The Texas Tribune held its annual TribFest event in Austin this past Friday and Saturday, Sept. 27-28, 2019. The festival brought together state and national candidates, officeholders, policymakers, and thought leaders to discuss a range of topics, including public education, in a series of panels and one-on-one interviews over the course of the event. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier and Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter were on hand to engage with policy makers and other key advocates while taking in the panel discussions regarding Texas public education
At the Texas Tribune Festival, Evan Smith discussed “The Future of Education” with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Texas 2036 co-founder Margaret Spellings, 2018 Texas Superintendent of the Year Dr. LaTonya Goffney, and former President of UT Brownsville Juliet Garcia.
This year’s education line-up for the festival included panels discussing how states can more effectively work with the U.S. Department of Education, reforms coming out of Dallas ISD, challenges for rural schools and the importance of solving them, school finance considerations following the passage of House Bill 3, the “Future of Education,” and four Texas teachers giving their take on Texas public education, school choice partnerships, and standardized testing.
Texas Tribune education reporter Aliyya Swaby moderated a panel made up of four Texas teachers.
Click here to access archived live-streams of the festival’s keynote addresses and many of the one-on-one interviews, including those with Texas Congressman Will Hurd, Senator Ted Cruz, and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
San Antonio ISD’s Ogden Academy failed to meet academic standards but has a temporary reprieve from state penalties. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune
Three Texas school districts — including the state’s largest — will likely be forced to shut down their chronically underperforming schools or submit to state takeover, based on annual state ratings released Thursday morning.
Houston ISD, Shepherd ISD and Snyder ISD all have at least one school that failed state ratings for five or more years in a row, subjecting them to bruising state penalties created in 2015. School superintendents will be allowed to appeal their ratings by mid-September, and final decisions will be out by the end of the year.
While Houston ISD’s Kashmere High School, the state’s longest-underperforming school, soared from an F to a C this year, Wheatley High School failed to meet state academic standards for the seventh year in a row.
This is the second year that Texas has awarded letter grades to school districts and the first year for schools, replacing a previous pass/fail system. (Schools last year received numeric scores that could easily be translated into grades.) The grades are intended to represent students’ academic performance, based on standardized test scores and other factors such as graduation rates.
For superintendents and principals, the pressure to get a good report card is high: Texas has increased the stakes of the accountability system in recent years, promising harsh penalties for schools and districts that repeatedly underperform.
Schools that fail to meet state academic standards for more than four years in a row will be forcibly shuttered, or the state will take over their school districts.
This year, further raising those stakes, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath instituted a policy change to count a D grade as “unacceptable” performance, which critics argue will only increase the number of schools facing state penalties.
Last year, Houston ISD was one of 92 school districts that received a waiver from state ratings, because of the damaging effects of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey on students’ academic performance. That waiver saved it last year. No similar waivers were offered this year.
Snyder ISD, in West Texas, and Shepherd ISD, north of Houston, were also at risk of state takeover, each with at least one school that had been failing for four years. Snyder’s junior high school and Shepherd’s elementary and intermediate schools received their fifth consecutive failing ratings this year.
The state offered school districts a life raft: Those that handed the management of their underperforming schools to a nonprofit, university or charter group could get a two-year pause from sanctions.
Without that life raft, at least six districts — Ector County ISD, Lubbock ISD, Hearne ISD, Austin ISD, Beaumont ISD and San Antonio ISD — would have been in trouble. Ogden Academy, one of San Antonio ISD’s elementary schools, received its sixth F in a row this year. But the district’s leaders handed over control of curriculum, hiring and other duties to the Relay Graduate School of Education, giving Ogden more time to improve.
Midland ISD’s Travis Elementary School, in West Texas, also received a fifth consecutive low rating, but it received an exception from the state because it will partner with IDEA, a charter district, in 2020.
But Houston, Snyder and Shepherd ISDs did not enter into partnerships and subsequently failed to improve the performance of their schools. In Houston, community members effectively blocked the school board from using the law, arguing that giving nonprofits or charters control of their low-performing schools would privatize public education.
Even if all of Houston ISD’s schools had improved, the district was looking at likely state takeover due to its dysfunctional school board. A recent preliminary state investigation recommended state education officials take over Houston ISD’s elected school board, plagued by infighting and scandals for years, and replace it with an appointed board of managers.
The move to letter grade ratings, with the higher stakes attached to them, is extremely controversial, especially among many educators.
They argue that letter grades are overly simplistic measures of a long list of complex metrics and mislead parents about the quality of a school or district. They also dislike how much the system is based on students’ standardized test scores, the only consistent statewide evaluation but one widely mistrusted to accurately depict whether students are learning.
Despite the criticism, lawmakers did little to adjust how the state assesses school districts in the legislative session that wrapped up in May.
State officials have argued that the letter grades are more accessible for parents who want to know how well their children’s schools are doing and that they allow the state to better keep tabs on underperforming schools. The state also has updated a public website intended to present the ratings in a more easily digestible way, including new tools that allow for comparisons among schools and districts.
“All of these tools are designed to provide as much transparency to administrators and school leaders, as well as to parents and members of the public,” Morath said at a recent media roundtable.
A higher percentage of school districts that received letter grades were awarded A’s and B’s this year, compared with last year. A smaller percentage of districts received C’s, D’s and F’s.
The grades for schools and districts are determined by ratings in three categories: student achievement, school progress and closing the gaps. Those categories measure how students perform on state tests, how much those scores have improved and how well schools are educating their most disadvantaged students.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has tried to kill several bills this session. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune
A major mental health bill prioritized by the state’s top leaders as a way to help prevent school shootings was partially revived late Tuesday night hours after it appeared to have been abruptly killed on a technicality during a dramatic night in the Texas House.
State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a “point of order” on Senate Bill 10, which created a Texas Mental Health Consortium aimed at bringing together psychiatric professionals from Texas medical schools and other health care providers to connect children to mental health services. Stickland’s point of order contended that an analysis of the bill provided to lawmakers was inaccurate. After the House recessed for nearly an hour and a half so parliamentarians could analyze the technicality, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, somberly announced a ruling in Stickland’s favor.
But hours later, provisions from SB 10 were added to Senate Bill 11, a school safety bill that the lower chamber passed earlier in the evening. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, sponsored SB 10 in the House and successfully amended it to SB 11 over Stickland’s objections shortly before a midnight House deadline to advance bills from the upper chamber.
SB 10 is one of several proposals that the state’s GOP leaders championed in the wake of the deadly shooting last year at Santa Fe High School. Gov. Greg Abbott named it an emergency item in his State of the State address earlier this year, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated it one of his 30 legislative priorities.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the bill’s author, told senators earlier this year that it was her “best shot” at helping students in the aftermath of school shootings. It had bipartisan backing and cleared the upper chamber unanimously more than two months ago.
“I think it was a well-intentioned bill that had some very bad unintended consequences,” Stickland told the Tribune by phone Tuesday night, an hour after his point of order initially knocked the bill out of contention. “I think it could have been stronger on parental rights to make sure our constitutional rights are protected in the bill.”
Asked if he was bracing for backlash from leadership over killing such a high-profile bill, Stickland said, “I expect it.”
Within a couple of hours, Stickland got it.
As it became clear Tuesday that Stickland’s point of order would torpedo the legislation, key players who worked on SB 10 moved quickly to figure out next steps. Zerwas, a Richmond Republican, walked across the Capitol rotunda into the Senate, where he spoke with Nelson, presumably about news of the bill’s fate.
“It’s unfortunate that there were some people who were getting some negative comments from their constituencies that felt the need to vote against this bill or somehow kill this bill,” Zerwas told the Tribune. “And one of those happened to be Jonathan Stickland, who’s pretty adept in finding points of order and calling them, and he wins some, he loses some, and unfortunately, he happened to win one with Sen. Nelson’s bill.”
Just before 11 p.m., state Rep. Greg Bonnen, a Friendswood Republican and brother of the House speaker, made a motion to revive the mental health bill by amending a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier Tuesday. He offered a cryptic message that there was “an opportunity to do some additional work” in order to “further make safe our schools in the state of Texas.”
Stickland approached the chamber’s back microphone with questions.
“Is this something we’ve seen before?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Greg Bonnen said.
Stickland attempted to delay the motion, asking procedural questions about how the chamber was going to reconsider a portion of a bill that had already passed. He then gave a speech imploring colleagues not to reconsider SB 11, the school safety bill.
“Maybe you plan on voting for it, and that’s fine,” Stickland said. “But here’s what I can promise you: One day, there’s gonna be something that you care about where you might be in the minority. … You’re going to hope that these rules and our traditions and the way that this House operates protects you and your ability to stand up for your constituents.”
At one point, Stickland and a group of lawmakers huddled at the front dais to discuss his attempts to prevent adding the mental health provisions to the school safety bill.
“I’m sick of this shit,” Stickland could be heard telling Dennis Bonnen.
Zerwas eventually succeeded in reviving major elements of the mental health bill, despite two further attempts from Stickland to prohibit the amendment on technicalities.
Stickland has built a reputation for being a thorn in the side of House leadership, under both Bonnen and former House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. A former member of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which he resigned from earlier this session, Stickland cast the lone “no” votes on several high-priority bills this year, including the House’s school finance reform proposal.
On a number of occasions this session, Stickland has tried to kill legislation ranging from the controversial to the uncontested. In April, for example, he successfully knocked several measures off of that day’s local and consent calendar, which is typically reserved for uncontroversial legislation. Stickland’s reasoning? Liberties were under attack.
On Monday, he used a point of order to successfully halt a bill that would have made it illegal to leave an unattended dog tied up in an inhumane manner. And earlier Tuesday, Stickland unsuccessfully called a point of order on SB 11, the school safety bill that would later be used as the vehicle to revive SB 10.
It was one of two school safety bills that advanced in the Legislature within hours of each other. The Senate also approved a House bill that would abolish the cap on how many trained school teachers and support staff — known as school marshals — can carry guns on public school campuses.
The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for youth access to mental health care. According to its 2019 report, The State of Mental Health in America, 71.3% of youth in Texas with major depression go untreated, compared with the national average of 61.5%.
Acacia Coronado, Emily Goldstein, Alex Samuels, Patrick Svitek, Aliyya Swaby and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.
The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.
After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.
The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.
“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.
Since school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any tax relief effort would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools, if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.
Taylor had originally included several provisions that would provide ongoing tax relief, paid for by an increase in the sales tax by one percentage point.
Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had thrown their support behind that sales tax swap, arguing it would help Texans who are currently being taxed out of their homes. But the proposal has serious detractors in lawmakers from both parties in both chambers who are opposed to a higher sales tax.
So Taylor stripped the increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.
The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.
“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.
Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.
“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.
A few senators didn’t vote yes on HB 3 because they didn’t know the cost of the bill or how their school districts would be affected by it.
“The lack of a fiscal note delineating the total cost of the bill was unacceptable,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who voted against the bill along with state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
Creighton echoed those concerns about not knowing the legislation’s price tag, though he said he agreed with its policy.
“Before the session ends, I will have another chance to vote on the final bill, and I look forward to supporting it once I have a clear understanding of the impacts on school districts in Senate District 4, and the true cost of the legislation, which will have implications for all Texas taxpayers,” he said in a statement after the vote.
The House and Senate have passed versions of HB 3 that are similar in some ways: Both would raise the base funding per student — a number that hasn’t budged in four years — and would provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-K for eligible students.
Among the disagreements: how to make sure school employees get much-needed raises. The Senate has prioritized $5,000 pay raises for all full-time teachers and librarians. The House has directed districts to give all school employees about $1,388 in raises on average statewide and designated extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion.
Senate Democrats’ efforts to extend those $5,000 raises to full-time counselors and other employees failed along party lines Monday.
Also controversially for some, the Senate includes money providing bonuses to schools based on third-grade test scores and funding districts that want to provide merit pay for their top-rated teachers. Many teacher groups have opposed both, arguing it would put more emphasis on a flawed state standardized test.
State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, failed to get an amendment to the bill approved that would strike tying any funding to third-grade test scores.
Teachers, parents and advocates following on social media had paid attention to Powell’s amendment, mobilizing in support through a Twitter hashtag “#NoSTAARonHB3.”
Taylor pointed out that the bill also allows school districts to use assessments other than the state’s STAAR standardized test, which has lately come under renewed scrutiny, with researchers and advocates arguing it doesn’t adequately measure students’ reading abilities. He approved an amendment requiring the state to pay for school districts to use those alternative tests, which he estimated would cost about $4 million.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.
Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.
The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.
“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”
The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.
The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.
“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”
Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.
A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.
Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.
The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.
“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”
So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.
Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”
Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.
In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.
Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.
Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”
“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.
A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.
Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.
Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.
The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.
Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.
The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.
Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.
A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.
The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.
Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.
The supplemental bill also includes:
Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
$2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a rally at the Capitol for school choice January 24, 2017. Both Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick spoke in favor of expanding school choice options. Students, educators, activists and parents marched on the south lawn to show their support for expanding school choice options during National School Choice Week. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune
Two years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stood on the steps of the Texas Capitol before a throng of waving yellow scarves and urged lawmakers to vote for programs that give parents state money to attend private schools.
This Wednesday, those two top Republicans may not even attend the rally for National School Choice Week, let alone have speaking roles.
Though “school choice” supporters will still excitedly don their signature bright yellow scarves Wednesday, they will likely be fighting an uphill battle the rest of this session to get support in the Capitol.
In the months after 2017’s rally, House lawmakers unequivocally voted to reject school vouchers or similar programs that allow parents to use public money for private education. In 2018, a key election ousted some of the programs’ largest supporters, including Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, one of the loudest cheerleaders in the House. And as state Republicans tour the state making constituents a new set of education-related promises, many have swapped the words “school choice” for “school finance.”
So far, even Abbott and Patrick have rarely brought up their former pet issue without being asked directly — beyond Abbott’s routine proclamation for this year’s School Choice Week. The new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, said last week that the House would not pass legislation approving vouchers — and that he had consistently voted no on similar bills.
“I’m not willing to say, ‘hey, this issue is dead.’ But leadership seems to be saying that, at least for this particular session,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, one of the biggest opponents of those programs.
The issue was politically divisive last session, with public school educators arguing it would siphon money from public schools. The Senate passed a diluted version of the bill that would allow parents of students with disabilities to pay for private school and homeschooling, with supporters arguing it would empower families to make the best educational choices for their kids. Facing resistance in the House, Senate leaders refused to approve an overhaul of the school finance system without those subsidies — forcing a stalemate.
Abbott demanded lawmakers pass both in a summer special session. Both failed to pass again.
Randan Steinhauser, who along with her husband Brendan has helped lead the fight for voucher-like programs in Texas, said both Abbott and Patrick have been invited to support the cause from the stage at Wednesday’s rally. But they aren’t scheduled to give formal speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, both Republicans, are expected to speak and, she said, “having one elected official after another is not the most engaging thing for our audience.”
In 2017, Steinhauser helped start an organization called Texans for Education Opportunity, which hired about a dozen lobbyists to push the benefits of giving parents taxpayer money to use for private school tuition and homeschooling. This year, Texans for Education Opportunity has no lobbyists registered.
Steinhauser and Texans for Education Opportunity founder Stacy Hock both say they are instead focusing on organizing families to speak directly to lawmakers.
“Thankfully, we will not be doing a huge lobby effort this session,” Hock said. ‘What has become apparent to me is that the most important voice in this discussion is that of Texas families.”
Steinhauser rejects the idea that lawmakers got kicked out of office for supporting the issue.
“If that were the case, Dan Patrick would have lost. He’s the biggest champion in the state and he’s coming back for another term,” she said. “No one won or lost on the issue of school choice.”
But lawmakers appear to be putting distance between themselves and the issue, at least for the time being.
Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told a group of free-market conservatives earlier this month that school choice “is not going to be the focus this session” and “not part of the school finance bill.” That’s a far cry from 2017, when he authored the Senate’s bill for private school tuition subsidies.
But he’s not alone in his change of tone. Two years ago, sporting a yellow scarf of his own atop a navy blue suit, Patrick expressed his disappointment with the Texas House in front of thousands of students and family members from charter schools and private schools.
“We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice,” he said, amid loud cheers. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it.”
This year, when asked whether the issue would return to the Senate, Patrick was less direct: “We’ll see, we’ll see. It’s a long session.”
Disclosure: Stacy Hock and the Association of Texas Professional Educators 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.
Vanessa Tijerina addresses the panel about her 13-year-old special needs child who has been denied special education for 4 years on December 13, 2016. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education, continuing an investigation of whether Texas is capping services for students with disabilities. Photo by Eddie Seal/The Texas Tribune.
A U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with an adequate public education.
After interviews and monitoring visits with parents, school administrators and state officials, the federal investigation found that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized some school districts to deny services to eligible students.
It also told TEA that it needs to take several corrective actions, including producing documentation that the state is properly monitoring school districts’ evaluations for special education, developing a plan and timeline for TEA to ensure that each school district will evaluate students previously denied needed services and creating a plan and timeline for TEA to provide guidance to educators on how to identify and educate students with disabilities.
“Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act],” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement Thursday. “I’ve worked directly with TEA Commissioner [Mike] Morath on resolving these issues, and I appreciate the Texas Education Agency’s efforts to ensure all children with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated and served under IDEA.
“While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential.”
In response to the report, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Morath demanding that TEA prepare an initial plan to reform special education within the next seven days, with the input of parents, advocates and educators. He also demanded TEA develop legislative recommendations to help ensure districts comply with federal and state special education laws.
Legislators passed a law in May prohibiting Texas from capping special education services. Special education advocates and parents had lobbied for a number of smaller reform bills during the session, few of which passed.
“Federal officials have provided no definitive timeline for action by TEA, but parents and students across our state cannot continue waiting for change,” Abbott wrote. “I am directing you to take immediate steps to prepare an initial corrective action plan draft within the next seven days.”
In a statement Thursday, Morath said he will continue to increase training and support for educators on educating students with disabilities.
“We have added significant resources focused on increasing technical assistance and training for our school systems, including 39 statewide special education support staff in the last year,” he said. “I am committing today that there will be more.”
The federal investigation was prompted by a series of reports from the Houston Chronicle alleging TEA had denied needed special education services to thousands of students with disabilities across the state. Texas provides special education to a small percentage of students compared to other states. That number has gone up from 8.5 percent in 2015-16 to 8.8 percent last school year, according to TEA’s statewide academic performance report.
TEA has denied all allegations that it capped services for students.
The report comes more than a year after federal officials traveled to five Texas cities in December 2016 and heard parents tell numerous stories about educators who had not been properly trained on what services they were legally required to provide students with disabilities. The agency also collected more than 400 public written comments from those who could not attend a meeting in person.
Federal officials returned to Texas last February to tour selected school districts for a firsthand look at local special education data and policies.
The report Thursday confirmed the complaints of many the parents who spoke out at those meetings. It said:
TEA was more likely to monitor and intervene in school districts with higher rates of students in special education, creating a statewide system that incentivized denying services to eligible students. School district officials said they expected they would receive less monitoring if they served 8.5 percent of students or fewer.
According to internal reports reviewed by federal officials, administrators at multiple districts worked to decrease the percentage of students identified for special education services — even though there was no evidence to indicate those actions were necessary.
School administrators provided some students suspected of having disabilities with intensive academic support as a way of delaying or refusing to evaluate them for necessary federally funded special education services. Teachers and staff did not understand how to deploy this support in a way that complied with federal law.
Texas has a policy to only provide federally funded services to students with dyslexia if those students also have another disability. That violates federal law, the report said, since it denies some eligible students federally funded special education services. School districts were found to be inconsistent in how they interpreted and carried out this state policy.
Many school district staff members said they saw evaluation for federally funded special education services as a “last resort” for students who were struggling to learn. They did not understand that students could receive these services in both special education and general education classrooms.
The agency’s attempts to address some of these problems in the last several months collapsed recently after it awarded a contract to overhaul special education to a company with a short track record without letting other firms bid for the job. After parents of students with disabilities argued the contract was poorly thought out, Morath terminated it — with $2.2 million in federal funding already spent for services rendered. The agency is now conducting an internal review of its contracting processes.
Texas now lacks both a special education director and a long-term plan for overhauling special education, leaving parents and advocates frustrated and concerned.
The Texas Tribune’s annual “TribFest” event has become a regular gathering spot for folks who live and work around the Texas Capitol. This year’s festival, which kicks off today and runs through Sunday, will feature more than 60 sessions and 250 speakers. Panels will cover just about every active policy area at the state and federal level, with education once again among the issues expected to generate the most interest.
The public education discussion will get in gear Saturday morning with a panel on higher education funding, followed by a discussion on testing, accountability, and college readiness featuring the superintendents of Austin ISD, Round Rock ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Harlingen CISD, and Alief ISD. Public school finance will come front and center Saturday afternoon with a panel that will include House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and pro-public education state Reps. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) and Donna Howard (D-Austin). Finally, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will discuss ways to improve Texas schools late Saturday afternoon.
Over the years, these TribFest discussions have offered interesting public insight into how these policies are viewed and discussed behind the scenes. The media spotlight generated by the festival means these panels often provide a chance to set the narrative heading into elections or a legislative session.
In addition to the public education track, the festival will feature keynote remarks from Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), U.S. Congressman and Cruz’s Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), as well as Congressmen Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) and Will Hurd (R-San Antonio). ATPE will be covering the weekend’s discussions, and I’ll be tweeting from @MarkWigginsTX.
A Texas Lottery display in Austin on April 3, 2017. Photo by John Jordan
Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Lynne Springer. Send us your questions about Texas politics and policy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or through texastribune.org/texplainer.
Hey, Texplainer: The lottery is supposed to fund education — that was stated at the get-go. Why is lottery money being used for other things?
When they were trying to sell the lottery to voters more than 25 years ago, political candidates left many Texans with the impression that 100 percent of the money earned from the lottery would go toward education and that the lottery might generate enough money to pay for all public education.
Neither is true.
Through a constitutional amendment, voters approved the creation of the Texas Lottery in November 1991. Between 1992 and 1997, $4 million from lottery ticket sales and unclaimed prizes went toward the state’s general revenue fund — meaning it could be used for any state expense.
It wasn’t until after 1997 that Texas schools became a specific beneficiary of the money.
27.1 percent funds Texas education through the Foundation School Fund
5.4 percent goes toward retailer commissions
4 percent goes to the lottery for administrative costs
The remainder, about 0.4 percent, funds the Veterans Assistance Program and other state programs
The commission announced in September 2016 that it had earned more than $5 billion in sales for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
“This is the first time in our history that we have generated more than $5 billion in sales,” Gary Grief, the lottery’s executive director, said in a news release. “We are excited to celebrate the extraordinary growth we have achieved and proud to make our largest contributions ever to both Texas public schools and veterans’ programs.”
Of that $5 billion, roughly $1.3 billion was allotted to the Foundation School Fund, which is administered by the Texas Education Agency. The money is used for expenses such as teacher salaries, bilingual education and special education. TEA officials said the Foundation School Program should be thought of “as a huge pot of money” with lottery revenue being just one contributor to the pot.
In 2015, the Legislature budgeted $48.4 billion in state funds for public education over two years, which included $2.4 billion that the lottery contributed to the state’s foundation school account.
According to the Texas Lottery’s website, the lottery has contributed $20 billion to the Foundation School Fund since 1997. But TEA officials say there’s no telling which Texas school districts receive lottery funding.
The bottom line: The money earned by the Texas Lottery has never been fully dedicated to Texas education. Since 1997, a percentage of lottery revenue has gone toward funding the state’s public schools, but not all of it.
What’s an unfunded mandate look like? Is that when the state tells school districts to give teachers at $1,000 pay raise and doesn’t send the money to cover it?
The $120 million Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed from the state budget isn’t going to be enough to cover the teacher pay raises he says he wants the Legislature to approve during the coming special session, which is another way of saying that the state isn’t going to pay for it. That means local property taxpayers would have to cover the tab if lawmakers “give” each of the state’s 353,805 public school teachers another $1,000 per year.
It will take some serious salesmanship to move this proposal. It’s more than a question of where the money will come from, although that’s a perfectly good question. It’s not exactly clear where the money would go if the state could round up the money to spend.
Texas lawmakers have been steadily cutting the state’s share of public education costs for a decade. They started this cycle of school finance with the state paying about 45 percent, the federal government paying about 10 percent and local school districts paying the remaining 45 percent. The feds are still covering their dime, but the state’s share has slipped to 38 percent and the local share — the share that’s financed by that notoriously unpopular property tax — has risen to 52 percent.
That pattern hasn’t stopped, by the way: During the regular legislative session that ended on Memorial Day, state lawmakers approved a new two-year budget that spends less state money per public school student than the last budget. At the same time, those same lawmakers are shocked — shocked! — at the way property taxes are going up.
Add to those costs the idea of paying for $1,000 teacher pay raises and having the local districts paying for the hikes ordered by the state.
Read that again, while pretending your neighbors have elected you to the local school board: The state government is cutting its share of the cost of running your schools, ordering you to raise teacher pay and hollering at you for raising taxes. Thank you for your service!
An optimist might say that the school finance item on the governor’s special-session wish list could pry open the treasury enough to also pay for teacher raises, but that proposal is tangled up with another of Abbott’s requests: a voucher program for special-needs kids.
Yet there is much more to all of this than an unfunded $1,000 pay raise for teachers. The raises would average $1,000, but they wouldn’t necessarily be across-the-board hikes. Aides to and allies of the governor have been shopping around a merit pay plan that would base the size of teacher pay raises on teacher performance.
“It is a holistic change to how teachers would be compensated,” says state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who heads the House Public Education Committee. “My initial reaction was, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
Whatever you think about that, it’s a lot to bite off in a 30-day special session. Other issues on the governor’s agenda —school finance, using public money for private schools, regulating which kids use which restrooms — were all debated earlier this year. Hearings were held. Some will argue that those issues have been examined enough to justify the quick consideration a special session allows. That’s not the case with teacher pay — although school’s out, so they’d be certain to hear from teachers.
“This is a year’s worth of work that needs to be done — it’s a heavy lift in a special session,” Huberty says. “Is this a horrible idea? I don’t think anybody knows yet.”
The governor’s crew has a lot of arguments stacked up: College students don’t see teaching as rewarding, top teachers are leaving the profession, students do better with better teachers and Dallas schools — where Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was previously on the school board — had good results with merit-based pay raises.
Their arguments against the current payroll system center on lousy public school student performance on third- and fourth-grade reading tests, eighth-grade science tests and end-of-course algebra 1 exams; on low passing scores on SAT/ACT tests used by most colleges to assess student readiness; on the numbers of students who need remedial classes when they get to college; and so on.
It’s a start, but closing an argument on something as fundamental as teacher pay in 30 days — especially when it’s not part of a fresh debate from the regular session — is asking a lot of a Legislature busy with more familiar but similarly difficult issues.
Lawmakers have 19 legislative priorities aside from the pay raises. Still, they have 30 days. What could go wrong?