Category Archives: Congress

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 8, 2017

It’s a snowy edition of today’s education news wrap-up from ATPE Governmental Relations:


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) is meeting today in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann is attending and testifying at today’s meeting, which had a delayed start on account of the overnight snowfall and concerns about road conditions in central Texas. The board today gave final approval of educator disciplinary rule changes implementing Senate Bill 7 as passed by the Texas Legislature earlier this year to address teacher misconduct. Also approved were standards tied to a new early childhood teaching certificate and a preliminary rule revision to clarify the continuing professional education requirements for teachers renewing their certificates. SBEC declined to act today on one board member’s request to consider loosening requirements for individuals to become certified as superintendents. ATPE and other educator groups testified in opposition to diluting the superintendent certification standards. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote on Monday for a more detailed summary of today’s SBEC meeting from Kuhlmann.


Voters participating in the Texas Republican Party primary in March 2018 will be asked to share their views about private school vouchers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has a look at 11 non-binding propositions approved by state GOP party leaders for placement on the March ballot. They include questions about property taxes and revenue caps, along with a proposed statement of support for funding vouchers for private or home schooling “without government constraints or intrusion.” Read more in the blog post here.


In case you missed it, ATPE has provided input to Texas’s congressional delegation on tax reform proposals still pending in Washington, DC this week. Read more about the proposals put forth by the U.S. House and Senate respectively and how they could impact educators in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Monday, Dec. 11, is the deadline for candidates to file for inclusion on the ballot in one of the state’s primary elections on March 6. ATPE will be updating our TeachtheVote.org website to include any newly filed candidates once the filing period closes. All candidates running for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State House, State Senate, or State Board of Education (SBOE) are invited to participate in ATPE’s candidate survey and have their responses and additional information featured in individual candidate profiles on the website. Candidates must provide ATPE with a campaign email address in order to participate in the survey. Several candidates have already taken our survey and shared their views on public education issues with voters. We look forward to receiving additional responses as the election nears and hope you’ll check out and share our election resources on TeachtheVote.org.

 


 

ATPE weighs in as Congress hashes out differences on tax bill

Over the weekend, the U.S. Senate passed a $1.5 trillion tax bill designed by the upper chamber’s Republican leaders. The measure passed largely on a party line vote, with just one Republican joining Democrats in opposition, and it comes after the U.S. House passed its own version of a bill to reform the tax code last month. Now, the Senate and House must reconcile their respective differences and develop a bill that can pass both chambers before it heads to President Trump for his signature.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday wrote members of the Texas Congressional delegation to weigh in on two provisions in the House and Senate bills that affect educators and their classrooms. The first pertains to the educator expense deduction, which currently allows educators to deduct up to $250 dollars from their tax bills when personal money is spent on classroom supplies and materials. The bill passed by the House eliminates the deduction altogether, while the Senate’s bill increases the deduction to up to $500.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday

“While not the ideal approach to filling budget shortfalls or equalizing access to supplies and materials among students,” Canaday writes, “the deduction offers some form of reimbursement to educators who dip into their own pockets to purchase materials for students, classrooms, and schools that might otherwise go without.”

The second issue ATPE highlighted in its letter to Texas members of Congress involves the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). The House tax bill would apply a new tax, the Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund.

“Weakening the financial soundness of the TRS trust fund by subjecting it to new additional tax liability on the front end, in addition to the taxes already paid by individual retirees, is a cost that neither the State of Texas nor the teachers who spent their working years serving our state can afford,” wrote Canaday.

In both instances, ATPE asks members of the Texas delegation to encourage House and Senate leaders and other members of Congress currently negotiating a final bill to retain the Senate approach: doubling the Educator Expense Deduction (or, at a minimum, maintaining the current $250 deduction) and forgoing the inclusion of language applying the UBIT to public pension investments.

Read the full letter here, and check back for more as the U.S. Congress continues its work to reform elements of current U.S. tax law.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 1, 2017

The weekend is here, and it’s time for your wrap-up of education news from ATPE:


The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) provided a guest post this week on the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). He calls the WEP “unfair to public servants in Texas and across the nation” and says it is time for a fix.

ATPE has worked for decades to repeal the WEP, an arbitrary formula that affects the retirement earnings of some public employees who are eligible for both Social Security and government pensions (such as TRS). More information from ATPE on the WEP as it currently exists can be found here. In recent years, ATPE has joined with a coalition of active and retired public employee groups from Texas and across the country to bolster our work specific to this issue, working closely with Chairman Brady and his staff in order to repeal the WEP and replace it with a fairer formula for affected active and retired public employees.

Chairman Brady’s guest post addresses his thoughts on the current WEP and his vision for a new approach.

 


The Permanent School Fund (PSF), an endowment used to help fund public education in Texas in a variety of ways, has hit a record value: $41.44 billion as of August 31. The Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education (SBOE), which manages the majority of the fund, announced the milestone this week, adding that a projected $2.5 billion from the PSF is expected to be distributed to Texas schools during the 2018-2019 biennium. For more on the announcement, the fund’s purpose, and the a brief history of the fund, check out this post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


Guest Post: It’s Time to Fix the WEP

U.S. Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas)

By Kevin Brady, Chairman
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee

The Windfall Elimination Provision or “WEP” is unfair. It’s unfair to public servants in Texas and across the nation, including places like California, Massachusetts and Ohio.  I’ve been working to repeal and replace the WEP for a decade. This is something we must do for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

You probably know the history: When Social Security was created in 1935, state and local governments were excluded from participating due to Constitutional concerns.  Later, the law changed to allow state and local governments to offer Social Security to their employees.

As a result, many teachers, police, and firefighters still contribute to these longstanding retirement plans instead of Social Security since these substitute plans are often tailored to their chosen careers.  But many of these public servants also hold second (or third) jobs or have a second career where they’ve paid Social Security taxes. These folks rightfully expect to receive their earned Social Security benefits when they retire.  However, due to the WEP, their Social Security benefits end up being much lower than they were expecting.

Although the WEP may have been well intentioned in the start, today it’s simply unfair. Those affected by the WEP are subject to a different benefit formula than all other workers.  This arbitrary formula is based on a 1980’s one-size-fits-all Washington compromise and ignores a person’s actual work history.  The WEP also makes it harder to plan for retirement since the reduction doesn’t show up on a worker’s Social Security statement. When you are nearing retirement, surprises are never a good thing.

I think we can all agree that our teachers, police, and firefighters deserve better.

Working with my Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Representative Richard Neal, and teacher, police, firefighter, and retiree groups, we’ve come together on a solution for addressing the WEP based on fairness, equal treatment and personal work histories.

Here’s how it would work.  The new proposal repeals the WEP as it exists today. Instead of only counting Social Security earnings as the current WEP does, we count all earnings of workers. This helps tailor benefits to your real-life work history.  This “proportional approach” calculates Social Security benefits using all earnings and then adjusts this amount based on the percentage of earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes.  This way, two workers with the same average earnings receive a Social Security benefit equal to the same percentage of their Social Security earnings.

Let’s look at an example for two teachers – one from Virginia who paid Social Security taxes on all of her earnings and another from Texas, who paid into a substitute retirement system like TRS but also tutored and paid Social Security taxes on these earnings.  Both teachers had average monthly earnings of $4,000.  The Virginia teacher had all of these earnings counted for Social Security purposes, while the Texas teacher only had $2,285 credited toward her Social Security benefits.

Under today’s law, the Virginia teacher would receive an initial monthly benefit of $1,776 if she claims at her full retirement age. That represents about 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings.  On the other hand, because of the WEP the Texas teacher under today’s laws would only receive a monthly benefit of $800, which represents about 35 percent of pre-retirement Social Security earnings.

Under the new proposed “proportional approach”, the Virginia teacher would still receive a monthly benefit of $1,776.  But the Texas teacher would receive a monthly benefit of $1,015, which represents 44 percent of her pre-retirement Social Security earnings – or the same percentage as the Virginia teacher.

While the new proportional formula addresses the WEP for future retirees, we cannot leave current retirees behind. Our plan provides Social Security relief to current retirees affected by the WEP by providing special payments to these retirees. That’s only fair.

ATPE’s Monty Exter, Carl Garner, and Gary Godsey met with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady in June 2017 to discuss fixing the WEP.

Over the years – with the help of groups like the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Texas Retired Teachers Association and Mass Retirees – we have taken important steps toward finally fixing the WEP.  With your help, we will finally ensure equal treatment for our teachers, firefighters, police, and other public servants.

This is a top priority for me, and we will not rest until we have a solution in law.

 

Federal Update: Trump budget proposal, new ESSA guidelines for state plans

President Donald Trump released his 2018 federal budget proposal today, which would cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) by $9 billion and invest significant dollars into vouchers, charter school expansion, and portability funding. The budget proposal comes a week after Congress voted to scrap Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability rules and days after ED released its new guidance for states to use while designing their ESSA plans.

President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal

The President’s budget blueprint proposes to cut funding for ED by 13%, reducing its budget from the current level of $68 billion to $59 billion. Cuts to those programs come in various areas affecting both K-12 and higher education funding. Congress will consider the proposal as they negotiate the budget they are tasked with writing.

Dollar banknotes heapThe budget proposal entirely cuts a program aimed at recruiting, supporting, and training educators. That program, which primarily focuses on educators in high-needs schools, totals $2.4 billion. The 1st Century Community Learning Centers program that totals $1.2 billion and provides funding for before-school, after-school, and summer enrichment programs would also be gutted. Other programs seeing significant cuts would include Federal Work-Study, TRIO, and GEAR UP (the latter two both support disadvantaged students in becoming college ready).

“The 2018 Budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs,” opening lines of the ED section of the blueprint read.

In the case of President Trump’s budget, school choice means charter school expansion, portability funding, and vouchers, and, although no specifics are offered, the $1.4 billion dedicated in 2018 would ramp up to an annual total of $20 billion (a number then candidate Trump touted on the campaign trail) over the course of an unspecified time. The budget also estimates that funding for these projects will hit $100 billion when state and local matching funds are included. Trump campaigned on a plan that would “favor” states with private school choice and charter laws.

Specifically, President Trump’s proposal provides a $168 million increase in funding for charter schools, $250 million that would go toward a new (but undefined) private school choice program, and a $1 billion increase to Title I funding that would all be dedicated to portability within public schools, a term commonly used to refer to the idea of Title I money following the child to the school of their choice (rather than focusing the money on schools with the most need). ATPE wrote a letter to members of Congress in 2015 that touched on portability funding. Title I portability was being considered at the time but didn’t pass.

One thing the budget outlined by the White House doesn’t touch is funding for educating students with disabilities. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) remains vastly underfunded, President Trump’s budget maintains its funding level at around $13 billion. IDEA was passed by Congress with the promise to give states 40 percent of the cost required to educate children with disabilities. However, the federal share has fallen significantly short for decades; it now sits around 16 percent.

(I have a little more here on the federal budget process as a whole. The post is from 2015 and also offers a look back at how a budget proposal under President Obama and the Congressional budgeting process compared.)

New ESSA guidance on state plans

A few days before President Trump released his budget proposal, ED released a new guideline document for states to use as they develop their state plans required under ESSA. The guidelines replace a similar document issued by the Obama administration late last year, which was aligned to the accountability rule Congress scrapped last week. The new guidelines align only with what is written in ESSA, since the now obsolete rule has no teeth and ED cannot replace it unless Congress writes a new law that gives the department the new authority.

ThinkstockPhotos-478554066_F gradeUltimately, states have more flexibility with regard to designing their plans. That includes offering summative accountability scores for districts, which ATPE argued against in comments to the Obama administration. Texas enacted an “A through F” grading system for schools last legislative session and there are bills in the current legislature that aim to tweak the system prior to its going into effect next school year. Despite the lack of requirement from the federal government and the fact that several states have abandoned their own versions of the letter grading system, Texas does not seem poised to scrap the “A through F” grading aspect of the law.

States must still submit their ESSA state plans by April 3 for review and by September 18 for approval. The Texas Education Agency has yet to share its ESSA plan.

 

Texans in Congress support federal voucher bills as Trump continues privatization push

United States Capitol BuildingIt probably comes as no surprise to Texans that federal voucher bills are being filed in the U.S. Congress after President Donald Trump campaigned on a $20 billion voucher plan promise. He continued to promote such a plan last night during his first speech to Congress. However, Texans might be surprised to learn that some of their elected representatives are jumping on board as supporters of these pieces of legislation.

Texan serves as original co-sponsor on House voucher bill

A bill termed the “Choices in Education Act of 2017” was filed in the U.S. House recently with Texas Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) as an original co-sponsor of the legislation. H.R. 610 would create a federal voucher program and repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was most recently amended by and is commonly referred to as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Instead, the Department of Education’s (ED) authority would be limited to awarding block grants to states that legalize vouchers and follow the federal voucher program requirements.

The “Choices in Education Act” voucher would work like this:

  • ED would distribute block grants to qualified states.
  • States would distribute that money to districts based on the number of eligible school children within each district.
  • Districts would be responsible for distributing a portion of their funds to parents who choose to enroll their child in a private school or home-school their child. The amount distributed would be equal to the per-student federal funding in each state. Districts would be responsible for distributing funding in a way that ensures money is spent on “appropriate educational expenses.”

Both Texas senators co-sponsor Senate voucher bill

In the U.S. Senate, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has a voucher bill (S. 235) called the “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act” or the CHOICE Act. Both Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have signed on as cosponsors.

The “Choice Act” has three parts:

  1. The bill would expand eligibility for the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” the federally funded voucher program that distributes funding to students in the District of Columbia only.
  2. The bill would make funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) portable, meaning qualified students could take their portion to the private or public school of their choice. It would also provide states seed money for establishing a special education voucher program.
  3. The bill would create the Military Scholarship Program, allowing students living on military bases to use a voucher at the private or public school of their choice. Students would be eligible for the combined cost of tuition, fees, and transportation, with an $8,000 cap for elementary students and $12,000 for secondary students.

White House continues push but offers no details

The White HouseLast night during his prime time speech to a joint session of Congress, his first time to address the body, President Donald Trump reiterated his support for vouchers and called on Congress to pass a bill that funds “school choice for disadvantaged youth.” He didn’t offer additional details on such a plan, adding that “families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

It has been reported that the White House is considering a tax credit scholarship approach, something neither of the above bills would offer. Again, details on the type of federal tax credit scholarship President Trump might be considering have not been released. (Check out an example of a tax credit scholarship in our post on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s voucher bill being considered here in Texas.) In short, tax credit scholarships give taxpaying entities or individuals a break on their taxes in exchange for donations to a voucher fund. The fund is then used to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools or to fund a home-school education. During his campaign, President Trump campaigned on a promise to redirect $20 billion dollars in federal spending to a voucher program.

 

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1ATPE members can alert their federal representatives of their opinions on these and other federal voucher bills by logging on to Advocacy Central.

Senate confirms Betsy DeVos with help from Vice President

The U.S. Senate voted today to confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. Senators were literally split on her nomination, a 50-50 tie. The anticipated scenario meant Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to break the tie, and his favorable vote sealed her confirmation.

Two Republican senators announced last week that they would vote against DeVos, which meant just one more Republican senator needed to join Democrats in opposing her nomination in order to block her confirmation. Despite reports that Senate offices were flooded with messages from constituents and despite targeted communication efforts aimed at a few seemingly sympathetic Senate Republicans, no additional “no” vote was identified. Interestingly, today was the first time the Vice President has broken a tie vote for a cabinet nominee.

ATPE weighed in on DeVos’s confirmation once it was final. In a statement to the press, I shared our intent to work collaboratively with DeVos and our hope that she “will focus her energy on supporting the only school system that supports all children — the public school system.” We will continue to work in conjunction with our federal relations team to ensure the voice of Texas educators and ATPE members is heard in Washington.

Final DeVos confirmation vote anticipated Monday

The nomination of Betsy DeVos to become the U.S. Secretary of Education advanced to the Senate floor this week. The full Senate is expected to take a final vote on her nomination Monday.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced her nomination out of committee Tuesday on a party line vote, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposing the advancement of her nomination out of committee. Two Republicans expressed uncertainty during the committee but ultimately voted in favor at that time; they later said they will oppose her nomination on the Senate floor. Without an additional identified “no’ vote, this creates a tie vote, with 50 senators expected to vote for her nomination and 50 expected to vote against. Under that scenario, the Vice President breaks the tie, meaning DeVos would seek confirmation through the help of Vice President Mike Pence.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1All reports still suggest that Texas’s two senators are poised to vote in favor of her nomination. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) told CNN this morning that concerns over DeVos were not fair, adding, “If people think our public education system is perfect, then I guess they don’t think we need to have any changes or any choices for students and their families,” he said. “I certainly think we do.” ATPE members can still log on to Advocacy Central to express their position on the nomination of Betsy DeVos by writing, calling, or contacting their Texas senators via social media.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee is quickly pressing forward on something seen as a huge opportunity under the Trump Administration: vouchers. The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing this week entitled, “Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice.” Among the invited testifiers was Former Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. He advocated for “private school choice” and encouraged the federal government to leave accountability up to states. The full hearing can be viewed here.

DeVos nomination heads to Senate floor while opposition votes grow

 

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee advanced the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the Senate floor on Tuesday. The 12-11 vote broke down on party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed to the vote. However, two Republicans expressed some indecision during the hearing and later confirmed they’ll vote against her nomination on the Senate floor.

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The partisan breakdown over the nomination of Betsy DeVos has been on display since her confirmation hearing. The vote this week was no exception. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continued to express his support for the nominee and denied a request from Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) to delay the vote. Alexander called DeVos the “most questioned” education secretary in Senate history, which again had Murray pointing to the fact that this nominee is different from previous education secretaries and more time is needed in order to adequately vet the nominee.

This time, however, Alexander didn’t seem to have the full backing of all of his Republican colleagues on the committee. Two Republican Senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-WA) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), expressed uncertainty with regard to their position on DeVos’s nomination. Both ultimately advanced the nomination to the Senate floor, but acknowledged the nominee had not yet earned their full support.

Today, both Republican senators announced that they have decided to oppose DeVos’s nomination when a vote is taken on the Senate floor. This is a big development as now only one additional Republican would need to join Democrats in opposing DeVos in order to block her confirmation. A simple majority on the Senate floor is all that is needed to confirm DeVos.

Opposition has grown since DeVos fumbled her confirmation hearing and calls to Senate offices have increased. The opposition has expressed serious concerns over DeVos’s credentials, lack of commitment to public education, understanding of federal law, and financial connections and contributions, among others. Murray asked for Tuesday’s committee vote on the nominee to be delayed in order to have more time to review DeVos’s responses to questions senators were not given time to ask during her confirmation hearing. Answers to most of the follow-up questions asked of DeVos can be found here.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will now have a chance to vote on Betsy DeVos when her confirmation vote hits the Senate floor. ATPE members can access Advocacy Central to write, call, or contact their senators via social media and express their position on the nomination of Betsy DeVos. A date for the final vote has not been set.

Related Content: The U.S. House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education will meet tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017) for a hearing entitled, “Helping Students Succeed Through the Power of School Choice.” Among the invited testifiers is Former Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. Read more about the hearing and access to information to view the hearing live here.

Outcry against DeVos continues amid majority support from U.S. Senate

Educators, parents and other stakeholders continue to express concern over Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos and her qualifications to the lead the U.S. Department of Education. Especially since her nomination hearing held last week, concerns are growing regarding DeVos’s lack of commitment to public education, meaningful experience in public schools, and credentials to become the next Education Secretary. U.S. Senate Democrats aren’t letting up, but the latest reports continue to indicate she has wide support among Republicans, meaning her confirmation is in sight.

After pressing hard for a delay of the vote to advance DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate (the final step in the process to confirmation), Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee got a small win over the weekend. They had requested the delay in order to have more time to review the Office of Government Ethics report that found 102 potential conflicts of interest DeVos would have on the job (she’s agreed to divest from the companies and investments of concern) and to give her more time to answer additional questions they were unable to ask during her confirmation hearing. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) ultimately granted the delay, pushing it to Jan. 31, but he and many of his Republican colleagues remain vocal in support of the nominee.

That does not seem to be the case when considering the outcry from educators, parents, and the public, which has exploded since the hearing. As we reported last week, DeVos showed a lack of understanding for some federal education laws, namely the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She also failed to commit to protecting funding for public schools, wouldn’t agree that equal and rigorous accountability should follow tax dollars, and didn’t indicate a belief that federal laws protecting and supporting students should extend to any school where public money was transferred.

Despite all of that, in a publication this week, Chairman Alexander again called DeVos’s positions “well within the mainstream” of the public’s views on education. He compared the 837 follow-up questions for DeVos to the roughly 50 submitted by Republicans for each of the two previous secretaries nominated by President Obama. And in an exchange on the Senate floor with HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman Alexander said Democrats and DeVos’s opponents are “grasping for straws.” Ranking Member Murray countered: “it’s our job to ask [cabinet nominees] tough questions.”

Democrats have also maintained that the two previous Secretaries of Education, Arne Duncan and John B. King, had established records in education. DeVos, on the other hand, has no professional experience in public schools, has never attended public schools, and has never enrolled her children in public schools.

The reality of DeVos’s nomination is that she seems to have a clear path to confirmation. Republicans support her nomination and make up a majority on both the HELP Committee and in the full Senate. Still, as the opposition to her nomination grows, advocates for public education have seen some small wins so far.

17_web_Spotlight_AdvocacyCentral_1Texas’s two Senators do not sit on the HELP committee, but they will vote on confirmation when it hits the Senate floor. ATPE members can access Advocacy Central to write Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz regarding their position on DeVos’s confirmation.