Author Archives: Monty Exter

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.

No action is good action: TRS committee takes no action on TRS-Care premiums

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees is meeting today and tomorrow. This morning, TRS Chief Healthcare Officer Katrina Daniel updated the board’s Benefits Committee on the most recent fund balance shortfall for TRS-Care. Today’s update noted that as a result of several positive factors, that shortfall has fallen to approximately $240 million for fiscal year  2021, the second year of the upcoming biennium.

TRS-Care had already moved in a substantially positive direction by the time the agency laid out its legislative appropriations request (LAR) last week. The LAR had incorporated the shortfall, which was estimated to be $410 million as of June 30, 2018.

Since June, TRS has made significant progress in contract negotiations with Humana, the current third-party administrator of TRS-Care Medicare Advantage. The new contract will result in considerable additional savings to TRS-Care that brings the shortfall down to the approximately $240 million mark discussed today.

Based on the June 30 numbers, which have only improved, both House and Senate leaders have requested that the TRS board not raise premiums for retirees, but instead rely on their assurances that the legislature will fully fund the shortfall during the upcoming legislative session. Based on those assurances, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie recommended that the board take no action on increasing rates for TRS-Care.

in addition to leaving premiums the same for the upcoming year, the benefits side of TRS-Care will also remain the same for the upcoming plan year.

The TRS board documents related to this discussion can be found here, or you can watch an archived video of the discussion. The healthcare discussion starts at the beginning of the video.

School finance commission subcommittee approves expenditures plan

The Expenditures Subcommittee of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week to lay out and vote on their recommendations back to the full commission. Based on both the recommendation and what the committee members had to say, it became clear that their primary goal is to drive dollars into increasing the basic allotment. They also have secondary goals of shifting funds out of programs not tied to educational programming and into programs designed to increase educational attainment for harder-to-teach students, particularly economically disadvantaged populations and English language learners.

The committee has not publicly released its report yet, but a summary breakdown of the recommendations can be found below. A video archive of the full subcommittee meeting, which lasted a little under an hour, is also available.

Group 1 – Reallocations of existing programs. This group represents approximately $5.3 billion to be spent on increasing existing initiatives and creating new initiatives.

  • Reallocate the Cost of Education Index (CEI) – $2.9 billion
  • Reallocate the 92-93 Hold Harmless – $30 million. This program only impacts 12 -20 school districts.
  • Reallocate the Ch. 41 Early Agreement Credit – $50 million. Eliminates a program that currently pays property wealthy districts to sign an annual contract by Sept. 1 agreeing to pay the state what they owe in recapture. The discount did not require districts to prepay or early pay.
  • Reallocate the Gifted and Talented (GT) allotment – $165 million. This recommendation eliminates the stand-alone allotment but does not eliminate other requirements to provide GT education from the Texas Education Code (TEC). Currently 99.9% of districts are at the 5% GT cap, meaning the same dollars can be more efficiently flowed out to schools through the basic allotment.
  • Reallocate the High School Allotment – $400 million.
  • Move from prior year to current year property values – $1.8 billion.

Group 2 – Increased spending on existing programs

  • Increase state compensatory education allotment from 0.2 to a spectrum that ranges from 0.225 and 0.275 as part of a tiered system that pays out higher amounts to campuses with more severely challenging populations. Currently, the recommendation is still based on free and reduced lunch but could use a more sensitive metric.
  • Change the transportation allotment to a millage-based approach at 0.83 cents per mile, to be set by appropriations.
  • Allow Ch. 41 districts to get compensated by the transportation allotment at a $60 million cost.
  • Fund the stand-alone small-size and mid-size district adjustment between $0 and $400 million outside the basic allotment, depending on where the basic allotment is set.
  • Increase the New Instructional Facilities Allotment (NIFA) to $100 million. This represents a $76 million increase over last session.
  • Expand Career and Technical Education (CTE) funding to include sixth through eighth grades – $20 million.

Group 3 – New programs

  • Create a dual language allotment of 0.15 at a cost of between $15 and $50 million. This new allotment would be in lieu of (not in addition to) the bilingual allotment; you can either get the bilingual allotment or the dual language allotment, but not both.
  • Create a dyslexia allotment of 0.1 – $100 million.
  • Create a Kindergarten through third grade ELL/economically disadvantaged allotment of 0.1 – $786 million. This money is not tied to outcomes and can be used to fund any program that seeks to improve reading and math on grade level by grade three, including paying for full day Pre-Kindergarten programs.
  • Create a grade three reading bonus of 0.4 – $400 million. This provides incentive money for students meeting grade level in reading on the 3rd grade standardized test.
  • Create a College, Career, and Military Readiness Bonus – no specific weight – $400 million. This is envisioned as a reallocation of the High School Allotment and is aimed to drive the state’s “60/30” goals.
  • Create a teacher compensation program – $100 million. This is the governor’s performance pay program. It is formula-based, not grant-based, and is not subject to appropriation. There will likely be no fiscal note for the program until year three, and it is envisioned to grow over time.
  • Fund an extended year summer pilot program – $50 million. This program is intended to reduce summer learning losses for disadvantaged students.

Additional changes recommended:

  • Change the guaranteed yield on the copper pennies from a set dollar amount to a percentage of the Basic Allotment. When the yield was set, the dollar amount used represented approximately 88% of the basic allotment. Now it is much less. Increasing the guaranteed yield increases state entitlement, which helps property poor districts and recapture districts.
  • Decouple the golden pennies from Austin ISD.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for reporting on future actions of the commission.

TEA and TRS both lay out their budget requests to LBB

During a full day of marathon hearings on Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Executive Director Brian Guthrie both laid out their agencies’ Legislative Appropriations Requests (LARs). The presentations were made to a panel of staffers representing the Governor’s and Lt Governor’s offices, as well as House and Senate budget writers.

ATPE previously issued a statement about the state’s continued shift in reliance on local property taxes, and away from non-property tax revenue, to fund public education represented in TEA’s LAR. The agency’s LAR predicts a reduction of $3 billion in state aid, or $1.5 billion per year, over the next biennium.

There is an available video archive of Morath’s presentation in addition to TEA’s full LAR document, which lays out much of the commissioner’s agenda for the next two years.

Guthrie laid out his agency’s substantial appropriations request later in the day, which included increased contributions of $1.6 billion for the biennium to cover the decrease in projected investment revenue attributable to TRS’s lowering the assumed rate of return on pension fund investments. The TRS budget request also includes approximately $400 million in additional funding to cover the projected shortfall for TRS-Care, the retired educators’ health insurance program. While funding for the active educator health insurance program flows through TEA, not TRS, Guthrie did bring up the fact that the cost of active educator healthcare was also of concern and would be appropriate to address in the upcoming legislative session. While the funding does not flow through the agency, TRS does administer TRS-ActiveCare, which many districts use to provide insurance to their employees.

A video archive of Guthrie’s presentation is available to watch, in addition to the documents that TRS provided to the Legislative Budget Board for this week’s hearing.

Return to sender: Letters to TRS are political farce

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a letter sent to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) urging the board not to increase TRS-Care premiums for retired educators. Quickly following Patrick’s lead, state Sen. Joan Huffman (R–Houston) released a letter of her own also urging TRS to not increase premiums. Huffman chairs the Senate committee charged with overseeing TRS.

With no TRS board meeting until late September and TRS releasing no additional information regarding potential premium increases, these letters came as a bit of a surprise to both education advocates and to TRS. They were also particularly shocking considering the fact that neither the lieutenant governor nor the Senate over which he presides are known for generosity in spending state dollars on education or educators.

Perhaps, however, when put into the context of an election season in which both retired and active educators are still miffed at the way TRS-Care reform was handled last session, the letters, which otherwise seem out of character, make more sense. For example, Lt. Gov. Patrick’s letter was addressed to the chairperson of the TRS board, but was simultaneously delivered to the press. Chairman Jarvis Hollingsworth and the rest of the TRS board are gubernatorial appointees, not an elected body. They serve at the pleasure of Gov. Greg Abbott. TRS, a state agency, operates under the direction and oversight of the legislature. Working directly with TRS, perhaps in coordination with the governor’s office, especially on an issue that isn’t yet public, would have been every bit as effective as making a public announcement of this type. Additionally, aside from the direct request not to raise premiums, the rest of Patrick’s letter sounds more like a campaign stump speech aimed at voters — claiming accomplishments and making future promises — than it does a typical letter expressing direction to a state agency.

Let’s look at some of those “accomplishments” and promises.

Patrick states, “In the last 4 years the Texas Senate has taken the lead in adding over a billion dollars to TRS Care funding including over $200 million in the Special Session last year.”

First, let’s address the funding from the special session. The special session occurred less than three months after the regular session ended, and the state’s economic picture was virtually unchanged. So what did change that allowed Patrick and the Senate to “find” $200 million dollars that they were unwilling to spend less than three months prior? The passage of the TRS-Care reform bill was one of the last things to happen during the regular session. As soon as the bill passed, news of the dramatic increases in retiree premiums hit like a ton of bricks. Hundreds — if not thousands — of retired educators began to call their elected officials, understandably irate. With a special session on things like the failed bathroom bill already on the horizon, additional money to somewhat lessen the blow to angry retirees was added to the call in an attempt to head off an all-out revolt.

Next, let’s put into perspective the amount spent over the last four years and address the way it was spent. A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money; but over four years it represents only about one quarter of 1% of the Texas budget. Additionally, all but $165 million of that billion was put into the budget as one-time supplemental funding. That is significant because the Senate all but refused to add money to the budget as an increase to the funding formulas instead, which is built into the base budget on an ongoing basis and significantly reduces the need to fight for that funding in future sessions. Not only did the Senate resist increasing the formulas beyond the $165 million, it’s in fact unlikely that any of the money would have been put into the funding formula had the House, under the leadership of Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), not fought for the formula increase.

If the dollars put into TRS in the 2015 session had been budgeted as formula instead of supplemental funding, the shortfall during the 2017 session would have only been about $300 million, instead of a billion. It would have been much easier for advocates to rally legislators to find $300 million dollars as opposed to a billion, and retirees could have likely avoided dramatic premium increases. Finally, had Patrick and the Senate put the money spent in 2015 and 2017 into the formulas, there would likely be little to no shortfall going into 2019.

Unfortunately, since the money spent over the last two sessions was not delivered through increased funding formulas, we do have a significant shortfall in TRS-Care funding going into 2019. However, the lieutenant governor goes on to state that he is “confident that the Senate will support additional funding for TRS Care” and that he “believe[s] additional funding should be the responsibility of the Legislature and not fall on the shoulders of our retired teachers.” Considering how hard advocates and retirees had to fight for funding last session, it’s good — though surprising — to hear that the lieutenant governor is confident that full state funding will be available this session. Hopefully that’s not the type of campaign promise that seems to evaporate as soon as the election is over.

Without a doubt, ATPE and thousands of retired educators would prefer TRS-Care premiums either decrease or remain steady, as opposed to increase. Whether or not that preference becomes reality will be entirely up to the next legislature. Let’s hope that retired and active educators remember how much impact elected officials have on them and their students when they cast a ballot in November and that elected officials remember how impactful active and retired educators are during the next session, after those ballots have been cast.

TRS update: The vote is in

After taking testimony from many active and retired educators and those who advocate for them, including ATPE, the TRS board of directors deliberated today and ultimately adopted an assumed rate of return of 7.25%, down from 8% currently.

You can read more about this issue in previous Teach the Vote blog posts, including this post from yesterday. ATPE has also released this press statement following this morning’s vote.

TRS has provided this infographic to help interested parties better understand the reasons behind the move to a new rate and address some questions related to change.

One thing is certain: the ball is now firmly in the legislatur’es court to properly fund the TRS pension through increased compensation rates. Educators who are interested in the health of the fund should keep that in mind at the ballot box in November.

What’s happening at TRS this week?


This week, the TRS board of directors will discuss and likely take action on a recommendation to lower the assumed rate of return (RoR), based on investment forecasts provided by independent financial experts hired to assess all of the assumptions TRS staff uses for planning purposes. Should the board lower the assumed RoR it would be in line with broader trends in the public pension sector, including TRS’s peers. The vast majority of experts expect less robust investment returns in the near and mid-term future.

In order to maintain the long term health of the fund without decreasing pension benefits, contribution rates will need to be increased to offset an anticipated decrease in investment revenue. Unlike many local pension systems (e.g., municipal, police, and fire), the TRS board does not set contribution rates for either employees or employers; nor does the board set the benefits paid out to retirees. Both TRS contributions and benefits are completely determined by the Texas legislature. Should the legislature fail to pass a plan to provide adequate contributions over time, the only remaining options would be to reduce benefits, further weakening current and future retirees’ retirement security, or put the fund into a situation where benefits being paid out exceed revenues coming in, which would place the fund on a path to eventual insolvency.

The bottom line is that the burden is on the Texas legislature to step up and provide the necessary funding to ensure actuarial soundness of the TRS pension fund and give educators peace of mind that they will not face cuts in their pensions or other dramatic pension plan changes. Historically, the legislature has not been proactive in this area and has not prioritized funding for retired educators’ needs, opting to delay action until the pension fund reaches a crisis level.

Some educator groups have urged their members to flood TRS board members with calls and emails this week. We believe their calls to action, while well-intentioned, are misdirected, as the TRS board has virtually no authority over contributions or benefits and, with regard to investments, has a fiduciary duty to act in what it believes to be the best interest of the fund based on the prudent advice of its financial experts. In other words, TRS has few options at this time, given the legislature’s disregard over the course of decades for the growing financial needs of the pension fund.

The only way to avoid a major TRS funding shortfall that will hurt the educators who depend on the fund is legislative action, not action from TRS. With that in mind, educators who care about the short- and long-term health of TRS should be focused on the legislature, not the TRS board members. Current legislators who have not prioritized TRS funding have caused the current problem. Is it reasonable to expect those same legislators to now fix it, or does it make more since go to the polls in November and elect legislators who will prioritize TRS funding as part of a general dedication toward public education?

Check back tomorrow for a follow-up report on what action the board takes on the assumed RoR.

U.S. Supreme Court delivers major ruling affecting public employees in union states

The Supreme Court of the United States delivered a ruling today in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (AFSCME). The case revolved around Mark Janus, a non-union member who argued he should not have to pay “agency fees” collected by the union in his state of Illinois to cover the cost of the union’s collective bargaining activities. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the plaintiff, Mr. Janus, in determining that forcing workers who do not wish to join a union to still have to pay fees to a union is unconstitutional.

The outcome of this case, which has been anticipated for months, affects not only Mr. Janus and other pubic sector workers, including teachers, in the state of Illinois, but also potentially impacts public sector workers in 26 other states. Those affected states, which do not include Texas, are those that do not have right-to-work laws in place and where agency fees are currently legal.

As a non-union professional association, ATPE was founded on the principles that educators should have the right to chose which organizations with which they want to associate. We believe public education is an inherently collaborative endeavor that should not be divided into management versus labor, and that all educators should have a seat at the table when it comes to collaborating with school district leaders on pay and other contract issues, regardless of organizational affiliation. These rights, which were at the heart of the Janus case, are embodied by the right-to-work laws that have long been enjoyed by Texas educators.

In response to the court’s ruling, ATPE has released the following statement.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for additional analysis on this, and any other rulings, likely to impact public education or public school educators.

 

Texas Pension Review Board adopts principles of retirement plan design

A subcommittee of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB) has been working over the last several months on a set of non-binding guidelines meant to impart what the board feels are best practices with respect to retirement plan design for use by the retirement plans that are required to report to the board.

Despite some concern expressed by smaller funds over how the board’s non-mandatory recommendation on vesting periods might be made into a legal mandate by the Texas Legislature, the full PRB unanimously adopted the proposed principles, which can be found here, at its most recent meeting.

The Texas Teachers Retirement System (TRS) pension fund is one of the many funds, and certainly the largest fund, required to report to the PRB. While the design of the TRS pension fund by and large already meets the voluntary standards enumerated in the PRB’s principles document, the two areas where it does not are notable. First, the principles document calls for “contributions to retirement plans [to] be consistent with the PRB Pension Funding Guidelines.” Those guidelines call for plans to be funded at a level that would allow the plans’ unfunded liability to be amortized over less than 30 years. Second, the PRB principles say that a plan’s “retirement benefits should be protected against the erosion of the benefit’s value due to inflation.” Essentially that means plans should include built in COLAs (Cost of Living Adjustments). In both instances, that the TRS pension plan does not comply with these best practices is a function of the Legislature choosing not to fund the plan adequately.

Perhaps the Legislature and the Governor should take a note from the PRB, a body the legislature created whose chairman the Governor appoints, and fund TRS adequately to comply with the PRB’s newly adopted principles.