Author Archives: Monty Exter

Building a culture of voting

We are approaching the end of the second week of early voting for the Nov. 5 general election. Have you voted yet? If you answered yes, thank you and congratulations! You are among an influential minority of Texans. If you answered no, you are not alone. Also, it’s not too late!

Why is building a culture of voting among Texas educators such an accomplishment and challenge?

Based on years of anecdotal evidence, I have come to believe the vast majority of educators are naturally apolitical. While many educators’ internal values lean toward either the conservative or progressive, the natural tendency is for most to shy away from politics and politicians. This is true even though education is one of the most regulated professions around, with local, state and federal elected officials all weighing in on almost every aspect of an educator’s job. Despite an apparent natural aversion to politics, teachers have begun to vote in larger numbers over the last two election cycles. This has not been an accident, but rather the result of many people and organizations, including ATPE, encouraging educators to use their considerable voices and working to build a culture of voting.

So, how do you instill a culture of voting in yourself? Much like building a lasting culture of fitness or mindfulness or any other positive lifestyle change, building a culture of voting is about setting realistic goals, planning, prioritization, and consistency.

Setting Goals

At the outset of building a new habit or creating a personal culture change, it’s important to set realistic goals. A goal, which is really just envisioning the end or a significant intermediate point at the beginning, helps us to plan back from that point to where we are today so that we know how to get to where we are going. When we fail to set goals, we don’t know where we are going and can’t plan for how to get there. Equally problematic, when we set up unrealistic goals we set ourselves up for failure when we either realize that it’s too hard to get to where we want to go, or else we try to get there and fail.

For example, it is as unrealistic to think that deciding to engage is going to immediately change the outcome in every election. That’s about as unrealistic as thinking that a decision to start dieting is going to make you look like a supermodel next week. Likewise, it is unrealistic the think that deciding to go vote means you’re going to have the time or energy to become an immediate expert on every proposition or politician that is on the ballet. Start small. Set a goal to vote in every election from today through next November’s general election.

Planning

While it is unrealistic to think that you are going to become an immediate expert on all things political, you are far more likely to meet your goals if you engage in some simple planning. Figure out where you can vote, and then make a plan on when you will go vote. Additionally, it’s a good idea to look at, or better yet print out, a copy of the ballot for any upcoming election before you go vote. You may not have the time or desire to research every candidate or issue that is on there, but knowing ahead of time what and who is on the ballot will allow you to do some basic research on the issues and candidates you most care about. It will also give you more confidence at the polls, and therefore make you more likely to actually get yourself to the polls. It will also speed up the process once you are there.

A few easy-to-use tools to help you plan for voting include ATPE’s blog posts here on Teach the Vote (like this one explaining what’s on the ballot for the November 2019 election and this one profiling the candidates in Fort Bend County’s HD 28 special election). We also recommend the Teach the Vote candidate and officeholder profiles and the League of Women Voters’ nonpartisan Vote 411 website where you can create and print out sample ballots for your voting area.

Prioritizing

Everyone is busy! You can set a goal and make a plan but if you don’t choose to set aside the time to act, the first two steps will have been for naught. Doing things that are good for us is not often fun, and it’s easy, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to choose to put other things ahead of them on our daily list of priorities. Getting involved in politics may not be your jam, but voting is important. You owe it to yourself, your students, and your fellow citizens to exercise the right and responsibility that others literally died to establish and protect so that you might have it.

Consistency

Informed voting is a habit. Like any habit, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Conversely, the more often you skip doing it, the dramatically easier it becomes to skip in the future. That’s one reason why it’s important to vote not just every four years, or every other year in November, but in every election.

The other reason to make a habit of voting in every election is because a LOT of important things get decided in “off year” elections, May elections, primaries, and runoffs. In the upcoming election you get to decide how to redraft the Texas Constitution! May elections often decide who will serve on your local school board (the people who get to approve your hiring and firing) and enable voters will approve bonds and tax rates that will determine how much money your school district has to spend. In Texas, 85 to 90 percent of all state legislators are chosen in a primary election, while only 10 to 15 percent have competitive races in the November general election. So again, voting in every election absolutely counts.

Hopefully many of you who read this blog regularly already have a personal culture of voting. I encourage you to do just a little bit more – help spread the culture of voting! Its easier than you think. Often all it takes is a willingness to be open to talking about your own commitment to voting and to encourage others on their own journey.

If you haven’t voted yet, set a goal, make a plan, prioritize it, and make this election the first of every election you will vote in from now through November 2020. If you have already voted, thank you. Please share your story, proudly show off your “I voted” sticker, and encourage a friend.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 18, 2019

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting is set to begin on Monday, Oct. 21, for the upcoming constitutional amendment election on Nov. 5, 2019. Are you ready to vote? ATPE encourages educators to vote in every election, and we’ve got the info you need to make informed choices at the polls. Check out our new blog post aimed at helping you understand what’s on the ballot in this year’s election. ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz and Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter have broken down the proposed constitutional amendments related to public education and the other items you may see on your ballot. Learn how to print out a sample ballot ahead of time and find other election resources. Every vote counts!

As we gear up for the 2019 election to get underway next week, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has also written about the 2020 elections for our blog this week. In his latest election roundup post, Mark shares insights from recent campaign finance reports for various congressional elections that will take place next year. Check it out here.


In case you missed it, check out this week’s installment of our “New School Year, New Laws” blog series here on Teach the Vote. This week, ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier gave an overview of 2019 bills that were passed dealing with charter schools. Read it here. Next week we’ll be wrapping up our series with a final post about educator compensation changes that have come about as a result of House Bill (HB) 3.

As a reminder, you still have a few more days to share your feedback with the commissioner of education on his proposed rules to implement the new “Do Not Hire Registry” required under HB 3. The deadline for public comments is Monday, Oct. 21. Learn more and submit your comments here.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released a new “HB 3 in 30” video and PDF presentation this week on designing and funding an extended school year. The extended school year provision put into law by House Bill (HB) 3, while less heralded than some of the bill’s other provisions, is seen as a potential game changer by TEA.

In this latest video, TEA details the impact of the “summer slide” and the burnout experienced by many Texas teachers due to the extremely high levels of time that teachers work directly with students. For children of poverty, summer slide can create a cumulative academic gap of as much as three years as compared to their wealthier peers. Additionally, many Texas teachers work up to 12 hours a day because they are not given time during the school day to do integrated planning and preparation, unlike many of their peers globally. This results in a system where teacher planning is done mostly in isolation, as compared to the more optimal situation of team planning. In the video, TEA lays out three scenarios for how districts might use the new extended year funding to begin to address both of these issues. The video also highlights additional “planning grant” funding available to districts that want to implement this new program.

TEA’s ongoing video series is intended to make this year’s omnibus school finance bill, HB 3, more digestible by breaking out key provisions and explaining them in 30 minutes or less. Visit TEA’s HB 3 in 30 video website to watch the newest video and access others in the series.


ATPE attends Texas Tribune Festival

The Texas Tribune held its annual TribFest event in Austin this past Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27-28, 2019. The festival brought together state and national candidates, officeholders, policymakers, and thought leaders to discuss a range of topics, including public education, in a series of panels and one-on-one interviews over the course of the event. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter were on hand to engage with policy makers and other key advocates while taking in the panel discussions regarding Texas public education

At the Texas Tribune Festival, Evan Smith discussed “The Future of Education” with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas 2036 co-founder Margaret Spellings, 2018 Texas Superintendent of the Year Dr. LaTonya Goffney, and former President of UT Brownsville Juliet Garcia.

This year’s education line-up for the festival included panels discussing how states can more effectively work with the U.S. Department of Education, reforms coming out of Dallas ISD, challenges for rural schools and the importance of solving them, school finance considerations following the passage of House Bill 3, the “Future of Education,” and four Texas teachers giving their take on Texas public education, school choice partnerships, and standardized testing.

Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel made up of four Texas teachers.

Click here to access archived live-streams of the festival’s keynote addresses and many of the one-on-one interviews, including those with Texas Congressman Will Hurd, Senator Ted Cruz, and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Highlights of the September TRS Board Meeting

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees convened in Austin this week for their regular quarterly meeting. Among items discussed by the board were space planning for the agency, creating regional TRS-ActiveCare offerings, and delivery of the 13th check to retirees.

TRS has recently been in the news with regard to new lease space in downtown Austin. Approximately 10 years ago, TRS ran out of space to house all of its employees at the 11th and Red River location. As a result, the agency moved its investment staff to leased space a few blocks away. Since that time both the TRS benefits/customer service staff and the investment team have continued to grow. Both the Red River location and the leased space are at maximum capacity now. In order to accommodate the size and needs of the investment staff, TRS has taken three floors in a new building, in which TRS is a part owner, further into downtown Austin. The board must determine whether to substantially renovate or move out of TRS’s Red River office in order to accommodate non-investment staff (primarily those working in customer service). Because all TRS costs, including staffing and space, are paid for out of the pension trust fund, these moves naturally bring up questions about whether the agency’s additional staff and office space requirements will bring in more value for TRS members than it costs to accommodate. There is no definitive way to answer this question, but ATPE and other groups representing active and retired TRS members will continue to monitor and report on the value of TRS spending.

Another program in which TRS is trying to find ways to improve its value proposition is TRS-ActiveCare. The agency staff and board members have begun looking into the development of regional ActiveCare options that school districts could choose to offer their employees. The move was prompted by actions taken by El Paso ISD over several years to try to exit the TRS-ActiveCare program. When the district could not find a way to do so under existing state laws, El Paso found a novel way to migrate most of its staff out of the state’s program and onto a new local plan, which was deemed to be cheaper than the statewide plan due to regional differences in healthcare costs. In response to El Paso’s decision and with the expectation that other districts may pursue a similar course of action, TRS is now looking into the possibility of regional options for school district employees. This project is in its preliminary stages and is something ATPE will follow closely as it evolves.

Finally, the TRS board also received an update this week on the 13th check provided to retirees as a result of Senate Bill 12 that was passed by the legislature earlier this year. The additional payment equates to the lesser of the amount of a retiree’s standard monthly annuity check or $2,000. TRS annuitants who receive their TRS payments through direct deposit received the 13th payment on September 10. The remainder of TRS retirees should have received a check in the mail by September 15. ATPE encourages any retirees who did not receive a check and believe that they should have received one to contact TRS directly.

Click here to watch a video of this week’s TRS meetings or review the board materials.

Breaking news: Governor releases Texas School Safety Update

Gov. Greg Abbott released his 23-page Texas School Safety Update today. As we have reported here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog, Gov. Abbott convened a series of roundtable discussions on the issues of school shootings and school safety following the tragic shooting that occurred last year at Santa Fe High School. The governor also designated school safety as an emergency item for the 86th Texas Legislature to work on during the 2019 legislative session. 

The Texas School Safety Update is aimed largely at highlighting in one document the funding and policy decisions that have been made over the last two years to address school safety. Entitled “Improving School Safety in Texas,” the report shared with the public today details both legislative and administrative actions that have been taken at least partly in response to the governor’s focus on school safety and his recommendations for dealing with the issue. View the full report here.

Congressman Kevin Brady files WEP replacement bill, version 2.0

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX), the ranking member of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced H.R. 3934, the “Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act of 2019,” considered a new and improved version of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) replacement bill he filed during the previous congressional session.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady

The new version of the bill keeps many of the same provisions in place as its predecessor. For example, the new Public Servants Fairness formula (PSF) proposed in the bill would increase the overall amount in Social Security checks received by most future retired Texas teachers who would otherwise be subject to the WEP under current law. H.R. 3934 also maintains the previous legislation’s provision granting a $100 per month rebate to current retirees whose Social Security benefits are reduced by the WEP.

The primary change between the new version of the bill and the last is a greatly expanded hold harmless period. Under the new legislation, anyone over the age of 20 but not yet eligible for Social Security before the year 2022 would get the higher of the benefit amount provided by either the old WEP formula or the new PSF formula. For the vast majority of affected retirees, the new formula would produce a higher benefit payment except for a few current or future educators over the age of 20 who could otherwise see a slight reduction under the new formula; for the educators who fall into that relatively small category, Brady’s bill would hold them harmless, ensuring that their benefit will be no less than they would otherwise receive under current law.

H.R. 6933 / H.R. 3934 Comparison Chart

With 18 months left for the current congress to pass the bill, ATPE is hopeful that the time for WEP reform may finally be at hand. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on this legislation.

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.