Category Archives: 86th Legislature

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.

Education: Where Texas Political Parties Stand

Dear TeachTheVote: Where does my party stand on public education?

It’s a great question to ask as we turn our focus to the November elections, and the answer can be found in each party’s political platform.

At the most basic level, party platforms are just a long list of beliefs and policy positions that delegates put together at each party’s state convention. This summer, Democrats met in Fort Worth and Republicans met in San Antonio to decide which issues to focus on. In each case, a handful of delegates cobbled together the platform, which was then submitted to the full convention for amendments and a formal vote for adoption.

Now before we get into the details of this year’s party platforms, there are a few important caveats. First of all, the platform committee responsible for writing the first draft is often composed of that particular party’s most ideological partisans. Sometimes the full delegation decides to water down the language and trim some of the fringe positions before voting to approve the platform, but that’s not always the case. Because of this, the end result can sometimes be a set of values that are not fully aligned to those of the party’s central majority and may be skewed toward the extreme edges of the ideological spectrum.

This ties into the next important point: Platforms have traditionally served as guideposts that indicate the party’s default position on a given issue, not marching orders for the legislative session. Each elected official is first responsible to their local district and the constituents who elected them, which is why platforms aren’t meant to be enforceable documents.

That being said, aggressively enforcing the party platform was the key theme for delegates voting on a party chairman at the 2018 Texas Republican Convention. This means that when the 86th Texas Legislature convenes, many legislators will be under great pressure from their party leaders to obey the platform committee’s positions over those of the voters they serve. That’s why it’s always important for educators to communicate directly with our elected representatives when it comes to public education issues.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at what this election season’s platforms have to say about education issues. For reference, you can find the full 2018 Republican Party of Texas Platform here and the 2018 Texas Democratic Party Platform here.

School Finance

The 2018 Republican Party of Texas Platform calls for ending “Robin Hood,” limiting increases in public education funding, and replacing school district property taxes with a consumption tax.

Each plank in the Republican platform is numbered. Plank 164 calls for “a simple, fair, and efficient method for financing our public school system” and opposes the Robin Hood system of recapture in which some money from property wealthy districts flows to property poor districts. The Republican platform explicitly opposes the Edgewood I and Edgewood II court opinions, in which the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the school finance system at the time was unconstitutional because it relied too heavily on local property taxes without any adjustment for rich and poor areas, which resulted in vastly unequal funding for children living in different communities.

When it comes to additional funding, the platform states, “Before receiving additional dollars through the school finance formulas, school districts must spend at least 65 percent of their current funding in the classroom.” According to the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) 2016-2017 Pocket Edition statistics, districts spent an average of 56.7 percent of all funds directly on instruction and another 15.6 percent on support. Administration accounted for 3.1 percent of district spending.

Plank 166 states, “We call upon the Texas Legislature to use surplus revenue to buy down the school maintenance and operation property tax rate as a prelude to replacing it with a broader based consumption tax.” The most common consumption tax is the sales tax.

The 2018 Texas Democratic Party Platform calls for reducing the reliance on Robin Hood, funding schools in a way that reflects differences in costs between students and districts, and restoring funding that was cut in 2011 and 2017.

Individual planks are not numbered in the Democratic platform, but follow a narrative structure utilizing bullet points. The Democratic platform lays current funding deficiencies at the feet of Republican leadership, and declares restoring the $5.4 billion cut from public education funding in 2011 and $1.7 billion cut in 2017 “a legislative budget priority.” With regard to design, the platform advocates for “a 100% equitable school finance system with sufficient state revenue to provide every child the opportunity to learn in an exemplary program” and that “state funding formulas should fully reflect all student and district cost differences and the impact of inflation and state mandates.”

Private School Subsidies

The Republican platform states, “Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter, or homeschool options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government restraints or intrusion.”

The Democratic platform states Democrats “oppose the misnamed ‘school choice’ schemes of using public tax money for the support of private and sectarian schools; believe ‘school choice’ is a deceptive marketing frame that purports to advocate something that already exists – school choice – but whose true purpose is to divert public school funds to vouchers or tax credit systems supporting private and sectarian schools; [and believe] that adoption of any vouchers or tax credit schemes would unavoidably financially and academically damage public schools.”

Teachers

The Republican platform calls for an end to payroll deduction and converting certain government pensions from defined benefit to defined contribution plans.

Plank 49 states, “Texas should prohibit governmental entities from collecting dues for labor unions through deductions from public employee paychecks.” Although the language mischaracterizes how payroll deduction works and refers specifically to unions, the 2017 legislative session showed that this plank is in fact aimed at non-union educators, including ATPE members, in an attempt to weaken teachers’ voices at the Capitol.

Plank 151 states, “The Texas Legislature shall enact new rules to begin to transition government pensions for ERS and TDCRS members from a defined benefit pension to a defined contribution retirement plan similar to a 403(b).” While the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas is not mentioned here, the language echoes similar attempts during the 2017 legislative session to deny educators a lifetime retirement benefit by converting TRS pensions to 401(k)-style defined contribution plans.

The Democratic platform opposes prohibitions on payroll deduction and supports “protecting the TRS defined benefit pension system against attempts to turn it into a risky 401-k plan that could put most retirees’ pensions at risk; providing a regular COLA for every retired teacher; repealing the federal government pension offset and windfall elimination provisions that unfairly reduce Social Security benefits for Texas educational employees; and improving the TRS-Care health insurance program for retired educators.”

The Democratic platform includes a plank specifically aimed at teacher recruitment and retention. It advocates that Texas bring teacher pay in line with the rest of the nation, increase the state contribution for teacher health care, restore financial incentives for those interested in pursuing the teaching profession, oppose test-based performance, and guarantee mentors and properly certified teachers in each classroom.

Classrooms

The Republican platform calls for the right to prayer in schools, local control of public education, objective teaching of scientific theories, opposing national core curriculum, teaching American identity, transitioning non-English speaking students to English, and adopting an official position against transgenderism.

Plank 123 addresses prayer in schools, and further states, “We urge the Legislature to end censorship of discussion of religion in our founding documents and encourage discussing those documents, including the Bible as their basis. Students and district personnel have the right to display religious items on school property.”

Regarding local control, Plank 131 states, “We believe that all children should have access to quality education. Under the US Constitution, the power to regulate education is reserved exclusively to the States and to the people. Parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children. The classroom should be a place where all viewpoints are welcomed, free speech is celebrated, and ‘person before politics’ beliefs are preached. We support the right of parents to freely choose public, charter, private, parochial, or homeschooling for their children. We support the right of parents to choose the specific public school that their children attend. No child should be forced to attend a failing school. We reject the imposition of federal education standards and the tying of any government funding to the adoption of federal education standards. We reject the intrusion of government in private, parochial, or homeschools. We affirm that the policies, procedures, activities, and finances of public education in Texas at all levels should be fully transparent. To ensure transparency, the check register of all traditional school districts and charter schools should be posted online with the link on the home page. We respect parental authority regarding sex education. We believe that abortion providers and affiliates should be prohibited from providing any curriculum or instruction in schools.”

Plank 135 lists basic standards such as reading and writing, and Plank 136 addresses scientific theories, “such as life origins and environmental change. These should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.”

Plank 137 opposes national core curriculum such as Common Core and C-SCOPE, Plank 139 addresses American identity and assimilation, Plank 140 encourages non-English speaking students to transition to English within one year, and Plank 141 states, “The official position of the Texas schools with respect to transgenderism is that there are only two genders: male and female.”

The Democratic platform supports enforcing class size limits, replacing high-stakes tests with more appropriate diagnostic measurements, rejecting efforts to tie teacher performance to test scores, opposing “A through F” school ratings, promoting multi-language instruction, supporting Title IX protections for gender equity, supporting school meal programs, supporting school-community collaboration, and placing the most highly qualified teachers in areas facing the greatest challenges.

The Democratic platform includes a plank addressing early childhood education, which advocates for universal access to full-day pre-K and kindergarten, as well as classroom resources and quality measures to ensure children are performing at grade level by the third grade.

Democrats include a plank regarding the school-to-prison pipeline in their platform. This includes increasing the budget for school counseling, adding training for staff and law enforcement, and “repealing traditional, exclusionary approaches to discipline, such as expulsion and suspension, which disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority students, as well as special education students.”

School Security

The Republican platform calls for arming teachers and mandating school security plans.

Plank 72 opposes the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, and Plank 143 urges the legislature to “pass a statute that allows Texas school teachers, or other school employees, who are certified and insured to be authorized to carry a concealed gun on the premises of their assigned school for security and protection purposes.”

Regarding school security plans, Plank 144 states, “The Legislature is urged to adopt as a legislative priority to mandate by state law that all publicly funded school districts be required to submit a viable school security plan as part of an accountability program. The school security plan must explicitly provide for the personal security of students and staff by responding with an equal and opposite force to an aggressor that uses deadly weapons or devices. In an effort to customize plans for each district, a parent oversight commission will be consulted and advised as to the threat assessment status of schools at all times and must be allowed to partake in strategy sessions for the creation of the school security plan.”

The Democratic platform calls for “weapon-free and drug-free” campuses, the right of teachers to remove disruptive students, and efforts to prevent bullying and acts of violence.

Specifically, the Democratic school security plank states, “Implementation of systematic programs should be utilized to identify instances of bullying and implement school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports, to prevent violence, disruption, bullying, and harassment: Eliminate disparities in discipline based on race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression or any other improper grounds.”

Furthermore, the Democratic platform calls for an end to “indiscriminate use of misdemeanor ticketing for minor infractions on campus and indiscriminate expulsion or placement of students in disciplinary alternative education programs for trivial misconduct,” and urges continued strong academic instruction for students placed in disciplinary alternative education programs.

The list of issues related to public education is lengthy and both platforms address many more such topics, including sex education and the role of the State Board of Education (SBOE). You can read more about the 2018 Republican Party of Texas Platform here and the 2018 Texas Democratic Party Platform here.

ATPE testifies at Texas Capitol regarding teacher pay

The House Public Education Committee met Wednesday at the Texas Capitol to discuss interim charges relating to teacher compensation and charter schools. Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) began by noting that this meeting concludes the committee’s interim charges, and he does not plan on calling another committee meeting this year.

House Public Education Committee meeting August 8, 2018.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath kicked off the day’s invited testimony with an update on the state’s “A through F” accountability system. The agency is expected to release the first round of ratings for districts on August 15, while campuses will still be rated under the “met standard/improvement required” system until next year. Morath explained a number of adjustments to the system that were made as a result of stakeholder feedback.

Asked by Rep. Huberty how the ratings compare to last year when measured under the current system, Morath said the state lost a total of 260 improvement required (IR) campuses, representing a historic year-over-year improvement. Asked about the impact of the TEA waiver for IR campuses affected by Hurricane Harvey, the commissioner explained that 1,200 campuses were eligible for relief under the Harvey protocols. Of those, “something like 86” campuses that were on track to receive an IR designation instead received a “not rated” designation under the waiver.

Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) expressed concern over the system’s dependence on high-stakes testing, and cautioned members of the committee against using tests in ways for which they are not intended. Morath indicated his belief that summative assessments such as the STAAR are perfectly suited for evaluating campus-level effectiveness.

Morath then shifted to the following interim charge designated by Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio):

Review current state mechanisms for identifying and rewarding educators through state-level strategies. Examine how providing additional funding to enhance compensation in districts facing a shortage of experienced, highly rated teachers would affect retention and teacher quality, in addition to whether it would encourage teachers to provide additional services through extracurricular activities, tutoring, and mentoring.

The commissioner began by laying out the new teacher appraisal system, T-TESS, as well as currently available training and curricular resources. Morath said teachers are the TEA’s first strategic priority, but said compensation is only part of the puzzle. The commissioner highlighted research showing that only 23% of new U.S. teachers came from the top third of their graduating class. Pay is the top reason college graduates choose not to become teachers, and average pay has fallen compared to other professions. Compensation similarly does not grow at the same rate as other professions. Morath praised the performance pay program in Dallas ISD, but Rep. Huberty steered the commissioner toward focusing on how to pay for such programs.

The commissioner indicated that in order to implement strategic staffing programs like the Dallas ISD ACE program that incentivizes high-performing teachers to teach at the most at-risk campuses, the state could provide additional formula funding through the Foundation School Program (FSP) tied to levels of economically disadvantaged students. Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) suggested the state should raise the base pay, including the minimum salary schedule. Morath indicated part of the challenge of instituting a performance-based pay system is identifying top teachers, but noted that many school systems have done so successfully. The commissioner also indicated that any funding to raise teacher pay should provide administrators a guarantee that funding will continue.

Chairman Huberty asked Morath direcly what it would cost to implement Dallas ISD’s performance pay program across the state of Texas. According to Morath, the program would carry a startup cost of around $50 million and an annual cost of roughly $1 billion over a ten-year period. This would provide average raises between $4,000-5,000, with top teachers able to earn up to six-figure salaries.

Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) repeatedly questioned invited witnesses who cautioned against basing teacher evaluations on their students’ high-stakes test scores to provide an alternative metric to accurately identify top teachers. Representatives from educator organizations noted that standardized tests have not been validated for use evaluating the performance of individual teachers and pointed out there are a variety of alternatives.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before the House Public Education Committee, August 8, 2018.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified that the positive results from the Dallas ISD ACE system are not necessarily correlated with the district’s teacher evaluation system, which is called the Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI). Exter clarified that designating top teachers to utilize under the ACE model could be done equally effectively by utilizing T-TESS or another alternative evaluation system. Chairman Huberty expressed frustration, and indicated any program involving additional money from the state should provide the state with policy input. Asked by Chairman Huberty to offer specific recommendations, Exter suggested that lawmakers must take a systemic approach to directing the best teachers to the campuses facing the highest challenges. Such an approach would begin with the teacher pipeline and include wraparound supports as well as the possibility of differentiated pay.

The committee next considered the following interim charge regarding charters:

Review the charter school system in Texas. Determine if changes are needed in the granting, renewal, or revocation of charter schools, including the timeline for expansions and notification of expansions to surrounding districts. Review the educational outcomes of students in charter schools compared to those in traditional schools, and to what extent schools participate in the alternative accountability system. Monitor the implementation of facilities funding for charter schools. Consider differences in state funding for charter schools compared to their surrounding districts and the impact on the state budget. Consider admissions policies for charters, including appropriate data collection to assess demand for additional charter enrollment, compliance with access by students with disabilities and the effect of exclusions of students with criminal or disciplinary histories. Consider differences in charter and district contributions to the Teacher Retirement System on behalf of their employees and make appropriate recommendations to support the retirement benefits of all public school teachers.

TEA staff opened testimony with an overview of charter school statistics and the metrics for evaluating new charter applications. Chairman Huberty noted that the number of charter school campuses has increased while the number of charter holders has held steady around the statutory cap. Members had several questions regarding the statistics, including how student discipline is handled, the higher percentage of IR campuses than traditional school districts, and types of services offered.

Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez provided information regarding TRS contributions, facilities funding, and the implementation of district partnership contracts through Senate Bill (SB) 1882. Lopez noted that charters are not required to pay teachers the minimum salary schedule. Chairman Huberty pointed out that TRS contributions are not indexed to anything other than the minimum salary schedule, which has been long outdated as a current reflection of teacher salaries. As a result, contributions have not automatically increased along with inflation.

This year, charters will be eligible for facilities funding equaling on average just over $200 per student. This funding is capped at $60 million dollars annually. Regarding the amount of funding charters receive compared to traditional school districts, Lopez contended charters receive both more and less. Lopez noted at the outset that student profiles are different for each. While charters have higher levels of economically disadvantaged students, they have fewer special education students. It is also important to note that there are significant differences even among economically disadvantaged students, and traditional districts continue to serve the most students in extreme poverty.

From The Texas Tribune: Republican Pete Flores, Democrat Pete Gallego set for runoff for Uresti seat

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
July 31, 2018

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallegos (left), a Democrat, and Republican Peter Flores are running for state Senate District 19. Photo by Bob Daemmrich: Gallego/Campaign website

Republican Pete Flores, Democrat Pete Gallego set for runoff for Uresti seat” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Republican Pete Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego are headed to a runoff in the special election to replace convicted former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Flores led Gallego by 5 percentage points, 34 percent to 29 percent, according to unofficial returns. At 24 percent, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio came in third in the eight-way race, and he conceded in a statement. The five other candidates were in single digits, including Uresti’s brother, outgoing state Rep. Tomas Uresti of San Antonio.

The first-place finish by Flores, who unsuccessfully challenged Carlos Uresti in 2016, is a boon to Republicans in the Democratic-leaning district. In the home stretch of the race, Flores benefited from a raft of endorsements from Texas’ top elected officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Their heft will continue to be tested in a district considered friendly to Democrats, if not solidly in their column. After taking congratulatory calls from Abbott and Patrick, Flores issued a statement insisting a second-round victory was within reach.

“I know we can win this runoff,” Flores said. “We will win this runoff. The real work begins tomorrow.”

Rallying supporters in San Antonio, Gallego promised his campaign would not get outworked in the yet-to-be-scheduled overtime round. “I know, in the final analysis, we win,” he said.

The special election was triggered in June, when Carlos Uresti resigned after being found guilty of 11 felonies, including securities fraud and money laundering, tied to his work with a now-defunct oilfield services company. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison days after he stepped down.

Much of the action in the race centered on Gutierrez and Gallego, a former congressman and longtime state House member from West Texas. Gutierrez went after Gallego over questions about whether he lives in the district, among other things, while Gallego highlighted Gutierrez’s history of tax problems.

Flores, a former Texas game warden, was the best-known of three Republicans on the ballot Tuesday. He received 40 percent of the vote against Carlos Uresti two years ago in SD-19, which encompasses a 17-county area that starts on San Antonio’s East Side and sprawls hundreds of miles west.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/07/31/sd-19-special-election-results/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Guest Post: New youth suicide data should spur ISD and state action

Josette Saxton

By Josette Saxton, Director of Mental Health Policy, Texans Care for Children

Both before and after the horrific school shooting in Santa Fe, we’ve been glad to see state leaders and school district officials recognize that student mental health efforts must be included in their work on safe and supportive schools.

New CDC data on suicide attempts among Texas high school students underscore how urgent these efforts are, how widespread mental health challenges are in Texas schools, and that mental health strategies must reach all students on campus.

Nearly one of every eight Texas high school students attempted suicide last year.

Twelve percent of Texas high school students attempted suicide in 2017 according to disturbing new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 2017 Texas youth suicide rate was substantially higher than the national average of seven percent and higher than the previously reported Texas rate of 10 percent in 2013.

While kids from all backgrounds are at risk, the data show that certain youth have a particularly high risk. Among Texas high school students, 19 percent of black kids and a shocking 44 percent of gay or lesbian kids attempted suicide in 2017.

The report includes a number of other data points on teen health and behavior. It shows an increase in the already-high number of Texas high schoolers who reported feeling sad or hopeless: 34 percent in 2017 compared to 28 percent in 2013. It also shows that many Texas high school students — around 19 percent — reported that they were bullied on campus, similar to the number reported in 2013.

Schools are key to supporting kids’ mental health.

The pain and despair behind these numbers is heartbreaking, but it should also be a call to action. We all need to work harder to understand and address the causes of this crisis. We also need our policymakers to strength our children’s mental health policies, including policies to support students through our schools.

Schools play a critical role in addressing children’s mental health because they are so central to our kids’ lives. A growing number of Texas school districts have recognized the importance of addressing student mental health in order to prevent suicide, boost academic performance, improve behavior, and support children’s healthy development. State leaders also increasingly recognized the importance of addressing student mental health. Governor Abbott emphasized the importance of student mental health in the plan he recently released for safe and supportive schools, for example.

The new data is further evidence that significant mental health challenges are very common among Texas kids. Providing more students with access to mental health professionals is critical, but because these challenges are so common it is also important to go beyond only serving those students with the most visible and acute needs.

Schools – with state support – should offer mental health professionals and implement campus-wide strategies for all students.

We encourage more Texas school districts to implement school-wide practices that support all students’ mental well-being and help them develop skills for managing feelings of sadness, stress, anger, and conflict. If students are struggling with depression or anxiety, schools can provide or help connect students and their families to mental health services they need to be safe, healthy, and engaged in school. We are pleased to see that a number of school districts are already implementing these strategies.

The Legislature should help more school districts take action. Just as the Legislature established a Texas School Safety Center to help districts handle security issues, it should establish a center that focuses on positive school climates and school-based prevention and intervention strategies to reduce the likelihood that students will face barriers to their learning and health, like mental health concerns, substance use, challenging behavior, and violence. The Center would give districts and the state a trusted place to turn for training and technical assistance on practices shown to create safe and supportive school climates. The Legislature should also provide funding for mental health professionals, such as counselors and social workers, as Governor Abbott suggested.

We look forward to working with educators, district officials, legislators, parents, and other Texans on this critical issue.


Texans Care for Children is a statewide, non-profit, non-partisan, multi-issue children’s policy organization that seeks to drive policy change to improve the lives of Texas children today for a stronger Texas tomorrow.

To learn more, visit txchildren.org or follow @putkids1st on Twitter.

Joint panel discusses student mental health services

The House Public Education Committee met jointly with the Public Health Committee Thursday at the Texas Capitol in order to discuss interim charges related to students’ mental health. The joint hearing focused on the following charge:

  • Consider testimony provided at the May 17 House Public Health Committee hearing regarding improving mental health services for children. Identify specific strategies that would enhance overall school safety. Study ways to help parents, youth and primary care providers support school personnel in their efforts to identify and intervene early when mental health problems arise. In addition to school-based trauma-informed programs and those that treat early psychosis, consider the benefits of universal screening tools and expanding the Child Psychiatry Access Program (CPAP). Make recommendations to enhance collaboration among the Health and Human Services Commission, the Texas Education Agency, local mental health authorities, and education service.

House Public Education Committee meeting in a joint hearing with the House Public Health Committee June 28, 2018.

Invited witnesses representing school counselors recommended adding more counselors, social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs), as well as reducing the number of non-counseling duties assigned to counselors – such as bus duty and cafeteria monitoring. One expert testified that counselors and mental health professionals should be used appropriately, and warned of potential stigma associated with referrals for certain mental health services. State Reps. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) and Cindy Burkett both expressed concern that stigma should not prevent students from receiving the mental health services they need.

Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) admonished witnesses to make specific asks and supply hard numbers along with their recommendations, rather than make vague suggestions. Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) noted that the issue seems to be one of capacity, with the current number of counselors lacking sufficient time and resources to achieve maximum effectiveness.

A representative from Communities in Schools (CIS) testified to the importance of wraparound services and incorporating these into emergency response plans. Several members of the committee praised CIS for its work and voiced their continuing support. Lisa Descant with CIS of Houston testified that case management services cost about $218 per student annually, which is funded by a combination of public and private money.

Billy Philips with the Texas Tech University Health Science Center testified regarding the Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral (TWITR) Project. The program provides school-based screening, assessment and referral using telemedicine for students that come to their attention. The program also coordinates handoff to support services and follows certain kinds of outcome data. Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) screen students who are referred due to behavioral issues and connect them to the appropriate care resources, which often include getting the right medication. Students may be removed from school for therapeutic services or for security reasons.

Public testimony consisted of a mix of counselors and individuals performing similar support services. A panel of high school students who became activists following the Santa Fe school shooting impressed lawmakers by offering specific recommendations, such as making additional counselors available and offering ways to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.

State Rep. Linda Koop (R-Dallas) polled the students whether they would use an app to anonymously report cyberbullying, which is among the ideas under consideration. The students indicated they would use an app for this purpose, provided that they could be confident reports would be acted upon and follow up.

A number of witnesses also asked to provide teachers with trauma-informed instruction training, which they believe will help teachers better identify and help students who may be experiencing trauma at home that could lead to serious academic and behavioral issues.

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.

 

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 8, 2018

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


School finance commission working group on expenditures meeting June 6, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week both as a whole and in smaller working groups. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins followed the conversation and provided updates for TeachTheVote.org. His first post details Tuesday’s meeting of the full commission, in which members heard from a number of invited witness who talked about teacher supports, such as merit pay programs.

The working group on revenues, led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), held a last-minute meeting afterward that resulted in most of the public not being able to attend, but reports from those inside provided an idea of what the group has planned. State Rep. Dan Huberty’s (R-Houston) working group on expenditures met Wednesday morning, and engaged in a lively discussion about textbooks and classroom technology.

The commission is scheduled to meet again on July 10, followed by an expenditures meeting on July 11 in which the working group will vote on recommendations to submit to the full body.


The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security is set to hold two hearings next week in response to the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick assigned Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) to chair the select committee, which is composed of six Republicans and three Democrats.

Monday’s agenda includes invited and public testimony on the following: “Improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats, and discuss various proposals to harden school facilities, including limiting access points, improving screening and detecting of weapons, retrofitting school facilities with improved locks, emergency alarm systems, and monitoring cameras.”

Tuesday’s agenda includes invited and public testimony on the following: “Study school security options and resources, including, but not limited to, the school marshal program, school police officers, armed school personnel, the Texas School Safety Center, and other training programs to determine what improvements can be made to provide school districts and charter schools with more robust security options.”

Texas Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) asked the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence to study a “red flag” law that would provide a legal process for temporarily removing guns from someone considered potentially dangerous by family members or law enforcement. Straus also announced nine new interim charges for House committees:

Committee on Appropriations

“Examine the availability of federal funding and Governor’s Criminal Justice grants that may directly or indirectly improve school safety. Evaluate the potential costs of proposals identified by the Governor and House Committees related to improving access to mental health services for children, improved school safety, and enhanced firearm safety.”

Committee on Public Education

“Review the effectiveness of schools’ current multi-hazard emergency operation plans. Determine any areas of deficiency and make recommendations to ensure student safety. Research violence prevention strategies, such as threat assessment, that are available for school personnel to identify students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Identify resources and training available to schools to help them develop intervention plans that address the underlying problems that caused the threatening behavior.”

“Examine current school facilities and grounds. Consider any research-based ‘best practices’ when designing a school to provide a more secure environment. Review the effectiveness of installing metal detectors, cameras, safety locks, streaming video of school security cameras, and other measures designed to improve school safety.”

Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence

“Examine current statutes designed to protect minors from accessing firearms without proper supervision and make recommendations to ensure responsible and safe firearm storage, including enhancing the penalty to a felony when unauthorized access results in death or bodily injury.”

Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety

“Evaluate options to increase the number of school marshals available, and identify current statutory requirements that limit utilization of the program.”

“Examine best practices and measures adopted in other states regarding reporting lost or stolen firearms. Gather information on reporting strategies, fines, and/or penalties for noncompliance, and receive testimony from law enforcement related to mishandling of firearms.”

Committees on Public Education and Committee on Public Health (Joint Charge)

“Consider testimony provided at the May 17 House Public Health Committee hearing regarding improving mental health services for children. Identify specific strategies that would enhance overall school safety. Study ways to help parents, youth and primary care providers support school personnel in their efforts to identify and intervene early when mental health problems arise. In addition to school-based trauma-informed programs and those that treat early psychosis, consider the benefits of universal screening tools and expanding the Child Psychiatry Access Program (CPAP). Make recommendations to enhance collaboration among the Health and Human Services Commission, the Texas Education Agency, local mental health authorities, and education service centers.”

Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety and Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence (Joint Charge)

“Examine current judicial procedures and practices and make recommendations to assist all courts and jurisdictions in reporting judgments and verdicts which make up the information sent to the National Instant Background Check System (NICS). Review and make recommendations regarding the list of convictions, judgments, and judicial orders which disqualify a person from possessing a firearm.”

Committee on Defense & Veterans Affairs and Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety (Joint Charge)

“Examine the experience of other states in prioritizing retired peace officers and military veterans for school security. Determine the minimum standards necessary to implement such a program.”

ATPE will be attending these hearings will post updates at TeachTheVote.org. The House and Senate actions come after Gov. Greg Abbott released his outline of ideas to prevent further school shootings last week. Many of those ideas would require legislative action, which is among the things the committees will consider.

 


State Rep. Larry Gonzales (R-Round Rock) announced his resignation this week, saying it’s time to move on. The Texas Tribune reported on his announcement, which we’ve been expecting since he announced last year he wouldn’t be running for reelection. Rep. Gonzales chaired the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Articles VI, VII and VIII of the state budget, which includes funding for big state agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). As a member of the Texas Legislature, he was well known for being a friendly guy and a straight shooter who worked with both parties to get things done. Gonzales was a good friend of public education, and his presence in the legislature will be dearly missed.

The race to follow Rep. Gonzales in representing House District (HD) 52 is between Republican Cynthia Flores and Democrat James Talarico. You can click on each of their names to view their candidate information and survey responses they provided to TeachTheVote.org. This is expected to be a close race, which underscores the importance of every vote.

The November 6 General Election will be the last opportunity for education supporters to make sure pro-public education candidates are elected into office. Whomever voters choose will decide what direction to take the Texas Legislature when it meets in January. Will we see a resurrection of vouchers and bills attacking teachers? Or will we see a comprehensive school finance reform bill that puts more resources into classrooms and gives local taxpayers a break? It all depends on who you elect!

 


 

Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday the criteria for schools affected by Hurricane Harvey to receive waivers from the state accountability ratings. Campuses, districts, and open enrollment charter schools are eligible to be evaluated under the Hurricane Harvey Provision if 10% or more of students or teachers were reported as homeless after the storm, if the campus was closed for ten or more instructional days, or if the campus was reported as being displaced due to the geographic relocation of students or the sharing of instructional facilities. Campuses or districts that meet at least one of these criteria AND are labeled Improvement Required or receive a B, C, D, or F rating will have their accountability rating changed to Not Rated. You can read the full announcement here.

 


ATPE educator and Round Rock ISD fourth grade teacher Stephanie Stoebe testifying at the Texas Capitol June 7, 2018.

Lawmakers on the House Committee on Public Education Subcommittee on Educator Quality and the House Committee on Higher Education combined forces on Thursday to discuss educator preparation programs (EPPs). The differences between alternative certification or “alt-cert” programs and traditional EPPs was examined during the hearing. The combined committees also heard from ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe, who spoke about her efforts to identify what marks a quality EPP. Stoebe’s recommendations for the committees included creating a dashboard to share EPP information and setting high standards relevant to student achievement. Teacher pay and attrition were also among the topics discussed at the hearing. The combined committees also heard from Stephen F. Austin University, College of Education Dean, Dr. Judy Abbott about partnerships between colleges, universities, and local districts. A detailed breakdown of the hearing can be found in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


On Wednesday, June 6, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released guidelines to all administrators relating to services for students with dyslexia and other disorders. The provisions come after a final monitoring report from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) disclosed that TEA failed to comply requirements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The provision of services outlines the appropriate responses educators should have if a student is showing early signs of dyslexia, the need for special education, or other services. Read the full correspondence here.

ATPE educator talks ed prep with state lawmakers

The House Committee on Public Education Subcommittee on Educator Quality and the House Committee on Higher Education met Thursday morning for a joint hearing on educator preparation programs (EPPs), which is among the interim charges assigned by Texas Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) before the next legislative session.

ATPE educator and Round Rock ISD fourth grade teacher Stephanie Stoebe testifying at the Texas Capitol June 7, 2018.

The first panel focused on data and accountability, and Texas Education Agency (TEA) associate commissioner Ryan Franklin began testimony with a summary of new teacher demographics. Only a third of new teachers come from traditional four-year undergraduate programs, while half come from alternative certification, or “alt-cert” programs. A+ Texas Teachers, which is an alt-cert program, certifies about a quarter of all new teachers in the state.

All programs require 300 hours of training, but the timing and nature of the training can vary greatly. For example, traditional programs require 14 weeks of training with a teacher of record before allow candidates to take over the classroom themselves, while alt-certs allow candidates to enter the classroom alone as the teacher of record without the benefit of that training.

ATPE member and Round Rock ISD fourth grade teacher Stephanie Stoebe testified about the importance of robust educator preparation programs. Poor preparation leads to higher dropout rates for new teachers. Stoebe testified a campus where she previously worked saw a nearly 50 percent turnover rate for four years because of teachers unprepared to teach students in high levels of poverty, which resulted in neediest kids getting abandoned.

Stoebe conducted research over the past year into indicators of quality EPPs. A survey of 225 classroom teachers found that teacher candidates rely primarily on reputation and flexibility in choosing an educator preparation program. When it comes to the type of preparation, Stoebe emphasized the value of classroom experience, noting that she was taught in the Army to “train as you fight.” Stoebe offered several recommendations, including setting a high bar relevant to student achievement and creating a dashboard to share EPP information. Stoebe also pointed out, “What gets measured gets done.” Stoebe testified teachers are calling for transparency of data, and urged leaders to use data to hold EPPs accountable.

Members of each committee discussed teacher pay and working conditions, noting that both are contributing factors to teacher turnover and retention. State Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) raised concern about the increasing reliance on alt-certs, which see higher attrition rates. “This is something that we really need to delve into next session,” said state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who chairs the Educator Quality Subcommittee, emphasized the importance of “grow your own” programs in closing the equity gap between rural and urban districts with regard to teacher quality.

Dr. Judy Abbott, the Dean of the College of Education at Stephen F. Austin State University, suggested lawmakers pass legislation to better support partnerships between local districts and institutes of higher education by assigning a dollar value to the time educator candidates spend in classrooms while pursuing their certification. Dr. Abbott estimated this benefit to be around $12,000 per teacher.

Expenditures group takes hard look at textbooks

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on expenditures met Wednesday morning to listen to a final round of witnesses invited to discuss issues related to school spending.

At the beginning of the meeting, group leader state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) announced plans to solicit formal recommendations from all witnesses who’ve testified before the working group. The group’s five members will meet again July 11, the day after a scheduled July 10 meeting of the full commission, and vote on which recommendations to endorse.

School finance commission working group on expenditures meeting June 6, 2018.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff opened Wednesday’s testimony with a review of the instructional materials allotment (IMA), and members of the group expressed interest in increasing the flexibility of IMA funds. State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) suggested consulting teachers as to how much physical textbooks are currently used in the classroom, and hypothesized that use is declining. Members seemed to unanimously support the idea of encouraging more reliance on technology and cheaper or free online resources, while freeing up IMA funds for other purposes.

Members also expressed frustration with textbook makers over the ongoing costs of keeping physical textbooks, while many educators are supplementing their instruction with materials found online at no charge. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) suggested instructing TEA and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to develop a working relationship and establish a timetable wherein the legislature mandates universities to develop open-source materials aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which school districts would be required to use for classroom instruction. Sen. West contended this would address both textbook costs and complaints by higher education institutions that Texas high school graduates are not college-ready.

The discussion then turned to bilingual education and dual language. Witnesses testified that dual language programs are more effective than traditional English as a second language programs, but carry higher start-up costs. This includes textbooks in both English and Spanish, for example. Rep. Huberty noted that costs would necessarily be compounded with each additional language, such as programs for students who speak Vietnamese. West and Bernal expressed interest in legislation ordering a study of the costs of implementing more dual language programs.

Members also heard about funding for gifted and talented (GT) and career and technical education (CTE) programs. Each carries additional costs, but achieves important outcomes. The working group also heard from TEA staff regarding the high school allotment, and discussed the idea of folding the high school allotment into the basic allotment. This was a component of House Bill 21, the school finance reform bill authored by House leadership during the regular session of the 85th Texas Legislature.

Additionally, members discussed the adjustments for sparsity, and for small and medium-sized districts. Commission Chair Scott Brister has repeatedly advocated consolidating school districts as a way to reduce costs, and TEA indicated that these adjustments total roughly $600 million annually. Staff explained the Existing Debt Allotment (EDA) and New Instructional Facilities Allotment (NIFA), and representatives from fast-growth school districts testified to the importance of funding for new facilities.

Finally, a representative with out-of-state education reform think tank EdBuild suggested improving equity by decoupling school funding from average daily attendance (ADA) and instead using the number of students for whom a school is responsible. Rep. Huberty noted that ADA provides an incentive for districts to ensure that students are actually in the classroom. The EdBuild representative also suggested that by allocating some adjustments at the district level instead of per student, Texas’s school finance system creates unnecessary conflict and confusion between how charter schools and traditional ISDs are funded.