texas Legislature allowed public schools to partner with charter groups and nonprofits, giving them two years to demonstrate progress and avoid shutdown. After the first year, the direct effect of the partnerships is unclear.

Hearne Junior High, a rural Central Texas school with 100% economically disadvantaged students, had actually managed to improve significantly before the partnership even started and its performance remained relatively steady this year. That means it’s safe for now from any state penalties.

Johnson said he’s proud of the district’s improvement, given the challenges an underperforming school faces in being able to overcome the stigma of working or learning there. It’s hard to convince high-quality teachers to work in a school that may close within a few years. And the elementary school’s new principal didn’t have much time to build relationships with staff members and students before the next round of state tests came.

“It’s like running against the wind. You can be a good runner, but if you’re running against the wind, it makes it hard for you to perform well,” he said.

Texas recently switched its school assessment system to give schools and districts letter grades based almost entirely on state standardized tests, especially in the elementary and middle schools, replacing a previous pass/fail system. And alongside the new report card came higher stakes and drastic penalties for the schools that perform poorly year after year.

But lawmakers gave school officials a life raft from those penalties by incentivizing them to partner with private or governmental groups — a last ditch effort at improvement before the schools are forced to completely shutter. Any school can be under a partnership; underperforming schools get the benefit of a temporary pause on having their ratings count against them.

Transforming a long-struggling school into a top-rated one requires more than just a focus on academics. It also requires a massive cultural shift: stopping teachers and principals from leaving at such high rates, figuring out better ways to manage student behavior and erasing a negative reputation earned over the course of several years.

“This first year would’ve been great if all our partnership schools would have done amazing. But this kind of change and these turnaround strategies don’t happen overnight,” said Bibi Yasmin Katsev, executive director of the Texas District Charter Alliance, which advocates for district-charter partnerships.

She warned against coming to conclusions too soon about the value of the partnerships.

“Just looking back on this one year, we are really hopeful and we really think a lot of these schools will improve themselves after the next year,” she said. “If not, we really need high-quality partners.”

The challenges a school district faces don’t just go away with a new partner. Ector County ISD, in West Texas’ oil-rich Permian Basin, is missing almost 20% of needed teaching staff, starting the year with 349 vacancies, said Scott Muri, the new superintendent. Housing is extremely expensive in the area and teachers have turned jobs down because they can’t afford to live there.

“You can get a good wage job here. The oil industry pays. But in education, we have a hard time competing,” he said.

In Waco ISD, where five low-performing campuses were turned over to a new nonprofit, administrators said many teachers jumped ship at two of the schools before the partnership even began. That left the nonprofit starting at a disadvantage finding high-quality educators — a key goal of the partnership.

Those schools — J.H. Hines Elementary and G.W. Carver Middle — both improved significantly in 2017-18, but then plummeted to an F this year, with the latter dropping the equivalent of two grades.

But all of Waco ISD’s schools have met state standards for at least one of the last five years, meaning they won’t face state sanctions anytime soon. Waco ISD officials created their own nonprofit to partner with while state education officials were creating rules outlining how the partnership law would work — a serious logistic challenge, according to Kyle DeBeer, the district’s assistant superintendent of communications.

Other districts also faced logistical issues getting ramped up in the first year, with some guidance but little established structure from state education officials.

Besides Hearne Elementary, Ector College Prep Success Academy in Ector County ISD, Ogden Academy in San Antonio ISD, and Mendez Middle School in Austin ISD all need to do better in the next couple of years or else they might be forced to shut down. Shutting down a school is generally extremely unpopular with parents and community members, and requires a school officials to figure out other schools for those students.

Instead of shutting down Ogden Academy, San Antonio ISD handed the management of the elementary school to Relay Lab Schools, a charter organization affiliated with the Relay Graduate School of Education. The school is now a training ground for student teachers, who commit to work in the district for three years after graduation.

“Turnaround is hard and it takes some time and it takes relentlessness,” said Mohammed Choudhury, chief innovation officer at San Antonio ISD.

According to Choudhury, Ogden Academy students started off further behind academically than students at Stewart, another chronically low-performing elementary school that improved significantly the year before its partnership began and then plummeted to a D rating this year. Families of students at Ogden are more likely to have less education and lower incomes.

The 10-year contract with Relay Lab Schools allows school district officials to consider dissolving the partnership if they don’t see needed results within the first few years.

A little-known provision in the partnership law allows low-performing schools to get up to two additional years of a reprieve from state penalties, if the Texas education commissioner approves it. Both Choudhury and Johnson, of Hearne ISD, said they would consider asking the state for an extension from those penalties, if their schools don’t improve.

Johnson said Hearne’s partnership, which has drawn on the expertise of local school district and university educators, allows them to use data more effectively to pinpoint specific weaknesses. Some of the best teachers from local school districts in East Texas and the Houston area have gone to teach Saturday classes in Hearne, and Texas A&M professors helped with professional development for Hearne’s teachers.

Johnson wants those benefits to last.

“We didn’t create this and go into this with it being a two-to-three year and done system,” he said. “We’re trying to build a system that has sustainability.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/08/27/texas-charter-nonprofit-ratings/.

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Three Texas school districts face state penalties after 2019 A-F grades released

Three Texas school districts face state penalties after 2019 A-F grades released” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

San Antonio ISD’s Ogden Academy failed to meet academic standards but has a temporary reprieve from state penalties. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Three Texas school districts — including the state’s largest — will likely be forced to shut down their chronically underperforming schools or submit to state takeover, based on annual state ratings released Thursday morning.

Houston ISD, Shepherd ISD and Snyder ISD all have at least one school that failed state ratings for five or more years in a row, subjecting them to bruising state penalties created in 2015. School superintendents will be allowed to appeal their ratings by mid-September, and final decisions will be out by the end of the year.

While Houston ISD’s Kashmere High School, the state’s longest-underperforming school, soared from an F to a C this year, Wheatley High School failed to meet state academic standards for the seventh year in a row.

This is the second year that Texas has awarded letter grades to school districts and the first year for schools, replacing a previous pass/fail system. (Schools last year received numeric scores that could easily be translated into grades.) The grades are intended to represent students’ academic performance, based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates.

For superintendents and principals, the pressure to get a good report card is high: Texas has increased the stakes of the accountability system in recent years, promising harsh penalties for schools and districts that repeatedly underperform.

Schools that fail to meet state academic standards for more than four years in a row will be forcibly shuttered, or the state will take over their school districts.

This year, further raising those stakes, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath instituted a policy change to count a D grade as “unacceptable” performance, which critics argue will only increase the number of schools facing state penalties.

Last year, Houston ISD was one of 92 school districts that received a waiver from state ratings, because of the damaging effects of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey on students’ academic performance. That waiver saved it last year. No similar waivers were offered this year.

Snyder ISD, in West Texas, and Shepherd ISD, north of Houston, were also at risk of state takeover, each with at least one school that had been failing for four years. Snyder’s junior high school and Shepherd’s elementary and intermediate schools received their fifth consecutive failing ratings this year.

The state offered school districts a life raft: Those that handed the management of their underperforming schools to a nonprofit, university or charter group could get a two-year pause from sanctions.

Without that life raft, at least six districts — Ector County ISD, Lubbock ISD, Hearne ISD, Austin ISD, Beaumont ISD and San Antonio ISD — would have been in trouble. Ogden Academy, one of San Antonio ISD’s elementary schools, received its sixth F in a row this year. But the district’s leaders handed over control of curriculum, hiring and other duties to the Relay Graduate School of Education, giving Ogden more time to improve.

Midland ISD’s Travis Elementary School, in West Texas, also received a fifth consecutive low rating, but it received an exception from the state because it will partner with IDEA, a charter district, in 2020.

But Houston, Snyder and Shepherd ISDs did not enter into partnerships and subsequently failed to improve the performance of their schools. In Houston, community members effectively blocked the school board from using the law, arguing that giving nonprofits or charters control of their low-performing schools would privatize public education.

Even if all of Houston ISD’s schools had improved, the district was looking at likely state takeover due to its dysfunctional school board. A recent preliminary state investigation recommended state education officials take over Houston ISD’s elected school board, plagued by infighting and scandals for years, and replace it with an appointed board of managers.

The move to letter grade ratings, with the higher stakes attached to them, is extremely controversial, especially among many educators.

They argue that letter grades are overly simplistic measures of a long list of complex metrics and mislead parents about the quality of a school or district. They also dislike how much the system is based on students’ standardized test scores, the only consistent statewide evaluation but one widely mistrusted to accurately depict whether students are learning.

Despite the criticism, lawmakers did little to adjust how the state assesses school districts in the legislative session that wrapped up in May.

State officials have argued that the letter grades are more accessible for parents who want to know how well their children’s schools are doing and that they allow the state to better keep tabs on underperforming schools. The state also has updated a public website intended to present the ratings in a more easily digestible way, including new tools that allow for comparisons among schools and districts.

“All of these tools are designed to provide as much transparency to administrators and school leaders, as well as to parents and members of the public,” Morath said at a recent media roundtable.

A higher percentage of school districts that received letter grades were awarded A’s and B’s this year, compared with last year. A smaller percentage of districts received C’s, D’s and F’s.

The grades for schools and districts are determined by ratings in three categories: student achievement, school progress and closing the gaps. Those categories measure how students perform on state tests, how much those scores have improved and how well schools are educating their most disadvantaged students.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/08/15/texas-schools-grades-accountability/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: This session’s biggest mental health bill got killed on a technicality — then resurrected

This session’s biggest mental health bill got killed on a technicality — then resurrected” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has tried to kill several bills this session. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

A major mental health bill prioritized by the state’s top leaders as a way to help prevent school shootings was partially revived late Tuesday night hours after it appeared to have been abruptly killed on a technicality during a dramatic night in the Texas House.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which created a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services. Stickland’s point of order contended that an analysis of the bill provided to lawmakers was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in Stickland’s favor.

But hours later, provisions from SB 10 were added to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that the lower chamber passed earlier in the evening. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, sponsored SB 10 in the House and successfully amended it to SB 11 over Stickland’s objections shortly before a midnight House deadline to advance bills from the upper chamber.

SB 10 is one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated it one of his 30 legislative priorities.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill’s author, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of school shootings. It had bipartisan backing and cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.

“I think it was a well-intentioned bill that had some very bad unintended consequences,” Stickland told the Tribune by phone Tuesday night, an hour after his point of order initially knocked the bill out of contention. “I think it could have been stronger on parental rights to make sure our constitutional rights are protected in the bill.”

Asked if he was bracing for backlash from leadership over killing such a high-profile bill, Stickland said, “I expect it.”

Within a couple of hours, Stickland got it.

As it became clear Tuesday that Stickland’s point of order would torpedo the legislation, key players who worked on SB 10 moved quickly to figure out next steps. Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, walked across the Capitol rotunda into the Senate, where he spoke with Nelson, presumably about news of the bill’s fate.

“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” Zerwas told the Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland, who’s pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them, and he wins some, he loses some, and unfortunately, he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”

Just before 11 p.m., state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican and brother of the House speaker, made a motion to revive the mental health bill by amending a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier Tuesday. He offered a cryptic message that there was “an opportunity to do some additional work” in order to “further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”

Stickland approached the chamber’s back microphone with questions.

“Is this something we’ve seen before?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Greg Bonnen said.

Stickland attempted to delay the motion, asking procedural questions about how the chamber was going to reconsider a portion of a bill that had already passed. He then gave a speech imploring colleagues not to reconsider SB 11, the school safety bill.

“Maybe you plan on voting for it, and that’s fine,” Stickland said. “But here’s what I can promise you: One day, there’s gonna be something that you care about where you might be in the minority. … You’re going to hope that these rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”

At one point, Stickland and a group of lawmakers huddled at the front dais to discuss his attempts to prevent adding the mental health provisions to the school safety bill.

“I’m sick of this shit,” Stickland could be heard telling Dennis Bonnen.

Zerwas eventually succeeded in reviving major elements of the mental health bill, despite two further attempts from Stickland to prohibit the amendment on technicalities.

Stickland has built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, under both Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on several high-priority bills this year, including the House’s school finance reform proposal.

On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. In April, for example, he successfully knocked several measures off of that day’s local and consent calendar, which is typically reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.

On Monday, he used a point of order to successfully halt a bill that would have made it illegal to leave an unattended dog tied up in an inhumane manner. And earlier Tuesday, Stickland unsuccessfully called a point of order on SB 11, the school safety bill that would later be used as the vehicle to revive SB 10.

It was one of two school safety bills that advanced in the Legislature within hours of each other. The Senate also approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.

The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for youth access to mental health care. According to its 2019 report, The State of Mental Health in America, 71.3% of youth in Texas with major depression go untreated, compared with the national average of 61.5%.

Acacia Coronado, Emily Goldstein, Alex Samuels, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/21/texas-mental-health-bill-killed-over-technicality/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Welcome to Hell Week for the Texas Legislature

Analysis by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
May 20, 2019

Analysis: Welcome to Hell Week for the Texas Legislature” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Dense fog blankets the dome of the Capitol in Austin. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune

Here at the beginning of a week in which most bills in the Texas Legislature will die, the big priorities set out at the beginning, in January, are still alive: school finance, property tax reform, school safety and responses to Hurricane Harvey.

Lots of other proposals are fading fast.

As of Friday, just over 5% of the 7,324 bills filed in the House and Senate this session had made it all the way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That tells you a bit about what will happen in the next few days. When this is over, when lawmakers have gaveled out on Memorial Day, that percentage will have jumped considerably. Two years ago, 18% of the filed bills made it to the governor. Four years ago, it was 21%. And in 2013, it was 24.4%.

But don’t just look at success; that won’t explain the dramatic tension of the next few days. Look instead at the overwhelming failure rate. Only about 1 bill in 5 — 1 in 4 in a good year — makes it out of a regular session alive. Everything else (that hasn’t found new life as an amendment to other legislation) meets its final end in the final week — when procedural deadlines form a bottleneck that most of the stampeding legislation doesn’t survive.

Those failures are not always surprising to the authors of bills, but failure is a tough ending when a legislator has worked for 20 weeks or more to make some changes in the state’s law books.

The big stuff is all right — at least for a minute — but other things you’ve probably heard or read about are in peril, a list that includes new laws that would allow people and businesses to discriminate when that’s based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”; limits on local residents’ ability to block oil and gas pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure projects; and loosening of the state’s current restrictions on medical marijuana. There’s also the Senate confirmation of Abbott’s Secretary of State appointee, David Whitley, who presided over the state’s botched search for noncitizens on the state’s rolls of registered voters and who’s out of a job if the Senate doesn’t confirm him before the session ends. Until Sunday night, it also included changes to election laws sought by Republican lawmakers; that bill didn’t get onto the House’s final calendar, but its provisions could find their way into other legislation before the session ends.

That’s a tiny sample of what’s in the air, and it’s changing fast. Some of the items on that list have already died once or twice, only to pop up in some other form. You’ll know in a week or so — after Memorial Day — what’s really dead and what really passed.

The Texas Legislature’s Doomsday Calendar — the dramatic name for the deadlines that stack up at the end of a regular legislative session — only has a few squares left.

Four of those are red-letter days:

  • Tuesday, May 21, the last day Senate bills can be considered for the first time in the House.
  • Wednesday, May 22, the last day the House can consider Senate bills on a local and consent calendar, which is for uncontested legislation, for the first time.
  • Friday, May 24, the last day the House can decide whether to accept or negotiate Senate changes to bills.
  • Sunday, May 26, the last day the House and Senate can vote on final versions of bills they’ve been negotiating.

The last day — the 140th — gets a Latin name, but not a red border. It’s sine die, the last day of the 86th Texas Legislature’s regular session.

Another clock starts then, marking the time between the end of the legislative session and Father’s Day — June 16 — the last day Abbott can veto legislation passed by the House and Senate.

That’s an important deadline, but it’s not one that legislators can control. Their ability to steer the state will ebb soon — but not just yet. For them, we’re entering make-or-break week.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/20/welcome-to-texas-legislature-hell-week/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Senate approves school finance reform bill, but opts not to fund it with a sales tax hike

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks from the dais in the Senate chamber last month. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate approves school finance reform bill, but opts not to fund it with a sales tax hike” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

Since school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any tax relief effort would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools, if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.

Taylor had originally included several provisions that would provide ongoing tax relief, paid for by an increase in the sales tax by one percentage point.

Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had thrown their support behind that sales tax swap, arguing it would help Texans who are currently being taxed out of their homes. But the proposal has serious detractors in lawmakers from both parties in both chambers who are opposed to a higher sales tax.

So Taylor stripped the increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

A few senators didn’t vote yes on HB 3 because they didn’t know the cost of the bill or how their school districts would be affected by it.

“The lack of a fiscal note delineating the total cost of the bill was unacceptable,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who voted against the bill along with state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.

Creighton echoed those concerns about not knowing the legislation’s price tag, though he said he agreed with its policy.

“Before the session ends, I will have another chance to vote on the final bill, and I look forward to supporting it once I have a clear understanding of the impacts on school districts in Senate District 4, and the true cost of the legislation, which will have implications for all Texas taxpayers,” he said in a statement after the vote.

State Sens. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, marked themselves “present, not voting.”

The House and Senate have passed versions of HB 3 that are similar in some ways: Both would raise the base funding per student — a number that hasn’t budged in four years — and would provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-K for eligible students.

Among the disagreements: how to make sure school employees get much-needed raises. The Senate has prioritized $5,000 pay raises for all full-time teachers and librarians. The House has directed districts to give all school employees about $1,388 in raises on average statewide and designated extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion.

Senate Democrats’ efforts to extend those $5,000 raises to full-time counselors and other employees failed along party lines Monday.

Also controversially for some, the Senate includes money providing bonuses to schools based on third-grade test scores and funding districts that want to provide merit pay for their top-rated teachers. Many teacher groups have opposed both, arguing it would put more emphasis on a flawed state standardized test.

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, failed to get an amendment to the bill approved that would strike tying any funding to third-grade test scores.

Teachers, parents and advocates following on social media had paid attention to Powell’s amendment, mobilizing in support through a Twitter hashtag “#NoSTAARonHB3.”

Taylor pointed out that the bill also allows school districts to use assessments other than the state’s STAAR standardized test, which has lately come under renewed scrutiny, with researchers and advocates arguing it doesn’t adequately measure students’ reading abilities. He approved an amendment requiring the state to pay for school districts to use those alternative tests, which he estimated would cost about $4 million.

Emma Platoff contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/06/texas-senate-school-finance-sales-tax/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas House approves 2020-21 budget plan, with extra $9 billion for school finance, property tax relief

By Edgar Walters, Cassandra Pollock and Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune
March 27, 2019

Texas House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, talks with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on March 27, 2019, as the House took up the budget debate. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune

Texas House approves 2020-21 budget plan, with extra $9 billion for school finance, property tax relief” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.

Debate on HB1, the House state budget bill, continues into its 12th hour as State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Dallas, shows the strain of a long night. March 27, 2019.
Debate on HB1, the House state budget bill, continues into its 12th hour as State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Dallas, shows the strain of a long night. March 27, 2019. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune. 

 

A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.

Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.

The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.

“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, addresses the house floor during budget night at the State Capitol on March 27, 2019
Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, addresses the house floor during budget night at the State Capitol on March 27, 2019. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune 

 

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.

A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.

Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.

Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.

“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”

“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.

A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.

Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.

Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.

The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.

Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond (right), speaks with Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston (left), in the House Chamber on March 27, 2019, the day the House will take up HB1, the 2020-21 budget plan.
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond (right), speaks with Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston (left), in the House Chamber on March 27, 2019, the day the House will take up HB1, the 2020-21 budget plan. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune 

 

The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.

A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.

The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.

Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.

The supplemental bill also includes:

  • Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
  • About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
  • Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
  • $2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/03/27/texas-budget-house-2019/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

From The Texas Tribune: Momentum for “private school choice” in Texas fades in 2019

In 2017, top Texas lawmakers were galvanized for “private school choice.” This year, momentum has faded.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a rally at the Capitol for school choice January 24, 2017. Both Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick spoke in favor of expanding school choice options. Students, educators, activists and parents marched on the south lawn to show their support for expanding school choice options during National School Choice Week. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

In 2017, top Texas lawmakers were galvanized for “private school choice.” This year, momentum has faded.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Two years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stood on the steps of the Texas Capitol before a throng of waving yellow scarves and urged lawmakers to vote for programs that give parents state money to attend private schools.

This Wednesday, those two top Republicans may not even attend the rally for National School Choice Week, let alone have speaking roles.

Though “school choice” supporters will still excitedly don their signature bright yellow scarves Wednesday, they will likely be fighting an uphill battle the rest of this session to get support in the Capitol.

In the months after 2017’s rally, House lawmakers unequivocally voted to reject school vouchers or similar programs that allow parents to use public money for private education. In 2018, a key election ousted some of the programs’ largest supporters, including Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, one of the loudest cheerleaders in the House. And as state Republicans tour the state making constituents a new set of education-related promises, many have swapped the words “school choice” for “school finance.”

So far, even Abbott and Patrick have rarely brought up their former pet issue without being asked directly — beyond Abbott’s routine proclamation for this year’s School Choice Week. The new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, said last week that the House would not pass legislation approving vouchers — and that he had consistently voted no on similar bills.

“I’m not willing to say, ‘hey, this issue is dead.’ But leadership seems to be saying that, at least for this particular session,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, one of the biggest opponents of those programs.

The issue was politically divisive last session, with public school educators arguing it would siphon money from public schools. The Senate passed a diluted version of the bill that would allow parents of students with disabilities to pay for private school and homeschooling, with supporters arguing it would empower families to make the best educational choices for their kids. Facing resistance in the House, Senate leaders refused to approve an overhaul of the school finance system without those subsidies — forcing a stalemate.

Abbott demanded lawmakers pass both in a summer special session. Both failed to pass again.

Randan Steinhauser, who along with her husband Brendan has helped lead the fight for voucher-like programs in Texas, said both Abbott and Patrick have been invited to support the cause from the stage at Wednesday’s rally. But they aren’t scheduled to give formal speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, both Republicans, are expected to speak and, she said, “having one elected official after another is not the most engaging thing for our audience.”

In 2017, Steinhauser helped start an organization called Texans for Education Opportunity, which hired about a dozen lobbyists to push the benefits of giving parents taxpayer money to use for private school tuition and homeschooling. This year, Texans for Education Opportunity has no lobbyists registered.

Steinhauser and Texans for Education Opportunity founder Stacy Hock both say they are instead focusing on organizing families to speak directly to lawmakers.

“Thankfully, we will not be doing a huge lobby effort this session,” Hock said. ‘What has become apparent to me is that the most important voice in this discussion is that of Texas families.”

Steinhauser rejects the idea that lawmakers got kicked out of office for supporting the issue.

“If that were the case, Dan Patrick would have lost. He’s the biggest champion in the state and he’s coming back for another term,” she said. “No one won or lost on the issue of school choice.”

But lawmakers appear to be putting distance between themselves and the issue, at least for the time being.

Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told a group of free-market conservatives earlier this month that school choice “is not going to be the focus this session” and “not part of the school finance bill.” That’s a far cry from 2017, when he authored the Senate’s bill for private school tuition subsidies.

But he’s not alone in his change of tone. Two years ago, sporting a yellow scarf of his own atop a navy blue suit, Patrick expressed his disappointment with the Texas House in front of thousands of students and family members from charter schools and private schools.

“We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice,” he said, amid loud cheers. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it.”

This year, when asked whether the issue would return to the Senate, Patrick was less direct: “We’ll see, we’ll see. It’s a long session.”

Disclosure: Stacy Hock and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/01/23/momentum-school-choice-vouchers-texas-fades-2019/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.