Author Archives: Monty Exter

ATPE goes to Washington

Most education policy happens at the state level, but there are a few issues that are important to educators and  students that are decided by officials in Washington. That is why ATPE maintains a federal lobby presence. While the main ATPE lobby team works year-round here in Texas, lobbyist David Pore also represents our organization in Washington, DC to ensure that ATPE members have the best representation at all levels of government.

ATPE’s Tonja Gray, Monty Exter, and Byron Hildebrand at the U.S. Capitol

In addition to David’s work year-round on behalf of ATPE members, the association also sends a delegation up to Washington at least once a year to promote our federal priorities. This year ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand, Vice President Tonja Gray, Executive Director Shannon Holmes, and Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter made the journey during the week of June 10, 2019.

While in DC, the ATPE group met with key members of the Texas congressional delegation, as well as committee staff and officials with the US Department of Education. We discussed a handful of topics important to ATPE members including our support for the repeal of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) that reduce many educators’ Social Security benefits; the need for increased Title I and Title II funding; and our opposition to federal voucher programs.

ATPE meeting with Rep. Kevin Brady’s staff in Washington, DC

ATPE has been working with Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), former chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, on legislation to repeal and replace the WEP. Now the ranking member of the committee, Brady is working with the current committee chairman, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), to reintroduce the bipartisan bill during the current congress.

In addition to meeting with Rep. Brady and his staff, ATPE met with Chairman Neal’s committee staff and with Rep. Jodey Arrington (R–Texas) who represents the Lubbock area and sits on the Social Security Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. ATPE State Vice President Tonja Gray is a constituent of Arrington, who has become a real champion for WEP reform in Congress. We rounded out our meetings with members of the Texas delegation on the Ways and Means Committee with Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas), who represents the greater Austin area.

Rep. Jodey Arrington with ATPE’s Tonja Gray in Washington, DC

Texas also has three new members of Congress now serving on the Education Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor. They are Reps. Joaquin Castro (D–Texas) from the San Antonio area, Ron Wright (R-Texas) from Arlington, and Van Taylor (R-Texas) out of Plano. We spoke to each of these members about the importance of maintaining educator preparation funding in Title II as a part of the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as increasing or at least maintaining formula funding for Title I. As a Title I funded interventionist, Tonja Gray was able to put a personal touch on ATPE’s message.

ATPE’s Byron Hildebrand and Tonja Gray with Rep. Henry Cuellar in Washington, DC

Along with expressing support for funding, we also spoke to each of these members of the Texas delegation about ATPE’s staunch opposition to federal voucher legislation. If the House were to take up any of the Senate’s voucher bills, such a measure would likely be heard in the Education Subcommittee.

ATPE meetings with U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz were also productive. Sen. Cornyn’s staff ensured ATPE not only that Title I and II funding are likely to be maintained or increased, but also that there would be no attempts in the current budget cycle to block grant Title I funding. ATPE opposes block granting Title I funding because it would likely result in the dilution of Title I dollars currently delivered through a formula to the campuses with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students (those eligible for free and reduced lunch).

Our conversation with Sen. Cruz focused largely on the WEP legislation. Sen. Cruz carried the Senate companion to the Brady bill during the last congress and is planning to pick up the Brady/Neal bill again as soon as it is refiled in the House. The senator is currently seeking a Democratic co-sponsor to ensure that the bill has bipartisan authorship in both chambers.

Altogether, ATPE’s 2019 trip to the nation’s capital was very productive and yielded excellent news. As developments continue on ATPE’s federal priorities, we will report those updates here on Teach the Vote.

Here’s how TRS legislation ended up in the 86th legislative session

As the 86th legislative session came to a close yesterday, there were some significant changes made to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) that warrant a closer look.

TRS Pension Reform

Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R – Houston), sponsored in the House by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R – League City), was passed 31:0 in the Senate and 145:1 in the House on the last day to pass bills. The bill will immediately reduce the funding window on the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension from over 90 years to pay off the unfunded liability to under 30 years. Reducing the time frame to less than 30 years also allowed the legislature to provide current retirees with an additional pension payment during the current fiscal year. The 13th check, as the supplemental payment is often called, will be the amount of the retiree’s regular monthly annuity payment up to a maximum amount of $2,000.

ATPE was strongly in support of shoring up the TRS pension fund as it will ensure that the primary retirement income for many Texas educators will be viable for decades to come. The passage of SB 12 also saves the state and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in interest on the pension fund’s liabilities, and it puts the TRS fund in a position for policymakers to begin considering a permanent cost of living adjustment for retired educators as early as the next legislative session in 2021.

SB 12 calls for the state’s contribution to immediately increase from 6.8% to 7.5% in the 2020 fiscal year, which begins on Sept. 1, 2019. The state contribution rate will then continue to increase over time until the rate reaches 8.25% in 2024. School districts not paying into Social Security currently contribute 1.5% to the pension fund. Beginning in the 2019-20, all school districts will contribute toward TRS pensions with the district rate increasing by a tenth of a percent each year beginning in the 2021 fiscal year, until the district rate reaches 2% in 2025.  Active school employees’ contributions to TRS will remain at their existing rate of 7.7% for the next two years. Employee contributions will increase to 8% in the 2021-22 school year and 8.25% the following year.

Aside from injecting more money into the TRS pension fund, SB 12 contains a few additional provisions that are worth noting. For one, the bill maintains a provision that ensures that if the state’s contribution to TRS should decline in the future, then school district and active employee contributions to the fund would be reduced by the same percentage. It is worth noting, however, that any future legislature could vote to change this. SB 12 also includes a change for the handful of school districts that currently pay into Social Security on behalf of their employees. As noted above, those districts that opt to make Social Security contributions will no longer enjoy an exemption from paying into TRS, which Rep. Greg Bonnen said would add about $20 million per year to the fund. Only institutions of higher education will now be exempt from participating in contributing into the TRS pension fund for their covered employees.

Here is a summary of the details provided by TRS staff on how the final adopted version of SB 12 is funded over time:

 

TRS Healthcare

ATPE hoped that the conference committees for SB 12 and House Bill 3, the omnibus school finance bill that also passed, would find better ways to help active and retired teachers deal with the rising costs of their healthcare. There were internal discussions about increasing the state share of active employee health insurance costs. Currently, the state pays $75 per month toward premiums and requires school districts to pay a minimum of $150 per month on behalf of their staff. Employees cover the rest of the cost of their health insurance premiums. SB 12 significantly increases the state’s share of contributions going into the TRS pension system, and the final version of HB 3 does require districts to spend additional dollars on employee compensation (which could include increasing the district’s share of health insurance costs). Despite these improvements, neither bill addressed the inadequacies of the state’s share of active employee premiums in the end.

State lawmakers did make good on their pre-session promises not to raise TRS-Care rates for retiree health insurance. The state budget in House Bill 1 includes $230 million in supplemental funding to cover the projected shortfall in the TRS-Care trust fund. State leaders pushed TRS not to raise rates last fall when it became apparent that the amount of the shortfall for the upcoming biennium was going to be less than originally projected. The savings were largely due a combination of successful TRS contract negotiations and favorable provisions of the federal Affordable Healthcare Act taking effect. Unfortunately, barring a substantial change in the healthcare landscape, the projected shortfall for the 2022-2023 biennium is much larger than what lawmakers had to deal with this session to address the shortfall expected for the next two years.

TRS releases ActiveCare rates for 2020

The board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas met in Austin this week. Of note on their agenda was a discussion of proposed TRS-ActiveCare pricing for 2020.

Overall, the premiums for all ActiveCare plans will be increased by 3.9 percent on average, which is significantly lower than market averages, with the average increase for the ActiveCare I – High Deductible plan and ActiveCare Select at 3 percent and the increase for the ActiveCare II plan at 8.9 percent.

Note: ActiveCare II was closed to new enrollees after the 2018 plan year.

You can see the exact premium increases and benefits changes for the different coverage options on the attached rate card, or for more in-depth information, view the TRS Benefits Committee board board book at pages 16-31.

If you have questions about TRS-ActiveCare plans, visit the TRS-ActiveCare web page or call 1-800-222-9205.

TRS bills move forward in both chambers

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in the House Pensions Committee, March 26, 2019.

The 86th Legislature has been considering bills to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), which ATPE supports. Preserving the solvency and defined-benefit structure of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension program for educators is an ATPE legislative priority this session.

On the Senate side, one high-profile measure on the move pertaining to this priority is Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R – Houston). After the bill received approval last week from the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which Sen. Huffman chairs, the full Senate passed SB 12 unanimously out of the upper chamber on Monday, March 25, sending it on its way to the House.

Meanwhile, a House committee today heard its own version of how to increase financial support for TRS, as well as for the state’s current retired educators. House Bill (HB) 9 by Greg Bonnen (R – Friendswood) was heard this morning by the House Committee on Pensions, Investments & Financial Services. The bill was left pending in committee today but is expected to receive a favorable committee vote in the near future.

Byron Hildebrand

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand delivered our association’s testimony strongly supporting HB 9 in committee today. Hildebrand, who is also a retired educator, thanked legislators for taking a positive step forward with legislation aimed at making the TRS pension found sound, and he encouraged lawmakers to continue to take steps to do great things for active and retired teachers. Click here to watch today’s committee hearing, where HB 9 was the first bill considered. (Hildebrand’s testimony begins at approximately the 43-minute mark in the archived broadcast.)

While SB 12 and HB 9 both increase contributions to TRS and provide a 13th check to current retirees, the bills differ on the amount of the increased contribution, who would pay for it, and the size of the 13th payment. At 2.5%, the overall increase in TRS contributions under SB 12 would be a half percent more than the 2% increase called for by HB 9. However, HB 9 puts the responsibility for paying for the entire contribution increase on the state by raising the state’s rate from 6.8% up to to 8.8%. SB 12 only raises the state’s contribution rate from 6.8% to 8.25%, while also raising the active member rate from 7.7% to 8.25%, and raising the school district contribution rate from 1.5% up to 2%. HB 9 also begins and finishes raising the contribution rate a year sooner than SB 12 would. In terms of 13th payments, SB 12 offers all retirees a $500 bonus, while HB 9 would provide current retirees a 13th check in the same amount as their regular monthly annuity up to $2,400.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on these two ATPE-supported bills as they continue to move through the legislative process.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 22, 2019

In addition to preparing for the upcoming ATPE at the Capitol events this weekend, your ATPE lobbyists were once again busy covering legislative happenings in and around the Capitol this week. Here’s a look at this week’s developments:


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) held ts first meeting of 2019 today in Austin. The board took action on several items, including a new superintendent certificate program to be offered by the Harris County Department of Education and approval of new standards for the English as a Second Language (ESL) supplemental certificate. The board also heard lengthy testimony on the upcoming EdTPA performance-based assessment pilot included within the Teacher Certification Redesign plan, which led to a discussion of concerns among the majority of the board. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier attended today’s meeting and will be posting a full wrap-up of the discussions for our blog in the coming days.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees also met this week. For highlights of the board’s discussions, check out this blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, who attended the meetings on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 21-22.

 


The House Public Education Committee began hearing bills this week. Members considered bills on public education topics including pre-K class sizes, educator preparation, assessment, and special education. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified for the first time before the committee in support of a bill that would improve and pay for mentoring programs. ATPE supported seven out of the 11 bills on the agenda. For more on the hearing, read this blog post by Chevalier.

 


On Wednesday, Feb. 20, the House Appropriations Committee’s Article III subcommittee met to continue its review of the state education budget. The subcommittee heard from te leaders of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) before inviting stakeholders to weigh in on the topic of education funding. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified about the need to prioritize funding for public education this session as well shoring up the TRS pension fund. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as budget talks continue this session.

 


On Sunday and Monday, hundreds of educators will arrive in Austin for ATPE at the Capitol, our biennial legislative advocacy and political involvement training event. ATPE members will spend Sunday attending training sessions on the association’s legislative priorities and hearing from elected officials about efforts to reform the state’s school finance system, among other education issues. On Monday, ATPE members will visit with their legislators and watch the House and Senate in action.

Tonja Gray

Also happening on Monday, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a public hearing on Senate Bill (SB) 3, which aims to increase funding for public schools and give teachers a $5,000 raise. ATPE State Vice President Tonja Gray will be giving invited testimony at the hearing. Follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter for updates on Monday’s hearing and watch for a full recap of the event next week here on our Teach the Vote blog.

 


TRS board meeting in Austin this week

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board was in Austin for their regularly scheduled board meeting on Thursday and Friday of this week. The board kicked off its hearing with a resolution celebrating the life and service of Mike Lehr, former executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association with more than 50 years working as a public school educator or on behalf of active or retired public school educators.

Also of note, TRS executive director Brian Guthrie updated the board on interactions TRS has had with legislators as a part of the ongoing legislative session. TRS recently presented on its general outlook and budgetary requests before both House and Senate budget committees as well as the House Pensions Committee. The agency will still have one more general presentation to the Senate State Affairs Committee, and then the agency role will shift to assisting lawmakers more behind the scenes.

The remainder of the first day’s morning session covered topics such as internal staffing policy, customer service, and how the agency communicates with TRS members. Thursday afternoon the board underwent ethics training and had an in-depth discussion of healthcare and healthcare design related to the TRS-Care and TRS-ActiveCare insurance programs.

The board’s Friday agenda focused on the TRS investment program, including the agency’s emerging manger program, a view of national and global financial trends, and TRS’s own strategic asset allocation.

Those who are interested can watch an archive of the board’s Thursday meeting and Friday meeting.

 

Senate Finance Committee takes up public education funding in Article III of the budget

On Monday, Feb. 11, the Senate Finance committee heard testimony from the state agencies affected by Article III, the education portion of the state budget. Excluding those representing higher education, the committee heard from representatives of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

Chairwoman Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) opened the hearing with the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) layout of the TEA budget for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

Sen. Nelson’s budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, proposes approximately $6 billion in the TEA portion over current formula funding, including $3.7 billion for an educator pay raise and $2.3 billion for property tax relief.

Several members of the committee voiced displeasure with what they view as a mischaracterization by many in the public that the state’s share of education funding has fallen to 38 percent. The members noted that this figure only represents the state’s share of Foundation School Program (FSP) funding and that there are other state dollars being spent on public education outside of the FSP. To be fair, it is true that the 38 percent figure specifically refers to the state’s share of FSP funding and that the state also pays into other sources of school district funding, such as for facilities and TRS. However, the local share of facilities funding, for example, is much greater than the percentage that local districts pay toward FSP funding. Also, educators and school districts pay a significant percent of the money going to TRS for pension contributions and health insurance costs.

Senators also pointed out that they don’t control local property tax rates or rising property values, which under current law have pushed state general revenue funds out of public education. Both of these facts are true, but again, lawmakers have failed to modify existing formulas to drive increased state spending above what current law requires. This effectively starves public schools, leaving locally elected school boards little option but to maintain or raise their local property tax rates.

Following testimony of the LBB, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath walked the committee through the TEA presentation. The commissioner highlighted agency funding requests to deal with school safety and the agency’s special education corrective plan. The latter was necessitated by recent enforcement actions by the U.S. Department of Education and a ruling out of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, both highlighting our state’s failure to properly address the needs of its special education population.

The commissioner’s testimony included a lengthy back and forth discussion with committee members on Monday. Chairwoman Nelson engaged Commissioner Morath on the topic of third-grade reading, an emphasis in the final recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Responding to questions about STAAR and third-grade retention, Morath pointed out that grade retention, which is no longer a mandatory result of failure to pass STAAR in the younger grades, is neither an efficient expenditure of money nor a particularly effective remediation tool.

When asked about the dual management of the Permanent School Fund, which has recently resulted in a feud between the Texas Land Commissioner and the State Board of Education (SBOE), the commissioner indicated that the current set-up probably costs the fund around $200 million a year in lost investment opportunities. Finally, in an exchange with senators about boosting performance among the state’s low socioeconomic student population, the commissioner touted the benefits of funding pre-kindergarten and Dallas ISD’s ACE model.

Next in the committee, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie laid out his agency’s presentation on the budget. He covered the TRS board’s action in lowering the pension fund’s assumed rate of return and the need for increased contributions to bring the fund back into near-term actuarial soundness. He also covered state cost issues related to TRS-Care and the educator affordability issues related to TRS-ActiveCare. Guthrie reiterated his agency’s request for additional staff, some of whom would be used to increase TRS customer service, while other positions would be used to bring additional investment management tasks in-house, for a projected savings of $1.4 billion over a five-year period.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), who in addition to serving on the Finance Committee chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, had a lengthy discussion with Mr. Guthrie. She covered last session’s TRS-Care bill, which she authored in the Senate, as well as the need for additional funding in the current budget and the need for continued reform to prevent the state from being right back in the situation it was in last session with runaway costs. Huffman then turned her attention to the pension system and discussed her plan to pass legislation that would increase contributions to the fund over a number of years. Her plan would reduce the funding period of the pension from 87 years down to 24 years and bring the plan back into a condition of actuarial soundness by 2020. Currently, the plan will not reach actuarial soundness or be able to offer retirees a cost-of-living adjustment for approximately 57 years.

After the committee concluded hearing testimony from the invited agencies, public testimony was entertained, including from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter. Exter’s testimony focused on funding teacher compensation, the TRS pension system, and educator healthcare. He concluded by encouraging the committee to focus on equity when addressing new discretionary spending and deciding how best to go about reducing recapture and property taxes. Exter’s full testimony can be seen here (at the 2:40 mark in the broadcast).

House Public Education Committee kicks off its session work

House Committee on Public Education, 86th Texas Legislature

This week, the Texas House Public Education Committee met for the first time this session. State representatives serving on the committee this session are as follows:

Chairman Huberty, who is returning for his third session as chair of the committee, opened the first hearing by welcoming new and returning members and emphasizing the non-/bi-partisan nature of the committee’s work. He shared a story about the glass apple he keeps in front of him on the dais during each hearing. The apple was given to him by a supporter, friend, recently retired teacher, and long-time ATPE member, Gayle Sampley.

After the chairman’s opening remarks, the committee heard a series of presentations from various high-level staff at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) meant to update the committee on a range of education issues. Links to the individual presentations can be found below:

It is worth noting that during Franklin’s presentation on educator certification, the chair questioned whether the State Board of Education (SBOE) should continue to have oversight and veto authority over rulemaking by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Under state law, the elected SBOE has the ability to review and reject rules that have been adopted by SBEC board, whose members are appointed by the governor. The SBOE cannot change SBEC rules, however, and any veto of an SBEC rule, which is extremely rare, essentially requires the certification board to start its rulemaking process over to correct perceived flaws in the rule. ATPE has supported and often relied on SBOE’s oversight of SBEC rules to help prevent the enactment of policies that would be detrimental to teachers or overall teacher quality,.

During the hearing, Chairman Huberty also laid out the committee’s schedule for the next two weeks. First, the committee will meet twice next week on Feb. 5 and 6 to hear from selected members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance regarding the current condition of Texas’s school finance system and the commission’s recommendations for changes to tit. During the following week, on Feb. 11 and 12, the committee plans to hear invited testimony from a broad range of experts and stakeholders who have comments and concerns with the commission’s plan, or who may want to offer solutions of their own for the committee to consider as it begins its work moving forward a bill to overhaul the state’s school finance system.

Election do’s and don’ts and perspectives of the Texas AG candidates

If you’re reading this blog post, you no doubt know that today is the first day of early voting for the midterm elections; and that in just over two weeks the tone will be set for how the next legislature will address public education issues in the upcoming session.

With such an important election upon us, many Texas educators have asked, as public servants/employees, what can you do and what can’t you do with regard to election-related communication and other activities. To answer that question we created this handy document in coordination with our coalition partners at Texas Educators Vote.

Some of you may also be aware that in the lead-up to this election, Attorney General Ken Paxton put out a somewhat unusual document on how he would like to see Texas educators engage (or NOT engage) during this election. While the language in the document may not be clear, the AG’s intent certainly seems to be minimizing the pro-public education voter turnout. Please note that AG opinions, which this document does not even purport to be, are non-binding and do not have the force of law.

Justin Nelson, Paxton’s opponent in the Attorney General’s race, has issued the following statement in response to the document put out by Paxton.

We urge all educators to exercise their right to vote in this and every election.

Congressman Kevin Brady files WEP replacement bill

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) who chairs the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, along with Ranking Member Richard Neal (D-MA), has introduced H.R. 6933 to amend Title II of the Social Security Act. The bill would replace the windfall elimination provision (WEP) with a formula equalizing benefits for certain individuals with non-covered employment.

Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX)

ATPE has worked closely with Chairman Brady to bring forward a bill that addresses the inequities in the current law, which stem from the arbitrary formula known as the windfall elimination provision. The goal for both ATPE and Chairman Brady is to put in place a formula that can both pass Congress and get more money on average into the pockets of retirees by treating them more fairly than they are treated under current law.

Stay tuned to TTV for a deeper dive on the bill as well as updates as it moves through the legislative process.