Category Archives: safe schools

House Appropriations hears from TEA and TRS

The House Committee on Appropriations met Monday to hear from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) on the issues of school safety, school finance, the teacher pension system, and active and retiree educator health insurance. Before delving into the meat of the hearing, Cmomittee Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulsher) also announced membership of the subcommittees that will be overseeing separate subject areas of the budget.

The subcommittee on Article III that oversees public education funding will be chaired by Rep. Greg Bonnen, and include Vice-chair Armando Walle and Reps. Mary Gonzalez, Donna Howard, Matt Schaefer, Carl Sherman, Lynn Stucky, and Gary VanDeaver.

House Appropriations Committee meeting Feb. 4, 2019

Other subcommittees include: the subcommittee on Articles I, IV, V; the subcommittee on Article II; the subcommittee on Articles VI, VII, VIII; and a new subcommittee on  Infrastructure, Resiliency, and Investment.

The committee heard first from Texas Education  Commissioner Mike Morath on the topic of school safety, including physical precautions such as metal detectors and alarms. Morath noted there is no single investment in school safety that will address all current weaknesses and that the agency isn’t and hasn’t traditionally been tasked or resourced to help districts with regard to mental health components of school safety.

TEA’s Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez followed with a high-level overview of how public schools are funded. Lopez explained how the basics of tax rates, weights, allotments, and adjustments work to together to create a districts M&O entitlement; facilities funding; charter funding; and recapture. Also mentioned during the discussion were statutory quirks and system complexities like the fact that the basic allotment is set in statute, but legislators each session have the option of funding at higher levels through the appropriations bill. The committee also discussed how in 2011 the legislature created a mechanism called the Regular Program Adjustment Factor that allows lawmakers to decrease the entire Foundation School Program (FSP) entitlement for every district with a single adjustment.

TR) Executive Director Brian Guthrie walked committee members through pension fund operations. Guthrie explained the TRS board’s decision to lower the assumed rate of return last summer to 7.25 percent down from 8 percent, which came as a result of market forecasts and input from the fund’s actuary. This caused the funding period for pension fund liabilities to extend from 32 years up to 87 years. Under state law, the TRS fund cannot offer a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to retirees unless the amortization period noted above is within 31 years.

Guthrie noted that the agency is requesting a 1.8 percent increase in the contribution rate in order to achieve a 30-year amortization period, which would allow for the possibility of a future increase in benefits, such as a COLA. This would cost $1.6 billion for the biennium from all funds.

Responding to a question from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Guthrie estimated the average pension payment for a TRS annuitant to be about $2,000 per month. This average figure covers all classes of public education employees, including auxiliary staff, such as bus drivers and custodial staff. For classroom teachers who have worked in Texas schools for 30 years, that amount is closer to $4,000 per month.

Guthrie then explained the healthcare programs under the agency’s umbrella: TRS-Care for retired educators and TRS-ActiveCare for active educators. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed in Texas, despite rising at a level slightly below the national average. This resulted in a $1 billion shortfall for TRS-Care heading into the previous legislative session, which was addressed by a temporary infusion of additional state funding, coupled with a significant increase in fees and reduction in benefits. The fund continues to run at a deficit.

Rep. Schaefer asked what impact a pay increase would have on the pension fund. Guthrie indicated that if all teachers saw a raise, there would be a negative short-term impact for TRS as a result of higher salary calculations for retiring members without the benefit of higher contributions. Guthrie suggested this could be mitigated by phasing in the salary increases’ impact on the calculation of a member’s highest five years of earnings. Guthrie suggested the short-term impact on TRS-Care would be positive.

Asked by Rep. Stucky how much it would cost to make TRS-Care sustainable, Guthrie suggested it would take more than $12-15 billion to create a corpus sufficient to produce funding as a result of investment returns. Even then, that process would take some time to get up and running. The deteriorating value of TRS-Care has led many retirees to leave the program, which exacerbates the financial stresses facing it. Guthrie added that the population was beginning to stabilize.

TRS-ActiveCare, which allows smaller and mid-size school districts to enjoy the benefits of group coverage through a combined risk pool, also faces affordability challenges due to statutory restrictions on how that program is funded. Five percent of districts – primarily the state’s largest districts, such as Austin and Houston – have opted out of TRS-ActiveCare. Last session, legislation was considered to allow districts a one-time opportunity to opt in or opt out, but such a bill was not passed ultimately.

House committee discusses school safety funding

The Texas House Committee on Appropriations met Tuesday in Austin to discuss funding for school safety, which Chair John Zerwas (R-Richmond) called one of the most important issues the legislature will take up next session.

House Appropriations Committee meeting October 9, 2018.

Administrators from Santa Fe ISD, the site of the horrific school shooting earlier this year, were the first to testify. The district has since doubled its security staff, installed panic buttons in classrooms, and modified the design of certain instructional areas. The district indicated that funding for additional officers and counselors has come from the district’s fund balance, and leaders are concerned about long term budgeting.

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) called the amount of spending Santa Fe ISD has been forced to undertake “sobering,” and suggested that state lawmakers should not compound the burden on local property tax payers by leaving districts to fund school safety measures alone.

Lawmakers also heard from representatives from the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University. Representatives indicated that while legislators have cut program budgets, demand for services has increased. Because of this, TxSSC has not been able to address 100 percent of the needs expressed by school districts. State Rep. Helen Giddings (D-DeSoto) stressed the importance of training officers in de-escalation and in how to deal with special needs children.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath presented the agency’s plans to address school safety, including a $54 million exceptional item in the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR). Morath explained that the actions taken to date as well as the agency’s budget request are aligned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s school safety plan. The commissioner said that federal funds would likely not help pay for school hardening efforts, which would fall instead to state and local taxpayers. Morath also suggested creating safety standards for facilities, such as new schools, that would force compliance.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston) questioned how far $54 million will go when spread statewide, given the testimony that Santa Fe ISD alone spent more than $30 million on safety improvements. Rep. Walle also suggested that if the state is going to gather data on students, lawmakers should also consider ways to ensure students faced with mental health emergencies do not have unfettered access to firearms.

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) also emphasized the need to address students’ emotional wellbeing in order to prevent tragedies. Along with state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso), Rep. Wu also discussed the need for access to counseling in particular in rural areas, and how telemedicine may be leveraged in some underserved locations. Morath noted that some rural schools are limited by lack of access to high-speed fiber internet. Chair Zerwas also indicated broad support for utilizing telemedicine in these settings. Zerwas credited Article III Subcommittee Chair Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and Rep. Howard with working to provide $25 million in matching funds last session to implement telemedicine.

The committee heard additional testimony from the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD), the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and the Legislative Budget Board (LBB). The LBB pegged the total of various agencies’ appropriations requests at around $100 million.

Finally, the committee received an update from the TEA regarding the agency’s implementation of corrective action to ensure students with special needs are being adequately served. This is a result of the U.S. Department of Education finding the state instituted a de facto cap on special education enrollment and failed to comply with federal law mandating the state provide special education services to all children who qualify.

Agency staff testified that districts are seeing an uptick in special education enrollment. As part of the corrective action plan, the agency is developing a rubric for schools seeking additional funding in order to provide special education services as they are required under federal law. Staff testified that each percentage point that special education enrollment increases will cost $342 million per year. In addition, staff said there are currently not enough trained staff in the state to evaluate all of the children who theoretically could be served.

Congress passes education budget

Congress passed a funding bill today that averts a looming government shutdown and, among other spending, includes FY 2019 funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The measure now heads to President Trump for his signature.

Under the spending measure, the overall federal education budget is increased based on current levels, with major programs like Title I and special education seeing program specific bumps. President Trump asked for more than $7 billion in overall budget cuts to ED in his budget request to Congress earlier this year. Congress’s education budget also largely ignores his request to funnel north of $1 billion to various school choice programs, but does include increased funding for charter school grants.

The bill increases funding levels for a grant aimed at creating safer schools. Despite efforts from Democrats, a prohibition on using certain funding under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) to arm teachers in schools did not make it into the bill. Texas has been at the center of the debate following questions from Texas school districts asking whether Title IV ESSA funding could be used to arm teachers. At a hearing on ESSA held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee yesterday, the issue again garnered significant attention. Education Secretary Betsy Devos has maintained that the law offers districts considerable flexibility and does not specifically prohibit spending on arming teachers.

President Trump said earlier today that he will sign the measure, which keeps the government running through December 7 and also funds the Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services Departments.

 

State leaders continue to discuss school safety measures

The office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a report today on school safety, specifically highlighting actions being taken by school districts to respond to growing concerns about violence in schools and related safety measures. The “School Safety Action Plan Summary” follows an earlier School and Firearm Safety Action Plan shared by the governor’s office earlier this year. The governor also convened a group of stakeholders back in July to discuss the issue, and ATPE’s state officers were invited to weigh in.

Among the safety measures noted in the governor’s summary report out today are training programs for educators, including the Mental Health First Aid course that is available at no cost to public school employees through their local mental health authorities. The eight-hour course for which educators can earn CPE credit focuses on identifying the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse problems in students. Educators can learn more about the program here.

The governor’s report out today also highlights an increase in the number of school marshals, who are school employees trained and authorized to provide an armed response to violence incidents on a school campus. The school marshal program has existed since 2013 when the legislature passed House Bill 1009 by Rep. Jason Villalba, but relatively few school districts have opted into it. As ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter noted in this article for the Dallas Morning News, “Whether it’s due to a lack of knowledge of the programs available or a lack of will to implement them, school boards have clearly not made arming educators a priority.” Money is also an ongoing issue in the debate over keeping schools safe, as school districts that are already facing deficiencies in their revenue struggle to find ample cash to pay for additional training, make building updates, or provide mental health resources.

Read the governor’s latest School Safety Action Plan Summary here. Read ATPE’s associated press statement here.

SBOE Chair Donna Bahorich addresses school safety issues as part of a federal panel on Aug. 28, 2018.

On Tuesday, Texas State Board of Education chair Donna Bahorich was a panelist in a listening session for the Federal Commission on School Safety. The event held in Montgomery, Alabama, was part of a series of listening sessions held around the country with the goal of devising strategies to improve school safety.

Bahorich talked about the mental health aspect of curbing violence in schools, including the need to remove the stigmas associated with seeking mental health treatment. “We need to do a paradigm shift around mental health,” Bahorich told the panel before sharing statistics about the prevalence of mental illness among schoolchildren. She also mentioned the concerns over expecting school counselors to fulfill both a mental health treatment function and academic counseling responsibilities, noting that Texas has been discussing whether such roles should be bifurcated. The full listening session broadcast can be viewed here. (The segment featuring Bahorich begins at 1:25:25 during the broadcast.)

Expect school safety to remain a top issue for consideration during the 2019 legislative session. A Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security held hearings on the issue this year and released an interim report of its findings earlier this month. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on this important issue.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 24, 2018

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


Last week, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick sent a letter to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) insisting that the body not raise insurance premiums on retired educators. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter breaks down why many feel the letter is nothing more than a political stunt in this blog post.


Donna Bahorich

Texas State Board of Education Chair Donna Bahorich will be participating in a listening session for the Federal Commission on School Safety on Tuesday, August 28, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama. This listening session is the fourth in a series of panels that have been held across the nation with the goal of devising strategies to improve school safety. Tuesday’s afternoon event will be live-streamed. Find more information and read the press release in its entirety here.


U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reported to be considering allowing the use of federal funds from Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants to arm educators. The grants are intended to improve academic achievement; however, nothing expressly forbids the funds from being used to purchase firearms. In the wake of recent school shootings the Texas Education Agency (TEA) received a number of inquiries asking whether the funds could be used for such measures. Wile the agency never received an official response from the Department of Education, the proposal may very well become legitimized. You can learn more in this article from the Texas Tribune.


This week the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a proposed rule change filed by Commissioner Mike Morath regarding students who’ve taken high school end-of-course (EOC) assessments in middle school. Students in grades 3 through 8 who are enrolled in a course that awards high school credit may currently take STAAR EOC assessments prior to entering high school. This includes Algebra I, English I, and English II. However, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires all students to take a math and reading or language arts test in high school.

In order to satisfy this federal requirement, the new rule will require schools to use the SAT or ACT to assess high school students who completed their math or English EOC assessments before their freshman year. This change is expected to cost districts about $50 for each student tested in this way, which number an estimated 109,000 statewide. The total statewide impact is therefore estimated at $5.45 million. The new rule appears in today’s Texas Register and you can read it in its entirety here.

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: August 17, 2018

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


On Wednesday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its inaugural set of “A through F” accountability ratings for Texas school districts. The A through F district rating system has been criticized by education advocates for its overly simplistic nature that relies too heavily on standardized test scores and does not take into account the unique challenges each district may face. ATPE Governmental Relations Director, Jennifer Mitchell, responded to the release of these ratings in this press release saying “It is important not to overestimate the significance of poor grades assigned to some school districts, but it is equally vital to look behind the letter grades of those schools that have shown improvement.” Meanwhile, in an analysis for the Texas Tribune, columnist Ross Ramsey used the release of the the ratings was to remind voters to look further up the “management ladder” and assign grades to their elected officials at the ballot box this November. TEA released its own flurry of press releases to break down the district and campus rating systems as well as commend the 153 districts that received “A” ratings. You can read more about the A through F announcement and ATPE’s response in this post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


Do you know where your party stands on the major issues facing public education? Earlier this summer, Republican and Democrats met at their respective state party conventions to outline their party platforms. ATPE lobbyist Mark Wiggins breaks down where each party stands on issues such as school finance, privatization, and school security in this blog post. 

 


Former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallegos (left), a Democrat, and Republican Peter Flores are running for state Senate District 19. Photo by Bob Daemmrich: Gallego/Campaign website

September 18th has been chosen as the date to hold the special election for Senate District 19, which was vacated by Sen. Carlos Uresti earlier this year. Having narrowed down a list of eight candidates to two final contenders, voters will now be making a choice between Pete Gallego (D) or Pete Flores (R). Early voting for the special election will be held September 10-14.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Senate school safety panel issues recommendations

The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security released its interim report today. The charges were issued by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick following the school shooting at Santa Fe High School. The four charges involved studying (1) school infrastructure and design to address school security; (2) programs within schools aimed at school safety; (3) the root causes of school mass murders; and (4) the effectiveness of protective order laws in Texas and other states.

Interim charge number three, which focused on mental health issues in schools, received a considerable amount of attention in the report. School counselors and other mental health resources are emphasized under the correlating recommendations. The fewest number of recommendations surfaced from studying protective order laws, which involve temporarily restricting firearm access to certain individuals who pose extreme risk. No recommendation was made to enact a version of protective order laws known as a “red flag” law, which Governor Abbott proposed but Patrick strongly rejected. Regarding firearms, there is a recommendation to consider funding for supporting school marshal programs.

The full recommendations from each charge are listed below. The full report cab viewed here.

School infrastructure and design recommendations

  • Consider legislation to allow additional funds for school districts to implement enhanced physical security including metal detectors, alarm systems, cameras, and hardened entrances.
  • Consider updates to school building codes to ensure best practices are used in designing new school facilities.
  • Consider legislation to clarify that school districts must identify a campus administrator who is responsible for identifying and maintaining contact with local law enforcement, local emergency agencies, and fire departments in their security audits.
  • Consider legislation giving TEA oversight to ensure required school security audits are being completed and ensure TEA has the staff necessary to oversee compliance.
  • Direct the State Fire Marshal’s Office to review and provide guidance on procedures and sequences concerning school evacuations for unverified emergencies and the required number of fire drills mandated for schools.

School safety programs recommendations

  • Consider the appropriate level of funding for and involvement of fusion centers.
  • Review Penal Code Chapter 46.03 and provisions by which school districts authorize individuals to carry concealed weapons onto campus and consider establishing a minimum standard for training hours.
  • Consider legislation to allow additional funds for training for school marshals and individuals licensed to carry under Chapter 46.03 of the Penal Code.

Root causes of school violence recommendations

  • Consider legislation to direct TEA to incorporate school counselor data into PEIMS regarding location and number of students served.
  • Review the effectiveness and unintended consequences of “zero tolerance” polices in Texas schools.
  • Consider methods to increase the availability of school counselors, Licensed Specialists in School Psychology, and school social workers in schools, particularly in rural and remote areas of the state.
  • Consider legislation codifying the duties and responsibilities of school counselors, Licensed Specialists in School Psychology, and school social workers.
  • Consider legislation incorporating threat assessment teams into Health Advisory or School Safety Committees already on campus.
  • Expand the availability of Mental Health First Aid training for all school district employees interacting with students.
  • Review the use of Disciplinary Alternative Placement Education Programs (DAEP) and consider behavior intervention methods.
  • Consider expanding the use of telemedicine and telepsychiatry to help children in crisis obtain access to mental health services before violence occurs.
  • Consider legislation to strengthen the state’s mental health system by leveraging the expertise of state medical schools by creating psychiatry hubs that connect pediatricians seeking consultation with experts in mental health.

Protective order laws recommendations

  • Consider legislation to clarify current statute on whether and when an individual convicted of domestic violence may possess a firearm legally.
  • Consider legislation to clarify current statute regarding the return of firearms to individuals who have been detained and declared to no longer be a risk to themselves or others.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 27, 2018

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


The Board of Directors for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) met this week to discuss the pension fund’s assumed rate of return. Today the board voted to reduce the rate of return from 8% to 7.25%, anticipating a decline in investment revenue. It is now up to the legislature to provide additional funding for TRS in order to prevent a shortfall and stretch the already dwindling resources of educators even further. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified at the TRS board meeting and explains more about the decision in this post, which also includes a fact sheet provided by TRS staff.


 This week the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met to discuss the last of the four charges assigned to them by the Lt. Governor. The panel heard invited and public testimony regarding best practices for preventing violence in schools and other topics. Not much longer after the hearing, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a statement in which he said he would not support “red flag” laws, laws aimed at seizing the guns of those deemed a danger to themselves or others, citing failed legislation from last session as well as Gov. Abbott’s recent reticence to support red flag laws. The committee will now deliberate and release a report during the first week of August. More details about the hearing can be found in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick currently has no plans to debate his Democratic opponent, Mike Collier, despite repeated calls from the Collier campaign and many voters interested in the race for lieutenant governor. In a statement to the Texas Tribune, Allen Blakemore, a strategist for the Patrick campaign said the following:

“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,”

In response to this statement, the grassroots educators group Texans for Public Education offered to facilitate the debate by offering assistance “with location,  moderation, with time and date…” and other details. The full statement from the group can be read here.

Read more in this story from the Texas Tribune.


Earlier this week, both the U.S. House and Senate approved legislation aimed at revising the federal law that governs career and technical education (CTE). The Senate first passed a bill reauthorizing the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The House concurred with the Senate’s changes and the bill was sent to the President. At this time, President Trump has not yet signed the bill, but it is likely that he will. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann provides more information here.


Senate school safety panel discusses gun protective order laws

The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met today to cover its final charge covering protective order laws, which involve temporarily restricting firearm access to certain individuals who pose extreme risk. The full charge reads:

Examine whether current protective order laws are sufficient or whether the merits of Extreme Risk Protective Orders, or “Red Flag” laws, should be considered for seeking a temporary removal of firearms from a person who poses an immediate danger to themselves or others, only after legal due process is provided with a burden of proof sufficient to protect Second Amendment rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

The committee first heard invited testimony from state officials, who explained current state and federal protective order laws as well as similar laws in other states. The invited testifiers also included representatives from the following stakeholder groups: The Texas District and County Attorneys Association, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the Texas State Rifle Association, Texas Gun Sense, and an attorney who works on second amendment rights.

The issue brought forth invited and public testifiers on both sides of the issue. Some testifiers provided input on the value of protective order laws in other states, the need for revisions to current state laws, suggestions on what parameters should be used to identify those who could be subject to temporary gun removal, and other best practices for utilizing the laws to prevent gun violence in schools. However, others argued that alternative laws in other states are overly restrictive, that protective order laws fail to guarantee due process, and that Texas laws already in place can serve to intervene in order to prevent future potential gun violence by those who may pose a risk.

Now that the committee has concluded its work taking testimony on the four charges assigned by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, they are tasked with writing a report on their findings. Those findings are due to the Lt. Gov. by the first week of August. Stay tuned for more from Teach the Vote as the committee releases its report and the legislature prepares to address school safety in the upcoming 2019 session.

Senate school safety committee looks at mental health

The Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met yesterday at the Capitol. The committee has previously discussed resources and programs to help schools prevent school violence and school infrastructure and design to address school security. This time, the committee turned its attention to mental health, and expert after expert shared that more resources are needed. The complete committee charge:

Examine the root cause of mass murder in schools including, but not limited to, risk factors such as mental health, substance use disorders, anger management, social isolation, the impact of high intensity media coverage — the so-called “glorification” of school shooters — to determine the effect on copy cat shootings, and the desensitization to violence resulting from video games, music, film, and social media. Recommend strategies to early identify and intercept high-risk students, as well as strategies to promote healthy school culture, including character education and community support initiatives.

It is no surprise that the need for resources was a regular theme in yesterday’s hearing. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that up to 1 in 5 children in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year. That means up to 20% of the children in our Texas classroom and schools are faced with a mental issue of some kind. Those can interfere with a students ability to learn, result in classroom disruptions, or even become a threat to school security. Testifiers relayed resources in various forms to address these issues.

Suggested resources included more counselors, psychologists, programs, and training, all of which cost money – money that many on the committee didn’t sound keen on spending. In a previous hearing, a retired principal spoke about the effect large class sizes have on a teachers ability to know her students individually. Addressing this challenge is another issue that would require funding. Read more about the hearing and the issue of funding in this piece from the Texas Tribune.

The committee has one remaining charge to study prior to issuing a report to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick on its findings. The final charge asks the committee to consider whether Texas’s current protective order laws are sufficient or more should be done to aid the temporary removal of firearms from those posing an immediate danger. A hearing to discuss this charge is scheduled for Tuesday, July 24.