Category Archives: 86th Legislature

School finance commission discusses list of recommendations

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday at the Texas Capitol to hear recommendations from the working group on expenditures, which is led by House Public Education Committee chairman and state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston).

School finance commission meeting September 25, 2018.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath began the hearing by presenting the agency’s annual report, which purported to show an increase in education funding since 2007. Responding to questions from commission members, Morath conceded that the numbers were not adjusted for inflation.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked Morath to explain the dispute between the General Land Office (GLO) and the State Board of Education (SBOE) over public education funding. Morath stated that through the School Land Board (SLB), the GLO sent $750 million to public education for the last biennium. The GLO only sent $600 million for this biennium, bypassing the SBOE, and representing a roughly $150-190 million decrease in funding.

Sen. Bettencourt appeared to come down on the side of the SBOE in the dispute. SBOE Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) suggested that the dispute will require a legislative fix. The entire SBOE sent a letter asking GLO Commissioner George P. Bush to reconsider the action and increase funding, but Bush refused to do so.

Commission Chair Scott Brister suggested that on the big question, whether to increase public school funding is not up to the commission. Member Ellis rightly pointed out that while it’s true the legislature is the only body that can appropriate funds, it is certainly the commission’s duty to discern what appropriate funding levels are and to make recommendations accordingly. This point was backed up by Austin ISD CFO Nicole Conley Johnson.

Brister added that the commission will require a half dozen meetings in November and December in order to finalize its report.

Rep. Huberty then walked the commission through a list of 22 recommendations from the working group on expenditures, beginning with reallocating cost of education index (CEI) funds. The recommendations are as follows:

Reallocations of existing funding:

  1. Reallocate cost of education funds. The CEI was last updated in 1991 and provides adjustment for cost of educating children in different parts of the state. Huberty argued that this formula is outdated and that funding could be rerouted to add $2.9 billion to the basic allotment.
  2. Reallocate Chapter 41 hold harmless funds worth $30 million annually.
  3. Reallocate Chapter 41 early agreement credit funds for an annual savings of $50 million.
  4. Reallocate gifted and talented allotment funds worth $165 million annually. Rep. Huberty and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) emphasized that gifted and talented (GT) programs will not go away. Pflugerville ISD Superintendent Doug Killian cautioned that districts could come to view GT programs as an unfunded mandate, and suggested weighting GT funding instead. Todd Williams also voiced concern that eliminating dedicated GT funding could lead districts to underidentify GT students as a way to cut costs.
  5. Reallocate high school allotment funds worth $400 million annually.
  6. Move from prior year to current year property values worth $1.8 billion. Huberty suggested that this would more accurately reflect the current needs of school districts. Killian cautioned that this change will cost Pflugerville, which is a fast-growth district, $22.7 million in the first year. Conley Johnson added that this could add uncertainty to the budgeting process for districts.

Increased spending on existing programs:

  1. Increase compensatory education allotment from 0.2 to a spectrum of between 0.225 and 0.275, based on the concentration of severely challenged students. This would be worth $1.1-1.2 billion. Commissioner members engaged in a lengthy discussion on identifying metrics with which to identify need other than qualification for federal free and reduced lunches.
  2. Change the transportation allotment to a mileage-based approach based on at least $0.80 cents per mile appropriated by the legislature.
  3. Provide transportation funding to Chapter 41 districts, at an annual cost of $60 million.
  4. Recreate the small- and mid-size district adjustments as a standalone allotment, at an estimated cost of $0-400 million. Rep. Huberty argued that this would create more transparency.
  5. Increase the new instructional facilities allotment (NIFA) to $100 million per year, which would be a direct benefit to fast-growth school districts.
  6. Expand career and technical education (CTE) funding to 6th through 8th grades, at an annual cost of $20 million.

New programs:

  1. Create a new dual language allotment at 0.15, at an annual cost of $15-50 million. This is aimed to incentivize schools to transition from bilingual to more effective dual language programs.
  2. Create a new dyslexia allotment of 0.1, at an annual cost of $100 million. Currently districts do not receive direct funding for students with dyslexia, despite the fact the number of dyslexic students in Texas is estimated to be anywhere from 2.5 to more than ten percent.
  3. Create a new early childhood support allotment of 0.1, at an annual cost of $786 million. This would benefit students from kindergarten through 3rd grade, and could be used to fund any program that seeks to improve 3rd grade math and reading, including full-day pre-K.
  4. Create a 3rd grade reading bonus of 0.4, at an annual cost of $400 million. This is a simple incentive for students to meet grade level in 3rd grade reading. Williams suggested granting students facing social or economic challenges a greater reward.
  5. Create a college, career, and military readiness bonus at an annual cost of $400 million. This would provide additional funding for each graduating senior who does not require remediation after graduation or who is able to directly enter the workforce or military. This is intended to support the state’s “60×30” goals.
  6. Create a new teacher compensation program, at an annual cost of $100 million. This is a merit-based pay program that would allow certain educators to earn more by performing well on certain evaluation systems. Teachers would also be rewarded for teaching at campuses with higher levels of disadvantaged students. This program could grow significantly in size depending upon district participation. Williams acknowledged that local development involving teachers is incredibly important, and measures other than student STAAR results should be considered. Williams suggested it would be incumbent on the commissioner to develop a set of minimum standards.
  7. Create an extended year incentive program at an annual cost of $50 million. This would be aimed to reduce summer learning losses.

Additional changes:

  1. Utilize remaining funds from reallocations to increase the basic allotment.
  2. Change the guaranteed yield on tier II copper pennies from a set dollar amount to a percentage of the basic allotment.
  3. Link the tier II golden penny yield to a set percentile of wealth per student.

Many of these recommendations were also supported by recommendations from the working group on outcomes, led by Todd Williams. Williams congratulated Huberty on his working group’s efforts to find more efficient ways to provide the support students need, and added that the system will nonetheless need more money. In a final conversation around spending, Brister continued to suggest that more funding is not necessarily the solution. Member Ellis emphasized that the commission must address the adequacy of public education funding.

The working group on revenues, led by Sen. Bettencourt, is now the only working group yet to produce recommendations. Bettencourt pushed back on warnings that time is running short for the commission to complete its work, but did not provide a timeline for his work product.

 

 

Recap: SD 19 upset significantly alters Senate math

An upset victory by Republican Pete Flores in the Senate District (SD 19) special runoff election last night will have a significant impact on the balance of power in the Texas Senate. It’s also a wake-up call.

Flores, a retired game warden, beat the Democratic favorite, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, in Tuesday’s special runoff election to finish the unexpired term of Democratic state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who resigned earlier this year in scandal. That seat will now move to the Republican column until at least 2020, when Flores will come up for reelection.

There were warning signs early on that the SD 19 race would likely be close. The district has historically elected Democratic state senators, and broke for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by a margin of 11.5 percent. Yet just two years earlier during the 2014 mid-term elections, Republican Greg Abbott edged Democrat Wendy Davis in SD 19 by 0.1 percent in the gubernatorial race, and Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn outpaced Democratic challenger David Alameel by 7.3 percent.

The timing of Sen. Uresti’s resignation allowed Gov. Abbott to set a special election in the middle of summer, guaranteeing a low-turnout special election that would mitigate Democrats’ general election advantage and allow the race to turn on whichever party could do a better job of getting out the vote (GOTV).

For context, SD 19 recorded 478,000 registered voters in 2016. Based on that number, roughly 5.4 percent of voters participated in the July 31 special election and 9.2 percent turned out for the September 18 special runoff. By contrast, turnout in SD 19 for the 2016 presidential election was 52.7 percent, and turnout for the 2014 mid-term elections was 27.7 percent.

As we previously reported on Teach the Vote, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was keen to flip the SD 19 seat from blue to red in order to boost his party’s mathematical advantage in the Texas Senate. The lieutenant governor and his allies spent a prodigious amount of money in support of Flores between the special election and the special runoff. We’ll take a closer look at that spending as the official figures become available.

All of this had an appreciable effect on the final outcome. According to the Texas Secretary of State, roughly 26,000 people voted in the July 31 special election. More than 44,000 voted in the September 18 special runoff election — representing a 69.75 percent increase in turnout. Flores ultimately won with 53 percent of the vote, compared to 47 percent for Gallego.

So what does this mean?

Immediately, it means that the Texas Senate is now composed of 21 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Under the current 3/5 rule, the lieutenant governor only needs 19 votes for his party to pass major legislation, which in the recent past has included voucher bills aimed at stripping public school funding and anti-teacher payroll deduction bills. These bills passed the Texas Senate largely along party-line votes. As its newest member, Flores brings to the Senate an alliance with Lt. Gov. Patrick and his openly expressed support for private school vouchers.

Furthermore, outgoing state Sen. Sylvia Garcia’s (D-Houston) failure to effectively secure a clear retirement date means that the 2019 legislative session will begin with a vacant seat, for a total of 21 Republicans and 9 Democrats in the Senate. Voters in SD 6 will choose Garcia’s successor in another special election that will be held while the legislature is in session next spring. Until then, only 18 votes will be needed to pass major legislation out of the upper chamber.

At the 30,000-foot level, Tuesday’s outcome in San Antonio highlights the importance of two things: First, the November elections are of even more critical importance. Second, turnout is paramount.

While it’s easy to think of elections in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, this discounts the reality that many Republican officeholders — even some in the Senate — support public education. The challenge is that Senate Republicans are under an enormous amount of pressure from the lieutenant governor to cast anti-education votes. The surest path to helping them is to change the math by electing senators who are not beholden to the lieutenant governor.

Of course, electing pro-public education candidates means showing up. Make no mistake, the forces trying to defund and privatize our neighborhood schools do not suffer from voter apathy. They are capable of raising and spending countless millions of dollars in order to motivate low-information voters to turn out and vote against their own interests and those of their children. The only way to fight back is to ensure that you and everyone you know makes it to the polls this November to cast an informed vote for public education.

To put it simply: If we don’t vote, we will lose.

If that happens, not only do we lose, but our schools and our kids lose as well. The result of the special runoff election Tuesday came as a surprise to many, but it should not come as a shock. It should serve as a reminder of the powers at play and the stakes of sitting out.

 

 

Commissioner updates SBOE on SpEd, contracting, budget

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) opened its Wednesday meeting with an update from Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

The commissioner began by praising the board’s work on the Long-Range Plan for Public Education, and suggested that there is significant overlap with the agency’s own strategic plan.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath testifying before the SBOE, September 12, 2018.

Morath caught members up to speed on the recent debate over a cosmetology course, and indicated that the course is not expected to go away. The commissioner testified he asked staff to look into ways to ameliorate the high cost of the associated licensure.

Regarding special education, Morath claimed progress in a number of areas. The commissioner said the agency has accomplished more than half of the items under the corrective action plan. The agency was tasked with setting up a large field apparatus, and 70 percent of 55 vacant positions have been filled, including all leadership positions. Justin Porter, who helped write the corrective action plan, is the special education director.

A total of 14 grants have been posted, and an additional five have been completed internally and will be finished within the next couple months. Statements of work have been drafted for 15 of the contracts related to strategic plan.

On a separate but related note, Commissioner Morath acknowledged recent contracting issues that resulted in a rebuke from the Texas State Auditor’s office, while defending staff involved. Morath state that starting in November of last year, the agency initiated a top-to-bottom review of contracting practices.

With regard to the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR), in which the agency submits its budget requests for the next biennium to the Texas Legislature, Morath noted that the agency is requesting two exceptional items. These consist of $50 million to support districts providing compensatory services in order to comply with the special education corrective action plan, and roughly $50 million for health and safety, $20 million of which is aligned to the governor’s school safety plan.

The commissioner then offered a review of “A through F” school district ratings, which were released in August. Additionally, Morath noted that the state saw a one-year reduction of 247 “improvement required” (IR) campuses. This marks the last set of campus ratings under the “met standard” or IR labeling system, and campuses will instead receive A-F ratings next August.

Finally, Commissioner Morath briefed members on the first TEA annual report on the state of public education in Texas and solicited feedback from members. Relating to teacher recruitment and retention, Morath noted board members will receive a briefing on the Texas lesson study initiative tomorrow.

ATPE testifies on educator healthcare

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the public education budget, met Wednesday at the Texas Capitol to discuss interim charges related to TRS-Care. Chairman Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) began by noting the roughly $1 billion shortfall facing the system heading into the 2017 legislative session, which lawmakers only partially filled. Without those funds, the system would have been insolvent. The program faces another shortfall heading into the 2019 session, which begins in January.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifies before House Appropriations Article III Subcommittee September 5, 2018.

Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Executive Director Brian Guthrie estimated that the fiscal year ending in 2021 will face a roughly $410 million shortfall, which is down from previous projections. Guthrie explained that TRS-Care is funded as a percentage of payroll, which is not growing at the same rate as health care costs. This is the fundamental reason why TRS-Care has begun to face repeated shortfalls. Retirees have born additional costs as a result of the underfunding, and roughly 30,000 have chosen to leave the program because they can no longer afford to participate.

Guthrie suggested that the best case scenario for TRS-Care would be for the legislature to appropriate an amount more than is needed to simply keep the fund solvent, the excess of which could become the corpus of an investment fund that would be able to provide long-term funding stability, similar to the TRS pension trust fund.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter credited the House and Chairman Ashby in particular for preventing the collapse of TRS-Care last session. Exter suggested allocating additional dollars to the base funding formulas for TRS-Care, as opposed to providing supplemental funding each biennium. Exter shared a story from a retiree whose incontinence medication shot up to $500 after the most recent TRS-Care changes. To that end, Exter suggested expanding the list of free and near-free medications, particularly in maintenance drug categories. In addition, allowing retirees access to café plans or health savings accounts (HSA) would allow retirees to allocate tax-deferred dollars on the front to help with budgeting towards their annual deductible. Finally, Exter noted that preventing retirees from leaving TRS-Care or banning them from returning after testing other private plans violates free market principles and harms consumers.

Beyond TRS-Care, Exter warned of problems associated with TRS-ActiveCare and the pain experienced by active educators who are seeing health care costs rise more quickly than their paychecks. The 86th Texas Legislature will also be faced with issues relating to the TRS pension fund. Both will vie with TRS-Care for attention and resources.

Chairman Ashby indicated that the changes to TRS-Care have generated enormous attention, and voiced optimism that this will lead to positive outcomes for both active and retired educators’ health care next session.

Does Gov. Abbott want to spend more on schools?

Election season is truly magical.

There’s just something about the seething mercury, the colorful proliferation of yard signs, and the specter of an existential showdown that awakens a – dare we call it – miraculous clarity in political combatants seeking votes.

When else can one witness folks who’ve spent the past 20 months fighting in bitter opposition to a particular set of constituents suddenly discover a deep love for the values they hold? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s no surprise that we’re now hearing support for improving the school finance system from unexpected corners. To a certain degree, it’s positive evidence that educators are being heard, and that the powers-that-be realize that there is more to gain by working with the education community than working to dismantle it.

That doesn’t mean that efforts to dismantle it behind the scenes will stop. In politics as in statistics, things tend to revert toward the mean. The governing happens long after the polls close. Nonetheless, election season opens a brief window of opportunity to use our seat at the table to advance the conversation.

Let’s apply this lens to the latest Dallas Morning News opinion column by Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas), with the promising headline, “Texas must boost school funding.” The key passage summarizing Gov. Abbott’s message is as follows:

“We need to pay our best teachers more, reward teachers and districts for student growth, prioritize spending in the classroom and reduce the burden of skyrocketing property taxes. I’ll add up front that I believe the state will have to provide more funding.”

That last line seems to offer an acknowledgment of what we in the education committee have known for some time, but which many in the Capitol have resisted mightily.

The problem, of course, is that many of the people who have opposed investing more state dollars in public education have falsely argued that the state is already increasing education spending year over year. They point to raw dollars going back to a low-water point in 2006 in order to obscure the reality of the deliberate and steady erosion of state support for local schools. Troublingly, Gov. Abbott takes this very tack in writing that “overall education spending in Texas has increased by more than 50 percent since 2006, and the state is contributing 29 percent more education funding per student in that time period.”

Let’s look at that claim.

The numbers in the latter half of that statement come from a Texas Education Agency (TEA) presentation before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The headline of the slide below seems to confirm the governor’s assertion, but look at the orange line indicating funding adjusted for inflation. It clearly shows that in terms of purchasing power, total per-student funding has risen only slightly since 2006, and is roughly equal to per-student funding in 2008. (Click the image to view a larger version.)

Source: Texas Education Agency

What’s perhaps more telling is the blue bar indicating how much funding the state has contributed. I’ve added the red brackets and red horizontal line to make the minute changes easier to see. You can tell that the raw dollar amount the state has contributed has actually decreased slightly since 2008 – and that’s not even adjusted for inflation.

To get to the inflation-adjusted number, we look at the Legislative Budget Board’s (LBB) Fiscal Size-up for the 2016-2017 biennium. In the chart below, we can see how spending from local property tax revenue (circled in green) has increased, while state aid (circled in blue) has changed little from 2008 levels. In total constant dollars adjusted for inflation (near the red arrow), we see that total funding has in fact decreased.

Source: Legislative Budget Board

The governor also wrongly suggests that funding is not making it into classrooms. According to the TEA’s 2016-17 Pocket Edition statistics, districts only spend an average of 3.1 percent on administrative costs.

To his credit, the governor advocates that increases in funding should go to teachers. No disagreement there. His idea is to implement a system in which top-performing teachers can earn significantly higher pay by teaching in areas facing the most need – similar to the “ACE” system tested in Dallas ISD. It’s a conversation that’s worth having, provided that educators are involved in the process and that the system doesn’t rely primarily on student test results to identify those “top-performing” teachers.

Governor Abbott also suggests moving away from a per-pupil funding model and, implicitly, toward a more outcomes-based approach. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is identifying which metrics with which to measure student performance and the threat of schools faced with the most significant socioeconomic challenges receiving even less support.

Finally, the governor writes that school finance reform must be accompanied by reforms in property taxes. It’s true the two are inextricably intertwined.

Increasing the state’s share of public education funding is the surest way to provide relief in property taxes. The governor proposes forcing taxing entities to lower their rates as appraisals go up, with the state presumably stepping in to make school districts whole. That’s a lot to presume, especially to do so in perpetuity.

Districts could hardly be blamed for wanting to see the legislature commit money up front before committing to voluntarily lower their tax rates – and it will take a sizable appropriation to shift the burden back toward the state in a way that will be meaningful to local property owners. School board members are politicians too, and they don’t want to be blamed for high taxes any more than their counterparts in Austin.

So what does it all mean? Does the governor’s column signify a dramatic reversal of his stance on public education, and school finance in particular? Does it mean he’s ready to stop attacking educators through anti-teacher payroll deduction bills and focus on improving teacher pay instead?

At a minimum, the governor is now talking about public education as an important priority, and that’s a good thing. The onus is on us to engage respectfully yet forcefully, and to shape the conversation, to the extent we can, by correcting inaccuracies and providing meaningful input. At best, we hope the governor will listen to educators and incorporate our feedback, even after the elections are over.

Of course, just as election season begins in the frantic furnace of summer, it ends in darkness on a winter night. When the legislature returns in January, we’ll all be faced with cold reality.

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.