Tag Archives: budget

State legislators preview budget, public education ahead of 2021 session

State legislators offered up a preview this week of what debates over public education policy and the budget could look like in the 87th Texas Legislature. Legislators spoke to the Texas Tribune as part of the Texas Tribune Festival 2020, which is being held virtually throughout the month of September.

On Tuesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and state Rep. Mary González (D-Clint), who serves on the subcommittee that oversees public education spending, addressed the budget.

Earlier this summer, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced that the state will end the current two-year budget cycle at a $4.6 billion deficit, marking an $11.5 billion decline from what was estimated before the economic recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely know this will be one of the worst budget sessions that we’ve ever experienced,” said Rep. González. “We haven’t really dealt with a deficit this big in a significant amount of time.”

González expressed optimism that Texas has fared better than other states during the economic recession, and suggested the House will look for innovative solutions for addressing the budget crunch, such as looking for areas to cut or raise new revenue.

González said her personal wish list includes drawing down additional federal funding by expanding Medicaid and reducing the amount of additional state money legislators have chosen to spend on border security. Chairman Capriglione said he is hopeful that future relief funds from the federal government will support state and local municipalities as well.

Regarding Texas’s Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF), Capriglione noted that the “rainy day fund” will likely not be the only solution and legislators will want to be able to save some money for future emergencies, such as another hurricane. Rep. González suggested the fund will not be enough to meet all of the state’s needs. The chairman also pointed out that legislation passed during the last legislative session allowed the state to invest some of the ESF, which generated $230 million in interest income last year.

State leaders have asked most agencies to cut their budgets by 5% ahead of the next budget cycle, which Chairman Capriglione said will have to be cleared by legislators. The chairman said cuts made now will serve to ease some of the pressure during the next budget cycle. Rep. González cautioned that cuts must be made in a way that does not harm vulnerable populations. Capriglione added that public health, public safety, and public education should be protected.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) spoke on Monday about the shape of the public education discussion when legislators meet in January. Chairman Huberty suggested the next legislative session will be about maintaining rather than expanding the changes made by House Bill (HB) 3, the school finance bill legislators passed last session. This includes preserving the funding that went to providing a modest increase to some educators’ salaries.

Both admitted they haven’t looked at new revenue sources for HB 3 other than relying on the economy to improve. Huberty suggested we could find money by pausing some programs under HB 3 right after mentioning the incentive program. On the other hand Taylor talked about continuing the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) because districts are using it.

The chairmen also addressed the concerns of districts that have voiced frustration over federal relief funding Congress appropriated for schools, which the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has used to supplant rather than supplement state funding for schools. Chairman Taylor explained the decision was made in order to keep the state’s commitment to provide funding at the same level districts expected to receive before the recession hit. Yet, both chairmen suggested school districts will need to use some of their fund balances to fill in budget holes.

The 87th Texas Legislature is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 4, 2020

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day in America. The essential work of public education has never been more prominent, and ATPE thanks all educators and staff for their service! Here is a summary of this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: This week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched “Project Restore”– a six-part webinar series that provides trauma-informed mental health training to teachers. The training is meant to help teachers not only reach their students, but also work out their own COVID-induced stresses. TEA also made several smaller updates to other aspects of its COVID-19 resource page. Read ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier’s blog post for more.

ATPE has been working hard to facilitate information-sharing during the pandemic. Be sure to check out our COVID-19 FAQs and Resources for new answers to commonly asked questions, watch our easy-to-understand webcasts on educator rights and leave options and disability accommodations, and explore our interactive pandemic timeline. For opportunities to take action, ATPE members can use Advocacy Central to communicate with elected officials, and anyone can take our survey on parent-teacher collaboration.


ELECTION UPDATE: H-E-B grocery store owner and public education advocate Charles Butt wrote  to the Texas Supreme Court this week, supporting Harris County’s decision to send vote-by-mail applications to its residents. Butt says in the letter, “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.” For more on the letter and the Texas Senate District 30 special election on September 29, see this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


States and schools should not expect a federal waiver of testing requirements this year, according to President Trump’s education secretary. Betsy DeVos wrote a letter to chief state school officers on Wednesday with this warning, urging them to demonstrate their “resolve” by continuing to administer standardized tests to students. ATPE is among countless organizations that have called for a waiver of testing requirements this year amid lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell.


With more Texans considering mail-in voting for the November general election, ATPE has developed a set of tips and social media graphics to help voters understand what is required. Check out our new resources on applying for a mail-in ballot in this new blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter. Find out if you meet the eligibility requirements to apply for a mail-in ballot, and submit your application by Sept. 19 to ensure you will have enough time to cast your vote.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) held a virtual meeting this week where they received an update on the performance of the permanent school fund (PSF) and advanced a new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) subchapter on positive character traits, as required by House Bill (HB) 1026 passed by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019.

According to Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and outside consultants hired to help monitor the fund’s investments, the PSF is in good health and slowly recovering from the economic recession sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Focus has recently turned to management of the fund, which is split between the SBOE and another state agency. An outside consulting firm delivered a report to the board this week with recommendations aimed at improving management.

The board’s 15 members are scheduled to return to Austin in person on Tuesday for a week-long meeting that will address curriculum standards for science and health education, as well as whether to open more charter schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about this week’s SBOE meeting in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE is asking state officials to take a closer look at planned education spending cuts that could unnecessarily hurt at-risk students. An article in the Austin American-Statesman this week revealed a summary from the Legislative Budget Board that shows how state agencies plan to cut their spending by 5% this year, as directed by state leaders back in May. The planned reductions in K-12 education spending for 2020-21 include across-the-board cuts to several state-funded programs and initiatives, although most of the education budget was exempted from the order to withhold funds. The Windham School District and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs) would see reduced funding this year, as would Communities in Schools programs that serve at-risk students. ATPE issued a press statement today urging state officials to consider more strategic reductions in this year’s spending that would cause fewer negative impacts on Texas’ most vulnerable students.

Another round of federal stimulus inching closer to reality

Another round of federal relief money is one step closer to becoming a reality, as Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday presented their proposal two months after Democrats passed theirs out of the U.S. House of Representatives. With substantial differences between these latest two COVID-19 relief proposals, however, there is much work to be done to negotiate a plan that can pass out of both chambers.

The $1 trillion Republican proposal, dubbed the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, includes $105 billion for education, $70 billion of which would go to K-12 schools specifically. However, two-thirds of that funding, roughly $47 billion, would only flow to schools that reopen for in-person instruction and would not be available to schools that only offer virtual instruction in response to high levels of local COVID-19 infections. Schools that delay in-person instruction for safety reasons could receive some of the remaining one-third of the funding that would be split among all schools, regardless of whether they open in-person or through distance methods. Similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, the new proposal also includes $5 billion for state governors to spend on K-12 and higher education.

Even though states would receive funds under the Republican HEALS Act proposal based proportionately on their previous school year’s Title I funding, states would have to reserve a proportional portion of the federal funding for private schools. Private schools receiving federal funds would not be subject to the same requirements under the GOP proposal as public schools. The new proposal does not include a requirement to provide “equitable services” to private schools under the new funding as was included in the CARES Act.

The Republican proposal also includes immunity from liability intended to shield school districts and businesses that reopen amid the pandemic from lawsuits by employees or customers who are exposed to the virus or become infected as a result.

Another major headline of the Senate plan includes lower monthly unemployment payments. Payments would decrease from the current $600 per week down to $200, which could be combined with state unemployment benefits for up to 70% of a person’s wages before losing their job due to the pandemic. Those unemployment payments, created by the CARES Act in March, are scheduled to expire this weekend unless extended by Congress. The GOP plan would extend the moratorium on evictions, a provision from the first CARES Act that has already lapsed, and would provide another round of stimulus checks using the same criteria as under the CARES Act. Each individual earning up to $75,000 per year would receive $1,200, and decreasing amounts would be paid to those earning up to $99,000.

The Republican plan is part of a larger package of legislation that includes a stand-alone voucher bill filed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and cosponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would create a permanent program providing up to $5 billion in tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) that transfer public school dollars to private institutions. This is a perennial proposal advocated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in her quest to privatize education. The new voucher bill would also direct emergency education funding meant for public schools to SGOs for private use. Expansion of these voucher programs remains a top priority of the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos, as they continue using the pandemic to promote these proposals despite repeated failures to pass them through the Congress.

The House, under Democratic leadership, passed the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act back in May. The House bill would provide $90 billion directly to education, including $58 billion for all K-12 schools. Unlike the Senate plan, the House bill provides a separate $950 billion in emergency funding to state and local governments aimed at preventing budget shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers and other public employees.

The HEROES Act would also provide another round of stimulus checks to individuals, and would additionally raise the payout for each dependent to $1,200 up from $500 under the CARES Act. The bill would extend the full $600 weekly unemployment payments into next year, extend the suspension of student loan payments, provide up to $10,000 in student debt relief, and prohibit Secretary DeVos from imposing restrictions on populations of students who receive emergency financial relief under the CARES Act.

Each of these proposals represents the opening bid in negotiations between the two chambers and the Trump administration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has expressed a desire to vote on the Senate bill before members leave for recess August 7. The Senate bill was originally expected to be unveiled last week, but was reportedly delayed amid ongoing negotiations with the White House, which supports the Senate’s proposal. House Democrats passed their bill in May, but Senate Republicans ignored it and declined to take action on another relief package until recently.

Federal relief for schools would come at a critical time as the 2020-21 school year begins. Regardless of whether instruction is being delivered virtually or in person, school buildings across Texas will once again fill with teachers and staff, necessitating costly safety protocols. Virtual instruction poses added technology costs to districts, which are already looking at potential budget shortfalls due to declining tax revenues caused by the pandemic-induced recession.

Texas is estimated to face a $4.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2020, and the 2021 legislative session is already expected to feature drastic cuts in state spending. Federal relief dollars would go a long way in reducing the pressure to cut education spending here in Texas. House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the president all will have to approve any additional relief package from Congress.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 24, 2020

With the start of school just around the corner, it’s been another busy week for ATPE and the education community. Read about this week’s developments below from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: ATPE’s incoming State Vice President Karen Hames and Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell spoke on CNN’s Chris Cuomo Prime Time show Thursday night, July 23, to contribute their perspectives on school reopening. Hames and Mitchell stressed that teachers care about their kids and want to be in school with them, but that educators have concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus in a classroom setting. Hames shared reasons why school choice would not provide any real solutions to parents’ concerns about COVID-19, and Mitchell emphasized the need for additional federal funding and better guidance at the state level to help school districts prepare for reopening amid the pandemic. Watch video of the CNN segment here.

In other news related to COVID-19, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) released a long-awaited announcement this week that delays the schedules of 5A-6A conferences. Additionally, UIL shares that marching band practice in all conferences may not begin until September 7, 2020. Updates to TEA’s COVID-19 Support and Guidance Page this week included a new summary of the agency’s reopening guidance, several new “Strong Start” resources, and new CARES Act and attendance and enrollment information.

Visit the ATPE COVID-19 FAQ and Resources page for constantly updated resources and answers to common questions from educators. ATPE members can also use Advocacy Central to communicate with their elected officials regarding school reopening and other issues.


This week, ATPE submitted formal public comments on the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) interim final rule directing how districts spend their CARES Act federal emergency dollars on equitable services for students in private schools. The interim final rule, effective July 1, 2020, is estimated to cause public school districts to spend over $44 million of their Title I-derived emergency funds on private school students regardless of poverty — more than $38 million more than they would normally spend under the longstanding interpretation of equitable services in federal law. ATPE’s comments urge the department to rescind its inequitable and distorted interpretation of the CARES Act, which goes against congressional intent. Over 5,200 comments have been submitted, but the department is not required to respond to them because of the emergency rulemaking process. Read more about the new federal rule in this recent Teach the Vote blog post. Read ATPE’s public comments here.


ELECTION UPDATE: Last week saw one of the most unusual elections in recent memory: A runoff postponed due to a global pandemic that proceeded to intensify in Texas as the new election date approached. Early voting was expanded from the usual one week to two weeks in order to reduce the load on polling locations. Some voters also took advantage of alternative methods of casting their ballots to avoid contracting COVID-19 at the polls, although Texas broke ranks with other parts of the country by refusing to expand the ability to vote by mail amid the pandemic. Despite the failure of lawsuits aimed at expanding mail-in ballot options, Texas saw a substantial increase in mail-in voting during this runoff election, which caused official results to be delayed by a few days but did not result in changes to any of the unofficial race outcomes revealed on election night. The July 14 election also exposed troubling voting issues that will have to be corrected before the November election.

With double the time to vote early, this month’s runoffs saw double the turnout over the primary runoff elections in 2018, 6.61% to 3.22%, respectively. After all of the debate over voting by mail, 30% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans who voted early cast their ballots by mail. That’s actually down from 36% of all early voters who cast mail-in ballots in the 2018 runoffs. Democrats had a huge turnout — nearly 956,000 voted in the primary runoffs, but comparable statewide numbers aren’t available for Republican turnout because there wasn’t a statewide GOP runoff like there was on the Democrats’ ballot. Party turnout in primary elections is not always an accurate predictor of turnout in the general election. But based on the turnout for a runoff election in July, in the Texas heat, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, it’s probably safe to assume that overall turnout for the November general election will be enormous. That makes researching candidates and making your voting plan for November more important than ever! See more election results in last week’s recap by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


CONGRESSIONAL UPDATE: The U.S. House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education met Thursday, July 23, for a hearing on the safe reopening of schools. The discussion bounced back and forth between the health risks for children and health risks for teachers and staff, with implications across the board for future funding to get schools on the path to a safe reopening. Get the full rundown on the meeting in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

While a proposal for additional federal emergency aid (dubbed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions or “HEROES” Act) was approved by the U.S. House several weeks ago, the U.S. Senate has now agreed on its own $105 billion aid package for education, which includes $70 billion for K-12 schools. The proposal would tie the K-12 funding to in-person instruction by sending $35 billion to schools that open for in-person instruction and splitting the remaining $35 billion among all schools, regardless of their method of instruction. The $30 billion for colleges will not be tied to in-person instruction, and governors will receive the last $5 billion to spend on either K-12 or higher education. The details of the proposal are expected to be made public on Monday.



After a week-long delay, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated guidance for the reopening of public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The brunt of the new guidance issued last night, July 23, consists of justifying the push to reopen schools for in-person instruction. New items include recommending that schools group students and teachers into isolated cohorts or “pods” meant to limit in-person contact. There is also a checklist intended to assist parents in deciding  whether to send their children to school. A new mask guidance document suggests masks can be worn by anyone older than two years old, though some groups of students may need special adaptations and alternatives. Even as the guidance encourages reopening, it urges caution to those considering to do so in areas of substantial, uncontrolled transmission. Furthermore, the guidance recommends tying operational decisions to local epidemiological conditions. The guidance states as follows:

“Schools should be prepared for COVID-19 cases and exposure to occur in their facilities. Collaborating with local health officials will continue to be important once students are back to school, as they can provide regular updates about the status of COVID-19 in the community and help support and maintain the health and wellbeing of students, teachers, and staff.”

All of the CDC guidance documents, including the latest guidance as well as recommendations dating back to May, can be found here.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today, July 24, to take action on several items implementing the Science of Teaching Reading exam requirements from last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 and to discuss COVID-19 considerations related to certification. Additionally, the board approved a proposal to transition Legacy Master Teacher certificate holders into lifetime certificates, as HB 3 barred the Master Teacher certificate from being issued or renewed. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier testified before SBEC in support of this proposal, continuing our months-long advocacy for a fix for Master Teachers. Read more about today’s SBEC meeting in this blog post from Chevalier and read the written testimony here.


SCHOOL FINANCE UPDATE: Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar created buzz this week with the release of his certification revenue estimate, which shows that the state faces a $4.6 billion deficit due to both COVID-19 and the largest drop in oil prices in decades. While some revenue sources have helped to soften the blow, including federal coronavirus aid and new revenue from online commerce, the uncertainties ahead will make the state budget lawmakers’ top concern in the upcoming 2021 legislative session. Read more about the revenue esimate and Hegar’s interview with the Texas Tribune this week in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.  

In other school finance news, Just Fund It, a non-partisan group of parents, students, and community members across Texas advocating for increased public school funding, has begun a petition aimed at urging Gov. Abbott to ensure stable and predictable school funding. Specifically, the petition asks the governor to extend the 12-week “hold harmless” period for calculating funding based on attendance as recently announced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the coming school year. The group presents a compelling argument for extending the hold harmless to cover the entire 2020-21 school year.

Texas projected to face $4.6 billion deficit by the end of the current biennium

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the elected official charged with overseeing the state’s finances, now expects Texas will face a $4.6 billion deficit by the end of the current two-year budget cycle. The state had as recently as February been looking at a multi-billion dollar surplus heading into next session.

One of the comptroller’s primary jobs is releasing state revenue estimates, which project how much tax revenue the state is expected to collect in relation to how much it is budgeted to spend. These estimates are revised periodically, particularly in the event of a drastic change in economic circumstances. The economic downturn caused by the simultaneous events of the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price war certainly marked a drastic change.

Certification Revenue Estimate 2020-21 Info-graphic from the Texas Comptroller

The comptroller told legislators back in April that the economic double-whammy had sent Texas officially into a recession. On Monday, Hegar testified before the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and shared a revised revenue estimate that offered sobering numbers. The state is projected to end fiscal year (FY) 2021 with a budget shortfall of $4.6 billion — a $7.5 billion reversal from the $2.9 billion surplus his office projected in the certified revenue estimate (CRE) released in October 2019. The state is now expected to have $110.2 billion in available general revenue for the 2020-2021 budget biennium, representing an $11.6 billion decline from $121.8 projected in the 2019 CRE.

A mathematically-minded observer may note that the numbers do not exactly match up. Hegar explained that while revenue collections dropped by $11.6 billion, the budget fell by only $7.5 billion as a result of a handful of factors that reduced the amount of money the state was expecting to spend. Among them, Texas received $1.2 billion of federal CARES Act funding for public education that it used to offset state spending. Changes in the assumptions regarding the state share and the local share of public education funding resulted in $1.7 billion in unanticipated local funding. The state also received an additional $700 million in recapture (or “Robin Hood”) payments that it had not anticipated.

Source: Texas Comptroller

Sen. Finance Committee Chair state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) asked Hegar in Monday’s LBB hearing whether legislators should expect to tighten their belts during the next legislative session. Hegar was reticent to prognosticate beyond the current budget cycle. However, he was quick to point out that he had pushed early on for agencies to reduce their spending ahead of next session. State leaders have since instructed state agencies to reduce spending by 5% across the board. Hegar noted that instruction is not factored into this projection. Any savings will however reduce the need for supplemental spending in the next legislative session, reducing the overall pressure on the next biennium’s budget.

In response to a question posed by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Hegar indicated that the state will be able to ensure schools receive the additional funding promised this budget cycle as a result of the school finance bill House Bill (HB) 3. Yet Hegar suggested there is tremendous uncertainty as to what the state will be able to provide in the upcoming 2022-23 budget cycle.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) said Monday that school districts across the state have roughly $14 billion in fund balances, which represents each district’s cash reserves. Patrick suggested that the state could tap those fund balances to offset the budget deficit. Patrick separately acknowledged that teachers are now included in the list of “frontline” workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey (left) interviews Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar (R-Texas).

The revised estimate released this week does not take into account agency budget cuts, whether schools reopen for in-person versus remote instruction, or any future federal relief money. Hegar explained Wednesday in an interview with Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey that the estimate does not factor in any additional federal relief money until a bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president. Hegar also told Ramsey that the estimate was based upon the assumptions that the economic recovery is already underway, that there will not be an additional spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall that would spark another shutdown, and that GDP may return to normal by the end of 2021.

Hegar said that the state saw a less drastic decline in sales tax revenue than he had previously feared. The state also took in $950 million more in taxes from online purchases as a result of legislation passed during the last legislative session that expanded the sales tax.

Source: Texas Comptroller.

The economic stabilization fund (ESF), commonly referred to as the “rainy day fund,” is projected to end FY 2021 with a balance of $8.8 billion. This fund is fed by taxes collected from oil and gas operations, which have been hit hard by the combination of lower oil prices and a reduction in production following the precipitous drop in demand caused by the economic impacts of the pandemic. The ESF was designed as a safety feature to enable legislators to dip into the fund to during lean years, smoothing out the fluctuations in available tax revenue caused by volatility in the oil and gas market and enabling the state to maintain critical government services.

In both testimony and interviews this week, Hegar has emphasized the need for the community to come to terms with the reality of a protracted battle against COVID-19. Hegar highlighted citizens’ responsibility to wear masks and engage in safe practices designed to slow the disease’s spread and prevent another shutdown. On a positive note, Hegar noted the healthy ESF and potential savings from agency budget cuts are among the measures at the state’s disposal to help manage the budget shortfall.

“There’s plenty of tools in the toolbox to be able deal with it as this current revenue estimate projects,” said Hegar, while adding the caveat, “Every revenue estimate has clouds of uncertainty, yet this one has greater clouds of uncertainty than ever before.”

The comptroller discussed other potential sources of revenue and savings in Wednesday’s interview. Hegar contended that an income tax is unlikely to pass in Texas, where such a proposal would require a supermajority of the Texas legislature and a statewide vote. The comptroller was also skeptical of the idea of legalizing and taxing marijuana, which polling shows is supported by most Texans. Hegar instead pointed to budget measures taken during the 2011 legislative session, which saw large budget cuts (including $5.4 billion from public education) as a result of a projected budget shortfall. The comptroller also mentioned deferring public education payments and looking at funding for Medicaid.

When the 87th Texas Legislature convenes in January 2021, shoring up the current budget will be the first task legislators face. Their next task will be to set the budget for the 2022-2023 biennium, which Hegar warned is likely to be a much bigger issue — although it’s too early to forecast the scope of the challenge. That will be the focus of the comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate (BRE), which is usually released right before the new legislative session begins.

Wrapping up the July TRS board meeting

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Board of Trustees met virtually last week on Wednesday through Friday, July 15-17, for its regular board meeting. In addition to other items, the board discussed the current financial market, TRS-Care and ActiveCare, the fiscal year 2021 budget and highlights of the preliminary legislative appropriations request, and updated considerations on TRS office space.

The official numbers for the trust fund through March 31 were presented to the board, but it was noted that those numbers are at this point significantly out of date. Staff went on to report that the market (as gauged by the S&P 500) has rebounded to approximately January 2020 levels, and they indicated that the TRS fund has tracked the market similarly. The benefit of the quick recovery of fund assets is that only a relatively small amount of assets had to be sold while prices were down to cover the cost of pension benefits paid out over that time frame. Longer recovery periods are by comparison much more detrimental to the fund because the period in which assets have to be sold at a reduced price, effectively locking in losses, is much longer.

TRS Board Presentation: S&P 500 chart

While the stock market and the TRS pension fund are relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic for the moment, the state budget that relies largely on sales tax receipts and oil and gas severance taxes is in much worse shape. Due to this reality, state leaders called on all state agencies to cut their fiscal year 2021 budgets. Although the retirement system’s operational expenses are paid out of the pension fund itself and not out of the state’s general revenue, TRS still undertook the budget trimming exercise.

TRS staff presented the board with a proposed operational budget of $211 million for fiscal year (FY) 2021. This represents a 9% decrease from the FY21 target budget and a 6% decrease from the FY20 operational budget, which was $225 million. As part of the cost saving measures, TRS has instituted a hiring freeze through 2020 and a salary freeze through FY21. The agency has also cut the majority of outsourced funding going to vendors previously working on the data systems project dubbed TEAMS. The project will continue with the current number of in-house employees. TRS is also abandoning the effort to set completion dates on TEAMS benchmarks, as those dates have proven to be unrealistic and problematic.

In addition to next year’s budget, TRS staff also updated the board on the draft legislative appropriations request (LAR) the agency will present to lawmakers during the next legislative session. The agency’s request will cover fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The request will ask for specific funding to cover the state’s share of healthcare and pension costs, in addition to approval of the agency’s projected operational budget. TRS plans to ask for funding in the agency’s LAR based on the increased state contributions to pensions and retiree healthcare that legislators ordered during the last session and considering standard payroll growth assumptions for teacher salaries.

The agency’s LAR will also include a request for funding for 25 additional employees, or what are referred to as “Full-Time Equivalents” (FTEs). TRS staff had internally requested an additional 167 FTEs: 57 for the Investment Management Division (IMD) and 110 for the Benefits division. The 25 new FTEs in the agency’s LAR will go to IMD as a part of a “growing the fleet” initiative. This initiative aims to save the pension fund money by reducing outsourced costs in a greater amount than the cost of the new salaries. The Benefits division will have no new FTEs included in the upcoming LAR.

Over the last 18 months, space planning has become a constant conversation at the TRS board level as issues over the short term plans to lease space for housing the IMD staff have transitioned into a broader conversation on longer-term space needs for all staff. TRS continues to move forward with the goal of having a solution for its long-term office space needs in place by 2025. A major priority of that push is to house all TRS employees in the same location and discontinue the practice of housing the IMD staff in separate leased space.

As with everything, the current coronavirus has impacted the discussion around TRS space planning. With declining real estate prices and new potential spaces opening up in downtown Austin, the agency has paused its negotiations to renew its lease at 816 Congress so as to assess if there are better options available. Unfortunately, while the current market may present an opportunity for savings as a tenant, it is creating a more challenging environment in which to sublet the TRS space in Austin’s new Indeed Tower. The COVID-19 pandemic also has forced the agency to utilize remote working for a significant number of its staff for an extended time frame. Due to this change, TRS has revised its assumptions going forward on the percentage of staff who can work from home on a daily basis from 5% up to 25%. This change decreases TRS’s overall space requirements but also highlights a need for more collaborative space for staff who may usually work outside the office to come in and use. This also opens up the possibility that, with significant renovations, the agency’s current Red River location could house all TRS employees on a longer-term basis. Such renovations might not be any less expensive than simply relocating the agency to a new location outside of downtown Austin.

Finally, nominations for an active member seat on the TRS board of trustees are currently underway. The nomination period began June 15 and will continue through January 25, 2021. Assuming there are more than three successful nominees, an election will be held from March 15 to May 5, 2021. The top three vote-earners from that election will be reported to the governor, who will appoint the new board member from among those three candidates. ATPE members interested in running for this TRS board position can contact the ATPE Government Relations team for more information.

Access board documents and archived video of the July meeting here on the TRS website. The next TRS board meeting will be held in September.

ATPE weighs in on proposed Teacher Incentive Allotment rules

House Bill (HB) 3, the landmark school finance bill passed by Texas lawmakers in 2019, included funding for a new Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). Despite almost certain budget cuts in the upcoming legislative session that call into question the state’s ability to fund the ambitious and somewhat controversial performance pay program, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has forged ahead with implementation of the program. Administrative rulemaking to implement the new TIA law is currently underway, which affords the public an opportunity to provide input on the program. ATPE submitted formal comments on the proposed commissioner’s rules this week.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) began putting out information on the TIA through its HB 3 in 30 video series back in the fall of 2019. Earlier this year, the agency asked school districts interested in participating in the program to submit a letter of intent and also released guidance on timelines for funding and implementation. Additionally, TEA staff briefed the ATPE Board of Directors on the plans for TIA implementation in February.

On April 24, after more than six months of sharing guidance with the field, TEA published proposed commissioner’s rules on the TIA’s Local optional teacher designation systems. Local optional teacher designation systems are the school district-developed and TEA-approved rubrics by which a district can designate individual teachers for merit recognition under the TIA, giving the district access to TIA merit pay funding from the state.

During the last legislative session, the ATPE lobby team worked hard to ensure the laws creating the TIA program would include certain provisions protecting the confidentially of the teacher evaluation process. We also fought to ensure districts would not be required to use students’ STAAR test scores to rank educators, and that it would be at least mathematically possible under each district’s plan for all teachers to earn a designation if they met the eligibility requirements. In the comments we submitted this week, ATPE requested changes to improve upon the implementation plans and ensure that the fruits of those hard-fought legislative battles would be reflected in the TIA rules. Read more about how the legislature designed the TIA law in this Teach the Vote blog post.

TEA is now tasked with organizing and responding to all comments the agency has received from various stakeholders and potentially modifying the proposed rules accordingly. The commissioner’s rules on the TIA are scheduled to go into effect July 30, 2020.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 22, 2020

As the 2019-20 school year winds down, state leaders continue to open Texas back up. While parents, students, and teachers focus on end-of-year tasks and COVID-modified celebrations, many education leaders are already focused on summer learning and how school will roll out next fall. This Memorial Day weekend, we hope our readers will get to take a much deserved break before starting the next chapter.


Gov. Abbott’s May 18th press conference

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: On Monday, May 18, Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference to announce the further reopening of Texas. Child care centers and youth clubs were allowed to reopen that day, and businesses were allowed to have a limited number of employees back in the office. Today, restaurants may increase their capacity to 50% and bars can open at 25% capacity. On May 31, day camps and certain professional sports (without in-person spectators) can resume activity.

On June 1, schools can reopen to students, according to the governor, but with enhanced safety measures and physical distancing requirements in place. As noted in this article from the Texas Tribune republished on our site this week, Texas schools cannot require students to attend in the summer. Districts can make summer school attendance a condition for grade promotion, but only if they offer a distance learning option.

In conjunction with the governor’s announcement about summer school, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) outlined health and safety considerations for reopening schools next month, such as taking students’ temperatures daily and having students eat lunch at their desks. These overlap with the more comprehensive CDC school considerations, which also emphasize using masks and direct school systems to train their staff, have a back-up staffing plan, and strengthen paid/sick leave policies.

For more coronavirus-related resources from TEA, click here. Visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter for developments on the response to COVID-19. Also, check out our recent recap of legislative and regulatory developments impacting Texas and education since the pandemic began.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is attempting to respond to numerous questions about what next year’s school calendars will look like. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has spoken several times recently about flexible school years, urging schools to consider starting the 2020-21 school year earlier, ending it later, and building in flexible “breaks” to accommodate pandemic-related issues.

TEA’s new school calendar FAQ stresses that calendar changes are local school board decisions, but that the calendar is a “key lever” in addressing student learning loss, even if this causes financial strain on the district. Teacher pay and contracts are also briefly addressed in the new FAQ, which states that, “in most cases, a district can require its teachers to work the extra days if the district: 1) provides additional compensation under existing contracts that permit extended calendar/number of days worked flexibility to the teachers for the extra time required to complete the adjusted school year; and 2) extends by agreement the existing teacher contracts to address the extra time and any associated compensation.”

ATPE member and former Texas Teacher of the Year Stephanie Stoebe told CBS Austin news this week, “I could support us having longer breaks. I could support year-round school, but I definitely believe we need to be in the classroom.” Also featured in the story, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell noted that difficult school calendar decisions involve considerations such as childcare arrangements and the potential need for more funding that some districts may not have. Read ATPE’s recent press statement about school calendar concerns here.


TEA released new guidance yesterday on CARES Act funding for school districts, which includes information about using federal stimulus funds to provide services to private school students and the ability of districts to use the emergency funds to supplant, not supplement, obligations in their current budgets.

Commissioner Mike Morath

As expected, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sided this week with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s interpretation of “equitable services” under the CARES Act. DeVos asked states to instruct their public school districts to use Title-I-based federal emergency education funds to provide services (such as teacher professional development and technology) to all non-profit, private school students in their bounds, regardless of income or student residence location. This interpretation differs from the long-established intent behind the equitable services provision in Title I of federal education law, which requires equitable services only for students who reside within a public school’s attendance zone located in a low-income area and are failing or at risk of failing to meet achievement standards.

Read more about the development in this Teach the Vote blog post.


ELECTION UPDATE: The on-again/off-again saga of mail-in voting in Texas continues, but appears to be off again for now. The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments this week on whether to expand mail-in voting in light of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. A state district court and appellate court both ruled in favor of expanding mail-in voting, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) appealed the rulings.

Also this week, a federal judge ruled that the state’s current restrictions on voting by mail violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and that all registered voters in Texas could apply to vote by mail. Again, at the request of Paxton, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed one day later to temporarily stay the expanded vote-by-mail ruling while it decides whether to substantively overturn the decision.

Read more on the dispute in this week’s Texas election roundup blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) sent a letter this week to state agencies and institutions of higher education asking them to submit a plan to reduce their budgets by 5% for the current biennium.

State leaders suggest cutting administrative costs that are not “mission critical.” The Foundation School Program, school safety, and employer contributions to the Teacher Retirement System, among other essential government functions, are excluded from the call for a reduction.

Looking ahead to the next two-year state budget that lawmakers will adopt in 2021, the letter from “the big three” leaders also warns of additional belt-tightening in the months ahead.

“Every state agency and institution should prepare to submit reduced budget requests as well as strategies to achieve further savings. Furthermore, when the state revenue picture becomes clearer in the coming months, it may become necessary to make additional budget adjustments.”


ATPE wants to hear from you regarding your concerns about returning to campus for the 2020-21 school year. We invite educators to take our short, confidential survey to share your feedback. Your input will help us develop resources and provide support for Texas educators and students during this uncertain time.

This survey is open to any Texas educator, so please share it with your colleagues. The survey may be taken only once from an IP address and will remain open through June 3.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 8, 2020

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! Hardworking educators have been in the spotlight this week, but soon the attention will shift to graduating seniors. Who is ready for virtual graduation ceremonies from home and honking parades of whooping high school seniors down the street? We are excited for the good news this week that teachers and students can celebrate their accomplishments (safely). Here is more of this week’s education news from the ATPE lobby team:


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: For a comprehensive look at the intersection of COVID-19 and education, from the first major event cancellation to the road ahead, ATPE’s lobbyists have compiled a new summary this week of the legislative and regulatory developments since the crisis began. Read the coronavirus recap in this May 8 blog post.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the types of businesses that can reopen in his phased plan to reopen Texas. Today, salons, barbershops, and pools will join malls, movie theaters, retail stores, restaurants, museums, and libraries as those that can reopen their doors to limited numbers of customers. This development is a change from Abbott’s previous declaration that the state would wait two weeks before expanding which businesses can open. It is still expected that gyms, office buildings, and non-essential manufacturing facilities will open (with occupancy limitations) on May 18. Abbott also modified his previous order by allowing weddings with social distancing guidelines.

Commissioner Morath speaks at Gov. Abbott’s press conference, May 5, 2020.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath joined Abbott at his press conference Tuesday to talk about graduation ceremonies. Under Abbott’s orders, graduation ceremonies and grade promotion ceremonies must be approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and adhere to certain stipulations. Outdoor ceremonies are allowed in rural counties between May 15 and May 31, and only with social distancing protocols in place. On or after June 1, outdoor ceremonies will be allowed in any Texas county. TEA has also suggested other options such as hybrid ceremonies (where students are video-recorded receiving their diplomas one-by-one and these videos are stitched together for a virtual ceremony), all-virtual ceremonies, and vehicle-based parades and drive-in ceremonies. Perhaps you’ve heard (literally) of some districts already honoring their seniors through “honk lines” or seen yard signs popping up to celebrate graduating seniors. TEA has provided guidance on graduation ceremonies here.

Also this week, TEA updated its main coronavirus resource page on nearly every topic and added new superintendent debriefs. Among many other things, TEA has provided updates to the protocol for employees who are accessing school buildings, the FAQ on optional end-of-year assessments (which will NOT be used for accountability), and the educator certification and preparation FAQ (including answers to questions about probationary certificates, rescheduling cancelled tests, and continuing professional education requirements for educators), plus new guidance on school calendars and start dates for this fall. (Read more on this topic below.)

Yesterday, Commissioner Morath sent a response to ATPE’s April 2 letter asking for a statewide suspension of educator appraisals for the 2019-20 school year due to challenges associated with COVID-19. In his reply, Morath declined to issue a statewide order and stated that, ”The decision to pursue waivers of appraisal requirements is strictly a local decision.” ATPE has yet to receive a response to our joint letter with 17 other organizations regarding a moratorium on costly charter school expansion during the pandemic.

For more resources related to the pandemic, visit ATPE’s frequently updated Coronavirus FAQ and Resources page, and follow the ATPE lobby team via @TeachtheVote on Twitter.


Last week, we reported that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has allocated $180 million of the funding approved by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act for private school vouchers. In response, ATPE sent a letter in opposition of this development to every member of the Texas congressional delegation, including U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz (R). In particular, ATPE asked for strong congressional oversight of this use of funds and for continued diligence regarding federal funding for vouchers in any future legislation passed by Congress.

At the state level, the Coalition for Public Schools, of which ATPE is a member, sent a letter this week to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to address recent suggestions made by Republican members of the Texas Senate Education Committee that the state should try to expand virtual school options in Texas, despite the data showing that virtual schools do not perform as well as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.


ELECTION UPDATE: With all the coronavirus news, it’s easy to forget that another election is slowly creeping up on us. On July 14, Texans in various parts of the state will be able to vote in primary runoff elections to choose which candidates will be on the general election ballot this November.

The runoff elections were originally scheduled for May 26, but were postponed by Gov. Abbott over concerns about the safety of voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the election has been postponed, many of the deadlines leading up to it have also been shifted. For example, the deadline for registering to vote in time to participate in the runoff elections is now June 15, 2020. Check out this post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins for a list of important deadlines as we get closer to voting time.


One of the biggest questions on educators’ minds right now is what the return to school in the fall will look like. The variety in plans being contemplated by school districts for the 2020-21 school year was the topic of a recent article from the Texas Tribune, which ATPE republished here on our our Teach the Vote blog this week. Also this week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) provided updated guidance on start date and calendar changes to account for student learning loss and a potential resurgence in virus cases this fall.

In particular, the agency has suggested that districts can become Districts of Innovation (DOI) or add an amendment to their existing DOI plans to allow for an exemption from the law preventing schools from starting earlier than the fourth Monday in August. This exemption is already the most popular one among DOIs, as many districts prefer to start their school year earlier, insert more breaks throughout the year, and end the year later. TEA suggests that this format of an “intersessional” calendar could help to build in breaks that may be used for remediation of students who have fallen into a steep loss of learning on the “COVID slide.”

Other districts may choose to implement a year-round school calendar, which in many ways is easier than obtaining DOI approval. Under this route, districts need only obtain board approval for a new academic calendar and designation as a year-round system, and they must notify their Education Service Center PEIMS coordinator of their intent to operate through a year-round system.

TEA has also suggested using the flexibility in additional school days for elementary students as provided by House Bill (HB) 3 passed in 2019. HB 3 adds half-day formula funding for school systems that want to add up to 30 instructional days beyond the minimum of 180 days, but only for grades PK-5 and only after September 1, 2020.

Related: The COVID-19 pandemic has already dealt an enormous economic blow to our state, resulting in declining state revenue from oil and gas as well as sales taxes. This has many educators worrying about budget cuts next year. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter discussed the financial uncertainty with KXAN this week in this news story about how school districts in Central Texas are preparing for the future.


When SXSW EDU was abruptly cancelled back in March 2020, many in the education community were disappointed to miss the week-long learning event in Austin, Texas. Since then, SXSW EDU has gone virtual. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier attended this week’s virtual keynote address on growth mindset in education  The presentation, entitled “A Science of Human Motivation for the Next Decade,” is viewable here. Read Chevalier’s blog post about the session here.


ATPE member Morgan Castillo received an H-E-B Excellence in Education Teaching Leadership Award.

This week, ATPE member Morgan Castillo of Woodgate Intermediate School in Midway ISD received an H-E-B Excellence in Education Teaching Leadership Award. This award honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. Castillo received a $10,000 award for herself and a $10,000 grant for her school. She was one of eight educator winners announced this week and chosen from a group of 40 finalists who received smaller cash awards earlier this year. Castillo and the other award recipients were recognized Tuesday during a virtual “Toast to Texas Teachers” organized by the #TeachersCan initiative as part of several Teacher Appreciation Week festivities.

ATPE has been featuring our “Work from Home Classroom Makeover Contest” during Teacher Appreciation Week. Visit ATPE’s Facebook page to view the entries and cast a vote for your favorite between now and May 13. Winners will be announced on May 15.

Sunset report recommends TRS improve its member relations

Every state agency in Texas is subject to a period review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. When the state creates a new agency, it usually sets a “sunset” date. This is the date when the agency will cease to exist unless the commission decides it should continue. Even agencies that are created by the Texas Constitution and cannot be abolished, such as the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas, undergo cyclical review by the Sunset Advisory Commission to determine ways they can improve and operate more efficiently.

The TRS Sunset Report was released last week, as we reported last Friday here on Teach the Vote. While much of the report addresses standard sunset fare such as integrating best practices and improving transparency and oversight, one issue identified in the report seems likely to resonate with TRS members above the rest: “TRS Needs to Repair Its Relationship With Its Members by Focusing on Their Needs.”

Excerpt from the 2020-21 Sunset Staff Report on TRS

Sunset commission staff points out in the report, “While TRS has a critical fiduciary duty to manage the $157 billion trust fund in the best interest of its members, the agency also has an important responsibility to ensure its members have the support and information needed to be secure in retirement.”

The report goes on to state that in the Sunset Advisory Commission staff’s estimation:

“TRS’ benefit counseling options do not meet members’ needs… TRS has not provided the information and support its members need to be secure in retirement, with overly complex explanations, insufficient retirement information, and inadequate counseling options… TRS also does not provide enough member-friendly financial planning information to ensure members understand what they need to prepare for retirement, such as the importance of additional savings beyond their TRS pension benefits.”

Sunset staff identify core issues and findings, as well as recommendations to address them. In considering sunset recommendations and weighing their merit, it is important to consider that implementing new programs and initiatives comes at a cost, mostly in additional manpower. For TRS, those costs are paid directly out of the same trust fund that provides member benefits.

The sunset staff’s first finding related to the issue of repairing TRS’ relationship with its members is that the agency “has not provided the information and support members need to adequately ensure they are secure in retirement.” With 1.6 million members, most of whom have limited or no access to Social Security benefits and little other retirement savings outside of their TRS pension, simply managing the TRS trust assets and administering pension payments is not good enough without taking a more holistic role in helping TRS members prepare for a secure retirement.

This is particularly true when considering that Texas is last in the country in the percentage of payroll our state puts toward teacher retirement. The state does not provide mandatory cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) on a regular basis and rarely provides funding for even one-time COLAs. Together, these legislatively driven policies mean that a TRS pension alone often will not provide a comfortable — or potentially even adequate — retirement over the duration of an average educator’s retired years.

This makes it even more important for Texas educators to understand the importance of having a supplemental retirement plan and to begin funding that plan early in their careers. Sunset staff point out that other state retirement systems, including the Employees Retirement System (ERS) for Texas state employees, “emphasize retirement planning is a shared responsibility between members and the system.” On the other hand, the report observes that TRS “puts the burden of navigating the complex retirement system primarily on its members.”

To make matters worse, TRS appears to have serious deficiencies communicating in the areas where it does currently engage with its members on retirement issues. Regarding the agency’s written materials, sunset staff found that TRS commonly uses legalistic language and overly complex explanations. While call times have come down significantly, TRS has not yet met its internal goal of answering 80% of calls within three minutes. More troubling, when agency staff do answer a call, internal policy prevents most TRS phone counselors from relaying basic information such as a member’s account balance or estimated retirement benefits — not to mention explanations of how systems such as TRS and Social Security are supposed to interact, which often leaves TRS members confused and frustrated.

To receive more complete information on their TRS benefits, a member must make an appointment — often months in advance — and then travel to Austin for an in-person consultation. Thankfully, TRS is looking into opening a limited number of field offices to do in-person consultations in the future so that some members will not have to make the trek to Austin. Why the agency is only now contemplating this option is somewhat baffling. (TRS has been offering member consultations via video conferencing during the current shutdown period that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)

In order to address these issues, sunset commission staff recommend that the legislature require TRS to develop a communications and outreach plan to help members prepare for retirement. Sunset staff also recommend, with regard to other issues identified in the report, that TRS engage stakeholders and adopt a member engagement policy. Also, the legislature should consider incorporating  recommendations for required stakeholder engagement into the development of TRS’ communications plan.

Continuing on the issue of repairing its relationship with its members by focusing on their needs, the sunset report also recommends that TRS improve its communications with employers, improve  efforts to return contributions to inactive members, and adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.

The commission staff found that many, if not most, employers of TRS members report that the system TRS uses to collect payroll and other information from them is cumbersome and “plagued with problems,” even three years after its launch. TRS should attempt to resolve the problems with its reporting system and do a better job of providing troubleshooting for employers that are trying to work around such problems until they are resolved.

Sunset staff also suggest that TRS provide employers and education service centers (ESCs) with training so that school districts and ESCs can help educate TRS members (school employees) on retirement and healthcare issues. While this sounds good in theory, as districts certainly have more access to their own employees than TRS ever will, I am skeptical of most districts’ desire to take on this additional responsibility. Prior to pursuing this recommendation, TRS should communicate with school district leaders to determine if districts would actually utilize any such training or tools TRS might create for them. Policymakers should also consider whether such a communications strategy might be duplicative or confusing for TRS members.

The sunset staff further recommend that TRS be more proactive in returning contributions to inactive members. However, additional effort on the agency’s part has an administrative and staffing cost. Therefore, in considering this sunset recommendation, TRS and the legislature should work to balance the needs of members leaving the retirement system with those who will remain in it.

Certainly, educators have a right to redeem the contributions they have put into the system if they leave it; however, they also bear some responsibility for being aware of their own money. TRS currently sends a refund application to members who have not requested a refund on their own when their membership automatically terminates after seven years of inactivity under Texas law.The report’s description of contributions being “forfeited” after seven years of inactivity could lead some to believe that former members lose the ability to redeem their contributions at some point. In fact, former TRS members remain eligible to withdraw their funds at any time, before or after the seven year mark.

As the sunset staff noted, federal law prohibits TRS from automatically returning funds to an inactive member. Should active and retired members bear the cost of additional staff, the use of credit reporting agencies, or sending out thousands of pieces of certified mail to track down long-time inactive members who have failed to claim their own money?

Finally, the sunset report recommends that TRS “adopt a member engagement policy to increase transparency on key decisions.” Generally speaking, this is an excellent idea. A policy that incorporates increased use of expanded stakeholder groups and a better methodology for clear and timely two-way communication could go along way toward improving TRS functions and educators’  perceptions of the agency. However, it is important that any legislative action around this recommendation stay focused on the broader context of improving overall communications between TRS and its members.

Unfortunately, legislators might end up focusing only on issues surrounding TRS’ abandoned decision to lease a particular property to house its investment division. If this happens, discussions could easily become mired in attempts to assign blame around this single, high-profile issue. Rather, the legislature should consider a more positive approach of trying to holistically improve TRS’ communications and engagement with and trust among its members.