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
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.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is sworn in as House speaker by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Looking on is Bonnen’s wife Kimberly. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. The Angleton Republican replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.
Whereas Straus was known as a mild-mannered leader, Bonnen has developed more of a combatant’s reputation in the House. He seemed to lean into that perception in his remarks. “I’ve never seen the use in sugarcoating things,” Bonnen said. “I am direct and I am a problem solver.”
Lawmakers praised his leadership ability in a series of speeches preceding the vote. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks, in which she said Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served.”
The new speaker pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting “caught up in things that don’t lead to real results.” He named public school funding as his top priority, in addition to school safety, combating human trafficking and reforming property tax collection. He even went so far as to replace the drinking cups in the House members’ lounge with new ones reading, “School finance reform: The time is now.”
“You will be reminded every day,” Bonnen said.
Bonnen’s election was hardly a surprise; he first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November, working behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. In his closing remarks, after asking for unity among House members, he gave a tearful tribute to his father, recalling some advice from the elder Bonnen, who passed away in 2017.
“Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it,” he said. “There’s a saying we have in Texas: As Texas goes, so goes the nation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott praised Bonnen’s “tenacity” and echoed some of his legislative priorities in a speech to the lower chamber. “You have the ability — and we will achieve it — that we are going to reform school finance in the state of Texas this session,” Abbott said. “And we are going to reform property taxes in Texas this session.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead. Patrick’s office later said the meeting was about border security.
Before a crowd of doting spouses and toddling grandchildren, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to a slate of new and returning state senators. Among them were state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who gave up his powerful committee chairmanship last week after an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation, and incoming state Sen. Angela Paxton, who was accompanied by her husband, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Nelson, performing a duty traditionally left to the lieutenant governor, joked that she was certainly the first grandmother of 11 to gavel in a session of the Texas Legislature. Soon after, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and the former mayor of the capital city, was elected president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the governorship after Patrick.
Other visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.
This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next five months, the two legislative bodies will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?
But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.
The festivities reached all corners of the building.
Huddled in the Capitol’s rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.
“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.
Elsewhere, children clutched their parents’ hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors.
A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the Governor’s Mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Abbott to address global warming. By early afternoon, when the swearing-in ceremonies were finished and lawmakers adjourned for the day, the fog had dissipated.
Texas Commission on Public School Finance member Todd Williams of Dallas, left, speaks with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, on Jan. 23, 2018. | Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune
After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.
The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.
“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.
Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.
“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.
Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.
A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”
The vote was the culmination of nearly a year of meetings and hours of testimony from school superintendents, education advocates and policy experts.
Panel members have bickered for months about basic foundational concepts, including whether the state had been underfunding public schools and whether they actually need more money in order to improve. The report takes a middle ground approach, promising more money to school districts that meet certain criteria or agree to offer specific programs such as dual language or merit pay for teachers.
Many of the debates among panel members Wednesday reflected their political divisions, with Brister — a conservative and Abbott appointee — arguing against citing a specific amount lawmakers should infuse into the public school funding system and school officials saying the panel should take an explicit stand based on its research.
An earlier version of the report said lawmakers should take the “important first step” of approving more than $1.73 billion in “new funding” for “the vast majority (if not all)” of the proposed programs.
The recommendation the commission approved Wednesday dropped that dollar figure.
Brister said he was uncomfortable sending a report to lawmakers that pressured them into making specific financial decisions.
“I am willing to say we will have to add new money to do these things. I am not willing to say, ‘And the first step is, every dime has to come from new money,” he said.
Nicole Conley-Johnson, chief financial officer of the Austin Independent School District, unsuccessfully argued to keep the paragraph in its original form.
“The spirit by which we were convened is to establish the changes and make recommendations,” she said. “I feel like we need to have the foresight to put in the estimated cost.”
Education advocacy groups criticized Brister’s decision. “There can be no real school finance reform that fails to address adequacy,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Public Educators, in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “ATPE is disheartened that some members on the commission were unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the limitation of our state’s current funding levels out of fears of sparking litigation.”
The report still includes cost estimates for recommended programs and changes to how funding is divvied up among schools. But it no longer implores state lawmakers to pay for them.
Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:
$100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
$800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
$1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools —a proposal from Abbott.
No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.
The Texas Legislature’s strong allergy to tax increases might be abating — just as long as you don’t call them tax increases.
They’re not saying so out loud — no point in riling up a price-sensitive electorate before the holidays, before the upcoming legislative session — or before lawmakers are ready to make their sales pitch.
But the talk of school finance as a top legislative priority guarantees a conversation about taxes. While there are many great policy reasons to mess with that persistent and gnarly issue, the political motivation here is simple: Texas property owners have made it clear to their representatives that they want lower property taxes.
When you do hear lawmakers talking about tax increases next year — whatever euphemisms they choose — they’ll be talking in terms of how that money will pay for property tax cuts. Cutting everyone’s current most-hated tax is the only way to explain so many conservative legislators making serious noises about increasing state revenue.
Given the way the state pays for public education — with a combination of local property taxes, and state and federal funding — the only ways to lower property taxes are to cut public education spending or to find money elsewhere to offset property tax cuts.
In the state’s 2019 fiscal year, the local share of school finance spending is estimated to be 55.5 percent of the total, while the state’s share is expected to be 35 percent, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The rest comes from the federal government.
The last time the Texas Legislature tackled school finance, the local and state shares matched. Years of rising property values – and rising local property tax revenue with them – have allowed the state to lower its share.
The price tag for a rebalancing would be enormous, though. And in spite of Democratic gains in last month’s elections, Texas still has a Republican-dominated state government, with GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, and Republicans in every statewide office. Many of them got where they are by opposing anything that sounded like higher taxes, which makes the road ahead pretty interesting.
If you do some quick arithmetic on those 2019 estimates, it would take a $5.7 billion increase in annual state spending to rebalance the state and local shares of public education spending. Doing that would put them both back where they were in 2008 — each covering about 45 percent of the load.
That’s easier to do on the back of an envelope than it is to do in the Legislature. The budget ahead is tight. House and Senate leaders have to pass what’s called a “supplemental appropriations bill” to take care of shortages in the current budget, Hurricane Harvey recovery costs, and so on. Early guesstimates are that they’ll start more than $5 billion short of what they need for the next budget — and that’s before they even bring up the expensive school finance project.
The governor already is circulating a document that dares to mention taxes in the title: “Improving Student Outcomes and Maintaining Affordability through Comprehensive Education and Tax Reforms.”
That gets right to the politics of the situation: State leaders are interested in easing property tax burdens, and school finance is the biggest lever in their toolkit. It’s also way out of balance and happens to need fixing. Lawmakers often blame the imbalance on school funding formulas. But they’re the authors of those dreaded formulas, and this is also a chance to put something better in place.
But it’s the tax problem — the price of owning property — that has made their price-sensitive voters potentially receptive to increases in other taxes. New money could come from eliminating exemptions, from property appraisal reforms, from raising existing tax rates or creating new taxes — any number of things. They’ll decide the details when they meet. They’ll figure out what to call it, too: It might be remarkable to see “tax” in the title of the governor’s presentation, but its neighboring word — “reform” — is the political touch.
They want to lower property taxes to make their voters happy, and to accomplish that expensive task without stirring up a new revolt from a different set of taxpayers.
At the end, someone in Texas has to pay for this stuff.
The Senate Education Committee met today in its final interim hearing before kicking off the legislative session in 2019. The agenda included a discussion on mandate relief and innovation as well as an update on the implementation of two bills pertaining, respectively, to the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program and educator misconduct.
The committee spent the majority of their time on the mandate relief discussion, which was guided by the following interim charge:
Mandate Relief/Innovation: Review, modify, or abolish chapters of the education code. Specifically, study cost-drivers, unnecessary mandates, reduction/elimination of inefficiencies, focus on policies or opportunities targeted to improving student outcomes, and better utilization of taxpayer resources.
The invited panel of witnesses primarily included members of a work group convened this year by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The group was tasked with agreeing to changes to the Texas Education Code that provided mandate relief or innovation. The group consisted of a variety of education stakeholders, including ATPE, and ultimately agreed upon 20 recommendations (only unanimously agreed upon recommendations were advanced) for the 86th Legislature to consider in 2019.
The group’s work included considerations on data reporting, school operations, teacher quality, and classroom conduct, among other categories. The work did not include mandate discussions related to accountability or assessments. The official work group report will be released soon.
Regarding the innovation piece of the charge, ATPE member Aletha Williams testified in her capacity as a Teach Plus Texas fellow. She spoke about the importance of quality mentoring programs for teachers, saying that “when teachers receive quality mentoring at the beginning of their teaching career, they are much more likely to stay in the profession and become highly qualified educators.” While Texas has seen mentoring programs in the past, such a state-wide, funded program would currently be a new and welcomed addition.
The committee also monitored the implementation of last year’s Senate Bill (SB) 22 pertaining to the P-TECH program and SB 7 regarding inappropriate relationships between students and educators. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) offered invited testimony on the educator misconduct piece, saying the number of reports has risen since SB 7 was enacted, and increasing the reporting was the intent of the legislation. TEA also highlighted the issue of uncertified educators, which are on the rise due to laws like Districts of Innovation that enable many districts to exempt themselves from requirements to hire certified teachers. TEA and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) lack jurisdiction over these uncertified school employees when it comes to sanctioning inappropriate relationships and other educator misconduct. Some senators again raised their desire for a “Do Not Hire Registry,” confirming a bill to implement such a registry would be filed in the upcoming session.
An archived video of the full hearing can be found here.
Texas’ decision to spend $33.3 million less on students with disabilities in 2012 will likely cost it millions in future federal funding after a Wednesday afternoon 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
According to the New Orleans-based court, the U.S. Department of Education was within its rights to try to withhold the same amount from Texas’ special education grants, since a 1997 federal statute prohibits states from reducing their funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. Texas had appealed the department’s decision, arguing that statute was vague and unenforceable.
A little more than a month after hearing both sides, and the day after a momentous midterm election, the three-judge panel effectively upheld the education department’s decision to financially penalize Texas in an opinion that called the state’s argument “unpersuasive.” The 13-page opinion questions Texas’ current system for funding special education, saying it could give the state reason to minimize the needs of kids with disabilities in order to save money.
The court also ruled that Texas must pay the federal government’s appeal costs. Texas has not publicly indicated whether it will try to appeal the ruling.
Since 1995, Texas has weighted funding for kids with disabilities, paying schools more to educate kids who have more severe disabilities or need more personalized attention in order to learn. It argued it spent $33.3 million less in 2012 because its special education programs successfully got students to “overcome their disabilities,” decreasing their need. School districts reported students in need of less expensive services that year and so the state allocated less money, lawyers argued.
The federal government’s argument is simple: States cannot decrease their funding from year to year, a provision that ensures they use the additional federal money to enhance services, instead of cutting their budgets.
Texas’ weighted funding system “poses the potential for future abuse” of that statute, the panel said in an opinion written by Judge Jerry Smith, who had expressed skepticism towards the state’s argument in October.
“Though Texas law requires the state to allocate funding based on the needs of disabled children, it is the state itself that assesses what those needs are,” Smith wrote. “Hence, the weighted-student model creates a perverse incentive for a state to escape its financial obligations merely by minimizing the special education needs of it students.”
At a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing last month, state education officials prepared lawmakers for a potential loss at the 5th Circuit, saying the penalty — which amounts to 3 percent of Texas’ annual federal special education grant — would have minimal impact on their special education programs.
Texas is separately working to overhaul its special education programs after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded earlier this year that the state had effectively denied services to thousands of students with disabilities who needed them. Officials estimate spending $3 billion more on kids with disabilities over the next three years, since more students are likely to be eligible for services.
As an educator, I find Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bogus $10,000 raise claim offensive
By Carl Garner
There seems to be no end to what the lieutenant governor will say in his attempt to convince Texans that he is pro-public education.
Among the daily barrage of television ads to which Texans have been subjected recently, one lie stands out for its particular audacity.
In his most recent ad, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) doubles down on an already debunked claim that he proposed giving teachers a $10,000 raise during the last legislative session.
As an educator, I am startled by this claim for a number of reasons.
At no point during the regular session did Lt. Gov. Patrick show any concern for increasing educator pay. Only after the close of the regular session, when it became clear that his anti-education agenda might finally push educators into action at the polls, did Patrick entertain talk of a raise. The Senate briefly considered a far more modest $1,000 raise but refused to fund it – suggesting cash-strapped districts simply “find the money” to make it happen.
Had that proposal passed, many districts would have had to fire good educators to be able to fund the raises of their former colleagues. Once educators realized Lt. Gov. Patrick and his Senate weren’t serious about truly helping us, we walked away frustrated, if unsurprised.
As far as Lt. Gov. Patrick’s respect for teachers goes, it was nowhere more evident than in his push last session to effectively kick them out of the Capitol through legislation hindering their ability to voluntarily participate in professional associations that advocate for higher standards and more student resources.
Politicians lie. I get it.
But I confess this lie cuts me in a way that is deeply personal.
As an educator, I know what it’s like to spend $400 out of my own pocket every year on classroom supplies for my students. I know the suffocating feeling of watching my healthcare costs go up as my salary stays the same. I know what it’s like to work 12-hour days only to flip on the radio and hear people like Dan Patrick accuse us of failing our kids.
Under Lt. Gov. Patrick, the Texas Senate has steadily decreased the state’s share of public school funding to just 36 percent, forcing local school districts to make up the difference by hiking up local property taxes. Now we’re to believe this same lieutenant governor secretly proposed a $10,000 raise for 350,000 teachers – which would cost more than $4 billion a year – and somehow we missed it?
In fact, the lieutenant governor was so loath to invest another dime in public education last session that he killed a bill that would have contributed as much as 1.9 billion additional dollars to our state’s 5.4 million schoolchildren. Why? He wanted a taxpayer-funded voucher for his private school friends.
Who exactly is failing our kids, Mr. Patrick?
The $10,000 raise claim is so ludicrous that the non-biased fact-checkers at PolitiFact Texas found it false back in February, but Mr. Patrick keeps repeating it. In doing so, he cheapens the genuine personal struggles I and other educators face as a result of his politics.
Perhaps if he’d gone to school in Texas, he’d have been taught that it’s wrong to lie. Perhaps he’d help Texas teachers instead of attack us. Despite his attempts to rewrite history, educators know who Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is.
Perhaps that’s his problem.
Carl Garner, Jr., is ATPE’s Past State President. He is a teacher in Mesquite ISD.
The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?
Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.
TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.
Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?
“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”
He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.
“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.
On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.
Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.
Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.
But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?
“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”
Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.
Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”
But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.
Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.
But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.
“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”
Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.
In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.
Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.
On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”
“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.
“Public enemy number one for public education”
If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.
As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.
“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”
Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.
“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”
But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.
And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”
Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.
“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.
“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.
A “sleeping giant”?
There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”
Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.
Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.
Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.
A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.
Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.
“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”
Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.
There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.
“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”
The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.
At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.
“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.
While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.
“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT 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.
Jean Gearhart gives a tearful statement with her husband Troy Gearhart to the panel about her special needs child. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education. Photo by Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune
Federal officials said Texas should be doing even more to improve special education — and they’re planning a visit early next year to check.
In a letter Friday, officials from the U.S. Department of Education dissected Texas’ proposed plan for overhauling special education for kids with disabilities — in many cases urging state officials to do even more than they had originally planned. Earlier this year, a thorough investigation found Texas had failed to provide students with disabilities with a proper education, violating federal special education law, and demanded it undertake a long list of corrective actions to shape up.
After finalizing a plan in April, the Texas Education Agency has to date dramatically changed the structure of its departments overseeing special education, hired about 40 people to staff them (including a new special education director), and posted a long list of grants totaling more than $20 million to help school districts overhaul their policies. It anticipates spending an additional $3 billion over the next few years as more students enroll in special education.
“TEA has already completed more than half of the required activities in that Corrective Action Response,” Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement Friday. “We continue to adhere to a commitment to transparency and engagement throughout the plan’s implementation.”
In Friday’s letter, federal officials okayed some parts of Texas’ improvement plan, which they noted outlines many “necessary steps” the state is taking to address their findings.
But they also said Texas should do more to make sure school districts understand how to comply with federal special education law. The investigation uncovered many educators who misunderstood what the law said about identifying students with disabilities and providing them with the right educational services.
The letter said TEA should take a “representative sample” of school districts and thoroughly review their policies and procedures for identifying students who may need special education. It also should specify how it will identify and hold accountable school districts that do not comply with federal law.
Parent advocates have argued school districts don’t make information available to them about how to make sure their children can access the appropriate special education services.
The Department of Education told the TEA to ensure state officials provide information to parents on their rights and responsibilities under federal special education law in their native languages, unless it’s “clearly not feasible to do so.” The TEA should also come up with a specific process for how it will make sure school districts communicate with families of students who may have been denied special education services in the past, “through means other than postings on websites.”
Federal officials plan to review the progress Texas has made and will work with the TEA to schedule an in-person monitoring visit in early 2019.
U.S. Department of Education response to Texas (358.4 KB) DOWNLOAD
The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is meeting in Austin today. ATPE is here to testify and cover the meeting, with a particular focus on two agenda items.
The first item is one that we have reported on thoroughly. The 85th Texas Legislature passed HB 3349 in 2017, which created an abbreviated educator preparation program (EPP) pathway for certain candidates interested in obtaining a new certificate titled the Trade and Industrial Workforce Training Certificate. As SBEC worked to implement the bill via rule, ATPE expressed significant concerns with pieces of the rule that failed to maintain high standards for EPPs in Texas. SBEC ultimately adopted the language without the changes we and other teacher organizations requested. However, as the State Board of Education (SBOE) reviewed the rule, members of the board shared ATPE’s concerns and unanimously rejected the proposal, sending it back to SBEC for further review.
SBEC adopted a new proposal today, and ATPE appreciates that the changes address many of our concerns. Specifically, the proposal addresses three key concerns:
It now maintains a focus on critical pre-service hours by honoring the same 180-hour structure that is required of all other candidates entering the classroom.
It no longer expands the abbreviated program path to the Marketing and Health Science certificates.
It now ensures only EPPs are able to provide training.
The fourth issue we raised, regarding the fact that the proposal fails to prevent these new certificate holders from becoming certified in any other field simply by taking a certification exam without the additional training required of all other candidates, will be addressed at a future SBEC meeting.
ATPE also closely watched an agenda item today regarding a review of the rules pertaining to the Superintendent Certificate. This rule has seen a lot of action in recent years with some seeking to create a non-traditional pathway that fails to require prior experience in public education (including teaching experience) and advanced education. ATPE has consistently opposed such a pathway for Superintendents and recently submitted comments to the board encouraging them to reject any efforts to create the pathway. The Texas Association of School Administrators also attended the meeting today and shared ATPE’s position to maintain the current rule without changes. The board had a positive conversation regarding the importance of administrators as instructional leaders. We will continue to monitor this issue to ensure teaching experience, along with strong managerial experience and educational background, is stressed as key to the success of superintendents.
SBEC meets again in December.
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