Category Archives: Budget

House committee hears from ATPE, others on education funding challenges

Dollar fanThe House Appropriations committee began meetings this week for its subcommittees assigned to work on various parts of the Texas state budget. This includes the Article III Subcommittee, which covers education funding and began taking testimony on Monday, Feb. 20. The subcommittee’s first day agenda involved looking at funding for the Texas Education Agency (TEA), including the Foundation School Program; the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), including both pension and health insurance funds; the state schools for the visually impaired and the deaf, the Windham School District; and community and junior colleges.

After the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) laid out the budget documents on TEA and the Foundation School Program, the committee heard from Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. Commissioner Morath began by thanking the committee and restating his dedication to the goal of improving student outcomes for all students. The commissioner then laid out his agency’s priorities beginning with ensuring and improving teacher quality as the “most important in-school factor” in a student’s education outcomes. Next, Morath addressed the agency’s second key priority to promote a strong foundation in reading and math, and spoke about the affect of achieving this goal on closing the achievement grant. To facilitate this goal, the commissioner talked about continuing to push for expanding high quality pre-K. He also promoted TEA’s goal to scale the math innovation zones program statewide. The agency’s third priority is to connect K-12 education to higher education and career opportunities. The next priority is to improve struggling schools, Morath explained. He reported that TEA is working to do this through systemic system-wide improvements. In addition to budget items tied to the agency’s larger priorities, Morath also addressed specific targeted budget requests like funding the E-rate match to complete the build-out of statewide broadband access.

Early Childhood EducationThe Commissioner was well received by the subcommittee. The majority of questions to the commissioner from committee members tended to focus on supporting pre-K. In responding to an offshoot of this questioning, the commissioner indicated that the State Board for Educator Certification will likely institute a new certificate for grades EC-3 that would be more focused on early childhood education.

Later in the hearing, the committee heard from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie. Guthrie gave brief remarks about the overall performance of the TRS trust fund before turning to the more pressing issue of the billion dollar shortfall in the TRS-Care fund. He impressed upon the committee that TRS has done everything it can do internally to control costs without legislative action. On TRS-Care the plan laid out to the House budget committee would include a “shared pain” approach where the state would cover half of the cost of the shortfall, retirees would cover 25 percent of the costs, and districts and active teachers would each cover 12.5 percent of the cost. While this plan is more generous than what has already been laid out in the Senate, it still puts additional pressure on active teachers, many of whom are drowning in the cost of their own health insurance premiums. Additionally, the strategy laid out did not contemplate changing the state paid formula for TRS-Care, which is currently set at 1 percent of payroll for all school districts statewide. The TRS board of directors is also meeting this week.

After hearing from LBB and invited witnesses, the Article III subcommittee took public testimony, including testimony from ATPE. Our testimony focused on the need to address active teacher health care costs through additional state funding, not just a denigration of benefits; the benefits of closing the education gap early in a student’s career thorough pre-K; and finally the need to address equity through more appropriately funding students based on their needs, individually and at the campus level.

Senate Bill 1: The budget’s starting point

Background with money american hundred dollar billsThe Senate Finance Committee this week began a string of meetings to flesh out plans for a Texas state budget for the next two years. Following an organizational meeting on Monday, the committee began hearing testimony Tuesday on Article III of the budget, which includes public education. Both in her written statement and over and over again in comments during Monday’s and Tuesday’s hearings, committee chairwoman Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) called Senate Bill (SB) 1 a “starting point” from which the senators on the finance committee, and eventually the entire Senate, can work to produce the Senate’s eventual budget proposal.

So where did Chairwoman Nelson and her colleagues start?

On Monday, Nelson began by laying out a budget that spends roughly $3 billion less in general revenue than its predecessor over the last biennium (House Bill 1 of 2015) and $4-6 billion less than would be needed to maintain the level of services funded during the current biennium considering inflation and population growth. She also started lowering expectations by laying out a budget proposal that spends about a billion dollars less than the revenue the state is projected to bring in, according to the comptroller.

While the numbers were not promising, the chairwoman also started the process by announcing two work groups that would be tasked with proposing solutions for two of the state’s most pressing budgetary and policy trouble areas, school finance and the out-of-control cost of health care. The two areas of the budget that these issues impact account for more than 85 percent of the state’s discretionary budget.

On Tuesday, the actual work of going through the budget one agency at a time began. First up; Texas Education Agency (TEA), which includes the $42 billion Foundation School Program (FSP), followed by the Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS), and Texas’s schools for the visually impaired and the deaf.

Several members of the committee spent the majority of Tuesday morning trying to prove, while convincing no one, several points: (1) That the state is not under-funding education; (2) thet neither local property taxes nor recapture dollars have been spent outside of the education budget; and (3) that high property taxes and the disparity between significant increases in local revenue dedicated to education versus much smaller increases in state revenue going to education should be blamed on local tax assessors and school boards, not the legislature. The committee also heard from TEA staff about spending on the various projects administered by the agency outside the Foundation School Program. Many of these standalone programs are funded at levels below the current biennium, and several have been zeroed out completely in the base budget.

Tuesday afternoon, the committee heard from the Commissioner of Education and from executive directors of TRS, the Texas School for the Visually Impaired, and the Texas School for the Deaf. Each presented their exceptional items, budget requests above and beyond the agencies’ base budget needs. Brian Guthrie, the executive director of TRS, had the most challenging reception from the senators, several of whom would like to abandon Texas’s defined benefit pension system and replace it with a defined contribution 401(k)-style system that would both reduce state liability and result in increased profits for wealthy campaign donors. Ultimately, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) redirected questioning away from the TRS pension trust fund, which is in reasonably good health, and toward the separate TRS-Care health insurance fund, which over the years has become unsustainable in its current form and will run out of money in the upcoming biennium without significant structural changes and increased funding.

After the committee concluded the testimony from the state agency heads, they heard public testimony, including from ATPE. In addition to a general plea for prioritizing education spending, we requested the committee’s consideration in three specific areas. First, we asked that the senate approve TEA’s full funding request of $236 million for the high quality pre-kindergarten grant created last session, for which the current draft of SB 1 provides only $150 million. Second, we asked that the legislature increase state funding for health insurance for active educators. The state has not increased its share of funding for TRS-ActiveCare since that program began in 2001, and funding that was once in line with what private employers provide is now far less than the private market and woefully inadequate. Finally, ATPE echoed much of the rest of the education community in requesting that additional school property tax revenue collected due to increased property values be used to increase the education budget instead of being used to replace state dollars that legislators want to spend elsewhere – in other words, the concepts of “supplement not supplant” and property tax transparency.

If this was the Senate’s starting point, what are the next steps?

Today, Jan. 27, the work group tasked with reimagining the school finance system will meet for the first of what will likely be several times. It is a joint meeting with the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). They will be taking invited testimony from several stakeholder and school finance experts. At some point in the coming weeks, the Article III (education) subcommittee will also meet and begin to negotiate potential changes from the base budget. The work of these two groups will eventually inform both the budget and a separate school finance bill that would then have to be negotiated with the House, before a final budget and possibly and school finance bill finally makes its way to the governor’s desk.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and for updates as the budget-writing process continues.

Education investment: The key to real tax relief

Mortgage calculator. House, noney and document.If there’s one thing most Texans can agree on, it’s that property taxes are too dang high.

What gets dicey is trying to sort through the myriad schemes put forth in the last few years by state lawmakers trying to cut local taxes over which they have little direct control. They’ve proposed tweaks to the rollback rate, increased the homestead exemption, and filed bills targeting local appraisal districts. That’s a lot of work by a lot of smart people you’ve sent to Austin with your tax dollars.


Does your tax bill look any better?

In 2013, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy ranked Texas as having the 15th highest per capita property tax in the country. Despite our high property taxes, Texas ranks 45th in overall K-12 education spending and 49th in adjusted per-pupil expenditures, according to our performance on the “Quality Counts” state report card from Education Week.

Why is that?

Speaking to a joint hearing of the House Public Education and Appropriations Committees in September 2016, outgoing Appropriations Chairman John Otto (R-Dayton), put it simply. “The burden is shifting to the locals,” he said.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, local school spending, as approved by local voters and their elected school boards, increased 34 percent from 2008 to 2015. During the same period, the amount the state spent on local schools increased by just 4.8 percent.

The school finance relationship is like a see-saw, with state funds on one side and local tax dollars on the other. When state spending goes down, local school districts have to raise taxes in order to fund services at the same level. This year, the state will pay 38 percent of the cost to fund schools, while the burden that falls to local property owners will be 52 percent.

Under the state’s recapture rules for maintaining equity in our school finance system, those local taxes you pay are also tied to school districts all over the state. That means in cities with high property values such as Austin and now Houston, a significant chunk of local property tax revenue must be shipped out of town to help fulfill the state’s obligation to maintain funding equity in other districts.

The total amount of transfers under recapture – commonly referred to by some as “Robin Hood” – has grown to $2 billion, with Austin ISD accounting for $583 million of recaptured funds in 2016. The math works out to 28 percent of statewide recapture falling on the shoulders of local taxpayers in Austin alone.

This week, the House and Senate each submitted their proposals for the 2018-19 state budget, and financial wonks are still crunching the numbers to determine whether either plan would effectively fund school services at current levels. Both claim to do so.

What we do know is that in the House plan, Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has proposed an additional $1.5 billion boost in education funding “contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system.”

If legislators are serious about reducing local property taxes, this is where it starts. It’s simple math.

Back to the see-saw: The only way to achieve meaningful property tax relief is for the state to assume more responsibility for the share of school funding it has passed on to you through local property taxes. Any other proposals you hear – and you will hear plenty – are empty measures meant to delay your outrage over your property tax bill for another two years.

In a December 2016 column, The Texas Tribune’s executive editor Ross Ramsey concluded, “Had the state kept its share of school funding constant for the past 10 years, voters might not be griping about rising property taxes.”

Tired of griping? Then let’s get serious. By boosting state investment along with taking a real shot at reforming the school finance system, the House is on the right track. We’ll find out if the rest of the legislature is serious as well.

Both chambers release versions of proposed Texas budget

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confirmed yesterday that Senator Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound) will continue to serve as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee for the 85th legislative session. Upon her reappointment, Sen. Nelson filed the Senate’s budget bill, Senate Bill 1.  SB 1 spends $103.6 billion in state revenue over the next two years, which is $1.3 billion less than the Comptroller’s 2018 and 2019 revenue projection.

The Senate issued a press release highlighting the fact that the budget includes “$2.65 billion to cover enrollment growth in public schools and $32 million more for high-quality pre-k programs.” This is $86 million less than the additional $118 million that would be needed to extend current pre-k funding to cover both years of the upcoming biennium.

Girl showing bank notesAs filed, SB 1 represents a continuation of current school funding formulas. However, according to the Senate press release, Nelson calls  “making sure the school finance system better meets the needs of students” a critical decision to be made by lawmakers this session.

Other specific items outlined in the budget per the SB 1 press release include:

  • $1 billion to address state hospital and mental health facility needs;
  • $63 million to clear the waitlist for community mental health services;
  • $20 million for a program to help veterans dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues;
  • $260 million to improve Child Protective Services;
  • $25 million for high caliber bulletproof vests for Texas law enforcement officers;
  • $800 million for border security measures approved last session; and
  • A 1.5 percent across-the-board spending reduction for all expenditures not related to public education.

The Senate press release on SB 1 can be found here.

On the House side, Speaker Joe Straus has not yet named which representative will replace former Rep. John Otto (R – Dayton) as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Otto did not seek re-election in 2016. Still, the House did release its version of a plan for the base budget yesterday, too. The Speaker’s press release touts the House budget plan as one that “puts additional resources into public education, child protection and mental health while increasing state spending by less than 1 percent.”

The House budget proposal:

  • Funds enrollment growth of about 165,000 students over the next two years;
  • Includes an additional $1.5 billion for public education that is contingent upon the passage of legislation that reduces recapture and improves equity in the school finance system; and
  • Includes $108.9 billion in general revenue.

The Speaker’s press release can be found here.

85th Texas Legislature will face tight budget

Get ready to tighten your belts.

Before each session, legislative budget writers wait with bated breath to hear the state comptroller hand down from on high the magic number that will guide their spending for the next 140 days. That number comprises the core of the biennial revenue estimate (BRE).

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashThe comptroller is basically the state’s top accountant, and crafting the BRE is the office’s biggest responsibility. Divined from tax receipts and economic trends, the BRE is a best guess as to how much tax money will be available for lawmakers to spend over the next two years. The legislature is legally bound to keep spending within that number, which makes an austere forecast about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.

At a formal press conference this morning at the Texas Capitol, Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s BRE presentation for the 2018-19 biennium was marked by a subtle, yet unmistakably skunky fragrance.

Hegar announced the 85th Texas Legislature will have $104.9 billion available for general revenue spending, roughly $8 billion less than lawmakers got the green light to spend in 2015. Factors contributing to the pinch include sluggish growth in tax revenues – due in no small part to stubbornly low oil prices – and lawmakers’ decision last session to dedicate $5 billion in sales tax revenue to the highway fund.

According to the Texas Tribune, state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), who appears poised to chair the House Appropriations Committee, suggested the number is $5 billion to $6 billion less than it would take to fund state services at current levels. Combine that with the governor’s directive that each agency cut its budget by four percent, and a picture of a penny-pinching budget battle takes shape.

Girl showing bank notes

When money is tight, we find out what our priorities are. We at ATPE believe investing in future generations should be at the top of the list.

Public education still hasn’t fully covered the $5.4 billion cut by the legislature in 2011. With enrollment growth outpacing teacher hiring, class sizes continue to increase, to the detriment of students. Per-student funding still lags 2011 levels in some districts. To top it off, the state has steadily decreased its share of school spending, forcing school districts to rely more and more on local property taxes to make up the difference.

But there is still room for optimism.

Even without a court mandate, House leadership under Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has expressed a strong desire to fix the school finance system this session. There’s been growing talk of increasing the basic per-student allotment. If a friendly Republican administration in Washington, D.C. provides relief in previously disputed areas of the budget, such as health care and border security, the result could be more state money freed up for other priorities.

It’s a matter of deciding what’s important.

Our children deserve a world-class education that doesn’t cost parents their home. If lawmakers truly want to cut property taxes, there’s a simple fix: Shift the burden of education funding back to the state. It will require taking a hard look at the budget and making tough choices about public spending, but it can be done. We’re optimistic that Texans will keep their eye on the ball this session and not be distracted by repackaged voucher schemes, teacher bashing bills, and smoke and mirrors tax cuts.

If we can maintain that focus, then we’ll end up with a budget that reflects our values as Texans.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 26, 2016

Here’s a look at some stories that made news this week in the world of Texas education:

ThinkstockPhotos-185034697_gavelcashTexas’s much-maligned standardized tests were once again the focus of media attention this week. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced this week that it is imposing harsh financial penalties against the vendor that administers the state’s STAAR tests after a number of problems occurred during test administrations this spring. Also this week, a judge assigned to a lawsuit filed by parents objecting to the STAAR test refused to grant the state’s motion to have that case dismissed. Read more about the latest STAAR-related developments in this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter. Exter also discussed the testing company fines in an interview with KVUE News, which you can view here.


Texas lawmakers involved in the biennial budget-writing process are starting to look more closely at education funding as the 85th legislative session approaches. ATPE Lobbyist Josh Sanderson and ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz attended a meeting this week of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the education portion of the state budget. Wednesday’s hearing was a discussion of an interim charge dealing with public education programs that are funded outside the Foundation School Program (FSP). Learn more about the hearing in our blog post from yesterday.


ATPE_Logo_Stacked_Tag_ColorATPE members and employees have been showcased in a number of media features this week with the start of a new school year. Round Rock ATPE member Stephanie Stoebe talked to KEYE TV in Austin about how she engages students using popular “Pokemon Go” characters. Stoebe also joined ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey on Time Warner Cable Austin to discuss how the use of technology in the classroom can also increase opportunities for bullying. They urged educators and parents to talk to children about the risks of cyberbullying, which some lawmakers hope to address in the upcoming legislative session. Also on TWC news, a number of ATPE members contributed to a recent story about how teachers can talk to their students about difficult currrent events, such as problems of racism and violent attacks. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter also talked to KSAT about new education laws that are taking effect this school year. Be sure to follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and ATPE on Facebook for coverage of these and other stories about how ATPE members are making a difference in the lives of students.



Subcommittee looks at funding for education programs in Texas

Dollar fanOn Wednesday, Aug. 24, the Texas House Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which covers education aspects of the state budget, held a public hearing in Austin. The focus of this first meeting on interim charge 13 was to discuss specific public education programs that are funded outside the Foundation School Program (FSP) and administered by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The committee is tasked with making recommendations that increase, decrease, or eliminate programs based on measurable performance and effectiveness.

The vast majority of all education funding dollars in Texas are sent to school districts through the FSP. Tens of billions of dollars every year are distributed based on school district characteristics and the student population. Outside of the FSP, there are special programs that are funded as individual line items in the state budget. Before the massive budget reduction in 2011, there were significant projects funded at hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, such as the Student Success Initiative and the state educator incentive pay program known as DATE. Since that time, these programs are fewer and have been funded at a much lower level.

These types of interim meetings take place every two years as agencies are submitting their budget requests to the state and the appropriating committees, House Appropriations and Senate Finance, prepare for lengthy, in-depth hearings while the two-year state budget is created. There were no serious policy proposals or shifts that came from Wednesday’s meeting; however, what was discussed was that there are very important programs funded at relatively low levels that depend on an ongoing commitment from the state. These include programs such as Communities in Schools, money for newly constructed educational facilities, and funding for accelerated instruction of at-risk students. The committee seemed to be in agreement that all of these initiatives play crucial roles in meeting the many challenges facing our public school population. The question going forward will be whether there is broad political will to make the necessary investments in our state’s public education system.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) mentioned that that the House Appropriations Committee and House Public Education Committee will hold a joint meeting to take a closer look into school finance sometime next month. ATPE will cover that hearing and provide updates for Teach the Vote.

Video of the full subcommittee hearing can be viewed here.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 1, 2016

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of the education news from Texas and Washington, D.C.:

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced details this week on summer training academies for certain teachers. The programs include Literacy Achievement Academies for kindergarten and grade one teachers and Mathematics Achievement Academies for teachers of students in grades two and three. Teachers who complete an academy this summer will receive a $350 stipend through their school district or charter school. In selecting eligible teachers, TEA will give priority to teachers working in schools that enroll at least 50% educationally disadvantaged students (those eligible for free/reduced lunch). For additional information on the academies, click here or contact Chelaine Marion, TEA’s Director of Foundation Education, at (512) 463-9581.

Elections 2016 Card with Bokeh BackgroundLongtime Texas Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) is seeking a new role as a County Commissioner for Harris County. He recently won the Democratic party nomination for that post in Houston’s Precinct 1. The Houston Chronicle reported on the move saying, “Although Ellis will be giving up 26 years of seniority in Austin, he will wield significant clout as Precinct 1 commissioner, where he will represent some 1.2 million people, control a budget of more than $200 million and help govern the nation’s third-largest county.”

Ellis has held his Senate seat since 1990, but will be removing his name from the November general election ballot for re-election. That has resulted in a flurry of activity among state representatives interested in the opportunity and a chance for local Democratic precinct chairs to decide which candidate is best suited to replace Ellis on the ballot.

Today, Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) announced that she intends to seek Ellis’s seat in the upper chamber. Thompson is one of the most senior members of the Texas House of Representatives, currently serving her 22nd term; she is also considered the longest-serving female elected official in Texas history. Also vying for the seat is another state representative from Houston, Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston), who has served in the Texas House since 2006. Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), who had been rumored to be another possible candidate, announced this week that he intends to remain in the Texas House. Former Houston City Controller Ron Green is also eyeing the nomination. The outcome has the potential to cause another reshuffling of offices around the Capitol and yet another special election heading into the 2017 legislative session.

The Texas Senate Education Committee has scheduled a series of upcoming interim hearings that include reform issues of high priority to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R).

First, on August 3, 2016, the committee will discuss “a comprehensive performance review of all public schools in Texas, examining ways to improve efficiency, productivity, and student academic outcomes.” The hearing will  include looking at “performance-based funding mechanisms that allocate dollars based upon achievement versus attendance” and “any state mandates which hinder student performance, district and campus innovation, and efficiency and productivity overall.” Performance-based funding and “mandate relief” have long been favored concepts in the Senate. During the same meeting, senators will take a closer look at the state’s only remaining county-based school systems, the Harris County Department of Education and Dallas County Schools to determine whether their services are overlapping with regional education service centers. Finally, the committee will be following up on the implementation of a new law last year (HB 2610) that changed the requirement for a minimum number of school days to a minimum number of school minutes.

Next, the Senate Education Committee will meet August 16, 2016, to study school board governance policies and practices and how they can help improve student outcomes, especially for low-performing schools. Expect the Districts of Innovation (DOI) law and how schools are using it to be a topic of discussion. The committee will also talk about pre-Kindergarten grants and legislation to raise the standards for educator preparation programs.

Teacher teaching schoolboy computer in the library

On September 13, the committee will take up the issue of digital learning. Discussions will include access to broadband in school districts around the state and how to build “the necessary infrastructure to provide a competitive, free-market environment in broadband service.” The committee will also evaluate the implementation of the law that allows graduation committees to determine if certain students who failed STAAR tests may be allowed to graduate. That ATPE-supported law is set to expire in September 2017 unless the legislature reauthorizes or extends it.

Finally, on September 14, the Senate Education Committee is holding an interim hearing on vouchers. The agenda includes looking at education savings accounts and tax credit scholarship programs that have been adopted in other states. NO VOUCHERS Lt. Gov. Patrick has said that vouchers and other privatization plans will continue to be one of his top legislative priorities for the Senate in 2017. The Sept. 14 hearing will also focus on interventions for schools that have had unsuccessful academic ratings under the accountability system and the implementation of the DOI law, which allows acceptably rated schools to exempt themselves from various state laws.

All of the aforementioned meetings will begin at 9 a.m. and public testimony will be limited to two minutes. Most hearings can be viewed live or in an archived format through the state legislature’s website. Watch for additional interim hearings of the House Public Education Committee to be announced later this summer for early fall. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates after all of these hearings.

ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneyIn related legislative interim news, the heads of state agencies are being asked to “engage in a thorough review of each program and budget strategy and determine the value of each dollar spent” as they prepare their Legislative Appropriations Requests (LARs) for the 2017 session. That’s the message in a June 30 joint letter from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Lt. Gov. Patrick (R), and Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R) to agency directors, appellate court judges, and university leaders. In what has become a sort of tradition in interim years, despite our state’s often-touted economic successes, the directive calls for state agencies to cut four percent from their base appropriation levels, but notes that exceptions will be made for “amounts necessary to maintain funding for the Foundation School Program under current law” and a few other priorities.

At the same time, a group of conservative political organizations are warning lawmakers that they will not be viewed as conservative if the 85th Legislature does not limit appropriations for the next biennium to $218.5 billion or less, including federal funds. The coalition includes groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and National Federation of Independent Business-Texas, which have often taken decidedly anti-public education stances on issues such as school funding, class-size limits, payroll deduction for public employees, and more.

Many thanks to those of you who participated in the SBOE survey on student testing and accountability. The survey ended yesterday, and the board will review the results of the feedback received at its next meeting, scheduled for July 19-22, 2016. The SBOE survey was conducted in concert with the effort by the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability to make testing and accountability recommendations to the 85th Legislature. The commission is expected to hold its last meeting on July 27 to adopt final recommendations. A set of draft recommendations with rationales and timelines can be viewed here. The commission has struggled to find consensus on many difficult questions relating to student testing, the original meeting schedule for the commission has been extended, and now at least one member of the commission has voiced concerns about the process. In a recent letter to Dr. Andrew Kim, the commission’s chairman, commissioner Theresa Trevino, who also serves as president of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), shared her belief that some recommendations were being given short shrift. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on both upcoming meetings of the SBOE and the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability.

Happy Independence Day!

Boys Holding Sparklers

Why even bother to vote?

While listening to a panel at an education summit this morning, I heard a former state legislator repeat what many of us have heard countless times before: “Educators aren’t in the profession for the pay.” As much as most of the professionals working in our schools are there because of a calling to serve, it isn’t an excuse to treat them poorly. For too long, this has been used by lawmakers as a justification for not making the effort necessary to adequately invest in education.

U.S. Census data tell us that on a per student basis, Texas spends less money on public education employee benefits than any other state. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that Texas public school employees pay a larger share of the cost of health insurance than other employees, both public and private, across the country. Like so many other issues that affect your livelihood, these are entirely political issues. Political will, in large part, determines your salary, how much you pay for health insurance, your retirement benefits, whether or not you receive a contract (and the terms of that contract), and nearly every other aspect of your professional career. The only way to change this situation is to educate yourselves as to who supports you and your profession, and then to vote as an education community for those candidates.

Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that despite its many flaws and room for improvement, the Texas public education system meets the minimum constitutional requirements. The immediate implication of this ruling is that the Texas Legislature has no impetus (with the possible exception of voter dissatisfaction) to make additional investments in or reforms to our public school system. Even though per-student spending in Texas is below 2008 levels, legally speaking if legislators choose to do nothing at all with public schools, they are well within the confines of the law. Aside from those abysmal per-student funding numbers, state contributions to employee health insurance have not increased since 2001 (a contribution of $50 per month per employee), and retiree healthcare has been chronically underfunded to the point where the program will run out of money at the end of 2017 and need nearly $2 billion to survive merely for another two years.

As these very real and pressing issues are occurring, earlier this week both the Texas Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committees held hearings on the possibility of instituting new state spending restrictions that would further curtail the state’s ability to properly manage our infrastructure. Spending guidelines are important, and Texas has long produced conservative, lean budgets. Of the 15 most populous states, Texas is 13th in state tax revenue per capita (and 46th in state tax revenue measured against personal income). One of the reasons we have so effectively limited state tax collections and expenditures is because we have four provisions in our state constitution that restrict state spending; unlike Washington D.C. we do not and cannot deficit spend in Texas. We do not need more restrictions in how state leaders can invest in public education – or roads, water, and public safety.

Our public education system and your health insurance, retirement benefits, and compensation will continue to erode unless the education community gets out to vote for the people who support you. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of identifying the candidates who believe in and support our educators and public schools.

Vote imageEarly voting in the 2016 primary runoff election continues through tomorrow, May 20, and runoff election day is May 24. Remember to make use of to find out which races are taking place in your district and to get information on the candidates. If you have the opportunity, please do bother to vote; much is at stake!

Legislative Update: Budget approval and more on the final countdown

We’re in the home stretch of the 84th legislative session. Here’s the latest on education-related bills that are still on the move:

State budget and TRS funding

HB 1 by Rep. John Otto (R) is the state’s appropriation bill and the one piece of legislation that must pass in order to avoid a special session. The House passed its version of HB 1 on April 1 by a vote of 141-5. The Senate approved its version of the bill on April 14 by a vote of 30-1. The House version contained funds for enrollment growth as well as an additional $2.2 billion aimed at increasing equity within the public education system. The Senate’s version provided an additional $1.8 billion in new revenue after their tax cut proposal was factored in. The Senate’s version also assumed that the cost of enrollment growth will be covered by increases in property tax revenue. HB 1 was sent to a conference committee where representatives and senators negotiated a compromise on what amounts the state should spend on public education and other needs. The budget deal calls for funding enrollment growth plus an additional $1.5 billion for public education.

Today the House and Senate are both considering the conference committee report and taking final votes on the budget plan. The Senate voted 30 to 1 to approve HB 1. Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D) voted against the motion, saying she preferred to see more spending on education and healthcare. Sen. Kevin Eltife (R) voted for the bill but only after he spoke passionately about his belief that state needs are not being adequately addressed in the appropriations. The House approved the budget a short time later by a vote of 115 to 33.

Tuesday evening the Senate unanimously passed its version of a supplemental appropriations bill, HB 2 by Rep. John Otto (R), sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Jane Nelson (R). (The House passed its version of the bill back on April 1.) Yesterday, the House voted 145 to 1 to accept the Senate amendments to the bill, which will send HB 2 on to the governor. Rep. David Simpson (R) was the only no vote on the motion to concur. The supplemental appropriations include much-needed funding in the amount of $768 million to help cover costs of TRS-Care health insurance for retirees over the next two years.

Tax cuts and spending restrictions

The budget deal between the House and Senate hinged on reaching an agreement on tax cuts. The leaders of both chambers ultimately agreed on two tax cut proposals: increasing the homestead exemption to reduce property taxes and lowering the business franchise tax. SB 1 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R) contains the Senate’s favored proposal to increase the homestead exemption for property taxes by $10,000; if the bill passes, that increase in the exemption will be subject to voter approval in a November election. The bill is pending in a conference committee. HB 32 by Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R), which permanently reduces the state’s franchise tax by 25 percent, is already on its way to the governor.

In addition to tax cuts, the 84th legislature has also considered multiple measures to curtail state spending. One of the primary measures is SB 9 by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R), which is designed to limit the state’s constitutional spending limit, based on a calculation that factors in population growth and inflation. After the House changed the bill, the Senate refused to concur in House amendments and has requested a conference committee.

Accountability and “A through F” ratings

Two major accountability reform bills are still in flux. HB 2804 is a comprehensive bill by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) intended to overhaul the state’s accountability system and place slightly less emphasis on the role of student test scores in how schools are rated. Unfortunately, the bill was amended to add a controversial plan, which ATPE opposes, to assign “A through F” grades to school campuses in lieu of existing accountability ratings. The House passed the bill by a vote of 102 to 26 after an attempt to strip out the “A-F” language from the bill was narrowly defeated. Read more about the House debate here on our blog. The Senate passed its own version of the bill unanimously on May 25. Now the House must decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes. HB 2804 is on today’s House calendar.

HB 1842 also by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) deals with school accountability sanctions and interventions. The bill provides for turnaround strategies for schools considered low-performing. The House passed HB 1842 by a vote of 143 to 1 on May 13, with Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) casting the lone vote against the bill. The Senate approved a substitute for HB 1842 on Tuesday night, May 26, around midnight. The upper chamber added numerous floor amendments, many taken from other bills that were procedurally dead. The controversial amendments include Sen. Larry Taylor’s (R) “innovation zones” school deregulation language from SB 1241 and Sen. Royce West’s (R) “Opportunity School District” (now called a  “School Turnaround District”) plan from SB 669. Language dealing with charter and virtual school expansion was also added to HB 1842. Chairman Aycock is expected to refuse the Senate’s changes to the bill and ask the House today for a conference committee to be appointed.

Student testing and curriculum

HB 743 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R) attempts to reduce the amount of time spent on state-mandated testing in grades three through eight and limit the breadth of curriculum standards (TEKS) that are included on those tests. The bill also calls for auditing of the state’s contracts with test vendors. HB 743 previously passed the House on May 4 and on May 25, the full Senate passed an amended version of it. The House refused to accept the Senate’s changes to the bill and is appointing a conference committee.

HB 1164 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R) would eliminate state-mandated STAAR writing tests and instead have school districts assess students’ writing ability using locally-approved methods. It passed the House unanimously on April 30. The Senate passed a substitute version of the bill on May 25 by a vote of 26 to 5, with Sens. Brian Birdwell (R), Konni Burton (R), Donna Campbell (R), Bob Hall (R), Jane Nelson (R), and Charles Perry (R) opposing it. The House voted on Wednesday, May 27, to accept the Senate’s changes to the bill. The vote on the motion to concur was 96 to 45, and it sends HB 1164 to the governor’s desk.

HB 1431 by Rep. Susan King (R) calls for development of an industry-related course to train students to communicate in a language other than English for business purposes. It passed the House on May 8 by a vote of 134 to 6. The Senate approved the bill this Tuesday, May 26.

HB 2349 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) relates to student testing and curriculum standards. The bill makes several technical changes to testing requirements that were modified in 2013 pursuant to House Bill 5. ATPE has supported the bill, which received a unanimous vote in the House on May 11. The Senate  passed a substitute version of HB 2349 unanimously on Wednesday, May 27.  Today the House must decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes or send the bill to a conference committee.

SB 313 by Sen. Kel Seliger (R) is another bill ATPE has supported that deals with narrowing the curriculum standards, state testing, and instructional materials. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on May 5. On May 25, the House removed language in the bill calling for a diagnostic assessment (the Texas Success Initiative) to be administered to students in the 10th grade. They also added a statement to clarify that a State Board of Education review of the curriculum standards should not result in a need for new instructional materials in any subject other than English language arts. Rep. Ron Simmons (R) offered an amendment today to allow students in special education a means to opt out of STAAR testing requirements, to the extent allowed under federal law. Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R), who is sponsoring the bill in the House, expressed concern that the new language might run afoul of federal testing requirements but allowed the House to vote on the measure, which passed. The House finally passed the bill, as amended, on May 26 by a vote of 125 to 19. The Senate opted not to accept the House’s changes to the bill and has appointed a conference committee.

SB 968 by Sen. Royce West (D) adds a prescription drug misuse awareness component to the school health curriculum. On May 7, the Senate approved it 28 to 3, with Sens. Konni Burton (R), Jane Nelson (R), and Robert Nichols (R) voting against it. The House unanimously approved the measure on Wednesday, May 27.

Educator preparation, certification, and discipline matters

Late Tuesday night, the Senate considered HB 2205 by Rep. Myra Crownover (R), an educator preparation and certification bill being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kel Seliger (R). The bill, which ATPE supported in the House, changes the composition of the State Board for Educator Certification and requires one non-voting member of the board to have worked for an alternative certification program. It also makes modifications to the accountability system for educator preparation programs. The Senate made several changes to the bill. First, the Senate version of HB 2205 incorporates language from Sen. Seliger’s dead bill, SB 892, that lowers the statutory minimum GPA for admission to an educator preparation program from 2.75 to 2.5. The Senate initially accepted a floor amendment by Sen. Jose Menendez (D) filed at our request to restore the 2.75 GPA language that is in current law. After conferring with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), the Senate stripped off the Menendez language, based largely on the lieutenant governor’s objection to keeping the GPA at 2.75. (Ironically, Patrick was the Senate sponsor of the 2013 bill that raised the minimum GPA from 2.5 to 2.75.) As amended by the Senate, HB 2205 also requires 30 hours (up from 15) of field-based experience that must be delivered in a classroom setting (not online) before an alternative certification candidate may be hired as a teacher of record; that change is opposed by alternative certification providers. The Senate also added two of Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s (R) dead bills onto HB 2205 as floor amendments. One amendment added language from his SB 1003 making it easier for school districts to issue teaching permits to non-certified teachers, while his SB 1222 language added onto the bill gives the commissioner of education power to issue subpoenas when investigating educators for possible misconduct. The Senate’s vote on HB 2205 as amended was 28 to 3, with Sens. Bob Hall (R), Jane Nelson (R), and Robert Nichols (R) voting against it. The bill is on the House’s calendar today for a vote on whether to accept the Senate amendments to the bill or send it to a conference committee.

HB 1300 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R) amends a law that permits educator preparation programs to exempt up to 10 percent of each cohort of candidates from the state’s minimum GPA requirement. The bill as approved requires those exempted from the GPA rule to pass a content exam prior to admission. The House passed HB 1300 on May 12 by a vote of 141 to 2, with Reps. Jonathan Stickland (R) and James White (R) voting against it. This ATPE-backed bill is now on the governor’s desk after being unanimously approved by the Senate on May 22.

Early childhood education

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has signed into law two pieces of legislation supported by ATPE that deal with early childhood education. HB 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R) is a bill to increase funding to pre-kindergarten programs that implement certain quality control measures. Abbott signed the bill at a formal ceremony yesterday. He previously signed SB 925 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R), which calls for the commissioner of education to create literacy achievement academies for teachers of reading in Kindergarten through third grades. The bill gives preference  to teachers at campuses where the majority of students are educationally disadvantaged and entitles teachers who attend the academies to be paid stipends. Gov. Abbott declared early childhood education a priority issue for consideration this legislative session.

Suicide prevention

ATPE has pursued legislation this session to try to curtail the epidemic of youth suicide by making available additional training for educators in spotting and responding to the warning signs of suicide. At ATPE’s request, Rep. Byron Cook (R) filed HB 2186 in memory of Jonathan Childers, who committed suicide in 2013. Jonathan was the teenage son of Coach Kevin Childers, an ATPE member from Fairfield ISD. The Childers family’s story is featured in our latest issue of ATPE News. The House passed HB 2186 on May 7 by a vote of 139 to 3 with Reps. Matt Rinaldi (R), Matt Schaefer (R), and Jonathan Stickland (R) voting against it. HB 2186 was passed unanimously on the Senate’s local and uncontested calendar on Wednesday of this week. The House is expected to vote today on accepting the Senate’s amendments to the bill, which should send it to the governor’s office soon.

Breast-feeding accommodations for school employees

HB 786 by Rep. Armando Walle (D) would require schools and other public employers to provide certain accommodations for employees to express breast milk and prohibit workplace discrimination against such employees. ATPE has supported the bill. The House passed HB 786 by a vote of 90 to 47 on April 27. The Senate passed an amended version of the bill on May 24 by a vote of 23 to 7. Since the House refused to accept the Senate’s changes, the bill has been referred to a conference committee.

School counselors

HB 18 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) relates to college and career readiness training for certain public school counselors. The bill would create post-secondary education and career counseling academies for certain school counselors and make stipends available to those who attend the academies. ATPE supported the bill. The House passed an amended version of the bill on May 12 by a vote of 136 to 9. The Senate added several floor amendments to HB 18 and passed it on Wednesday, May 27 by a vote of 30 to 1; Sen. Konni Burton (R) was the lone dissenter. The House must decide to accept the Senate’s changes or appoint a conference committee.

Charter schools

Only a small number of bills dealing with regulation of and funding for charter schools have made it this far through the legislative process. HB 2251 by Rep. Rafael Anchia (D) is designed to accelerate funding for charter schools experiencing enrollment growth. The House approved it on May 15, and the Senate approved the bill on Tuesday, May 26; both votes were unanimous. Rep. Marsha Farney (R) has filed HB 1170 to classify certain charter schools as local governmental entities. It passed the House on May 8 with only a single no vote from Rep. Terry Canales (D). The Senate unanimously approved a substitute version of HB 1170 on Wednesday, May 27. The House must decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes or send the bill to a conference committee. Farney’s HB 1171 relates to immunity provisions for charter schools; it passed the House and Senate unanimously, but also was amended by the Senate. Both of these bills on the calendar today for a decision by the House.

Cameras in the classroom

SB 507 by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) calls for school districts to equip self-contained classrooms serving students in special education programs with video surveillance cameras. The Senate approved the bill on May 11 by a vote of 24 to 7, with Sens. Brandon Creighton (R), Bob Hall (R), Don Huffines (R), Jane Nelson (R), Robert Nichols (R), Charles Perry (R), and Charles Schwertner (R) voting against the measure. The House approved it unanimously on Wednesday. Several changes have been made to the bill, including amendments that give parents and the Texas Education Agency access to the videos. The bill has been referred this week to a conference committee.

Paperwork reduction

HB 1706 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R) is designed to reduce school paperwork requirements. It passed the House unanimously on May 4, and the Senate approved it on Wednesday of this week.

With help from ATPE members who reached out to their legislators this session, we’ve managed to stop several bills that would have done great harm to the education profession. These included numerous high-profile private school voucher bills; proposals to eliminate the state minimum salary schedule for teachers; a bill to ban school districts from offering a payroll deduction option for school employees to pay their association dues; and proposals to make it easier to deregulate low-performing schools and take away the governing authority of locally elected school boards through “parent trigger” petitions or converting entire school districts to so-called “local control school districts.” We thank you for your grassroots advocacy efforts.

Our fight is not over. In the last few days of this long session, conference committees will negotiating deals on bills that remain contested, and some of those bills still contain language that we oppose. Stay tuned for updates on the bills not yet finalized. For the latest news, be sure to follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter.