Tag Archives: 13th Check

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.

New School Year, New Laws: Retirement Benefits

In last week’s “New School Year, New Laws” blog post, we discussed changes to the ethical and professional responsibilities of Texas public school educators. These included big changes to reporting requirements for non-certified employees and the creation of a “do-not-hire” registry. This week, we will shift gears to talk about educator pensions and retirement benefits, which also saw major changes as a result of the 2019 legislative session.

Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston): Increasing funds for TRS

SB 12 was the most important bill for improving the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) that was passed during the 86th legislative session. ATPE supported SB 12 because it infused enough additional funding into the TRS pension fund in order to make it “actuarially sound.” This also made possible the issuance of a 13th check of up to $2,000 to retirees last month. SB 12’s changes also make it more likely that the TRS will be able to offer a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in the next two to four years, which could provide a much-needed permanent increase in benefits to current and future retirees.

Actuarial soundness was achieved by gradually increasing the state, educator, and school district contributions to the fund over the next six years. Through these increased contributions, SB 12 lowered the time frame needed to pay off the unfunded liability of the TRS pension fund to reach an acceptable standard under state law. For those not familiar with pension lingo, unfunded liability refers to the amount by which the cost of future benefits that a fund is obligated to pay exceed the cash on hand in the fund, similar to carrying credit card debt. While SB 12 made great strides in supporting educators who rely on TRS, Texas remains 50th in the nation when it comes to the state’s contribution rate for educator retirement benefits. Moving forward, ATPE will continue to press the legislature to improve the retirement benefits that educators so greatly deserve.

House Bill (HB) 2820 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van): Deregulating 403(b) investment options

Under previous law, TRS kept a list of approved investment vendors that could offer educators 403(b) investment products. These 403(b) investment plans are similar to 401(k) plans in that they offer a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement, but 403(b) plans are designed for public employees and tax-exempt organizations, like churches and charities. HB 2820 deregulates 403(b) investment offerings by eliminating the TRS list of approved vendors, as well as the requirement that vendors abide by TRS’s caps on fees. These caps limited the amount that a vendor could charge for each transaction. Under this new law, educators who choose to invest in a 403(b) will have to more closely monitor the administrative fees they are being charged. Additionally, without the fee cap, vendors might offer investment products that are very expensive now.


Join us next week on our “New School Year, New Laws” blog series here on Teach the Vote as we will discuss legislative changes impacting charter school laws.

For more information on new 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.”

Highlights of the September TRS Board Meeting

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees convened in Austin this week for their regular quarterly meeting. Among items discussed by the board were space planning for the agency, creating regional TRS-ActiveCare offerings, and delivery of the 13th check to retirees.

TRS has recently been in the news with regard to new lease space in downtown Austin. Approximately 10 years ago, TRS ran out of space to house all of its employees at the 11th and Red River location. As a result, the agency moved its investment staff to leased space a few blocks away. Since that time both the TRS benefits/customer service staff and the investment team have continued to grow. Both the Red River location and the leased space are at maximum capacity now. In order to accommodate the size and needs of the investment staff, TRS has taken three floors in a new building, in which TRS is a part owner, further into downtown Austin. The board must determine whether to substantially renovate or move out of TRS’s Red River office in order to accommodate non-investment staff (primarily those working in customer service). Because all TRS costs, including staffing and space, are paid for out of the pension trust fund, these moves naturally bring up questions about whether the agency’s additional staff and office space requirements will bring in more value for TRS members than it costs to accommodate. There is no definitive way to answer this question, but ATPE and other groups representing active and retired TRS members will continue to monitor and report on the value of TRS spending.

Another program in which TRS is trying to find ways to improve its value proposition is TRS-ActiveCare. The agency staff and board members have begun looking into the development of regional ActiveCare options that school districts could choose to offer their employees. The move was prompted by actions taken by El Paso ISD over several years to try to exit the TRS-ActiveCare program. When the district could not find a way to do so under existing state laws, El Paso found a novel way to migrate most of its staff out of the state’s program and onto a new local plan, which was deemed to be cheaper than the statewide plan due to regional differences in healthcare costs. In response to El Paso’s decision and with the expectation that other districts may pursue a similar course of action, TRS is now looking into the possibility of regional options for school district employees. This project is in its preliminary stages and is something ATPE will follow closely as it evolves.

Finally, the TRS board also received an update this week on the 13th check provided to retirees as a result of Senate Bill 12 that was passed by the legislature earlier this year. The additional payment equates to the lesser of the amount of a retiree’s standard monthly annuity check or $2,000. TRS annuitants who receive their TRS payments through direct deposit received the 13th payment on September 10. The remainder of TRS retirees should have received a check in the mail by September 15. ATPE encourages any retirees who did not receive a check and believe that they should have received one to contact TRS directly.

Click here to watch a video of this week’s TRS meetings or review the board materials.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 6, 2019

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


In the wake of the tragic shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Gov. Greg Abbott has issued executive orders addressing public safety. While most of the orders focus on improving agency-level responses like developing standardized intake questions and guidelines on when to submit Suspicious Activity Reports, executive orders number five and six deal directly with schools. The orders are as follows:

  • Order No. 5 The Department of Public Safety shall work with the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on ways to better inform schools, students, staff, and families about the importance of Suspicious Activity Reports and how to initiate that process.
  • Order No. 6 The Department of Public Safety shall work with local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, school districts, and others to create multidisciplinary threat assessment teams for each of its regions, and when appropriate shall coordinate with federal partners.

Learn more about the executive orders in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


Earlier this week U.S. Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX 17) announced that he would not be seeking re-election in 2020. This season has seen the announcement of a number of departures from Capitol Hill as well as many campaign launches. The special elections to fill the seats vacated by Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston), and Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) have been set to coincide with voting on the constitutional amendments on Nov. 5th. The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 5th election is Oct. 7. For more on the races in the upcoming election check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. 


Curriculum and instruction is the subject of this week’s installment of ATPE’s blog series, “New School Year, New Laws.” This blog post examines bills such as House Bill 4310 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) which stipulates that sufficient time be given for students to learn the scope and sequence of TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills); and parts of House Bill 3 that provide funding for gifted and talented programs. For the full list of laws visit this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. 


The latest edition of the Texas Education Agency’s weekly video series, “HB 3 in 30,” covers special education and dyslexia. You can find a link to this week’s video and all previous videos here.


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) has announced a time frame for retirees to receive their 13th ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneycheck. According to the TRS.Texas.gov website, retirees will receive their 13th check on or around Sept. 15, 2019. A list of frequently asked questions about the check can be found here. More of Teach the Vote’s coverage of Senate Bill 12 (the bill responsible for the 13th check) can be found in this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter..


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 5, 2019

It was another groundbreaking week in the Texas legislature, and here’s a look at the headlines from ATPE Governmental Relations:


On Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives passed landmark school finance reform legislation. By a vote of 148-1, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) House Bill 3 passed the lower chamber, clearing the way for its consideration next by the Texas Senate.

The ATPE-supported school finance bill as finally passed by the House allocates billions in new money for public schools, reduces recapture, and provides homeowners with property tax relief. The House added bipartisan compromise language to HB 3 during Wednesday’s floor debate to ensure that all full-time public school district employees in non-administrator roles will also receive pay raises.

Read more about the bill and Wednesday’s major vote in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as attention turns to the Senate to find out how the upper chamber will respond to the school finance bill.


The Senate Education Committee and House Public Education Committee both held multiple meetings this week to hear a variety of education bills.

The Senate Education Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, largely focused on hearing bills pertaining to dual credit. The agenda for Thursday, April 4, included a host of bills relating to virtual schools, including some bills that ATPE opposes. Other pending bills previously heard by the committee were also voted out with favorable recommendations for the full Senate. Read more about the Senate committee’s activities this week in blog posts here and here from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins who covered the hearings.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Public Education Committee’s Tuesday hearing covered topics ranging from pre-K to technology and educator preparation. The agenda for the committee’s Thursday hearing also featured a wide variety of issues, including one bill that ATPE opposes to require school districts to let home-schooled students participate in UIL activities. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier covered the House Public Education Committee hearings, and you can read her reports on the two meetings from this week in blog posts here and here.


ATPE is urging educators to oppose two Senate bills that would endanger free speech rights and limit the ability to teach students about content that relates to “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” The bills are Senate Bill 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) and Senate Bill 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), and both of them got a favorable nod from the Senate State Affairs committee this week.

SB 1569 and SB 905 would expand current laws that restrict the use of public resources for “political advertising.” The bills are unnecessary, since state law already prohibits using school resources for electioneering which is enforced by the Attorney General, and these two bills will have harmful unintended consequences.

SB 1569 would broaden the definition of political advertising, impose harsh restrictions on political speech by public school employees, and make it nearly impossible to teach students about elections or civic responsibility or anything deemed to fall under the vague category of “a matter of public interest.” SB 904 also tries to limit political speech by restricting access to government communication systems like a school district’s Wi-Fi network. It also calls for fining any third party that sends political advertising to a government email address. SB 904 will unreasonably penalize innocent third parties and have a chilling effect on free speech and political involvement by educators, even making it hard to teach students about anything related to politics.

Both SB 1569 and SB 904 appear to be reactions to the surge in educator participation in elections last year, and both bills are likely to spark constitutional challenges if passed. Based on their obvious targeting of the education community, both bills are reminiscent of unsuccessful efforts last legislative session to dissuade educators from joining professional associations that advocate for public education. With yesterday’s committee vote, these two bills have the potential to reach the full Senate for a floor debate very soon. ATPE is urging educators to contact their senators and ask them to reject SB 1569 and SB 904. Read more about the bills in this blog post. ATPE members can click here to visit Advocacy Central and send a quick message to their senator.


As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the legislature is considering ATPE-supported bills to increase contributions into the TRS pension fund. This week the House Committee on Pensions, Investments and Financial Services considered one of the bills, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which the full Senate has already passed unanimously.

SB 12 is being sponsored on the Senate side by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R- League City), who chairs the Article III (education) subcommittee in House Appropriations and is the author of another bill to increase funding for TRS via House Bill (HB) 9. (That bill, which ATPE also supports, was already heard by the House Pensions committee last week.) ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that during this week’s hearing on SB 12, Chairman Bonnen offered a committee substitute version of Senate Bill 12 that would replace its language with the language from his HB 9. After a brief hearing on the bill, the committee took the somewhat unusual step of immediately voting the committee substitute version of SB 12 favorably out of committee and recommending that it go to the full House for further consideration. The bill, which appears to be on an expedited track, will next go to the House Calendars Committee which has the authority to set the bill on a House calendar for a scheduled for debate. Once the bill has been approved by the full House, which it is expected to easily do, it will return to the Senate where Sen. Huffman will likely send SB 12 to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate language.

While both versions of the bill would increase the overall contribution rate into the TRS pension system and provide current retirees with a 13th check, the House language does so by focusing the entire increase on the state’s contribution rate without raising the rates of educators or school districts. Additionally, the House version provides for a substantially larger 13th check, up to $2400 per retiree vs $500 dollars per retiree in the Senate version of the bill.


 

TRS bills move forward in both chambers

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in the House Pensions Committee, March 26, 2019.

The 86th Legislature has been considering bills to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), which ATPE supports. Preserving the solvency and defined-benefit structure of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension program for educators is an ATPE legislative priority this session.

On the Senate side, one high-profile measure on the move pertaining to this priority is Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R – Houston). After the bill received approval last week from the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which Sen. Huffman chairs, the full Senate passed SB 12 unanimously out of the upper chamber on Monday, March 25, sending it on its way to the House.

Meanwhile, a House committee today heard its own version of how to increase financial support for TRS, as well as for the state’s current retired educators. House Bill (HB) 9 by Greg Bonnen (R – Friendswood) was heard this morning by the House Committee on Pensions, Investments & Financial Services. The bill was left pending in committee today but is expected to receive a favorable committee vote in the near future.

Byron Hildebrand

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand delivered our association’s testimony strongly supporting HB 9 in committee today. Hildebrand, who is also a retired educator, thanked legislators for taking a positive step forward with legislation aimed at making the TRS pension found sound, and he encouraged lawmakers to continue to take steps to do great things for active and retired teachers. Click here to watch today’s committee hearing, where HB 9 was the first bill considered. (Hildebrand’s testimony begins at approximately the 43-minute mark in the archived broadcast.)

While SB 12 and HB 9 both increase contributions to TRS and provide a 13th check to current retirees, the bills differ on the amount of the increased contribution, who would pay for it, and the size of the 13th payment. At 2.5%, the overall increase in TRS contributions under SB 12 would be a half percent more than the 2% increase called for by HB 9. However, HB 9 puts the responsibility for paying for the entire contribution increase on the state by raising the state’s rate from 6.8% up to to 8.8%. SB 12 only raises the state’s contribution rate from 6.8% to 8.25%, while also raising the active member rate from 7.7% to 8.25%, and raising the school district contribution rate from 1.5% up to 2%. HB 9 also begins and finishes raising the contribution rate a year sooner than SB 12 would. In terms of 13th payments, SB 12 offers all retirees a $500 bonus, while HB 9 would provide current retirees a 13th check in the same amount as their regular monthly annuity up to $2,400.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on these two ATPE-supported bills as they continue to move through the legislative process.