Author Archives: Monty Exter

Wrapping up the July TRS board meeting

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Board of Trustees met virtually last week on Wednesday through Friday, July 15-17, for its regular board meeting. In addition to other items, the board discussed the current financial market, TRS-Care and ActiveCare, the fiscal year 2021 budget and highlights of the preliminary legislative appropriations request, and updated considerations on TRS office space.

The official numbers for the trust fund through March 31 were presented to the board, but it was noted that those numbers are at this point significantly out of date. Staff went on to report that the market (as gauged by the S&P 500) has rebounded to approximately January 2020 levels, and they indicated that the TRS fund has tracked the market similarly. The benefit of the quick recovery of fund assets is that only a relatively small amount of assets had to be sold while prices were down to cover the cost of pension benefits paid out over that time frame. Longer recovery periods are by comparison much more detrimental to the fund because the period in which assets have to be sold at a reduced price, effectively locking in losses, is much longer.

TRS Board Presentation: S&P 500 chart

While the stock market and the TRS pension fund are relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic for the moment, the state budget that relies largely on sales tax receipts and oil and gas severance taxes is in much worse shape. Due to this reality, state leaders called on all state agencies to cut their fiscal year 2021 budgets. Although the retirement system’s operational expenses are paid out of the pension fund itself and not out of the state’s general revenue, TRS still undertook the budget trimming exercise.

TRS staff presented the board with a proposed operational budget of $211 million for fiscal year (FY) 2021. This represents a 9% decrease from the FY21 target budget and a 6% decrease from the FY20 operational budget, which was $225 million. As part of the cost saving measures, TRS has instituted a hiring freeze through 2020 and a salary freeze through FY21. The agency has also cut the majority of outsourced funding going to vendors previously working on the data systems project dubbed TEAMS. The project will continue with the current number of in-house employees. TRS is also abandoning the effort to set completion dates on TEAMS benchmarks, as those dates have proven to be unrealistic and problematic.

In addition to next year’s budget, TRS staff also updated the board on the draft legislative appropriations request (LAR) the agency will present to lawmakers during the next legislative session. The agency’s request will cover fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The request will ask for specific funding to cover the state’s share of healthcare and pension costs, in addition to approval of the agency’s projected operational budget. TRS plans to ask for funding in the agency’s LAR based on the increased state contributions to pensions and retiree healthcare that legislators ordered during the last session and considering standard payroll growth assumptions for teacher salaries.

The agency’s LAR will also include a request for funding for 25 additional employees, or what are referred to as “Full-Time Equivalents” (FTEs). TRS staff had internally requested an additional 167 FTEs: 57 for the Investment Management Division (IMD) and 110 for the Benefits division. The 25 new FTEs in the agency’s LAR will go to IMD as a part of a “growing the fleet” initiative. This initiative aims to save the pension fund money by reducing outsourced costs in a greater amount than the cost of the new salaries. The Benefits division will have no new FTEs included in the upcoming LAR.

Over the last 18 months, space planning has become a constant conversation at the TRS board level as issues over the short term plans to lease space for housing the IMD staff have transitioned into a broader conversation on longer-term space needs for all staff. TRS continues to move forward with the goal of having a solution for its long-term office space needs in place by 2025. A major priority of that push is to house all TRS employees in the same location and discontinue the practice of housing the IMD staff in separate leased space.

As with everything, the current coronavirus has impacted the discussion around TRS space planning. With declining real estate prices and new potential spaces opening up in downtown Austin, the agency has paused its negotiations to renew its lease at 816 Congress so as to assess if there are better options available. Unfortunately, while the current market may present an opportunity for savings as a tenant, it is creating a more challenging environment in which to sublet the TRS space in Austin’s new Indeed Tower. The COVID-19 pandemic also has forced the agency to utilize remote working for a significant number of its staff for an extended time frame. Due to this change, TRS has revised its assumptions going forward on the percentage of staff who can work from home on a daily basis from 5% up to 25%. This change decreases TRS’s overall space requirements but also highlights a need for more collaborative space for staff who may usually work outside the office to come in and use. This also opens up the possibility that, with significant renovations, the agency’s current Red River location could house all TRS employees on a longer-term basis. Such renovations might not be any less expensive than simply relocating the agency to a new location outside of downtown Austin.

Finally, nominations for an active member seat on the TRS board of trustees are currently underway. The nomination period began June 15 and will continue through January 25, 2021. Assuming there are more than three successful nominees, an election will be held from March 15 to May 5, 2021. The top three vote-earners from that election will be reported to the governor, who will appoint the new board member from among those three candidates. ATPE members interested in running for this TRS board position can contact the ATPE Government Relations team for more information.

Access board documents and archived video of the July meeting here on the TRS website. The next TRS board meeting will be held in September.

Setting the record straight on the myth of “temporary” teacher retirement

After representatives affiliated with a national teachers’ union held a conference call with Texas reporters last week, at least one news story sparked confusion and a flurry of inquiries by reporting that it would be possible for teachers to retire “temporarily” during the coronavirus pandemic and later return to their previous jobs.

“Many teachers are capable of temporarily retiring,” the media report stated, erroneously adding that Texas teachers could “sit out a year or two, still get paid, and come out of retirement after COVID is under control.” The staff of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) asked ATPE and other stakeholders to help them clear up the confusion. The simple fact is that “temporary retirement” is not an option for educators under Texas law!

TRS had this to say in a statement responding to the June 24 news story:

“There are no provisions in the law that allow a teacher to ‘temporarily retire.’ A news article published on June 24 by a north Texas media outlet stating as much is mistaken. While the law allows a retired teacher to return to employment without restriction after a 12-month break in service, the teacher’s retirement annuity amount would be fixed as of the retirement date. Any employment after retirement does not increase the annuity amount.”

Exactly what is the law, and what considerations should educators be aware of as they are making retirement decisions in the wake of COVID-19? The first step is considering whether or not an educator is eligible to retire.

Educators who began teaching prior to 2007 and have not had a break in employment since then may be eligible to retire and receive a regular pension if they are at least 65 years of age with five or more years of employment, or they meet the “Rule of 80.”  The Rule of 80 is met when an educator’s age plus their years of service credit equal 80 or more. (For example: 50 years of age plus 30 years of service credit equals 80.)  Those educators who have not worked continuously since 2007 must meet the rule of 80 and be at least 60 years of age to retire, or they may retire at 62 years of age if the educator had not earned five years of service credit prior to 2014 or has not worked continuously since 2014.

Educators who are not eligible for full retirement may still be eligible for early retirement, but they are subject to early retirement penalties. To be eligible for early retirement, an educator must either be  55 years old with five years of service credit or have at least 30 years of service credit without having met the Rule of 80. The penalty for early retirement can be as much as a 53% reduction of your standard annuity if you are between ages 55 and 64 and have between five and 19 years of service credit, but do not meet the Rule of 80.

Additional factors to consider include the fact that the amount of your pension is greatly impacted by your pre-retirement years of service, TRS’s lack of an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and the impact of the retire-rehire surcharge.

The amount of an educator’s annual annuity is determined by taking the average of their highest three to five years of salary and multiplying that figure by a percentage, which for those receiving a regular retirement, is determined by multiplying their years of service by 2.3. For example, a teacher with 20 years of service credit would have 46% applied to their salary figure; if their highest average salary amount is $60,000, the educator would be eligible to receive an annuity of approximately $27,600 per year. A teacher whose highest average salary was also $60,000 but had 30 years of service credit would be eligible to receive approximately $41,400 annually.

Once you retire, you cannot earn additional service credit and your annuity cannot be recalculated, even if you go back to work after sitting out a year.

In addition to lost credit for service worked after retirement, the unpredictability of a COLA is another factor that can make early retirement less attractive. A fixed annuity with no regular COLA built in, and the possibility of only infrequent one-time COLAs, tends to lose its purchasing power over time due to inflation. Locking in the amount of your annuity much earlier than you might have otherwise planned to retire may magnify this effective decrease in your annuity’s value over time, on top of the other reductions discussed above.

Finally, although you can retire and then return to work after sitting out for 12 months, those retired educators who do return to work on more than a half-time basis will be subject to retire-rehire surcharges. The amount of the pension surcharge is equal to the amount of both member and state contributions on the compensation paid, which is currently 15.2%.  A health benefit surcharge is also due for TRS-Care, which is currently $535. While the educator’s employer can choose to cover these surcharges, they often pass them on to the retiree.

As you can see, an educator’s decision to retire early, with the intention of making it a “temporary” retirement in which the educator would sit out a year or two before returning to the classroom, comes with many significant financial consequences. ATPE urges educators to carefully consider these factors before they take an action that could permanently and negatively impact their future standard of living and their ability to truly and fully retire at a later date.

Note: There are a number of variables that affect an educator’s annuity, including start date, breaks in service, total years of service, retirement age, and other individual benefit decisions. Figures cited in this blog post are used for illustrative purposes only. Texas educators should contact TRS directly for assistance calculating the individual pension benefits they are eligible to receive.

Texas election roundup: Another court decision on mail-in voting

For weeks there has been a back-and-forth battle being waged over Texas voting laws, but that fight may be drawing closer to an end. Today, June 4, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest in a litany of federal and state courts to weigh in on a debate at the intersection of elections and the coronavirus pandemic: whether to expand eligibility for mail-in voting.

As previously reported here on Teach the Vote, the Texas Supreme Court and a federal district court were the last to weigh in on this issue prior to today’s ruling. A federal district judge previously issued an order to allow all registered voters in Texas to apply for mail-in ballots, based on finding our state’s current restrictions to be unconstitutional. The federal appellate court ruling issued today blocks that district court’s order from taking effect.

While the Fifth Circuit’s ruling today is merely a stay of the lower court’s order, the language used by two members of the three-judge panel demonstrates the appellate court’s dubious view on the merits of using litigation to expand mail-in voting eligibility. We will have to wait to hear a more final word from the appeals court, but it does not appear likely that more people will be permitted to avoid visiting the polls in person while still exercising their right to vote.

Regardless of the final outcome at the Fifth Circuit, the losing side is likely to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not choose to hear the case. Most cases appealed to the highest court in the nation do not get heard, which means a ruling by the circuit court often becomes the last word on federal judicial matters. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

ATPE weighs in on proposed Teacher Incentive Allotment rules

House Bill (HB) 3, the landmark school finance bill passed by Texas lawmakers in 2019, included funding for a new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). Despite almost certain budget cuts in the upcoming legislative session that call into question the state’s ability to fund the ambitious and somewhat controversial performance pay program, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has forged ahead with implementation of the program. Administrative rulemaking to implement the new TIA law is currently underway, which affords the public an opportunity to provide input on the program. ATPE submitted formal comments on the proposed commissioner’s rules this week.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) began putting out information on the TIA through its HB 3 in 30 video series back in the fall of 2019. Earlier this year, the agency asked school districts interested in participating in the program to submit a letter of intent and also released guidance on timelines for funding and implementation. Additionally, TEA staff briefed the ATPE Board of Directors on the plans for TIA implementation in February.

On April 24, after more than six months of sharing guidance with the field, TEA published proposed commissioner’s rules on the TIA’s Local optional teacher designation systems. Local optional teacher designation systems are the school district-developed and TEA-approved rubrics by which a district can designate individual teachers for merit recognition under the TIA, giving the district access to TIA merit pay funding from the state.

During the last legislative session, the ATPE lobby team worked hard to ensure the laws creating the TIA program would include certain provisions protecting the confidentially of the teacher evaluation process. We also fought to ensure districts would not be required to use students’ STAAR test scores to rank educators, and that it would be at least mathematically possible under each district’s plan for all teachers to earn a designation if they met the eligibility requirements. In the comments we submitted this week, ATPE requested changes to improve upon the implementation plans and ensure that the fruits of those hard-fought legislative battles would be reflected in the TIA rules. Read more about how the legislature designed the TIA law in this Teach the Vote blog post.

TEA is now tasked with organizing and responding to all comments the agency has received from various stakeholders and potentially modifying the proposed rules accordingly. The commissioner’s rules on the TIA are scheduled to go into effect July 30, 2020.

Sunset report recommends TRS improve its member relations

Every state agency in Texas is subject to a period review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. When the state creates a new agency, it usually sets a “sunset” date. This is the date when the agency will cease to exist unless the commission decides it should continue. Even agencies that are created by the Texas Constitution and cannot be abolished, such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, undergo cyclical review by the Sunset Advisory Commission to determine ways they can improve and operate more efficiently.

The TRS Sunset Report was released last week, as we reported last Friday here on Teach the Vote. While much of the report addresses standard sunset fare such as integrating best practices and improving transparency and oversight, one issue identified in the report seems likely to resonate with TRS members above the rest: “TRS Needs to Repair Its Relationship With Its Members by Focusing on Their Needs.”

Excerpt from the 2020-21 Sunset Staff Report on TRS

Sunset commission staff points out in the report, “While TRS has a critical fiduciary duty to manage the $157 billion trust fund in the best interest of its members, the agency also has an important responsibility to ensure its members have the support and information needed to be secure in retirement.”

The report goes on to state that in the Sunset Advisory Commission staff’s estimation:

“TRS’ benefit counseling options do not meet members’ needs… TRS has not provided the information and support its members need to be secure in retirement, with overly complex explanations, insufficient retirement information, and inadequate counseling options… TRS also does not provide enough member-friendly financial planning information to ensure members understand what they need to prepare for retirement, such as the importance of additional savings beyond their TRS pension benefits.”

Sunset staff identify core issues and findings, as well as recommendations to address them. In considering sunset recommendations and weighing their merit, it is important to consider that implementing new programs and initiatives comes at a cost, mostly in additional manpower. For TRS, those costs are paid directly out of the same trust fund that provides member benefits.

The sunset staff’s first finding related to the issue of repairing TRS’ relationship with its members is that the agency “has not provided the information and support members need to adequately ensure they are secure in retirement.” With 1.6 million members, most of whom have limited or no access to Social Security benefits and little other retirement savings outside of their TRS pension, simply managing the TRS trust assets and administering pension payments is not good enough without taking a more holistic role in helping TRS members prepare for a secure retirement.

This is particularly true when considering that Texas is last in the country in the percentage of payroll our state puts toward teacher retirement. The state does not provide mandatory cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) on a regular basis and rarely provides funding for even one-time COLAs. Together, these legislatively driven policies mean that a TRS pension alone often will not provide a comfortable — or potentially even adequate — retirement over the duration of an average educator’s retired years.

This makes it even more important for Texas educators to understand the importance of having a supplemental retirement plan and to begin funding that plan early in their careers. Sunset staff point out that other state retirement systems, including the Employees Retirement System (ERS) for Texas state employees, “emphasize retirement planning is a shared responsibility between members and the system.” On the other hand, the report observes that TRS “puts the burden of navigating the complex retirement system primarily on its members.”

To make matters worse, TRS appears to have serious deficiencies communicating in the areas where it does currently engage with its members on retirement issues. Regarding the agency’s written materials, sunset staff found that TRS commonly uses legalistic language and overly complex explanations. While call times have come down significantly, TRS has not yet met its internal goal of answering 80% of calls within three minutes. More troubling, when agency staff do answer a call, internal policy prevents most TRS phone counselors from relaying basic information such as a member’s account balance or estimated retirement benefits — not to mention explanations of how systems such as TRS and Social Security are supposed to interact, which often leaves TRS members confused and frustrated.

To receive more complete information on their TRS benefits, a member must make an appointment — often months in advance — and then travel to Austin for an in-person consultation. Thankfully, TRS is looking into opening a limited number of field offices to do in-person consultations in the future so that some members will not have to make the trek to Austin. Why the agency is only now contemplating this option is somewhat baffling. (TRS has been offering member consultations via video conferencing during the current shutdown period that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)

In order to address these issues, sunset commission staff recommend that the legislature require TRS to develop a communications and outreach plan to help members prepare for retirement. Sunset staff also recommend, with regard to other issues identified in the report, that TRS engage stakeholders and adopt a member engagement policy. Also, the legislature should consider incorporating  recommendations for required stakeholder engagement into the development of TRS’ communications plan.

Continuing on the issue of repairing its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs, the sunset report also recommends that TRS improve its communications with employers, improve  efforts to return contributions to inactive members, and adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.

The commission staff found that many, if not most, employers of TRS members report that the system TRS uses to collect payroll and other information from them is cumbersome and “plagued with problems,” even three years after its launch. TRS should attempt to resolve the problems with its reporting system and do a better job of providing troubleshooting for employers that are trying to work around such problems until they are resolved.

Sunset staff also suggest that TRS provide employers and education service centers (ESCs) with training so that school districts and ESCs can help educate TRS members (school employees) on retirement and healthcare issues. While this sounds good in theory, as districts certainly have more access to their own employees than TRS ever will, I am skeptical of most districts’ desire to take on this additional responsibility. Prior to pursuing this recommendation, TRS should communicate with school district leaders to determine if districts would actually utilize any such training or tools TRS might create for them. Policymakers should also consider whether such a communications strategy might be duplicative or confusing for TRS members.

The sunset staff further recommend that TRS be more proactive in returning contributions to inactive members. However, additional effort on the agency’s part has an administrative and staffing cost. Therefore, in considering this sunset recommendation, TRS and the legislature should work to balance the needs of members leaving the retirement system with those who will remain in it.

Certainly, educators have a right to redeem the contributions they have put into the system if they leave it; however, they also bear some responsibility for being aware of their own money. TRS currently sends a refund application to members who have not requested a refund on their own when their membership automatically terminates after seven years of inactivity under Texas law.The report’s description of contributions being “forfeited” after seven years of inactivity could lead some to believe that former members lose the ability to redeem their contributions at some point. In fact, former TRS members remain eligible to withdraw their funds at any time, before or after the seven year mark.

As the sunset staff noted, federal law prohibits TRS from automatically returning funds to an inactive member. Should active and retired members bear the cost of additional staff, the use of credit reporting agencies, or sending out thousands of pieces of certified mail to track down long-time inactive members who have failed to claim their own money?

Finally, the sunset report recommends that TRS “adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.” Generally speaking, this is an excellent idea. A policy that incorporates increased use of expanded stakeholder groups and a better methodology for clear and timely two-way communication could go along way toward improving TRS functions and educators’  perceptions of the agency. However, it is important that any legislative action around this recommendation stay focused on the broader context of improving overall communications between TRS and its members.

Unfortunately, legislators might end up focusing only on issues surrounding TRS’ abandoned decision to lease a particular property to house its investment division. If this happens, discussions could easily become mired in attempts to assign blame around this single, high-profile issue. Rather, the legislature should consider a more positive approach of trying to holistically improve TRS’ communications and engagement with and trust among its members.

Rural schools get a temporary reprieve on loss of federal funds

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has backed down, at least temporarily, on her department’s plan to cut federal resources currently flowing to more than 800 low-income rural schools. The move comes after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter in opposition to the plan this week. The announcement also follows the secretary’s appearance at a tense congressional hearing on Feb. 27 to defend the Trump Administration’s education budget proposal.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified before a U.S. House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Feb. 27, 2020.

The proposed cut in federal funding was due to the department’s decision to change its internal rules on the type of poverty data it would accept to determine eligibility for the Rural Low-Income Schools Program (RLIS). The program is one of two sub-grants under the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP), which senators who who wrote the letter to DeVos describe as “the only dedicated federal funding stream to help rural schools overcome the increased expenses caused by geographic isolation.”

Under REAP, which was enacted in 2002, school districts seeking RLIS grant funding would prove their eligibility based on census poverty data. However, upon recognizing in 2003 that adequate census data often was not available to the districts the act was meant to help, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) changed its course. By rule, ED began to allow school districts to substitute census data with the same internal data on the percentage of their students eligible for free and reduced lunch, which is used to determine Title I eligibility. The department has allowed the use of this substitute data ever since.

After receiving significant legislative push-back to the proposed change, ED has shied away from making the change for now. As reported by Bloomberg Government, a spokesperson for the department explained the rationale for the change as follows:

“We have heard from States the adjustment time is simply too short, and the Secretary has always sought to provide needed flexibility to States’ [sic] during transitions. This protects States and their students from financial harm for which they had not planned.” The spokesperson added, “[D]ue to the States’ reliance on the Department’s calculations for the past seventeen years, the secretary has concluded the Department can use its authority to allow alternative poverty data to be used for an additional year.”

Clearly, ED is still positioning itself to be able to make this change in the future, which would negatively affect hundreds of rural schools short of some additional action by Congress or the administration. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for future updates from ATPE’s federal lobby team.

Healthcare and office space discussions dominate February 2020 TRS meeting

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees held its first meeting of 2020 in Austin this week. In addition to receiving typical reports on market trends and internal processes, such as the agency’s new diversity program, the board took action on two major issues regarding TRS space planning and healthcare for both the active and retired educator population.

TRS office space plans

The first day of the board’s two-day meeting was dominated by a discussion of TRS’s space planning needs, including issues surrounding the immediate future location of the TRS Investment Division, which has been in the news as of late. After a lengthy discussion of the history of the agency’s housing over the last two-plus decades, TRS staff recommended the Investment Management Division renew its current lease at 816 Congress Avenue in Austin (an option that was not previously available due to insufficiency of available space in the building). This would be a seven-year lease with a one-time right to terminate the lease if a new headquarters is found to house all of TRS. The recommendation also calls for TRS to sublet space it recently contracted to lease at the new Indeed Tower in downtown Austin. After the board’s vote to accept the recommendation, TRS Board Chairman Jarvis Hollingsworth released the following statement:

“Today, the board considered additional options that recently became available and approved a solution that meets the space needs of our growing investment division, while also demonstrating sensitivity to member concerns.”

The agency will also move forward with consideration of building a new main campus outside of downtown Austin to house at least the staff currently located at the current main campus on Red River Street, potentially bringing all TRS staff back under the same roof.

Healthcare

During Friday’s meeting, TRS staff presented a recommendation, which the board approved, on the network providers for all of the major heath insurance funds managed by the board. TRS released the following press release about the changes, which they say could save the combined health insurance programs of TRS as much as $754 million  over the next three to five years.

Staff also updated the board on the TRS-ActiveCare listening tour that is designed to get feedback from the field on the healthcare program for active educators. TRS will use the information it receives to focus their efforts on what are determined to be priority improvements to the system. These discussions include consideration of creating more regional options in addition to the statewide plan.

ATPE will continue to monitor TRS developments and actively engage with the TRS staff and board on the policies impacting active and retired teachers in Texas.

 

Beyond candidates: 2020 Texas primary ballot propositions

Candidates aren’t the only thing Texas voters will find on their ballots on February 18 when early voting starts for the 2020 Texas Republican and Democratic primary elections. Each party also puts forth a slate of ballot propositions for their voters to weigh in on.

In many elections ballot propositions pertain to bonds, referendums on local ordinances, or even constitutional amendments. But what are ballot propositions with regard to primary elections? Perhaps the best definition I’ve seen comes from the Republican Party of Texas website, which states as follows:

“Keep in mind that [ballot propositions are] an opinion poll of [primary] voters and not a policy referendum. When you vote YES or NO, you are telling us what you think should happen. You are not voting to make a law but merely saying you agree or disagree with the statement.”

Each party, Republican and Democratic, has put forth a set of value statements and is asking those who vote in the party’s primary to give their opinion on those statements. The Democrats have styled their ballot propositions as a “Texas Bill of Rights” containing 11 broad statements covering many policy areas. The Republicans have offered up 10 more narrowly tailored ballot propositions to their voters.

This year, each party’s slate of ballot propositions includes one or more statements related directly or indirectly to public education. The Texas Republican ballot for 2020 includes three such statements:

  • Republican Party Ballot Proposition #1:Texas should not restrict or prohibit prayer in public schools.
  • Republican Party Ballot Proposition #3:Texas should ban the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, which allows your tax dollars to be spent on lobbyists who work against the taxpayer.” This recommendation aims to prevent governmental entities from paying their staff or contractors to advocate for their interests. Were such a ban to be enacted, it could restrict school districts and public charter schools from paying lobbyists to advocate for public education, and it could also prevent those entities from paying dues or fees to any outside organizations that hire their own lobbyists.
  • Republican Party Ballot Proposition #5:Texas parents or legal guardians of public school children under the age of 18 should be the sole decision makers for all their children’s healthcare decisions including, but not limited to, psychological assessment and treatment, contraception, and sex education.” This statement is aimed at Texas public schools and other public and private institutions that exercise varying levels of involvement in “children’s healthcare decisions.”

View the complete list of Texas Republican Party primary ballot propositions for 2020 here.

Unlike their Republican counterparts who have proposed multiple recommendations on very specific facets of the public school system, Texas Democrats have presented only one broad question to their voters with respect to education:

  • Democratic Party Ballot Proposition #2: “Right to a 21st Century Public Education: Should everyone in Texas have the right to high-quality public education from pre-k to 12th grade, and affordable college and career training without the burden of crushing student loan debt?” This broad proposition addresses not only the quality of public education in grades pre-K through 12, but also affordability of post-secondary training.

View the complete list of Texas Democratic Party primary ballot propositions for 2020 here.

Remember that the propositions on your primary ballot have no force of law and are merely a “poll” of sorts to determine the views of a party’s voters. However, they are important in shaping the party platform and the issues or initiatives that elected officials from that party are likely to prioritize.

We hope all Texans who care about public education head the polls during the upcoming primary election; and when you do, be sure to vote not only on which candidates you hope to see on the general election ballot this November, but also on your party’s propositions that will help shape the values of the party those candidates will represent.

Early voting for the 2020 Texas primaries runs from Tuesday, February 18, through Friday, February 28. Election day is Tuesday, March 3.

ATPE advocacy never stops. Get involved outside the legislative session.

When people think about public education advocacy, many naturally think about the legislature and the 140-day legislative session that occurs every two years. To be sure there is a lot of action during session, but there are also plenty of ways for public education advocates, including ATPE’s professional lobby team and members of the general public who care about the issue, to stay engaged outside of a legislative session.

Two primary areas of engagement during the interim are interacting with state regulatory boards and agencies and following interim charges to legislative committees.

Boards and agencies, such as the State Board of Education or the Teacher Retirement System, do the day-to-day work of implementing the laws enacted by the state legislature. This work happens year-round and these entities have a huge impact on shaping the law through their interpretation and implementation of it. Stakeholders can share their input with boards and agencies through administrative rulemaking processes and at public meetings.

State board and agency rules are contained in the Texas Administrative Code. Each week, proposed and newly adopted rules are published in the Texas Register through the Secretary of State’s office. Both resources are available to the public.

For example, just this week ATPE submitted comments on multiple administrative rules.

  • ATPE formally commented on proposed changes to commissioner’s rules governing school district-charter partnerships under Senate Bill 1882 of 2017.
  • We joined with the Texas Association of Future Educators in recommending rule revisions by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) that could benefit high school students who are interested in careers in the classroom.
  • ATPE also shared concerns about SBEC rules relating to master teacher certificates that are slated to be eliminated as a result of 2019’s House Bill 3 (2019).

In addition, we attended this week’s State Board of Education meetings, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has reported on here and here for Teach the Vote. These are examples of advocacy efforts that, while related to actions taken by the legislature, take place in entirely different arenas. Rulemaking happens at the federal level, too. Through our Washington, DC-based lobby team, we are able similarly to stay on top of federal regulatory actions that might affect ATPE members.

Legislative committees have also begun conducting interim hearings that will continue to ramp up over the summer. These hearings give lawmakers an opportunity to monitor the implementation of recent legislation and to discuss the House interim charges and Senate interim charges. Public testimony is often allowed at these meetings, and committees may also invite expert witnesses to sit on panels or speak about an issue. Interim charges, and the hearings at which they are discussed, often provide the basis for major legislation in the upcoming legislative session. Becoming involved in the shaping of bills before they are ever filed puts savvy advocates way ahead of the game.

ATPE will engage in these and many other advocacy opportunities throughout the interim on behalf of our 100,000 members, and we encourage educators and others who care about public education to do the same. Take the time to share your input with decision-makers during this important, sometimes overlooked advocacy period. ATPE advocacy never stops!

More detail on the last TRS meeting of 2019

As we mentioned here on Teach the Vote last week, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) board of trustees met last Thursday and Friday, Dec. 12-13, 2019. The board opened its final day of meetings for 2019 with public comments before taking up an agenda that included adoption of a new funding policy and considering where the TRS agency should be housed in the future. The TRS board heard testimony last week from ATPE and the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) as well as some individual retirees. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter addressed the association’s concerns with language in the proposed funding policy to be considered for adoption later in the meeting.

Senate Bill (SB) 2224, as passed during the last regular session of the legislature, requires the TRS board to adopt a written funding policy detailing its plan for achieving a funded ratio equal to or greater than 100 percent for the pension trust fund. The original language proposed to the board could have been interpreted as creating a policy that was more prescriptive than current law with respect to cost of living adjustments (COLAs), potentially putting the board at odds with mandates from future legislatures. The legislature, not the TRS board, determines whether or not TRS should grant a COLA to retirees.

After considering the concerns voiced, the board struck the objectionable language before adopting the remainder of the proposed policy. The new funding policy as adopted will require TRS staff to include additional requests for funding in the agency’s legislative funding requests anytime they determine that current funding is not sufficient to keep the pension fund on track toward paying off the balance of its unfunded liability in less than 30 years.

Currently, the $160 billion TRS trust fund is on track to pay off its unfunded liabilities in 29 years. This is largely due to this year’s passage of SB 12, which phases in higher contribution rates for school districts, educators, and the state over the next five years. Prior to SB 12, the fund’s payoff date was more than 87 years into the future, cutting off the possibility of benefit enhancements for retirees for nearly six decades.

With the state of the TRS pension fund significantly shored up after the 2019 legislative session, it is likely that lawmakers will return their focus to improving TRS health insurance. In fact, the Texas House of Representatives recently appointed a new special committee to study statewide healthcare to be chaired by Rep. Greg Bonnen, a neurosurgeon from League City and the co-sponsor of SB 12. Chairman Bonnen was present at the TRS board meeting last Thursday  for a discussion by its Benefits Committee regarding primary care directed models and how to improve outcomes and costs associated with TRS-Care and TRS-Activecare. As the largest single insurer and one that covers members both during their working years and into retirement, TRS is in a unique position to influence a new round of early discussions on improving healthcare in Texas.

TRS has come a long way over the last 30 years. The fund has grown from less than $20 billion to just over $160 billion. Over that same time TRS staff has grown from around 300 employees to more than 700, at the same time that the number of TRS members has increased from around 500 thousand to more than 1.6 million. TRS has moved six times since 1937 before locating the agency in its current home in 1973. Growth in the number of members and exponential growth in the size of the trust fund has pushed TRS’s staffing needs beyond what its current physical location can accommodate.

As the TRS board and staff seek a new home for the agency, they are keeping certain priorities in mind. The space should be centrally located and user-friendly for the members; the new space should provide a long-term solution; and the move away from the current space to a new one should result in a net positive for the fund. These priorities translate into building a new space in central Texas, but outside the downtown Austin business district. Additionally, it means leasing the current TRS space in order to maximize profits for trust fund.

For more on last week’s TRS meeting, click here to view the board materials or watch archived footage.