Category Archives: Commissioner

Senate Education committee holds first meeting

Senate Education Committee meeting Feb. 7, 2019.

The Senate Committee on Education held its first meeting of the 86th Legislative Session on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the Texas Capitol. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) kicked off the meeting by welcoming members to “Season Three, Episode One” of his tenure as the committee chair, and introduced new and returning committee members.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath provided high-level testimony on the “State of the State of Public Education” report produced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This report focuses on demographics, challenges, and progress toward the state’s “60×30” goal of ensuring 60 percent of students graduate high school with an industry certification or post-secondary credential by the year 2030. Commissioner Morath again stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in order to achieve this goal.

The commissioner also walked members through the current “A through F” accountability system, which is largely based upon different calculations of STAAR test results. Related to that, the commissioner explained efforts to develop STAAR test questions aligned to student expectations. Morath discussed the negative impact of poverty on student learning, which prompted comments by the vice chairman, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), on related factors such as hunger. Both have a direct impact on the cost to educate a child.

In acknowledging criticisms of the STAAR test, including the high stakes attached to it, Commissioner Morath suggested the test could be broken into multiple, shorter sessions, or move away from multiple-choice answers. The commissioner noted that either could pose problems with regard to legal requirements and the time and money necessary for development.

TEA’s State Director for Special Education Justin Porter followed up with a briefing on special education, beginning with enrollment numbers. The agency documented a sharp decline in special education enrollment around 2004. Enrollment has increased in recent years, which coincides with corrective action the agency was forced to take after an investigation revealed the agency had been illegally implementing a de facto cap on enrollment. Despite the current upward trajectory, special education enrollment remains significantly below the national average.

Under the current accountability system, special education students are performing “significantly behind” their non-special education peers. Porter suggested this potentially could be ameliorated by changes to the current college, career, and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators.

The majority of Porter’s testimony focused on the strategic plan put in place as a result of the corrective action order. Under federal pressure, the agency has increased monitoring activities and identifying areas of noncompliance and improvement. Under federal law, all students have a right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE), and TEA has made efforts to inform local education agencies (LEAs) of their responsibilities. The agency is also hiring a contractor to launch a statewide media campaign to provide information about special education and parents’ rights. Sens. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked questions regarding the marketing program, including the total cost and whether districts and stakeholder groups had been recruited into the process.

Porter indicated there is also a shortage in evaluation personnel, which has resulted in many LEAs paying for contract personnel. The agency has responded with a $10 million grant to Education Service Center (ESC) 20 in San Antonio to provide services and reimbursements to LEAs without access to evaluators.

In addition, the agency has focused on professional development geared toward administrators and general education teachers, as well as training for school board members. The agency has also set up a call center to answer questions related to special education.

SBOE hosts learning roundtable at TASA conference

The State Board of Education (SBOE) took the show on the road Wednesday, moving down the street to the Austin Convention Center to host a learning roundtable at the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) Midwinter Conference.

The Learning Roundtable: Building a Stronger Texas program began with opening remarks by SBOE Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) laying out the board’s Long-Range Plan for Public Education, which provided the foundation for the day’s discussions. Member Tom Maynard (R-Florence) led off with a panel on family engagement.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath addressing TASA Midwinter Conference.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the conference as the day’s keynote speaker, and noted that the state’s public schools are doing outstanding work. The commissioner pointed to the state’s 90 percent graduation rate, and credited teachers as the single most important factor impacting student achievement.

Morath hosted a panel of standout instructional leaders discussing the craft of growing rockstar teachers. Panels emphasized the importance of training, classroom supports, planning sessions, and educators in leadership roles guiding new teachers.

Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) led a lunchtime discussion of equity and access, featuring Austin ISD Chief of Business Operations Nicole Conley Johnson, who was a member of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

Conley Johnson noted that in order to better serve special populations such as students with disabilities, schools need better and more flexible funding. Conley Johnson also cautioned that school safety should focus on the costs of dealing with mental health and trauma, not just hard costs such as metal detectors and infrastructure hardening.

SBOE Member Georgina Perez hosting a panel on Equity & Access.

Perez encouraged TEA staff to travel to border communities to deliver updates on agency initiatives in Spanish. Perez said Texas is the only state to approve a Mexican-American Studies course for all schools across the state, and asked members for thoughts on developing culturally responsive learning environments. Perez also suggested that for each dollar invested in health care, the state sees a $7 return on its investment. Panelists discussed ideas such as building classroom libraries to encourage reading, and recounted moving stories of their reasons for falling in love with education.

Member Lawrence Allen, Jr. (D-Houston) closed out the roundtable discussion with a panel on student empowerment. The board’s Long-Range Plan for Public Education was adopted at the end of 2018 after more than a year of development and stakeholder engagement. The full report can be found here.

The board will return to its usual setting on Thursday, when members will meet in committees and elect chairs. The full board will conclude its week-long meeting Friday.

 

 

Commissioner briefs SBOE on teacher pay issues

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the State Board of Education (SBOE) Tuesday morning, kicking off the second day of the board’s week-long January meeting.

Commissioner Mike Morath addressing SBOE, January 29, 2019.

Morath began with a high-level review of the 2018 State of the State of Public Education annual report. Members asked the agency to produce a report detailing state scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test.

The commissioner walked members through efforts by the agency to create Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guides to help educators and parents better understand the standards and alignment, as well as resources to help understand assessments and student expectations.

Commissioner Morath briefed members on efforts to review the assessment process, including organizational restructuring to embed the STARR team within the agency’s curriculum department, which ensures that staff who participate in the TEKS review process are the same staff developing questions for the assessment.

Morath also responded to a question about the state of teacher pay legislation in the 86th Texas Legislature. The commissioner noted that a bill has already been filed to give teachers a $5,000 across-the-board raise. There is also legislation in the works to create a differentiated pay program. Morath discussed the impact of higher compensation on teacher quality, and explained that this is primarily aimed at increasing retention and attracting higher quality candidates who may otherwise be turned off by the limited salary potential of teaching.

Tuesday’s meeting included an update from Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) on the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, on which Ellis sat as the board’s sole representative. The final report can be found here.

Ellis said the commission’s goals included balancing the state and local share of funding for public education, restructuring the system by reallocating outdated or otherwise inefficient weights and programs, and substantially increasing the level of equity with significantly greater investment in low-income, underperforming student groups. Goals also included reducing the growth rate of property taxes and reliance on recapture, as well as infusing significant state funds into public education.

The commission contemplated proposals to slow recapture and property tax growth, including the governor’s plan, a plan by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association (TTARA), and a share recapture plan. Ellis noted that the commission decided to allow the current legislative session to take up the discussion of revenues.

Responding to questions from other board members, Ellis suggested that the commission’s findings will likely involve at least one large package, with additional pieces filed individually. New board Member Aicha Davis (D-Dallas) asked about the sustainability of Dallas ISD’s “ACE” differentiated pay program. Ellis pointed out that the district’s superintendent testified to the program’s enormous cost.

The board will spend Wednesday hosting a learning roundtable at the Austin Convention Center, and will return to the TEA building on Thursday to break up into committees and elect committee chairs.

House committee discusses school security issues

The House Public Education Committee met Wednesday to discuss two interim charges related to school safety. Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) explained the significance of these charges in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and a list of school safety recommendations released by Gov. Greg Abbott. Rep. Huberty opened the meeting by reading the interim charges aloud:

  • Review the effectiveness of schools’ current multi-hazard emergency operation plans. Determine any areas of deficiency and make recommendations to ensure student safety. Research violence prevention strategies, such as threat assessment, that are available for school personnel to identify students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Identify resources and training available to schools to help them develop intervention plans that address the underlying problems that caused the threatening behavior.
  • Examine current school facilities and grounds. Consider any research-based ‘best practices’ when designing a school to provide a more secure environment. Review the effectiveness of installing metal detectors, cameras, safety locks, streaming video of school security cameras, and other measures designed to improve school safety.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath was the first to testify, and addressed the school marshals program that allows districts to arm teachers and staff who voluntarily undergo special training. Morath noted that this is an option for districts that choose to use it. He also encouraged districts to partner with local law enforcement organizations to find innovative ways to increase police presence on campus, such as by inviting officers to take their breaks on school campuses.

House Public Education Committee meeting June 27, 2018.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) asked whether school marshal candidates must undergo a psychological evaluation in order to ensure individuals who volunteer for the position do so for the right reasons. Morath indicated that individuals must be nominated by others, and stressed the training requirements for the program.

Much of Commissioner Morath’s testimony mirrored what he told a Senate committee earlier this month. State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) indicated funding is a challenge for making additional training and supports available for character education. Morath suggested that teacher certification redesign may help, but the redesign isn’t schedule until 2022.

Committee Vice-Chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) recommended more mental health personnel, such as trauma counselors, on school campuses. State Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) asked the commissioner directly whether the legislature should require and fund trauma counselors. Morath punted on the question, saying needs and resources vary from district to district. On further questioning from state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Morath acknowledged that mental health services could be part of a special appropriations request independent of TEA’s regular budget submission. Chair Huberty pressed the commissioner on the question – clearly indicating the committee is focused on getting more counselors into school with a potential state funding assist.

Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen testified regarding a number of physical security issues, such as fire alarms and building design. Fagen indicated that making the changes proposed by the governor’s office could cost between $100,000 and $250,000 per campus. Members heard from a total of nine panels, covering everything from student mental health services to how schools are designed. Representatives from groups representing school social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology emphasized the difference between their jobs and those of standard school counselors, who are primarily focused on preparing students to graduate. Public testimony consisted of a mix of school safety product vendors and advocates for students with mental health issues — the latter of whom warned against unfair discrimination.

 

Morath suggests developing school safety building standards in SBOE update

The State Board of Education (SBOE) began its Wednesday meeting with a regularly scheduled update from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. The commissioner touched on a lengthy list of issues, including the agency’s response to recent disasters.

SBOE hears update from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on June 13, 2018.

The first item Morath discussed was the agency’s follow-up on the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The agency issued letter to administrators Friday apprising them of steps that could be immediately taken to improve school safety in the near term.

“There’s no such thing as perfect safety,” said Morath, adding, “But there are reasonable steps that can be taken.”

The commissioner acknowledged the difficulty and expense of securing more than 8,600 campuses across the state, but offered a list of specific steps the agency believes may be useful. These steps include increasing law enforcement support, and using more school marshals in rural schools where hiring more officers may not be an option. Training for marshals is now freely available all summer long, and likely will be for some time. Morath noted that teachers are not the only staff members who may be marshals. The commissioner acknowledged that marshals won’t be a useful option everywhere.

In addition, the agency recommended administrators review the threat assessment report compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in response to the Columbine shootings. Furthermore, districts are advised to coordinate with local law enforcement organizations to encourage officers to use schools for their restroom and break stops in order to increase the visible presence of law enforcement on campus.

The agency’s most recent action in response to Hurricane Harvey was the release of state accountability rating adjustments for districts impacted by the historic storm. In prior storms, schools at which classes were canceled for ten or more days were subject to a “not rated” provision. Due to scope of Hurricane Harvey, the criteria were expanded to include campuses that were relocated, campuses to which relocated students were transferred, and campuses where ten percent of students or staff were forced from their homes. These campuses will be labeled as “met standard” unless they were due to receive an “improvement required” rating. In those cases, campuses will be labeled “not rated.” Similar criteria were applied for district-level ratings.

The commissioner approved four new charter school applicants, which will be subject to the board’s approval this week. The four were the only applicants to advance from a pool of 21 interested parties. Morath compared the vetting process to that commonly employed by venture capital or angel investors. Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) expressed concern that one of the schools up for consideration plans to subject prospective students to criminal background checks. Cortez also criticized what he characterized as misleading marketing on the part of one applicant regarding teacher-student ratios.

Regarding assessments, Morath updated the board on what has been a frustrating year after what he called a “high-water mark” for successful test administration in 2017. Nearly 42,000 students who were testing online experienced a 20-minute connectivity slowdown in April, followed by a slowdown in May that affected roughly 59,000 students. This group of students will be taken into account in this year’s campus and district ratings. Morath waived 5th and 8th Grade student success initiative (SSI) requirements for affected students, but noted the commissioner does not have waiver authority over end-of-course (EOC) exams. Morath added it’s conceivable that some students may have been attempting to pass a third EOC after multiple retakes, but probably numbered fewer than a dozen. In response to the glitches, the agency has assessed liquidated damages in the amount of $100,000 to test administrator ETS.

The agency also released accountability rules for the “A through F” ratings framework under House Bill (HB) 22 and has made some changes based upon feedback from stakeholders. The agency doubled the weighting of high school graduation rates under Domain I: Student Achievement to 20 percent of the score. Under the career, college and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators, TEA added credit for the completion of dual credit courses and added partial credit for students who complete a coherent sequence of courses aligned with industry certification. The agency also adjusted the relative performance curve under Domain II: School Progress. Districts will be rated under the A-F system this year, and campus A-F ratings will be released in 2019.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) praised TEA for its response to both Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Fe shooting. Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) asked about adapting mental health first aid training to students and adding it to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for health. Morath said educators are asking for more mental health training after the Santa Fe incident.

Member Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio) asked about schools using a single point of entry like airports, though acknowledging that strategy may not be effective in high schools, where students are often spread across multiple buildings. Morath told the board there is no one approach that can fix everything and solutions will depend heavily on local context. The commissioner expressed interest in convening architects and school administrators to develop recommended practices for the construction of safe school buildings, much like architects have developed for designating the environmental friendliness of buildings.

The board’s Wednesday agenda includes a review of the long-term strategic asset allocation plan for the permanent school fund (PSF).

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Committee on Appropriations

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

Committee on Public Education

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

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

Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence

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

Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


 

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

 


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

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

 


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

School finance commission talks about teacher supports

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday in Austin for a discussion on English learners. Opening the meeting, commission Chair Scott Brister urged the working groups assigned to study different aspects of school finance to be specific in the recommendations they make. In particular, Brister said the commission should strive to reach a consensus on the numbers: How much is the state spending on public education? Is it raising or cutting funding? Should textbooks be included in the cost of education?

School finance commission meeting June 5, 2018.

It’s important to note that most of these numbers are readily available from the Legislative Budget Board and are not in dispute. The disagreement has arisen as a result of some witnesses and commission members attempting to use alternative calculations that are not used in state accounting documents, usually in an attempt to inflate spending figures. Part of the argument used by those hoping to privatize public education is that the state spends enough on public schools already. Compared to other states, Texas ranks in the bottom 10 in per-pupil spending.

The English learners discussion began with invited witnesses pointing out the benefits of dual-language programs over traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) models. Texas has a high percentage of English learners, who benefit the most from strong language instruction early in their academic careers. Students who don’t become proficient in English in elementary school are increasingly likely to struggle later on, and are at a higher risk of failing to graduate. Chair Brister expressed concern over the cost of high-quality programs for English learners. Conversely, state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) warned of the future costs of failing to ensure students successfully learn English.

A witness from the Mark Twain Dual Language Academy in San Antonio explained that most of the costs of dual language program are related to start-up, such as training and hiring bilingual educators. The challenge for many schools is hiring educators from a limited pool of certified teachers who are highly proficient in both English and Spanish.

The next panel focused on supports for teachers in general. Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath testified that the evidence supports the idea that teachers should be paid significantly more, which would aid retention at high-poverty schools. Morath suggested it is also possible to develop an evaluation system that can identify high quality teachers, and advised the commission that a policy framework to provide better pay for high-quality teachers will require long-term commitment by the state, not a one-time grant or budget rider.

Morath further said that pay, not working conditions, is the top hurdle when it comes to recruiting people into the education profession. When it comes to retention, teachers say working conditions are more important than pay. Pay for education jobs has decreased over time, and the average classroom teacher has gotten younger as veterans leave the profession.

The commissioner discussed legislation filed during the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature that would have created a system of tiered certification distinctions tied to significant increases in pay. For example, a “master teacher” who has received a national certification and fulfilled additional requirements and serves at a rural or high-poverty campus could earn up to $20,000 more.

State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he declined to support the bill because of the cost it would have imposed on a long-term basis. Morath emphasized that higher pay is a long-term strategy and would not improve current performance, rather it would recruit and retain better quality educators in the future. In endorsing the idea, Morath indicated it will only work if the funding is baked into the funding formulas for school districts. The commissioner also suggested that one of the bill’s flaws was calibrating the process of identifying high-performing teachers, explaining that each school principal could have a different opinion when it comes to what defines a great teacher.

Responding to a question about high-stakes testing from State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), Morath said testing would have to be at least one component of a program that evaluates teacher quality. The commissioner suggested there should also be an observational component and perhaps a student survey, which is included in the Dallas ISD program upon which the bill was based.

Commission member Todd Williams also noted that there is no incentive for teachers to work in high-poverty or rural schools. In addition, teachers who are at the top of the pay scale cannot increase their pay without leaving the classroom and becoming an administrator, which means their teaching talent would be removed from the system. Finally, Williams noted that there is no incentive for teacher candidates to choose a high-quality preparation program over a cheaper, fly-by-night program. Williams suggested creating incentives in these areas could increase teacher quality and retention.

Concluding his testimony, Morath said that investing in better quality teachers would lead to better-prepared students graduating and pursuing more lucrative jobs. That, combined with teachers themselves earning more, would materially increase the state’s GDP. Morath reasoned this would have a positive and measurable impact on the Texas economy.

Following up on Morath’s testimony, Alief ISD Superintendent H.D. Chambers noted that rising health care costs have also driven teachers out of the profession. Chambers said children need to come to kindergarten ready to go to school, which pre-K helps accomplish, and must be reading on grade level by the third grade. Quality teachers should be in all classrooms, which is helped by differentiated teacher pay, such as paying teachers more to teach in more challenging classrooms.

San Antonio ISD fourth grade teacher Sarah Perez, who is also a Teach Plus Policy Fellow, rounded out the panel on educator supports. Perez testified that students need more social and emotional supports, such as counseling services. According to Perez, a teacher survey by Teach Plus found that teachers identify large class sizes and low teacher pay as having a negative impact on student learning. So do inadequate facilities and limited access to technology or funding for classroom expenses. This led to a lively discussion regarding how much the state could reimburse teachers for classroom expenses and how renewing this program could be done using technology, such as a debit card.

The rest of the day’s panels focused on “inefficiencies” in public education. Michael Szabo, a high school math teacher from Galena Park ISD, gave moving testimony about the struggles his students face. Some deal with teen pregnancy, homelessness, deportation, absent parents and other issues that distract from their ability to concentrate on schoolwork. At the same time, they and the school are being judged based on their performance on standardized tests. Instead, Szabo suggested tying performance evaluation to the percentage of graduates who enter the workforce, as well as those who are incarcerated or end up on welfare.

Other witnesses testified regarding reviewing special program allotments and how those funds can be spent. That included raising the compensatory allotment and easing back spending requirements. Responding to a question about charter schools, one witness noted that while charter school teachers are eligible to participate in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, charters are not required to pay into the system. Another district suggested requiring charter schools to provide more notice and information to the district before setting up shop within a district’s borders and a “universal wait list” for charters. Some charters have touted dubious statistics regarding the number of students who are on wait lists. At the conclusion of the meeting, Brister invited a representative from a charter school to advocate for charters in general.

Districts requested more flexibility with regard to instruction time, as well as accessing the virtual school network. Districts also identified unfunded mandates and the unique challenges facing small, rural districts as drivers of inefficiency. There was some discussion as well from members of the commission who suggested districts faced with burdensome regulations consider becoming districts of innovation (DOI). It’s important to note that despite the perceived benefits of becoming a DOI, most districts have used DOI to hire uncertified teachers and expand class sizes beyond the statutory maximum. These are cost-cutting measures that ultimately hurt students.

The commission working group on expenditures is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning. The next meeting of the full commission is July 10.

House committee looks at testing, special ed issues

The House Committee on Public Education met Thursday morning at the Texas Capitol to discuss interim charges related to testing and special education. The interim charges are assigned by Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) and are generally composed of a detailed list of topics for each standing committee to research and discuss before the next legislative session. The following charges were on Thursday’s agenda:

  • Examine research-based options for evaluating student achievement beyond standardized test scores, including adaptive and portfolio assessments. Examine the scope of the current Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)in grades with the state assessment, including the format, assessment calendar, and the limits of instructional days, if any. Determine if it is appropriate to limit TEKS to readiness standards that can be taught in less than the school year. Review current Student Success Initiative testing and make recommendations on its continuation or repeal. Review the ability of the state to waive standardized testing for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • Examine programs in public schools that have proven results meeting the needs of and improving student achievement for students with disabilities, with an emphasis on programs specializing in autism, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. Recommend ways to support and scale innovative programs for these students, including providing supplemental services, or incentivizing public-private partnerships or inter district and charter school collaborations. Monitor the implementation and funding for the pilot programs authorized in H.B. 21 (85R) and review the Texas Education Agency’s compliance with S.B. 160 (85R), which prohibits special education student caps.

After updating the committee on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) response to the Santa Fe school shooting and recent STAAR test glitches, Commissioner Mike Morath began his testimony by summarizing the overall design of the STAAR test and Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) upon which tests are based. Morath pointed to one idea, splitting the STAAR test into sections to allow more flexible scheduling, that he suggested may require legislative guidance before ordering further agency research.

House Public Education Committee meeting May 24, 2018.

Members of the committee raised questions about the writing test, in particular with regard to grading methods. Morath indicated that a writing program created as a result of legislation by state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) has yielded useful information, and noted that additional appropriation to continue the program would be a positive step.

Rep. VanDeaver asked Morath how much money could be saved by eliminating standardized tests that are required by the state, but not by federal law. House Bill (HB) 515 filed by VanDeaver during the 2017 legislative session would have eliminated tests not mandated under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and was estimated to result in a savings of $7 million. The bill was ultimately unsuccessful.

Other invited testimony included a panel of superintendents who testified to the overreliance on standardized tests for everything from student advancement to school accountability. Granger ISD Superintendent Randy Willis asked the committee to consider eliminating a single summative assessment at the end of the year in favor of multiple formative assessments and reducing the number of assessed standards. Doug Williams, Superintendent of Sunnyvale ISD, voiced support for dividing the STAAR into sections, ongoing diagnostic assessments, and making substantial changes to the writing portion of the exam. Part of the panel discussion touched on allowing teachers to directly grade writing exams, in other to provide better feedback and analysis.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified before the committee on the specificity of the TEKS, teaching versus testing, and corollary applications to the teacher pipeline. Other public testimony focused on portfolio assessments, such as rubrics developed by the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

After a brief break, the committee turned its focus to special education. TEA Deputy Commissioner Penny Schwinn walked members through the corrective action plan prepared by the agency to address the de facto cap on special education enrollment that resulted in a federal rebuke. Schwinn emphasized that current and future guidance indicates students with dyslexia should not be arbitrarily confined to Section 504 programs, but may qualify for special education services depending on the individual.

A number of advocacy organizations were invited to testify regarding the agency’s actions. Among the concerns raised by special education advocates was the timeline for implementation. Chris Masey with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities presented the dichotomy between progress at the policy level and frustration felt by parents looking for meaningful results. Masey also noted there hasn’t exactly been a surge in special education enrollment after the cap was lifted. Heather Sheffield with Decoding Dyslexia suggested policymakers explore a way to enforce the Dyslexia Handbook developed by TEA.

Additionally, advocates asked for per-pupil funding for dyslexia, as well as having adequate instructional time and funding for both training and staffing. One advocate testified that training alone for a special education teacher can top $5,000. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter thanked the committee for the work done last session to address the cap, as well as funding weights for special education. Exter drew the committee’s attention to districts’ ability to provide external services already. While therapeutic and educational services are both available, the primary focus of special education should be on educational services, and any therapeutic services covered by district or state funds should be in furtherance of the educational objectives.

Commissioner update on Santa Fe shooting, STAAR glitches

Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) opened Thursday’s interim meeting of the House Committee on Public Education by acknowledging the tragic school shooting in the town of Santa Fe, south of Houston. The chairman invited Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath to update the committee on the agency’s response to date.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addressing House Public Education Committee May 24, 2018.

Morath indicated that the agenda is providing attendance waivers and working to secure federal school violence funds for Santa Fe ISD. The commissioner is participating in a series of roundtable discussions on school shootings hosted this week by Gov. Greg Abbott, and testified that he is evaluating ideas raised in these discussions to determine which are actionable. While some ideas could be implemented by the agency, others would require legislative action.

“The challenges are legion,” said Morath, noting that Texas is home to some 8,600 school campuses.

Elaborating on the school violence funds available from the U.S. Department of Education through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) grants, Morath said Broward County Florida, the site of the Parkland school shooting, received roughly a million dollars. Any additional federal funding would likely require a congressional appropriation.

Asked by Chair Huberty to explain the delay in information reaching Santa Fe High School parents on the day of the shooting, Morath explained medical reporting on casualties and the process of investigating and securing the premises both took time. Morath pointed out the response included 12 law enforcement agencies, and suggested more interdisciplinary drills could be helpful.

Wrapping up the discussion, Huberty indicated that he has been involved in talks with other state leaders to develop a joint effort to address school shootings next session.

Huberty also asked the commissioner to update the committee on the most recent glitch during STAAR test administration. Morath said the latest involved 29,000 mostly special education students who were taking the test online. A subcontractor for ETS, the test administrator, was performing a “bug fix” that resulted in servers dramatically slowing down. The agency is issuing a letter to administrators regarding the problem and is waiving School Success Initiative (SSI) requirements for Fifth grade students affected by the glitch. These 29,000 students will be factored out of local and district accountability unless including them would raise campus and district scores.

Huberty point out this is the second year in the past three to see problems under the ETS contract. Morath testified the agency has levied a $100,000 fine against ETS and will rebid the contract beginning in June.

TEA announces “Grow Your Own” grant recipients for 2018-19

On Wednesday, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced the recipients of the  2018-19 “Grow Your Own” grant. A brainchild of the Texas Rural Schools Task Force that was commissioned in 2016 to address challenges faced by rural school districts, the Grow Your Own award is designed to help districts cultivate interest in the teaching profession.

According to information provided by recipients, this year’s awards will be used to help districts prepare for the 2020-21 school year by assisting educators currently pursuing their Masters in Education, allowing districts to expand their dual credit courses, and facilitating current paraprofessionals in pursing their teacher certification, adding 59 full-time teachers and 136 full time teachers to the workforce in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school-years respectively. The Grow Your Own grant funds will also be used to assist student teachers during their clinical teaching assignments and high schools to expand education training programs.

The 25 recipients of the 2018-19 award are as follows:

  • Amarillo ISD
  • Angleton ISD
  • Burkeville ISD
  • Chapel Hill ISD (Smith County)
  • Cumby ISD
  • Everman ISD
  • Fort Stockton ISD
  • Grand Prairie ISD
  • Lamar CISD
  • Lometa ISD
  • Midland ISD
  • Moody ISD
  • O’Donnell ISD
  • Pearsall ISD
  • Region 2 ESC
  • Region 5 ESC
  • Region 6 ESC
  • Snook ISD
  • Socorro ISD
  • Springtown ISD
  • Stafford ISD
  • Stephen F. Austin University
  • Texas Tech University
  • Texas Woman’s University
  • Timpson ISD

ATPE congratulates all the recipients of the Grow Your Own grants.