Category Archives: teaching

New School Year, New Laws: Mentoring, Training, and Professional Support

Thank you for joining us on Teach the Vote to learn more about how the bills passed during the 2019 legislative session will impact the Texas public education system. So far, we have looked into changes made to laws governing student discipline, school safety, curriculum and instruction, assessment, and special education. In this week’s “New School Year, New Laws” post, we will talk about something just for educators – professional opportunities.

House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood): Mentor teacher program

HB 3, the multi-billion dollar school finance bill passed this session, included a mentor program allotment and an updated mentor teacher program. The allotment will provide funds to school districts that are implementing a mentor teacher program for educators with less than two years of experience. This allotment will help districts provide stipends to mentor teachers, schedule release time for mentors and their “mentees,” and fund mentor training.

Under the requirements of the bill, a mentor teacher must agree to serve in that role for at least one school year and must start their assignment no later than 30 days after their mentee begins teaching. Additionally, districts must assign a mentor to a new classroom teacher for at least two years. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath will adopt rules to specify how many mentees can be assigned to a mentor.

The qualifications for serving as a mentor teacher are much the same as they were under previous law. For example, mentors must complete certain mentor training and have at least three full years of teaching experience. HB 3 adds that, to serve as a mentor, a teacher must also demonstrate interpersonal skills, instructional effectiveness, and leadership skills. Lastly, mentors must meet with their mentees at least 12 hours per semester, which can include time the mentor spends observing the mentee. During these meetings, HB 3 outlines specific conversation topics such as orientation to the district, data-driven instructional practices, coaching cycles, professional development, and professional expectations.

Districts are required to provide mentor training and training on best mentorship practices before and during the school year. Districts are also required to designate mentor-mentee meeting times and schedule release time or a reduced teaching load for mentors and their mentees.

This provision of HB 3 took effect immediately upon the final passage of the bill.

HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood): Autism training

HB 3 allows school districts and charter schools to provide financial incentives to teachers who complete training through an education service center (ESC) on serving students with autism.

This provision also became effective immediately.

HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood): Teacher literacy achievement academies

HB 3 includes a focus on improving reading instruction for students in kindergarten through third grades. By the 2021-22 school year, districts must ensure that each classroom teacher in grades K-3 and each principal at a campus with grades K-3 has attended a teacher literacy achievement academy. Created in 2015 by the 84th Texas legislature, teacher literacy achievement academies are targeted professional development opportunities to enhance instruction, especially for special populations. Additionally, HB 3 now requires that each K-3 teacher or principal must have attended a teacher literacy achievement academy before their first year of placement at a campus in the 2021-22 school year.

Current law regarding teacher literacy achievement academies states that, from funds appropriated, teachers who attend an academy are entitled to receive a stipend in an amount determined by the Commissioner from funds appropriated by the legislature for the program. The academies have been funded through the appropriations process since their inception, and this program will receive $9 million over the next biennium.

This provision of HB 3 also took effect immediately.

Senate Bill (SB) 1757 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe): Math and science scholars loan repayment

Under previous law, the math and science scholars loan repayment program was open to teachers who met the following criteria: they completed an undergraduate or graduate program in math or science; are certified to teach math or science (or on a probationary certificate); have been employed as a full-time math or science teacher in a Title I school for at least one year; are U.S. citizens; are not in default on any other education loan; and have not received or are not receiving any other state or federal loan repayment assistance. Additionally, the teacher must have had a cumulative GPA of 3.5. Under SB 1757, this GPA requirement is lowered to 3.0 for the loan repayment program.

The teacher must also enter into an agreement with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to complete four consecutive years of employment as a full-time classroom math or science teacher in a Title I school. Under previous law, the teacher also had to commit to an additional four years teaching in any public school, though not necessarily a Title I school. SB 1757 changes this requirement to allow the THECB to determine how many additional, non-Title I school years (not to exceed four) a teacher must teach.

Also, SB 1757 now allows student loan repayment assistance for education taking place at a nonprofit, tax-exempt, regionally accredited college or university. This bill was effective Sept. 1, 2019.

SB 37 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo): Student loan default

If you’ve ever renewed your teaching certificate, you might have noticed that the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) can deny your renewal if you are in default on a student loan. SB 37 changes the law so that SBEC is prohibited from considering student loan status. This law took effect Sept. 1, 2019. However, SBEC still has to change its own administrative rules regarding student loan default and certificate renewal requirements. The board will discuss this at the next SBEC meeting on Oct. 4, 2019. Follow us on Twitter and check back on our Teach the Vote blog for updates about this meeting


In next week’s installment of our “New School Year, New Laws” blog series, we will discuss professional responsibilities, such as recent changes that were made to educator misconduct and reporting laws.

For more information on laws impacting educators, be sure to read the new report from the ATPE Member Legal Services staff, “Know the Law: An Educator’s Guide to Changes Enacted by the 86th Texas Legislature.”

Texans in Congress cosponsor federal bill to double teachers’ tax deduction

There is good news to report from the nation’s capital, as some members of Congress are looking to double a popular tax deduction that benefits educators. H.R. 878, the Educators Expense Deduction Modernization Act, was filed by Democratic Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland and has garnered support from some members of the Texas delegation.

The bill as filed would allow teachers to deduct up to $500 from their federal taxes (instead of $250 under current law) for any classroom supplies that they purchase. The permanent tax deduction also would be adjusted for inflation.

The following Texans have signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 878:

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-018)
  • Rep. Eddie Johnson (D-TX-030)
  • Rep. Filemon Vela, Jr. (D-TX-034)
  • Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-015)
  • Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX-23)

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX-23)

In signing on to become a cosponsor of H.R. 878 today, Texas Congressman Will Hurd appears to be the first member of the Republican party to do so nationwide. Hurd issued a press release lauding the bill and noting ATPE’s support for it.  “There’s no good reason why our teachers should pay out of their own pockets for the resources needed to do their jobs, which is why I’m proud to cosponsor this bill today,” said Rep. Hurd.

ATPE recognizes that many of our members routinely spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars out of their own pockets to help provide students with the supplies they need to thrive in the classroom. We appreciate those among our Congressional delegation who are supporting this bill to help give teachers additional, modest tax relief, and we hope that other members of our delegation will join the bipartisan effort. View ATPE’s press release about the federal tax deduction legislation here.

SBOE begins September meeting with social studies TEKS

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) kicked off its September meeting Tuesday with a lengthy day of public testimony regarding revisions to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies.

SBOE meeting September 11, 2018.

Some of the commentary came in response to edits to the portion addressing the Alamo that received a significant amount of news coverage and political attention over the past several days. A member of the TEKS review team, which is composed of educators who are experts in the subject matter and volunteer their time, explained the reasoning behind the edits and suggested the extraordinary attention was due to a misreading of the team’s notes, as well as a lack of outreach to team members for clarification. He offered an alternative phrasing that would satisfy all parties’ concerns, and which board members seemed amenable to adopting.

Testimony also focused on the proper way to treat slavery as the cause of Texas’s secession in the Civil War period, as well as how to discuss the role of religion, specifically Moses, as it pertains to the framing of the U.S. Constitution.

The board concluded the meeting with a discussion of the Long-Range Plan (LRP) for Public Education, which sets the state’s educational goals through the year 2030 and was released Monday. The LRP Steering Committee held ten in-person community meetings and solicited feedback from thousands of stakeholders via an online survey. Educators, parents, and community leaders were consulted at every step of the way. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, who has followed the plan’s development for more than a year, lauded the board for an inclusive and thoughtful process that gave meaningful consideration to input from educators.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testifying before SBOE.

Wiggins offered a number of broad recommendations to perfect the plan, including adding language to increase the rigor of Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs). Wiggins also cautioned the board that when discussing programs that aim to place top tier teachers in schools with large numbers of at-risk students by offering differentiated pay, it’s important to ensure that the evaluation programs used to identify those top tier teachers are not based upon student test scores. Wiggins also suggested that due to the short period of time stakeholders have had to evaluate the LRP, the board would be justified in postponing final approval.

Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) introduced a number of perfecting amendments, many of which addressed elements of ATPE’s general recommendations. The board discussed allowing the public more time to review the proposed amendments before voting on final adoption at the November meeting.

House committee discusses school security issues

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

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

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

House Public Education Committee meeting June 27, 2018.

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

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

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

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

 

Summer Activism: How can I continue to fight for our classrooms?

Congratulations, you made it to summer!

The students are gone, but every teacher knows the work never really stops, even when the temperatures soar. As it turns out, this summer is already shaping up to be a pretty active one when it comes to shaping public education policies that could make a big impact on classrooms next fall.

In fact, keeping on top of what’s happening this summer is critical to ensuring lawmakers start off on the right foot when they return to Austin in January to start making laws that affect your students, classrooms and profession. To that end, many ATPE members have asked what educators can do to stay on top of these important conversations this summer.

The good news is there’s plenty to do, and much of it can be done with minimal disruption to your summer schedule! Here’s a list of ways to keep engaged:

Be Social

Keeping up on your social media feeds is the best way to stay up to date on what conversations are going down where. Your ATPE governmental relations staff is busy going to important meetings where the future of public education is being discussed, and we’re posting what’s being talked about on Twitter. Good handles to follow are @OfficialATPE, @TeachTheVote, @ATPE_JenniferC, @ATPE_MontyE, @ATPE_KateK and yours truly, @MarkWigginsTX. Also check for updates on ATPE’s Facebook page. The more follows, likes and shares we get, the more clout we’ll have when we start mobilizing members during the legislative session.

Speak Up

There are dozens of meetings scheduled this summer where members of the public are allowed to testify about public education issues, letting lawmakers know where they stand. Next month, a special Senate committee is meeting to talk about school safety, and the House Public Education Committee is holding hearings on school safety and mental health next week. The Texas Commission on Public School Finance is scheduled to meet July 10 to discuss ways to fix the school finance system. The State Board of Education (SBOE) just wrapped up their June meeting, but they’ll be back in September. If you want to know more about how to testify, just call or e-mail your ATPE governmental relations department; but you don’t have to travel to Austin to be heard. Reaching out to the people elected to represent you via letters, email, and phone calls can be just as effective. You can often them just down the street at their local district offices during this time year as well, if you want to talk to them face to face without ever leaving home.

Volunteer

The most important way to make sure we secure adequate funding, resources and respect for the teaching profession is by electing pro-public education candidates to office. You can find out who supports public education by checking out our Candidates page. The November 6 election is the biggest and last opportunity between now and the next legislative session to do that. Even though July and August are typically slow months for political campaigns, those campaigns are always looking for people to block walk, make phone calls and put up signs. Volunteering during the dog days is also a great way to get to know candidates and staff on a personal level, since they’re usually very grateful for the help!

Donate

Unfortunately, money still matters in the world of politics. Campaigns rely on it and so do political action committees (PACs). People are grateful for donations any time, and summer is no exception. For most educators, pooling your money with other donors through a PAC offers you an opportunity to get the best bang for the buck. For example, during the primaries, 72 percent of the candidates who received a donation form the ATPE-PAC went on to win their election. In the primary runoffs that number jumped to 80 percent.

Preach the Word

Summer is a time for barbecues, grilling out and social gatherings. We’ve all been general brought up to avoid talking politics, but the future of our schools is something that should rise above partisanship. Are your friends also stressed about paying too much in property taxes? Do they know that fixing the school finance system by ensuring the state pays its fair share of the burden would go a long way in fixing that? What about testing — are other parents just as fed up with the overemphasis on STAAR? Let them know the hard work you and ATPE are doing to advocate for solutions to these problems and let them know about Teach the Vote! We created the site for everyone who cares about the future of public education because we need everyone’s help to make sure we get  the right people in office to fix these and many other issues, such as teacher health care and compensation.

We’re gearing up for a scorcher, but educators can’t afford to spend too much time in the shade. Every little bit helps us to avoid getting burned next session!

SBOE hears public comments on ethnic studies course

The State Board of Education (SBOE) kicked off its week-long June meeting Tuesday taking public comment on several curriculum items.

The Texas SBOE kicks off its June, 2018, meeting with public testimony on social studies and economics TEKS.

The meeting began with a discussion on streamlining the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies and economics. Members of the public raised concerns over the placement of the Holocaust in the TEKS, as well as concerns that the TEKS fail to properly credit slavery as the primary driver of secession leading up to the Civil War. Board Chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) explained that streamlining is defined by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) as deleting, confining, clarifying and narrowing the scope of TEKS. The board also heard competing arguments over the historical influence of the Bible and Judeo-Christian values on the nation’s founding documents.

The majority of testimony revolved around a new ethnic studies course approved by the board earlier this year. After dispute over textbooks for an innovative course on Mexican-American studies stretched over the course of several meetings, the board acknowledged advocates’ interest in a standardized course and approved the creation of statewide TEKS in April. At the same meeting, Member David Bradley (R-Beaumont) led members in designating the new course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.” This was viewed as a slight by advocates, who expressed their disapproval Tuesday and requested the board designate the class “Mexican-American Studies,” as they had originally requested.

More than 40 people signed up to testify. The board could hold another vote on the name Wednesday at the earliest, and members still have the option of changing the name at a later meeting regardless of what happens this week.

ATPE educator talks ed prep with state lawmakers

The House Committee on Public Education Subcommittee on Educator Quality and the House Committee on Higher Education met Thursday morning for a joint hearing on educator preparation programs (EPPs), which is among the interim charges assigned by Texas Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) before the next legislative session.

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

The first panel focused on data and accountability, and Texas Education Agency (TEA) associate commissioner Ryan Franklin began testimony with a summary of new teacher demographics. Only a third of new teachers come from traditional four-year undergraduate programs, while half come from alternative certification, or “alt-cert” programs. A+ Texas Teachers, which is an alt-cert program, certifies about a quarter of all new teachers in the state.

All programs require 300 hours of training, but the timing and nature of the training can vary greatly. For example, traditional programs require 14 weeks of training with a teacher of record before allow candidates to take over the classroom themselves, while alt-certs allow candidates to enter the classroom alone as the teacher of record without the benefit of that training.

ATPE member and Round Rock ISD fourth grade teacher Stephanie Stoebe testified about the importance of robust educator preparation programs. Poor preparation leads to higher dropout rates for new teachers. Stoebe testified a campus where she previously worked saw a nearly 50 percent turnover rate for four years because of teachers unprepared to teach students in high levels of poverty, which resulted in neediest kids getting abandoned.

Stoebe conducted research over the past year into indicators of quality EPPs. A survey of 225 classroom teachers found that teacher candidates rely primarily on reputation and flexibility in choosing an educator preparation program. When it comes to the type of preparation, Stoebe emphasized the value of classroom experience, noting that she was taught in the Army to “train as you fight.” Stoebe offered several recommendations, including setting a high bar relevant to student achievement and creating a dashboard to share EPP information. Stoebe also pointed out, “What gets measured gets done.” Stoebe testified teachers are calling for transparency of data, and urged leaders to use data to hold EPPs accountable.

Members of each committee discussed teacher pay and working conditions, noting that both are contributing factors to teacher turnover and retention. State Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) raised concern about the increasing reliance on alt-certs, which see higher attrition rates. “This is something that we really need to delve into next session,” said state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin). State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who chairs the Educator Quality Subcommittee, emphasized the importance of “grow your own” programs in closing the equity gap between rural and urban districts with regard to teacher quality.

Dr. Judy Abbott, the Dean of the College of Education at Stephen F. Austin State University, suggested lawmakers pass legislation to better support partnerships between local districts and institutes of higher education by assigning a dollar value to the time educator candidates spend in classrooms while pursuing their certification. Dr. Abbott estimated this benefit to be around $12,000 per teacher.

School finance commission talks about teacher supports

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

School finance commission meeting June 5, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott outlines school shooting response plan

Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled his school safety action plan Wednesday in response to the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The 40-page plan, which can be read in its entirety on the governor’s website, is the end product of three roundtable discussions held last week in Austin which included shooting survivors, school administrators and activists on both sides of the gun control debate.

“No one provided a more powerful voice for those strategies than the victims themselves,” Abbott told reporters gathered in Dallas for the announcement.

“I am so proud and inspired by their strength and resiliency,” Abbott added. In summing up the roundtable discussions, the governor concluded, “There seems to be a consensus about the need to act.”

Abbott summarized the elements of his plan as ideas that could be put in place before the next school year begins. According to governor, this includes $70 million in funds to which the state already has access, as well as $40 million in federal funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 for which the state can compete. Altogether, Abbott claimed this adds up to $120 million in funds that do not require a legislative appropriation.

A crisis response team consisting of counselors from the National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) has been deployed to Santa Fe, and the governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD) has an open reimbursement application. CJD grant funding is also available for costs associated with long-term behavioral health response by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). The state has already secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for mental health services, teacher overtime, security staff and substitutes for Santa Fe ISD.

Many of the governor’s plan would require legislative action. Gov. Abbott is suggesting the state consider offering a $10,000 matching grant to schools that draw down federal funds to help pay for additional law enforcement on campus. Abbott also recommends a state policy authorizing schools to prioritize retired law enforcement officers and military veterans to serve as school resource officers.

Gov. Abbott quoted one student who said during the roundtable discussion, “Arming teachers and not knowing who is armed, that is what we need.”

Accordingly, the governor’s plan calls for increasing the number of “school marshals” – armed school personnel who have completed a specialized law enforcement training program – on public school campuses. To do so, Abbott is asking the Texas Legislature to direct funding to be used for additional training this summer at no charge to districts, as well as act to double to number of marshals allowed per campus to one for every one hundred students, up from one for every two hundred students under the current law. The plan also calls for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to issue a letter encouraging administrators to identify personnel to participate in the program. Additionally, Abbott is asking lawmakers to reduce the training required to be a marshal and to change the current requirement that marshals keep their firearms stored in a safe to instead allow them to keep firearms on their persons.

In a nod to local control, Gov. Abbott noted that the plan does not mandate school marshals, and acknowledged that some schools will not adopt the program.

“We understand that when it comes to education, one size simply does not fit all,” Abbott told reporters.

The governor’s plan recommends expanding the state’s active shooter training through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) program, and CJD has provided a $1.25 million grant to offer the program free of charge to participating school districts and charter schools for the remainder of the calendar year.

In his remarks to media, the governor proposed reducing the number of entrances and exits in order to “harden” school campuses. This has already been incorporated into the design of many schools built following the Columbine shooting in 1999, and has significant implications regarding fire safety. The written plan recommends actions such as installing metal detectors and controlling access to campus facilities. The plan also calls for installing active shooter alarm systems separate and different from fire alarm systems.

The TEA will direct $62 million in additional federal funds under the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant program to districts for improving campus safety, such as metal detectors as well as mental health programs.

Gov. Abbott spoke of the need to prevent people from becoming shooters in the first place, and recommended doing so by expanding the Telemedicine Wellness Intervention Triage and Referral (TWITR) project headed up by Texas Tech University, which current being utilized by ten different school districts to identify potential threats before they manifest. Abbott is asking lawmakers to provide $20 million to expand program further, eventually making it statewide.

In order to further prevent threats from turning into violence, Abbott recommends expanding campus crime stopper programs. The plan aims to make it easier for students to anonymously report suspicious behavior through an upgraded mobile app called iWatch Texas, which will is scheduled to launch June 7. Concomitant with this, Abbott recommends increasing the number of fusion centers that identify threats that appear on social media in order to allow law enforcement to intervene before an event occurs.

Abbott further suggested allowing educators to remove threatening students from the classroom through a zero-tolerance policy for students who commit assault. Noting that the 85th Texas Legislature passed a law removing teachers who assault students, the governor is now asking legislators for a law removing students who assault teachers.

The governor also outline a number of steps aimed to enhance gun safety.

“I can assure you, I will never allow second amendment rights to be infringed, but I will always promote responsible gun ownership,” said Abbott.

The governor pointed to current law requiring gun owners to safely store firearms from children under the age of 17. Because the Santa Fe shooter was 17 years old, his parents cannot be criminally charged under this statute. Gov. Abbott suggested lawmakers change the law to apply to “children 17 years of age and younger.”

Furthermore, the governor advocates requiring gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to police, and requiring courts report mental health adjudications within 48 hours, instead of the current 30 days, in order to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. Gov. Abbott is asking lawmakers to consider mental health protective order procedures that would allow family or law enforcement to remove firearms from the home of someone who has proven to be a danger to themselves and others. This would be accomplished in a manner respectful of due process, and for a specified period of time.

Gov. Abbott concluded by listing his top recommendation as greater investment in mental health, especially in crisis intervention counselors. Abbott called the plan outlined Wednesday “a starting point, not an ending place.”

The governor disclosed he will soon be participating in a program to educate the public about safe storage and use of gun locks, as well as pursuing a grant program to provide $1 million for 100,000 free gun locks.

Asked what must change over the summer, Gov. Abbott answered that schools must ramp up personnel and strategies to show a greater law enforcement presence. Additionally, the governor said schools should focus on active shooter training, going back over school safety plans and look into implementing TWITR program.

Questioned about calls from a handful of lawmakers for a special session this summer focused on school shootings, Gov. Abbott told reporters he remains open to calling one if there is a consensus of legislators in favor of passing specific legislation. Abbott also correctly noted the constraints of the legislative process would make any laws passed in a special session unlikely to take effect before the next school year begins.

House committee looks at testing, special ed issues

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

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

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

House Public Education Committee meeting May 24, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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