U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at a White House briefing, March 27, 2020
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is asking Congress to fund “microgrants” to provide money for online learning during the coronavirus outbreak. Appearing with President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, during a White House briefing by the national coronavirus task force, DeVos said, “I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident.” Microgrants, as envisioned by Devos, would provide funding directly to students in a manner akin to numerous voucher proposals in the past.
Here on our Teach the Vote blog, ATPE has written about efforts by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with high-profile support from DeVos, to pass legislation that would fund a federal voucher program. Thus far, the federal voucher proposal has gained little traction in Congress. But the recent changes to learning environments compelled by the COVID-19 crisis appear to have given Secretary DeVos a new angle to pursue funding streams for private individuals and families as an alternative to providing federal dollars directly to public schools. As reported by Education Week, DeVos announced her desires for the microgrant program last week using the same talking points she has used to argue in favor of a tax credit scholarship voucher program. The microgrant program would purportedly focus on students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and those with an individualized education program (IEP). According to a Department of Education spokesperson cited by the article:
“The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.”
The federal government is asking schools to continue to educate students while they are at home as a result of school closures or stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has made relief funding for school districts contingent upon their promise to continue instruction and provide distance learning.
Many voucher programs have attempted to provide funding for online learning as an alternative to classroom settings with the intent of diverting students and funding away from the traditional public education system. The $5 billion voucher program DeVos has been promoting in Congress since long before the coronavirus outbreak overlaps with parts of her new microgrant proposal. According to Chalkbeat:
“The idea — especially the grants for students that could pay tuition — is a glimpse at how DeVos will use the upheaval to advance her ideas about education. A proponent of private-school vouchers and school choice, DeVos has long downplayed the role of the federal government and scoffed at those who see school buildings or school districts as education’s key organizing principle.”
So far, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives has served as a firewall against DeVos’s and the Trump administration’s voucher proposals. The microgrant program would need funding with the approval of Congress to move forward. With assistance from our Washington-based lobby team, ATPE has been and will continue to be communicating with the Texas congressional delegation about the need to maximize funding for public schools during this crisis without diluting those funds through an opportunistic voucher program with a catchy new name.
As a founding member of the Coalition for Public Schools, ATPE has long opposed vouchers and the privatization of public education. Due to the current crisis, many Americans across the nation are experiencing a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, the importance of public schools and public school educators. Now is the time to bolster the nation’s system of public schools and the teachers who work in them, rather than finding ways to divert funding and dismantle our community schools.
Election politics is pretty much in a holding pattern across most of Texas as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Gov. Greg Abbott announced late Friday that the primary runoff elections for state and federal offices originally scheduled for May 26 will be postponed until July 14. This is the same date as the special runoff election for Senate District (SD) 14 to replace state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who announced his retirement from the Texas Legislature earlier this year.
Speaking of the SD 14 race, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced this week she will push back her resignation in order to focus on the coronavirus response. Eckhardt had announced plans to resign her office, as she is legally required to do, in order to run for the SD 14 seat. Eckhardt is permitted to serve in her current office until a successor is sworn in, which in this case will be former Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has also filed to run for the SD 14 seat.
Earlier this month, Gov. Abbott gave local political subdivisions (i.e. city councils, county governments, local school boards, etc.) the ability to postpone their elections to November 3 from their original May 2 uniform election date. According to TXElects.com, only a handful have formally delayed their local elections as of yet. While Georgetown and Fort Bend ISD are among those that have gone ahead and moved their elections, Waco and Waco ISD are considering sticking with the May 2 elections as scheduled. This has apparently created somewhat of a standoff in McLennan County, where the county elections administrator reportedly warned the city and school districts that the county would refuse to conduct the elections in May regardless of their decision.
The delays, coupled with local stay-at-home orders, have radically altered the campaign landscape in Texas. Many campaigns are suspending fundraising operations and focusing on community services. Most have put aside in-person campaigning in order to focus their resources online in order to reach people stuck in their homes. But while activity has ground down, it has certainly not stopped.
As candidates and officeholders continue to try shape their messaging in light of the current health crisis, they may be wise to consider the results of a national poll by Ragnar Research. First reported by the Quorum Report, the poll shows that 88% of Americans view the coronavirus outbreak as either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” When sorted by political parties, 53% of Republicans said the coronavirus outbreak is “very serious,” compared to 83% of Democrats and 70% of independents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls the coronavirus outbreak a “serious public health risk.”
Other political pollsters are also continuing to survey the American public more broadly during this time of national crisis. According to an Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday, 34% believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 54% believe it is on the wrong track. At the same time, 48% of respondents approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while 46% disapprove. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of recent polls puts President Trump at -2.5% approval, or 47% approve to 49.5% disapprove.
It’s also easy to forget there is still a presidential primary underway to choose the Democrat who will face Donald Trump in the November election. Bernie Sanders won this month’s primary in Utah, while 12 other states and Puerto Rico have postponed their presidential primaries. Connecticut, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Delaware have moved their primary elections to June 2. With Joe Biden building an insurmountable delegate lead in the primary contest, the political forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.com have placed Biden at 98% odds to win the nomination. A Monmouth poll released Tuesday has Biden leading Trump by 3% if the election were held now.
While other states fighting coronavirus enforce widespread closures, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott goes with a patchwork system
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has employed a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the new coronavirus however they see fit. Photo credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, states across the country are increasingly taking a more heavy-handed approach to contain the new strain of coronavirus — shuttering schools, bars and restaurants and deploying state militaries.
Nearly 30 states have mandated temporary school closures, for example, with some orders applying even to private institutions. In Texas, though, only half of school districts have ordered students to stay home after spring break.
That’s because Gov. Greg Abbott has clung so far to a mostly decentralized approach, giving cities, counties, school districts and universities the discretion to respond to the virus however they see fit. The result has been a patchwork of local policies that differ from county to county, with leaders setting various limits on public gatherings and other putting in place other regulations meant to encourage “social distancing.”
Over the weekend, Abbott said he was confident that cities will make the best decisions for their communities. And he appeared to double down on that approach Monday at a news conference in San Antonio, where he praised Mayor Ron Nirenberg for opening the state’s first drive-through testing facility and choosing to go well beyond almost every other Texas city in banning public gatherings of more than 50 people, following recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Those are smart strategies that will prove effective,” he said.
To be sure, Abbott has taken notable steps to combat the spread of the virus. Last week, he declared a state of disaster — as every state has — and directed state agencies to provide flexible and remote work options to employees. He restricted visitation to high-risk facilities including nursing homes, hospitals, day cares and jails. Amid panic buying, he waived regulations on the trucking industry to streamline the flow of goods to depleted grocery stores. And on Monday, amid bipartisan pressure from state lawmakers, he waived standardized testing requirements for public schools, saying it would be impossible to administer the STAAR tests as planned given the closure of more than 560 districts and charter schools beyond spring break.
Overall, though, Abbott’s cumulative actions stop short of those taken in many other states, including neighboring Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana, whose governors shuttered schools across the board, mobilized their militaries and implemented travel restrictions.
According to the National Governors Association, about 20 state leaders have activated their national guards and limited travel of state employees or citizens, and about 17 have passed legislation to divert state funds to the response effort. (Abbott promised Monday that federal money is on the way.) More than a dozen have also ordered restaurants and bars to close to in-house patrons — a policy various cities and counties, including Houston and Dallas, enacted Monday.
Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.
“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”
Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of the new coronavirus, said Sunday that “Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”
On Sunday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told superintendents and lawmakers that decisions on extended school closures would be left up to locals.
That means that policies may differ even among neighboring school districts.
Public-health experts said such a patchwork approach can be confusing and make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of containment policies. They also said governors have sufficient authority to ensure such consistency during emergencies.
It “makes people feel that they don’t really know what’s going on and that the people who are in charge don’t really know what’s going on,” said Mary Bassett, director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
Leaders should be consistent not only in policy, said Bassett, who was New York City health commissioner during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, but also in messaging, “otherwise people aren’t confident that they’re being given good advice.”
She noted that President Donald Trump has largely deferred to governors on COVID-19 response strategy.
Because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention health care, it’s an authority that largely resides with the states, and some have more decentralized approaches than others, said Claire Standley, a researcher with the Center for Global Health Science and Security and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University.
That can be a good thing, particularly when the federal government’s response is inadequate, Standley said, noting that New York was able to expedite COVID-19 testing before federal guidelines were finalized.
But having many different response policies across a state might make it difficult to manage the crisis, too.
“I honestly think it’s more about coordination between central level and peripheral level and having that trust in place,” she said. “If people don’t trust their authorities, they’re not going to comply with regulations, which is largely what we’ve been seeing so far with a few exceptions.”
Elected officials respond
Abbott has also been in frequent contact with members of the Texas Legislature and other local officials since the spread of the virus reached a fever pitch last week. The governor’s office has organized a number of conference calls already in an attempt to get state lawmakers and local players on the same page as new information becomes available.
Many Republicans and some local officials have lauded Abbott’s decentralized strategy so far, thanking his office for his leadership approach, giving local governments the flexibility to operate as they see fit on most matters.
“I have not been one who has been bashful about criticizing Abbott in the past,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has previously criticized Abbott for micromanaging county spending. “But I think he’s doing a fantastic job and giving us the flexibility to do what’s right for our areas. I don’t see any politics in this deal; I see [Abbott] really trying to tackle a difficult issue and recognizing the importance of the fact that this is a huge state.”
Meanwhile, a number of Democrats have offered muted praise for Abbott’s crisis management, though some have suggested the governor could be doing more to offer guidance for local governments.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat from Driftwood, said she thinks clearer guidance at the state and federal levels would better position local governments to respond to the virus.
“I’ve observed confusion from my local decision makers,” Zweiner told The Texas Tribune. “I see my city councils, my city administrators, my county commissioners desperate for answers on what the right thing to do is, and they’re not getting answers; they’re getting general advice.”
Another House Democrat, state Rep. Joe Moody of El Paso, told the Tribune that the best thing leaders can do is “give to the people of Texas consistency, uniformity and predictability, because that’s not coming from any other direction.”
“To the extent we can give people some normalcy … and whoever has the most authority to do that as swiftly as possible, should do it,” Moody said. “They should do it with an understanding that no one expects them to be perfect right now, but that we expect them to act quickly so that we remain ahead of the virus.”
But Republicans said Abbott has handled the situation appropriately — and that he has rightly shifted certain responsibilities to local governments.
“In terms of a crisis, we don’t need somebody to act like a dictator and push all of that information down to people,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. “We need those empowered local officials to make the detailed decisions, and the governor has empowered local officials to make those judgments.”
In 2020, being a primary election voter is critical. ATPE explains why in Part II of our “Primary Colors” blog feature.
After what many folks have hailed as one of the most productive legislative sessions for public education in recent memory, it may be easy for educators to think, “Great! We fixed it!” After all, legislators increased state spending on public education and ordered districts to use some of that money to increase educator compensation. All good things, right?
But a new fight is imminent.
In statistics, there is a phenomenon called “reversion to the mean.” In broad terms, it states that an extreme event in a sequence will generally be followed by a less extreme event. If we look in the context of the past several legislative sessions in which legislators attacked teachers and tried to defund public schools by passing school vouchers, then the 2019 session was an an extreme outlier. Statistically, we should expect that the 2021 legislative session will revert back to the mean — which until recently has often ranged from indifference to open hostility towards public education. That’s especially relevant regarding politicians who actively fought against public schools and educators before the 2019 session.
If you’re still skeptical, just look at the last couple of weeks. In last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump renewed the push to pass private school vouchers that would defund public schools. The federal voucher legislation the president promoted was filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Consider that and the fact that the chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas is none other than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who also attempted to push a voucher bill through the Texas Legislature many times, as recently as 2017. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, the prospect of a renewed fight over vouchers in 2021 appears all but certain.
There’s also new evidence that legislators fully intend next session to attack educators’ right to use payroll deduction to voluntarily support associations that advocate for public schools at the Texas Capitol. This type of legislation, such as the bills pushed by lawmakers in 2017, threatens educators’ ability to have a voice in crafting public education policy in state as large as Texas. This fight will likely be compounded by a major push to restrict the ability of local communities — through their school districts, towns, counties, and first responders — to advocate for local issues at the Texas Capitol. Many capitol watchers point to these moves as part of a plot by certain special interests to ensure their own exclusive access to lawmakers by closing the doors of state government to the viewpoints of working people and communities.
And then there’s House Bill (HB) 3. The school finance bill passed last year added just enough money to the public education system to get the overall level of state funding close to where it was back before the legislature’s drastic budget cuts of 2011. Much more is needed in order to drag Texas out of the bottom of the barrel of U.S. states in terms of per-pupil spending. But before that happens, legislators have to make sure the funding they added through HB 3 in 2019 doesn’t go away. For all its merits, the school finance bill did not include a long-term funding source to ensure that HB 3 funding would be available into the future, and legislators in 2021 will have to decide whether to find permanent funding or cut back school spending, jeopardizing any increases to educator compensation in the process.
Speaking of compensation, did you see a raise in your paycheck this year? School districts were required to pass on some of that additional HB 3 funding to certain educators in the form of increased compensation. However, the rules guiding how that additional money was to be doled out were vague enough to result in educators in different districts experiencing very different results. Cleaning up compensation questions and other unanticipated complications from HB 3 will be an important part of the next legislature’s job.
The successes of the 2019 legislative session came only as a result of the resounding message educators sent by showing up to vote in record numbers in 2018. Because of our state’s extensive political gerrymandering, the majority of the races in 2018 were decided in the March primaries. That means educators who voted in the March 2018 primaries made a pro-public education legislative session possible in 2019.
The only way we will prevent the 2021 legislative session from reverting to the mean is if educators return to the polls this year in the same massive numbers as in 2018, and that begins with making sure everyone is a 2018 primary voter. There are plenty of resources out there to find out how and where to vote, including those provided by ATPE and our other partners in the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. You can begin by researching candidates right here at TeachtheVote.org and then sharing the information you find with your friends and family. We made history in 2018, but we will lose all the progress we made if we take our foot off the gas in 2020. This is especially true in races where a single political party dominates the district, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell pointed out in Part I of this blog series for Teach the Vote.
It is more important than ever to be a Texas primary voter in 2020. Texas public school students depend on it!
On February 10, 2020, President Donald Trump released his budget proposal, which is a statement of his administration’s spending priorities across all sectors of government. Because the president’s budget is merely a proposal, any of these funding amounts would still need to be approved by Congress in order to be enacted. Historically, Congress has largely ignored President Trump’s funding proposals for education.
The education portion of the president’s 2021 budget recommendation is focused on “education freedom.” While cutting funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $5.6 billion, the proposal requests funds to provide up to $5 billion annually in “Education Freedom Scholarships.” Using these funds, states would be free to design their own scholarship programs, which could be used to send public dollars to private schools. This requested increase in voucher funding reflects the president’s statements during his State of the Union address last week, which my fellow ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on here and here for Teach the Vote.
Trump’s proposal also consolidates 29 federal education programs into one block grant totaled at $19.4 billion, which is $4.7 billion less than Congress approved for these programs in 2020. A list of the programs can be found here (see p. 9), which includes 21st Century Learning Centers, charter schools, school safety national activities, and the $16 billion Title I Grants. This change purportedly would cut the role of the Department of Education significantly by reducing staffing and administrative costs. Though this is labeled a “block grant,” funds would still be allocated using the Title I formulas. The proposal indicates that states and school districts could use the funds on any of the consolidated programs and would still have to follow key accountability and reporting requirements.
Consistent with the president’s affinity for career and technical education (CTE), the proposal also includes $2 billion for CTE state grants and $90 million for CTE national programs. Part of this $763 million increase would be funded by a proposal to double the fee for H1-B visas.
The president’s 2021 budget recommendation includes an increase of $100 million in funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B grant funding, for a total of $12.8 billion. This increase is relatively small considering the overall funding needs for students with disabilities. (Texas appropriated over $2 billion for this purpose during the 86th legislative session.)
As was the case in previous presidential budget requests from the Trump administration, the proposal eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, citing that it “unfairly favors some career choices over others.”
Review past reporting on President Trump’s budget requests for the 2018,2019, and 2020 fiscal years here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog.
President Donald Trump is expected to voice his support for a federal voucher bill filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in tonight’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, according to the Houston Chronicle.
U.S. Secretary of Education and Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, whose past privatization efforts wrought havoc on public schools in Michigan, has backed Cruz’s voucher legislation. The proposal would allow individuals and businesses to divert public tax dollars that could otherwise go toward public schools, using them to subsidize private and for-profit academies instead. President Trump touted the bill himself during his 2019 SOTU address, and he is expected to delve deeper into the subject during this year’s speech.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is also an important backer of Cruz’s voucher bill. Some privatization supporters hope Trump’s remarks tonight will renew the voucher debate in Texas, where a majority of voters oppose spending public money on private schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers and can refuse to serve many Texas children. Opposing private school vouchers has long been an ATPE priority and a component of the ATPE Legislative Program which is approved annually by our members. In most cases, a voucher would not adequately cover a child’s tuition or transportation for private schooling. Such a program would divert money away from local public schools to provide a tax break to parents, many of whom likely plan to send their children to a private school already, with or without a voucher.
Democratic and Republican voters alike issued a scalding rebuke of voucher legislation in the 2018 Texas elections, when several pro-voucher legislators were swept out of office and replaced with a bipartisan class of pro-public education lawmakers.
“I think most legislators in Texas have gotten the message that parents don’t want a dollar-off coupon to a private school across town. They want their neighborhood schools to be the best they can be, and that means giving resources to schools so they can be the best they can be,” ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins told the Houston Chronicle.
Cruz’s bill is unlikely to go far in the Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, but the Houston Chronicle reports that 10 Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation have signed on, including Reps. Brian Babin, Michael Burgess, Michael Cloud, Dan Crenshaw, Bill Flores, Kenny Marchant, Pete Olson, Randy Weber, Roger Williams, and Ron Wright.
The State of the Union address is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. tonight, Feb. 4, 2020, on all major networks.
The big news in Texas politics this week is an announcement by a group of Republican members of the Texas House of Representatives that they have formed a new political action committee (PAC) to fill the void in fundraising created by Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s (R-Angleton) decision not to run for reelection.
Typically, the speaker coordinates fundraising efforts and doles out money to help endangered House incumbents who belong to the majority party. Democrats need just nine seats to win control of the Texas House, which places Republicans in a defensive position. Without Speaker Bonnen playing an active leadership role, Republicans are at a disadvantage. Enter Reps. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Four Price (R-Amarillo), and Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), who filed paperwork this week to form Leading Texas Forward PAC. According to the Texas Tribune, the PAC aims to raise $5 million for GOP incumbents and lists none other than GOP strategist Karl Rove as its treasurer.
In other House news, Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chair Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) announced late last week he would not run for reelection after admitting to a drug-related incident. Nevarez told the Texas Tribune he intends to seek treatment.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the special runoff elections for House District (HD) 28, HD 100, and HD 148 will be held Jan. 28, 2020. The latter two seats are expected to remain under Democratic control, while HD 28 represents a hotly-contested race over a seat most recently occupied by a Republican.
A new University of Texas-Tyler poll shows President Donald Trump’s approval rating among Texans at 43 percent, compared to 49 percent on respondents who disapprove and 8 percent who have not made up their minds. That poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden leading the pack among Texans’ favored Democratic nominees, followed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. A separate Politico analysis predicts Trump will win Texas, but lists a number of contested Republican Congressional seats as likely Democratic pickups.
Voting is the most powerful thing you can do as an educator, and ATPE thanks those of you who voted in the Nov. 5 election. Voting in the upcoming 2020 elections will be critical in order to ensure legislators provide schools and teachers with the resources they need to help students grow and achieve. Visit the website for our Texas Educators Vote coalition today and sign up to receive text updates so that you never miss an important election!
ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before the House Public Education Committee on March 12, 2019
Members of the House Public Education committee heard more than 12 hours of testimony this Tuesday on House Bill 3 (HB 3), the House’s comprehensive school finance reform bill. Stakeholders from parents to teachers and even children on spring break testified about the $9 billion bill. Many witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing expressed support for the bill, but a number of them shared reservations about its move to roll funding for gifted and talented programs into the basic allotment and a proposed merit pay plan that the commissioner of education would oversee under HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood).
ATPE testified neutrally on HB 3 stating that while the bill as filed has many positive qualities and would inject much-needed funding into the public education system, it also includes some troubling changes regarding the state’s minimum salary schedule and using teacher evaluations and student performance data for merit pay. Many witnesses, including ATPE, who expressed concerns about the merit pay plan noted that it would be difficult if not impossible for the commissioner to determine which teachers might receive merit pay under HB 3 without using data from student test scores, even though the bill itself does not specifically call for the use of the STAAR for this purpose. ATPE opposes the use of student performance data, including test scores, as the primary measure of a teacher’s effectiveness for purposes of compensation, which ATPE shared with the committee during our testimony that was delivered by Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter on Tuesday.
Currently, HB 3 is still pending in committee with a substitute version of the bill expected to be discussed next Tuesday, March 19. Read more about Tuesday’s school finance hearing in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.
On Wednesday, the House Public Education Committee reconvened to hear a host of other bills related to topics such as Districts of Innovation (DOI) and school start dates. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of HB 1051, a bill that would make permanent the Goodwill Excel center permanent, a charter school offering a successful dropout recovery program for adult students. ATPE also supported HB 340 relating to full-day pre-k and HB 1276 relating to educator certification. More details on bills heard during Wednesday’s hearing can be found here.
Earlier this week, the White House released the president’s 2020 budget proposal, which is little more than a statement of the president’s priorities given that Congress actually passes the federal budget. The proposal would cut billions from the Department of Education’s budget compared to what Congress previously enacted, while funding controversial programs such as school privatization and performance-based compensation. Read a more detailed analysis of the President’s budget proposal on our Teach the Vote blog here.
The Senate State Affairs Committee met Thursday morning to hear a number of bills. Among them was Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). SB 12 would increase the TRS contribution rate and get the fund back to a point of actuarial soundness by the end of the biennium. In addition to the increased contribution rate, the bill would also fund a small 13th check of $500 for current TRS retirees. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill. For more background on why TRS contribution increases are now needed, check out this previous blog post about actions taken by the TRS board of trustees in the summer of 2018.
Residents of the San Antonio area’s House District 125 elected Democrat Ray Lopez to represent them in the House in a special election held this Tuesday. Lopez, a former city council member will be serving in the seat vacated by current Bexar County Commissioner and former HD 125 state representative Justin Rodriguez. ATPE congratulates Representative-Elect Lopez and looks forward to working with him. This election was the last in a series of special elections meant to fill seats that were vacated after last fall’s elections. As we reported last week, Houston area residents of House District 145 last week elected Democrat Christina Morales to fill the seat vacated by former representative and now Senator Carol Alvarado.
Last Friday evening the Senate released its version of a school finance reform proposal, Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). While the Senate has worked diligently to pass an across-the-board teacher pay raise bill this session (SB 3), its version of a more comprehensive school finance reform plan is a little less robust than its counterpart in the House. SB 4 includes provisions for outcomes-based funding and merit pay for classroom teachers. Read more information about the Senate bill in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
In each fiscal year (FY), which runs October 1 through September 30, the President releases his vision for the country’s budget. It really is just that- a statement on how the President believes money should be spent based on his (or her) priorities. Actual fiscal determinations are made by Congress. For example, past presidential budgets have proposed eliminating Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides over $2 billion in grants to states to improve teacher effectiveness. However, Title II has remained intact because Congress will not eliminate it.
The 2020 presidential budget proposal includes $62 billion for the Department of Education (ED) to provide K-12 and higher education programs and funding, which is an $8.5 billion or 12% decrease compared to what Congress enacted in the last budget. President Trump’s budget plan cuts K-12 education by $5.1 billion and calls for eliminating at least 16 programs. While maintaining current levels of funding for large programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the President’s budget pushes multiple controversial programs such as school privatization marketed as “school choice,” charter school expansion, and performance-based compensation, as well as funding for magnet schools and school safety. The proposal includes the following:
Creating a federal tax credit costing up to $50 billion over 10 years for donations to scholarship programs for families of elementary and secondary students to subsidize private school tuition
$500 million (an increase of $60M) to fund the opening, expansion, and facilities of charter schools
$107 million to expand magnet schools
$50 million in new funding for districts participating in the Title I student-centered funding pilot, which allows districts to to use federal, state, and local funding for public school choice
Raising the percentage of Title I dollars states can use to fund expanded educational choice for disadvantaged students from 3% to 5%
Increasing the funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, which awards scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools in Washington, DC
While the bulk of Title II under ESSA would be eliminated yet again, the FY 2020 Presidential budget proposes two main initiatives that affect teachers:
$200 million for the Teacher and School Leader Incentive grant program, which would support performance-based compensation systems and human capital management systems that include either mentoring of new teachers or increased compensation for effective teachers
$300 million (an increase of $170M) for Education Innovation and Research, mainly for studying teacher-driven professional development (PD) and providing stipends for teachers to attend PD
As for school safety, the budget includes:
$700 million ($354M increase) in Department of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services grants to give states and school districts resources to implement the recommendations of the Federal Commission on School Safety (FCSS)
$200 million (increase of $105M) will go to ED for School Safety National Activities, which provides grants to states and school districts to develop school emergency operations plans, as well as counseling and emotional support. $100M of this will be used for a School Safety State Grant program to implement the recommendations of the FCSS
Other points of interest include TEACH grants, which award annual amounts up to $4,000 to eligible undergraduate and graduate students to become full-time teachers in high-need areas for at least four years. The Presidential budget proposes cutting funding to this program by $3.1 million. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows the cancellation of federal student loans for non-profit and government employees after 10 years of on-time payments, is also eliminated in the budget.
In addition to the aforementioned maintained levels of Title I and IDEA funding, the FY 2020 Presidential budget proposal would maintain current levels of funding for many programs including state assessments, English language acquisition programs, migrant education, neglected and delinquent education, education for homeless children and youths, and rural education.
The budget would decrease funding to Indian education programs and impact aid, which helps to offset revenue loss to districts that serve areas that include federal lands. The budget plan also shifts around more than $12B in IDEA funding, cutting some programs entirely while increasing funding to others.
Lastly, the budget proposes elimination of many programs, including arts in education, full-service community schools, Promise neighborhoods, and Special Olympics educational programs. However, don’t despair! Remember, the president’s proposed budget is a suggestion and a statement of his priorities. Given the split control of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is even less likely that President Trump’s proposals as described here ultimately will be enacted.
The entire proposal includes all areas of funding across the government. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out the administration’s three-page overview. Keep in mind that these documents were created by the White House and do not represent an objective analysis.
ATPE will continue to monitor and report on the federal budget discussions in Washington with assistance from our DC-based federal lobby team. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.
The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?
Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.
TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.
Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?
“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”
He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.
“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.
On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.
Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.
Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.
But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?
“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”
Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.
Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”
But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.
Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.
But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.
“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”
Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.
In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.
Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.
On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”
“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.
“Public enemy number one for public education”
If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.
As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.
“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”
Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.
“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”
But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.
And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”
Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.
“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.
“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.
A “sleeping giant”?
There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”
Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.
Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.
Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.
A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.
Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.
“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”
Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.
There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.
“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”
The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.
At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.
“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.
While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.
“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.