Texas’ decision to spend $33.3 million less on students with disabilities in 2012 will likely cost it millions in future federal funding after a Wednesday afternoon 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
According to the New Orleans-based court, the U.S. Department of Education was within its rights to try to withhold the same amount from Texas’ special education grants, since a 1997 federal statute prohibits states from reducing their funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. Texas had appealed the department’s decision, arguing that statute was vague and unenforceable.
A little more than a month after hearing both sides, and the day after a momentous midterm election, the three-judge panel effectively upheld the education department’s decision to financially penalize Texas in an opinion that called the state’s argument “unpersuasive.” The 13-page opinion questions Texas’ current system for funding special education, saying it could give the state reason to minimize the needs of kids with disabilities in order to save money.
The court also ruled that Texas must pay the federal government’s appeal costs. Texas has not publicly indicated whether it will try to appeal the ruling.
Since 1995, Texas has weighted funding for kids with disabilities, paying schools more to educate kids who have more severe disabilities or need more personalized attention in order to learn. It argued it spent $33.3 million less in 2012 because its special education programs successfully got students to “overcome their disabilities,” decreasing their need. School districts reported students in need of less expensive services that year and so the state allocated less money, lawyers argued.
The federal government’s argument is simple: States cannot decrease their funding from year to year, a provision that ensures they use the additional federal money to enhance services, instead of cutting their budgets.
Texas’ weighted funding system “poses the potential for future abuse” of that statute, the panel said in an opinion written by Judge Jerry Smith, who had expressed skepticism towards the state’s argument in October.
“Though Texas law requires the state to allocate funding based on the needs of disabled children, it is the state itself that assesses what those needs are,” Smith wrote. “Hence, the weighted-student model creates a perverse incentive for a state to escape its financial obligations merely by minimizing the special education needs of it students.”
At a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing last month, state education officials prepared lawmakers for a potential loss at the 5th Circuit, saying the penalty — which amounts to 3 percent of Texas’ annual federal special education grant — would have minimal impact on their special education programs.
Texas is separately working to overhaul its special education programs after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded earlier this year that the state had effectively denied services to thousands of students with disabilities who needed them. Officials estimate spending $3 billion more on kids with disabilities over the next three years, since more students are likely to be eligible for services.
In the weeks prior to the upcoming midterm elections, many people across the state have been bombarded with a slew of campaign ads featuring members of both parties vying for the votes of the general public. One such ad features Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick discussing a $10,000 raise that he alleges he championed for educators. But there’s a problem: no such thing ever happened. ATPE Past State President Carl Garner quashes that claim and explains why such rhetoric is offensive in this guest post.
Over the past two weeks of early voting we’ve been highlighting what’s at stake for educators in the 2018 midterm elections. This past week we’ve examined a myriad of issues like why it’s important to elect pro-public education candidates to the State Board of Education and why vouchers are a threat to public schools. Over the years, teachers have had to deal with a barrage of attacks: attempts to limit their ability to join professional associations, school funding cuts, and exorbitant increases in health care costs, to name a few. That has made an already demanding job that much more difficult. With Nov. 6 a few days away, it’s time for educators to asses the hand they’ve been dealt and whether the legislature is holding up its end of the bargain; then vote accordingly.
Governor Abbott showcased his plan to patch up the state’s school finance system to business leaders and educators earlier this week. Without having received the recommendations of the Commission on Public School Finance, which has not yet concluded its work (although it is expected to report its findings by the end of this year), Abbott has proposed a plan that would limit the amount of property tax revenue school districts can raise and would give school districts financial rewards for improving student performance. The proposal gave pause to Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. Bernal had this to say with regards to the proposal:
“It would be a shame if school finance was merely a Trojan horse for his property tax agenda,” he said. “What that means is that it’s not about the students at all.”
As an educator, I find Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bogus $10,000 raise claim offensive
By Carl Garner
There seems to be no end to what the lieutenant governor will say in his attempt to convince Texans that he is pro-public education.
Among the daily barrage of television ads to which Texans have been subjected recently, one lie stands out for its particular audacity.
In his most recent ad, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) doubles down on an already debunked claim that he proposed giving teachers a $10,000 raise during the last legislative session.
As an educator, I am startled by this claim for a number of reasons.
At no point during the regular session did Lt. Gov. Patrick show any concern for increasing educator pay. Only after the close of the regular session, when it became clear that his anti-education agenda might finally push educators into action at the polls, did Patrick entertain talk of a raise. The Senate briefly considered a far more modest $1,000 raise but refused to fund it – suggesting cash-strapped districts simply “find the money” to make it happen.
Had that proposal passed, many districts would have had to fire good educators to be able to fund the raises of their former colleagues. Once educators realized Lt. Gov. Patrick and his Senate weren’t serious about truly helping us, we walked away frustrated, if unsurprised.
As far as Lt. Gov. Patrick’s respect for teachers goes, it was nowhere more evident than in his push last session to effectively kick them out of the Capitol through legislation hindering their ability to voluntarily participate in professional associations that advocate for higher standards and more student resources.
Politicians lie. I get it.
But I confess this lie cuts me in a way that is deeply personal.
As an educator, I know what it’s like to spend $400 out of my own pocket every year on classroom supplies for my students. I know the suffocating feeling of watching my healthcare costs go up as my salary stays the same. I know what it’s like to work 12-hour days only to flip on the radio and hear people like Dan Patrick accuse us of failing our kids.
Under Lt. Gov. Patrick, the Texas Senate has steadily decreased the state’s share of public school funding to just 36 percent, forcing local school districts to make up the difference by hiking up local property taxes. Now we’re to believe this same lieutenant governor secretly proposed a $10,000 raise for 350,000 teachers – which would cost more than $4 billion a year – and somehow we missed it?
In fact, the lieutenant governor was so loath to invest another dime in public education last session that he killed a bill that would have contributed as much as 1.9 billion additional dollars to our state’s 5.4 million schoolchildren. Why? He wanted a taxpayer-funded voucher for his private school friends.
Who exactly is failing our kids, Mr. Patrick?
The $10,000 raise claim is so ludicrous that the non-biased fact-checkers at PolitiFact Texas found it false back in February, but Mr. Patrick keeps repeating it. In doing so, he cheapens the genuine personal struggles I and other educators face as a result of his politics.
Perhaps if he’d gone to school in Texas, he’d have been taught that it’s wrong to lie. Perhaps he’d help Texas teachers instead of attack us. Despite his attempts to rewrite history, educators know who Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is.
Perhaps that’s his problem.
Carl Garner, Jr., is ATPE’s Past State President. He is a teacher in Mesquite ISD.
The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?
Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.
TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.
Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?
“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”
He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.
“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.
On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.
Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.
Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.
But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?
“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”
Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.
Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”
But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.
Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.
But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.
“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”
Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.
In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.
Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.
On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”
“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.
“Public enemy number one for public education”
If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.
As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.
“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”
Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.
“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”
But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.
And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”
Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.
“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.
“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.
A “sleeping giant”?
There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”
Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.
Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.
Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.
A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.
Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.
“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”
Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.
There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.
“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”
The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.
At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.
“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.
While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.
“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Jean Gearhart gives a tearful statement with her husband Troy Gearhart to the panel about her special needs child. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education. Photo by Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune
Federal officials said Texas should be doing even more to improve special education — and they’re planning a visit early next year to check.
In a letter Friday, officials from the U.S. Department of Education dissected Texas’ proposed plan for overhauling special education for kids with disabilities — in many cases urging state officials to do even more than they had originally planned. Earlier this year, a thorough investigation found Texas had failed to provide students with disabilities with a proper education, violating federal special education law, and demanded it undertake a long list of corrective actions to shape up.
After finalizing a plan in April, the Texas Education Agency has to date dramatically changed the structure of its departments overseeing special education, hired about 40 people to staff them (including a new special education director), and posted a long list of grants totaling more than $20 million to help school districts overhaul their policies. It anticipates spending an additional $3 billion over the next few years as more students enroll in special education.
“TEA has already completed more than half of the required activities in that Corrective Action Response,” Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement Friday. “We continue to adhere to a commitment to transparency and engagement throughout the plan’s implementation.”
In Friday’s letter, federal officials okayed some parts of Texas’ improvement plan, which they noted outlines many “necessary steps” the state is taking to address their findings.
But they also said Texas should do more to make sure school districts understand how to comply with federal special education law. The investigation uncovered many educators who misunderstood what the law said about identifying students with disabilities and providing them with the right educational services.
The letter said TEA should take a “representative sample” of school districts and thoroughly review their policies and procedures for identifying students who may need special education. It also should specify how it will identify and hold accountable school districts that do not comply with federal law.
Parent advocates have argued school districts don’t make information available to them about how to make sure their children can access the appropriate special education services.
The Department of Education told the TEA to ensure state officials provide information to parents on their rights and responsibilities under federal special education law in their native languages, unless it’s “clearly not feasible to do so.” The TEA should also come up with a specific process for how it will make sure school districts communicate with families of students who may have been denied special education services in the past, “through means other than postings on websites.”
Federal officials plan to review the progress Texas has made and will work with the TEA to schedule an in-person monitoring visit in early 2019.
U.S. Department of Education response to Texas (358.4 KB) DOWNLOAD
A “Come and Take It” flag depicting an apple instead of the traditional cannon at the Save Our Schools rally at the Texas Capitol on March 12, 2011. Photo by Bob Daemmrich.
It’s time to start grading the papers of the people elected to run the state of Texas, to translate voters’ thoughts and feelings about the way things are going into the job reviews that will be delivered in this year’s general election.
It’s the seasonal cycle of this electoral democracy. We elect them. They do stuff. We decide whether to keep or replace them.
Elected officials adore this sort of judgement when it’s directed at others.
Later today, for instance, the state will issue its inaugural set of A-F grades for more than 1,000 public school districts. That has agitated a lot of Texas educators; when the grades are out, odds are good that it will agitate — in ways both negative and positive — parents, business people and taxpayers. If the politicos are lucky, it will divert angst over public education in Texas away from the folks who’ll be on the November ballot.
Accountability is an admirable thing in politics. It can show citizens where responsibility lies, the better to direct their blame and, more to the point, where to repair or replace policies that don’t work.
It can also diffuse responsibility. When today’s school grades come out, keep an eye on who’s taking the heat and who’s getting the credit. Ask yourself, as it unrolls, whether the right people are getting the right kind of attention.
This is supposed to be a way for the government ministers in Austin and the public across the state to see what results they’re getting for their money. It’s controversial, to say the least. Educators contend the grading system is both too general — not taking the complexity of any given school district into account — and too reliant on standardized tests and other inappropriate yardsticks that don’t give accurate readings of educational progress. Many are not crazy about grades of any kind, but they’re irked that these grades, in their view, will give voters and policymakers false readings about school districts’ performance.
But for a Legislature that can’t muster a consensus for what public schools should do and what they should cost, it’s a way to outsource the blame from the pink building to local “educrats.”
It’s a pre-election test of whether voters trust politicians more than teachers.
Education isn’t the only forum for this sort of deflection. The telling sign is when the people at the top try to separate themselves from the people who work for them, a strategy that allows them to make policy and take credit for passing laws while also blaming someone else when the execution of those instructions falls short.
Maybe the blame should crawl up the management ladder; they’d rather you didn’t make the connection.
Rats, mold and other filth in state buildings? The budgeteers at the Capitol have been skimping on building maintenance and upkeep for years. Multi-billion-dollar contracting troubles at the Health and Human Services Commission? That sort of thing happens if you put all those disparate agencies into one pot and then wander off, forgetting the second part of the business maxim: “Put all your eggs in one basket — and then watch that basket very carefully.”
A federal “zero tolerance” immigration policy that splits adults and children at the border and then cannot reconnect them — whether they’re staying here or being sent home? That is, in fact, a bureaucratic nightmare. But it’s a product of bad design, of putting a policy in place before figuring out how it’s going to work. The blame for that kind of empty-headed governance belongs at or near the top of the organization chart. Roughly 500 of those kids are still unattached to the adults with whom they entered the country. That terrible foul-up took place at the border, but the credit and blame really belong to the high officials who got things rolling.
This is going to be a hard day for some school superintendents and school boards and a great day for others. In both situations, some of them deserve it. Some of them don’t. Examine the results. Make your own judgements. And when you pass out cheers and jeers, think of the people who are responsible for education policy who aren’t on today’s report cards.
They’ll be on your election ballot a few weeks from now.
Republican Pete Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego are headed to a runoff in the special election to replace convicted former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.
With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Flores led Gallego by 5 percentage points, 34 percent to 29 percent, according to unofficial returns. At 24 percent, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio came in third in the eight-way race, and he conceded in a statement. The five other candidates were in single digits, including Uresti’s brother, outgoing state Rep. Tomas Uresti of San Antonio.
The first-place finish by Flores, who unsuccessfully challenged Carlos Uresti in 2016, is a boon to Republicans in the Democratic-leaning district. In the home stretch of the race, Flores benefited from a raft of endorsements from Texas’ top elected officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Their heft will continue to be tested in a district considered friendly to Democrats, if not solidly in their column. After taking congratulatory calls from Abbott and Patrick, Flores issued a statement insisting a second-round victory was within reach.
“I know we can win this runoff,” Flores said. “We will win this runoff. The real work begins tomorrow.”
Rallying supporters in San Antonio, Gallego promised his campaign would not get outworked in the yet-to-be-scheduled overtime round. “I know, in the final analysis, we win,” he said.
The special election was triggered in June, when Carlos Uresti resigned after being found guilty of 11 felonies, including securities fraud and money laundering, tied to his work with a now-defunct oilfield services company. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison days after he stepped down.
Flores, a former Texas game warden, was the best-known of three Republicans on the ballot Tuesday. He received 40 percent of the vote against Carlos Uresti two years ago in SD-19, which encompasses a 17-county area that starts on San Antonio’s East Side and sprawls hundreds of miles west.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick does not intend to debate his Democratic challenger, Mike Collier, before Election Day, according to Patrick’s campaign.
“It’s no secret Lt. Governor Patrick relishes debates, but since his opponent shows no sign of grasping even the most basic rudiments of state government, our campaign has no plans to debate him,” Patrick strategist Allen Blakemore said in a statement to the Tribune. “There isn’t anyone in the Lone Star State who isn’t absolutely clear about where Dan Patrick stands on the issues. He told us what he was going to do, then he did it. That’s why Dan Patrick has the overwhelming support of the conservative majority in Texas.”
Collier has not formally challenged Patrick to any debates but has needled him on Twitter over the topic, suggesting the incumbent will not spar with him because he does not want to discuss his record.
“The Lt. Governor is rejecting debates before invitations are even sent out by media,” Collier said in a statement. “As I assumed he would, he’s dodging and refusing to answer for his record.”
“If the Lt. Governor ‘relishes debates’ then I see no reason why we shouldn’t hold several all across the great state of Texas,” Collier added.
Patrick’s snub of Collier comes as debate drama heats up in two other statewide races. In recent weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, have both accepted debate invitations — though not to the same event. At the same time, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke have gone back and forth over when to start coordinating debates, with O’Rourke pushing for six meetings and Cruz expressing openness to debating but not committing to any specifics yet.
Patrick’s campaign was similarly dismissive about debating his primary challenger, Scott Milder, who the lieutenant governor easily defeated. After Milder issued a debate challenge to Patrick in January, Blakemore called it the “unmistakable gasps of an attention starved candidate” and similarly insisted Patrick’s issue positions are widely known. Milder is now backing Collier.
Disclosure: Allen Blakemore has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
By Josette Saxton, Director of Mental Health Policy, Texans Care for Children
Both before and after the horrific school shooting in Santa Fe, we’ve been glad to see state leaders and school district officials recognize that student mental health efforts must be included in their work on safe and supportive schools.
New CDC data on suicide attempts among Texas high school students underscore how urgent these efforts are, how widespread mental health challenges are in Texas schools, and that mental health strategies must reach all students on campus.
Nearly one of every eight Texas high school students attempted suicide last year.
Twelve percent of Texas high school students attempted suicide in 2017 according to disturbing new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 2017 Texas youth suicide rate was substantially higher than the national average of seven percent and higher than the previously reported Texas rate of 10 percent in 2013.
While kids from all backgrounds are at risk, the data show that certain youth have a particularly high risk. Among Texas high school students, 19 percent of black kids and a shocking 44 percent of gay or lesbian kids attempted suicide in 2017.
The report includes a number of other data points on teen health and behavior. It shows an increase in the already-high number of Texas high schoolers who reported feeling sad or hopeless: 34 percent in 2017 compared to 28 percent in 2013. It also shows that many Texas high school students — around 19 percent — reported that they were bullied on campus, similar to the number reported in 2013.
Schools are key to supporting kids’ mental health.
The pain and despair behind these numbers is heartbreaking, but it should also be a call to action. We all need to work harder to understand and address the causes of this crisis. We also need our policymakers to strength our children’s mental health policies, including policies to support students through our schools.
Schools play a critical role in addressing children’s mental health because they are so central to our kids’ lives. A growing number of Texas school districts have recognized the importance of addressing student mental health in order to prevent suicide, boost academic performance, improve behavior, and support children’s healthy development. State leaders also increasingly recognized the importance of addressing student mental health. Governor Abbott emphasized the importance of student mental health in the plan he recently released for safe and supportive schools, for example.
The new data is further evidence that significant mental health challenges are very common among Texas kids. Providing more students with access to mental health professionals is critical, but because these challenges are so common it is also important to go beyond only serving those students with the most visible and acute needs.
Schools – with state support – should offer mental health professionals and implement campus-wide strategies for all students.
We encourage more Texas school districts to implement school-wide practices that support all students’ mental well-being and help them develop skills for managing feelings of sadness, stress, anger, and conflict. If students are struggling with depression or anxiety, schools can provide or help connect students and their families to mental health services they need to be safe, healthy, and engaged in school. We are pleased to see that a number of school districts are already implementing these strategies.
The Legislature should help more school districts take action. Just as the Legislature established a Texas School Safety Center to help districts handle security issues, it should establish a center that focuses on positive school climates and school-based prevention and intervention strategies to reduce the likelihood that students will face barriers to their learning and health, like mental health concerns, substance use, challenging behavior, and violence. The Center would give districts and the state a trusted place to turn for training and technical assistance on practices shown to create safe and supportive school climates. The Legislature should also provide funding for mental health professionals, such as counselors and social workers, as Governor Abbott suggested.
We look forward to working with educators, district officials, legislators, parents, and other Texans on this critical issue.
Texans Care for Children is a statewide, non-profit, non-partisan, multi-issue children’s policy organization that seeks to drive policy change to improve the lives of Texas children today for a stronger Texas tomorrow.
In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.
Their claims did not make it very far.
The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.
Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.
That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”
Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.
But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.
The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.
“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”
“When do the rules apply to you?”
There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”
“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”
In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.
Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.
In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.
“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”
But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.
“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”
The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.
Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.
But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.
Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.
The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.
“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”
The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.
The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.
“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”
But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.
And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.
“Not a good place to be an employee”
The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.
Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.
And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.
That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.
Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.
But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.
But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.
“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.