Tag Archives: healthcare

School finance group looks at costs of undereducation

The Texas Committee on Public School Finance working group on outcomes met Tuesday morning to take invited testimony on a number of subjects. The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting at the Texas Capitol included intersections of education, healthcare access, child and family well-being, and economic outcomes in Texas; strategic talent management and building systems to attract, retain, and develop highly qualified talent into Texas public schools; and teacher quality / certification.

School finance commission working group on outcomes meets May 29, 2018.

Anne Dunkelberg with the Center for Public Policy Priorities was the first to testify regarding the consequences of an undereducated workforce, including effects on poverty, uninsured and incarceration rates. Texas leads the nation in both the rate and number of uninsured. Meanwhile, as healthcare premiums continue to rise, employees are paying a larger share each year from their own paychecks. Texas is also among the states with the highest poverty rates.

Texas’s high rate of uninsured translates to a heavier uncompensated care burden on local hospitals, which often try and recoup that cost through local property taxes. Underscoring the link between educational attainment and better pay, Dunkelberg warned that Texas must invest in education “to minimize massive public expenditures on undesirable outcomes.”

Dunkelberg concluded by acknowledging that, like businesses, the Texas Legislature is often under pressure to reduce costs now rather than down the line. Yet if the state is to ever see long-term savings, it must invest on the front end with education.

Next, Martin Winchester with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) testified with regard to teacher recruiting and retention.

“We do not believe by any means it is all about the pay,” said Winchester. Rather, Winchester suggested working conditions, such as adequate classroom support and opportunities to grow and advance in the profession, are the top factors.

Working group leader Todd Williams pondered why starting teachers in Texas are paid the same salary, regardless of whether they received 1,500 hours of classroom training or 15 hours. Winchester indicated that TEA Commissioner Mike Morath would support allowing educators from more rigorous certification programs to “skip a level” on the pay scale, and noted that first-year teachers from alternative certification programs quit at a much higher rate due to a lack of preparation.

While lauding the ideas discussed by TEA, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who serves as vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, chided the agency for proposing policies at certain points while avoiding policy discussions at other points.

Kate Rogers with the Holdsworth Center was the last to testify, and spoke about strategic talent management. Rogers stressed the importance of coaching for both teachers and administrators, and emphasized that teachers need more non-instructional time in order to develop better lesson plans and participate in development activities such as coaching and mentoring. According to Rogers, teachers in the U.S. spend more of their time on direct classroom instruction than teachers in any other developed nation, which leaves them without enough time to do other critical activities needed to improve over time.

Williams concluded the meeting by laying out the next few steps for the working group, and proposed July or August as the target window for a preliminary report. No further meetings are currently scheduled.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 11, 2018

From Austin to the nation’s capital, here’s a look at how ATPE’s lobby team has been working hard for you this week:


Early voting starts Monday for Texas’s Republican and Democratic primary runoffs on May 22. This week ATPE continued to highlight races across the state where education has pushed to the forefront of political discourse heading into the runoffs. We encourage you to learn more about the races in your district by visiting the candidates section of TeachtheVote.org and by checking out our runoff spotlights for candidates in House Districts 4, 8, 54, 62, and 121.

Remember, if you voted in a party primary back in March, you may only vote in the same party’s runoff election this month. If you are registered but did not vote at all in March, you may choose to vote in either party’s runoff election. You can find more information on eligibility to participate in the runoffs and what you need to do here.

Early voting for the runoffs is May 14-18, 2018, and runoff election day is May 22,2018.

 


ATPE’s lobby team has been working to prevent a controversial private school voucher amendment from being added to a national defense bill that is on the move. The U.S. House Committee on Armed Services met this week to consider the National Defense Authorization Act. Our Austin- and Washington-based lobbyists have watched the development of this bill closely since learning that discussions of adding a voucher were underway in the House. As ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reports today, the potential voucher, in the form of an Education Savings Account (ESA), would funnel existing federal Impact Aid dollars to military families without accountability for how those funds are spent. While the ESA didn’t make it into the bill during committee, it now heads to the floor of the House for debate. There, it could still be added through the amendment process.

ATPE sent a letter this week to Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), who leads the committee that determines which amendments will be considered on the House floor, asking him not to allow the voucher amendment. The letter highlights that we join the Military Coalition, a group of 25 organizations representing more than 5.5 million active and former members of the U.S. Military, in opposing the voucher. “The $2,500 voucher program created by HR 5199,” ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday wrote, “would drain limited dollars from both the public school system in Texas as well the Federal Impact Aid Program, hurting the very military-connected students it purports to help.” Read the full letter here and check back for developments on this issue.

 


An article by the Texas Tribune this week explored how charter schools operate in a precarious gray space that makes them a government entity at some times and a private entity at others. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter is quoted in the full-length article by Emma Platoff, which is republished here on Teach the Vote.

 


In an effort to encourage parents, teachers, and school leaders to actively participate in the rulemaking process, TEA sent a letter to school administrators on Wednesday requesting that school districts and open-enrollment charter schools post upcoming rulemaking actions on their websites. Learn more about the request and ATPE’s involvement in rulemaking changes in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


 

House Pensions Committee meeting May 10, 2018, in Dallas.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas was one of the many items discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the House Committee on Pensions held in Dallas, TX. The meeting, which focused on the committee’s interim charges, featured testimony from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie plus a number of active and retired educators. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the hearing and provided full details in his blog post here.

 


House committee discusses teacher pensions, health care

The House Committee on Pensions met Thursday morning in Dallas to discuss items listed under the committee’s interim charges, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas.

The committee met in the chambers of the Dallas City Council, which oversees pensions for the city’s police and firefighters that have come under scrutiny as of late. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was the first witness to testify, thanking the committee for legislation dealing with issues pertaining to Dallas police and firefighter pensions and updating members on changes the city has put in place since the legislation’s passage.

House Pensions Committee meeting May 10, 2018 in Dallas.

Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified for TRS, laying out the basics of the $152 billion trust fund that serves 1.5 million active and retired members. The fund earned a return of 12.6 percent for fiscal year (FY) 2017, under an assumed rate of return of 8 percent. The fund carries $35.5 billion of unfunded liability and is 80.5 percent funded with an amortization period of 32.2 years, which Guthrie noted will change if the assumed rate of return is lowered. TRS manages two major healthcare programs: TRS-ActiveCare for active teachers and TRS-Care for retirees. Guthrie testified that TRS undertook a study in 2013 looking at the fund’s defined benefit structure, and will be producing an updated study this fall.

Turning to health care, Guthrie described TRS-Care as a “pay as you go plan.” The state’s contribution to the plan is 1.25 percent of active employee payroll, while school districts contribute .75 of active employee payroll and active employees contribute .65 percent of their paycheck. Retirees contribute to the plan through premiums. The plan faced a $1 billion projected budget shortfall heading into the last legislative session, and lawmakers of the 85th Texas Legislature put $700 million into the system in order to keep the fund from folding. While the infusion was able to prevent retirees from losing their health care, it wasn’t enough to avoid increases in costs and reductions in benefits.

Even with the changes, which included increasing premiums, the fund faces a $400-600 shortfall heading into the next biennium and ongoing shortfalls moving forward. Guthrie attributed the increase to legislation accompanying the added funding that directed the agency to ease cost increases. Guthrie indicated the primary problem is with the fundamental design of the funding formula, noting that healthcare costs are increasing far more quickly than revenue received from active employee payroll, which is the basis for the funding formula.

The largest cost increases are associated with plans that include coverage for dependents, and TRS initially offered retirees the option of permanently leaving TRS-Care for an insurance plan on the private market. Chairman Dan Flynn (R-Canton), members of the committee and legislators representing the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex pressed Guthrie to find a way to protect benefits, in particular prescription drug costs. Guthrie testified that the agency is studying all possible avenues, but the fund design presents the largest challenge.

Finally, Guthrie explained TRS-ActiveCare as a group insurance program for small to midsize school districts that would be otherwise unable to provide their own insurance programs. The state provides $75 per member, per month through the school finance formulas, districts contribute a minimum of $150 per month, and individual members are responsible for the remainder. Minimum state and district contribution levels have not changed since the plan’s inception in 2002, and employees’ share of the premiums has increased to 60 percent from 30 percent over the last 14 years. Because of rising healthcare costs, TRS board members voted at their most recent meeting to raise premiums for individual members between five and nine percent, or seven percent on average.

Because TRS-ActiveCare is funded through the school finance formulas, Guthrie suggested that any changes to TRS-ActiveCare would best be addressed as part of lawmakers’ broader efforts to reform the school finance system.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) sharply questioned Guthrie over the board’s anticipated July vote to lower the fund’s assumed rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8.0 percent, despite returning 12.6 percent for FY 2017. This would cost an additional $1.2 billion on top of the $400-600 extra needed for TRS-Care, for a total ask of $1.6 billion on top of the $3 billion in base funding already designated for TRS. Guthrie testified that the agency’s fiduciary responsibility requires staff to provide an accurate estimate of what the fund is anticipated to produce.

A representative from Arlington ISD asked the board to consider allowing school districts with more than 1,000 employees to opt out of TRS-ActiveCare and provide their own insurance programs, pointing out that family healthcare costs under the TRS-ActiveCare high-deductible plan could account for more than a third of a first-year teacher’s annual salary. Chairman Huberty noted that such an arrangement could adversely impact TRS funding by reducing the broader pool of active TRS members.

Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) Executive Director Tim Lee thanked the Texas Legislature for making the minimum changes necessary to keep TRS-Care from failing entirely. Lee suggested that 14 years may have been too long to go without increasing premiums, and pointed to the Employee Retirement System (ERS) as an appropriate benchmark for TRS. Going forward, Lee testified the only long-term solution is pre-funding the program, which would be even more costly than migrating TRS members to ERS. Lee indicated that retirees will be unable to countenance further cost increases, and noted that 36,400 people have decided to leave TRS-Care for the individual market.

Staff from the Pension Review Board (PRB) testified regarding the agency’s efforts to improve defined benefit programs. The board has ordered staff to develop an online dashboard of Texas public pension data, to study potential legislative recommendations regarding how systems whose funding is set by legislative statute can respond to changes in market systems, to study how systems of scale could be utilized to improve groups of smaller plans, and to conduct intensive actuarial reviews of systems with risk that threaten their long-term stability. PRB staff noted that ERS has already lowered its estimated rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8 percent, which TRS is currently contemplating.

The committee then opened the table to public testimony, and dozens of retired teachers voiced their concerns regarding healthcare and the defined benefit structure of the TRS pension program. Many shared heartbreaking stories of seeing fixed incomes virtually consumed by skyrocketing premiums even before paying the increased costs for services and medication. Retirees also expressed concerns regarding changes to the assumed rate of return.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 20, 2018

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

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas board of trustees held multiple meetings this week in Austin.

Highlights of the quarterly meetings included discussions of new rates and policy designs for TRS-ActiveCare for the 2019/2020 school year; the need for increased authorization to hire additional full time employees (FTEs) at the agency; the introduction of the new TRS Communications Director; and a discussion of and failed vote on lowering the TRS pension fund’s expected rate of return.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter attended both the committee and board meetings and penned this wrap-up for our Teach the Vote blog earlier today.

 


The House Public Education Committee held an interim hearing on Wednesday. Topics discussed included the continuing impact of Hurricane Harvey on the state’s public schools, plus implementation of recent education-related bills dealing with school finance, the accountability, system, and student bullying.

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath updated the committee on the state and federal governments’ response to Hurricane Harvey and the 1.5 million students in its affected school districts. Morath indicated that he will propose a new commissioner’s rule in June to provide a plan for accountability waivers for school districts that were forced to close facilities and suffered the displacement of students and staff.

The committee also heard testimony about the controversial “A through F” accountability system that is being implemented in Texas. School districts will be assigned A-F ratings in August, while campus A-F ratings will be released the following year. A number of witnesses during Wednesday’s hearing expressed concerns about the new rating system and its heavy emphasis on student test scores.

For more on the hearing, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


With interim committee hearings in full swing this month, paying for Texas public schools and teachers remains a hot topic.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee heard from Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar and others about the status of the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the “Rainy Day Fund.” Read more about recommendations being made for use of the fund to support the state’s funding needs in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.

Also this week, our friends at the Texas Tribune shared insights on how Texas teacher pay stacks up against other states. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter is quoted in the article republished here on Teach the Vote.

 


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance also convened again this week, with a Thursday meeting focused on tax policy issues and sources of funding for the state’s school finance system. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann has a rundown of that meeting here. She also shared the below update from today’s Expenditures Working Group meeting which covered the cost of education index, compensatory education, and the transportation allotment.

One unsurprising word could be used to summarize testimony from invited panelists at this morning’s Expenditures Working Group meeting: update. On all three topics discussed, expert witnesses pointed to updating both the methodology behind the funding tied to each topic and what each topic intends to address. For the cost of education index, Texas A&M University Bush School Professor Lori Taylor noted that the index is based on teacher salaries and employment patterns from 1990. Taylor is the same expert behind a recent Kansas study on school finance, which determined that state should invest an additional $2 billion in school funding. During this morning’s meeting in Austin, Taylor and the other panelist agreed the cost of living index has value, but needs significant updating; it was suggested that to better account for evolving costs of education, the commissioners should consider recommending a requirement that the state update the index (or even the entire finance system) every 10 years.

Similarly, school districts and other school finance stakeholders pointed to the need for better targeted funding for students supported by a broader category of compensatory education services, and the legislative budget board shared different way to approach funding transportation costs. Watch an archived live stream of the full meeting here for more on the discussions.

 


 

From The Texas Tribune: Texas teachers’ pay is average. But their pensions are among the lowest in the country.

By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Photo by Jacob Villanueva/iStock

Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Tiffany Adair.

Hey, Texplainer: How do employment benefits for Texas educators compare to those in other states?

This question has been a point of contention between lawmakers and educators for many years. Texas teachers say they’re frustrated due to a lack of state funding for public education. But lawmakers say the uncertainty surrounding the budget makes it hard to allocate better benefits for educators.

If you look at the raw numbers, Texas ranked 27th in the nation for teacher pay in 2016, according to the National Education Association. On average, Texas teachers earned $51,890 — roughly $6,500 below the national average.

However, teachers have long argued that inadequate funding for public schools cuts into their salaries. During the 2008 fiscal year, the state covered roughly 48.5 percent of the cost of public education, according to the Legislative Budget Board. By the 2019 fiscal year, that figure will be closer to 38 percent. Over the same period, teacher salaries remained about the same [Texas teachers, on average, earned roughly $47,000 in 2008].

“One of the biggest costs to education are the teachers and other employees at a school district. That’s the biggest cost to the state,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “When you start cutting education in Texas, you’re shortchanging teachers. We’re already behind the national average when it comes to teacher pay, and we’re getting further behind.”

But salaries aren’t the only component to consider when looking at how Texas teachers fare compared to their peers in other states, said Ed Allen with the American Federation of Teachers.

“When looking at a nationwide comparison, most people factor in the salaries. But when teachers get older, what’s being paid into retirement and the health insurance becomes a really big deal,” Allen said.

When it comes to health care benefits, advocates say Texas teachers are stuck in 2002. That’s when state lawmakers created the plan known as TRS-ActiveCare. The teacher health insurance program, which is run by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, requires the state to contribute $75 per employee toward monthly health care premiums.

Nearly 430,000 public school teachers and retirees are covered under the plan, which is used by many of the state’s 1,200-plus school districts. Since the program went into effect, employees’ share of premiums have more than doubled, while the state’s contribution to teacher’s health care has remained the same.

“When your salary is barely going up year after year, health care costs are going up considerably and you’re not getting any additional money put toward those healthcare cost by your employer — which is the state in this case — then effectively you’re taking a year over year cut to your salary,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Under the TRS-ActiveCare program, districts are also required to put a minimum of $150 per employee per month toward health insurance premiums, with the option of contributing more. But Exter said that can be difficult for districts as education budgets are squeezed.

Joel Solomon, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association, said it’s hard to compare Texas teacher health insurance programs to other states since the structure of such programs varies nationwide. But, he said, “when we look at educators’ health benefits around the country and how important … ensuring quality health benefits to educators are, what we see in Texas is deeply troubling.”

When it comes to retirement funding, a majority of states pay into both a pension plan and Social Security. Texas is in the minority of states that only pay into a pension fund and does not pay into Social Security for the majority of its teachers — which means most Texas teachers won’t have access to Social Security benefits when they retire. Fewer than 50 of the state’s districts participate in Social Security on their own.

Among states that only offer a pension plan for teachers, Texas is dead last when it comes to funding its pension programs — by a lot.

For years, Texas only paid 6 percent — the constitutional minimum — into the Teacher Retirement System. It now pays 6.8 percent, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. And the Texas Constitution says the state’s contributions to pension funds can’t eclipse 10 percent without a constitutional amendment approved by voters.

“The next closest non-Social Security state had a retirement contribution rate at least double ours,” said Ann Fickel, the associate executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. The median contribution for the other 14 other states that don’t pay into Social Security for their teachers is around 18 percent, she added.

“As retirees’ costs rise, especially for medical care, there will be pressure on lawmakers to find a way to increase benefits for retired teachers,” Fickel said.

The bottom line: When it comes to teacher pay, Texas ranked 27th in the nation — right around the middle. But Texas is dead last in teacher retirement funding and puts a little more than the minimum into the Teacher Retirement System.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers, the Association Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Texas Classroom Teachers Association 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/04/20/texas-teachers-employee-benefits-dead-last-retirement-funding/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 6, 2018

Here’s a wrap-up of your education news from ATPE:


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several announcements this week regarding the draft plan to address special education in Texas. In addition to accepting public comments on the latest version of the draft plan, TEA has scheduled two hearings where members of the public are invited to express their input. Information on the two meetings is as follows:

  • Thursday, April 12, at ESC Region 1 – 1900 West Schunior, Edinburg, Tx.
  • Monday, April 16, at ESC Region 10 – 400 East Spring Valley Road, Richardson, TX.

Both meetings will begin at 1 pm, and those wishing to share feedback are asked to register onsite beginning at 12:30 pm (registration will end when the meeting begins). Registered participants will be called in the order they are registered and will be limited to three minutes. The hearing will end when all have testified or at 3 pm, whichever comes first. Those unable to attend either hearing can submit their written comments by email at TexasSPED@TEA.texas.gov by April 18 at noon.

To learn more about the two public hearings and the chance to submit written testimony, view TEA’s full press release, visit TEA’s special education webpage, and read ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’s post from earlier this week.

 


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath sent a letter to school administrators today regarding three recent changes to how the spring 2018 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams will be administered. The three changes involve offering medical exemptions for qualifying students, allowing for the transcribing of student responses that are recorded in the test booklet onto a blank answer document, and relaxing the rules around classroom displays. His letter indicates these moves are being made in response to district feedback and in an effort to “do all I can to help make this a positive experience and reduce stress for students and school district and charter school personnel.” Read Commissioner Morath’s full letter to learn more.

 


It was a busy Wednesday at the Capitol this week, and your ATPE Governmental Relations team was there to cover all the action. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter covered the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, where pension and healthcare issues were the topic of discussion. That meeting included conversations about the factors affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. For more information on how the hearing unfolded, read Exter’s recap of the meeting or watch an archived webcast. You can find ATPE’s testimony, and other public testimony, at the end of the recording.

 


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week in Austin for a discussion on property taxes and their role in the school finance system. A smaller working group of commission members met Wednesday to discuss outcomes. The highlight of Wednesday’s meeting was former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Luce, who suggested it’s time to do “more with more, not more with less” when it comes to funding public schools in Texas. This was particularly compelling advice from Luce, considering he was a key player in the state’s last major school finance reform – all the way back in 1984.

All 13 members of the commission met Thursday to hear several panels discuss property taxes. While there was general agreement on the burden imposed by property taxes, the debate between some members over how to calculate the state’s share of public education spending continued anew. Importantly, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) requested the state prepare a list of school revenue sources that have been cut over the last 10 years. You can read a full recap of Wednesday’s working group meeting by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here, and a rundown of Thursday’s full commission meeting here.

 


The Senate Education Committee rounded out a busy Wednesday in Austin with a hearing to discuss interim charges related to virtual schools, “high quality education opportunities,” and the federal E-rate program. ATPE offered written testimony to the committee concerning the virtual education charge, cautioning against moves to further expand the Texas Virtual School Network without carefully considering the status of virtual schools’ performance. Recent research highlights concerns regarding these schools nationwide and a look at Texas accountability measures fail to paint a drastically different picture in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was at the hearing and offers more on the discussion here.

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 2, 2018

Happy Texas Independence Day! It’s also the last day of early voting in the Texas primaries. Read the latest election news and more in this week’s wrap-up from ATPE:


ELECTION UPDATE: Today is the last day for early voting in the 2018 Texas primary elections. Election day is Tuesday, March 6. Early voting is the most convenient way to cast your ballot, since you can visit any polling place in your county. On Tuesday, you’ll need to vote in your precinct’s assigned polling location unless your county is participating in the Countywide Polling Place Program.

As a starting point, check out these tips on voting from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz. You’ll find answers to common questions such as what forms of ID are required and whether you can bring notes into the voting booth with you.

Learn about the nonbinding propositions that will appear at the end of your primary ballot as a way for the state Republican and Democratic parties to develop their official platform positions on certain issues. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter has the scoop on those propositions here.

Most importantly, if you’ve not voted yet, it’s not too late to explore our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. The profiles include detailed voting records for incumbents, which are based on official records maintained in the House and Senate journals. Learn more about ATPE’s process for compiling and verifying voting records here. The candidates’ profiles also include their responses to our ATPE candidate survey, where available, links to the candidates’ websites and social media profiles, and more. We even share information about upcoming campaign-related events when requested by the candidates.

Remember that many candidates are looking for volunteers this weekend and especially for election day on Tuesday. Learn more about volunteering to help out a pro-public education campaign in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday.

If you are voting in the Republican primary, don’t forget about precinct conventions that will be happening Tuesday evening after the polls close. It’s a chance to become a delegate to the party’s conventions and help further shape the party’s platform on education and other issues. On the Democratic side, there are no precinct conventions but you can sign up to participate in the party’s county-level conventions in April. Learn more in this blog post we republished last month from the Texas Tribune.

For additional election resources for educators, check out the website for our Texas Educators Vote coalition. Kudos to everyone who has helped us create a culture of voting throughout the education community, despite a barrage of attacks from those who feel threatened by the prospect of more educators being actively engaged in the election process and voting for candidates who will stand up for public education.

If you’ve not voted yet, get out there today or make plans to vote on Tuesday! Remind your friends, too!

 


Over the past week, we’ve featured a series of blog posts for Teach the Vote on Why March 6 Matters. We’ve been highlighting just a few of the specific reasons why educators’ votes in this primary election are going to shape the outcome of numerous debates when the Texas legislature meets again in 2019. If you’re still wondering what’s at stake on Tuesday, check out these posts by ATPE’s lobbyists on some of the hottest topics that the people you elect this year will be tackling during the next legislative session in 2019:

 


ATPE’s Kate Kuhlmann testifying at a recent SBEC meeting

The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann testified at the meeting and provided a report on the outcome of the board’s discussions. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for more developments from SBEC in 2018.

 

 


Carl Garner

ATPE is asking Congress to protect teacher training and retention programs as it works on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann provided an update on our blog this week about our efforts to ensure that Congress doesn’t strip out Title II program dealing with educator recruitment, training, and retention. Read more about our effort being coordinated by ATPE’s Washington-based lobby team and the letter sent earlier this week to Texas’s congressional delegation from ATPE State President Carl Garner.

 


 

Why March 6 Matters: Healthcare

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at healthcare for active and retired educators.


In our first post of this series we examined teacher pay, which lags behind the national average. While paychecks are a major concern, Texas also spends less than any other state on employee benefits, funding them only at about $967 per pupil, which includes the cost of health insurance. In fact, Texas spends less than our neighboring states Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are both under the national average as well but are spending $1,505 and $1,905 per pupil respectively, despite having significantly less wealth per capita than Texas (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF, released May 2016).

The ever-increasing amount of money being taken out of educators’ paychecks for healthcare is primarily due to the fact that state funding and state-mandated district funding for health insurance, including the TRS-ActiveCare plan used by many districts for their employees, has remained unchanged since the program first began some 17 years ago.

When the Legislature first decided to subsidize teacher health insurance premiums back in 2001, the $225 contribution for each employee (made up of $75 from the state and $150 from the school district) was in line with what private employers were paying toward healthcare for their employees. Since that time, health insurance inflation generally has been between eight and ten percent per year, and educator premiums have increased more than 250 percent. Also during that time frame, many private employers have increased what they pay toward employee health insurance premiums, but Texas’s funding of the healthcare program for public school employees has fallen way behind.

Legislative inaction has now led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial, and for many educators, it amounts to a pay cut year after year. Back In November 2014, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. It outlined numerous options for lawmakers to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Despite those recommendations, the legislature has failed to address exploding healthcare costs for active employees.

One reason the legislature has neglected to address healthcare costs for active employees, including during the most recent 2017 legislative sessions, is the sad fact that the state’s health insurance program for retired educators, TRS-Care, is in even worse shape. After years of inadequately funding retirees’ health insurance, the legislature has now faced back-to-back sessions in which the program was at risk of running out of money and collapsing in on itself —a prospect that would leave hundreds of thousands of retired educators with no health insurance, dramatically limiting their access to healthcare when they most need it.

Back in 2015, the 84th Texas legislature opted not to address the funding formulas that determine how our state pays for TRS-Care. Instead, they made a $700 million supplemental appropriation to keep TRS-Care afloat for one more budget cycle.

By the time the 85th legislature arrived in Austin in January 2017, the TRS-Care shortfall had ballooned to $1.2 billion. Again, lawmakers were unwilling to address the underlying funding formulas, and they similarly declined to make even a one-time appropriation to cover the full cost. Instead, the Senate under the guidance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, who chaired the Senate Committee on State Affairs that oversees TRS, pushed forward a plan that cut the cost of TRS-Care to the state by shifting more costs to retirees.

It’s worth nothing that retired educators have not seen a cost of living adjustment to increase their pensions for over a decade, during which time they’ve also had to endure dramatic reductions in their healthcare benefits as a result of restructuring of the health insurance plan. That combination of dwindling purchasing power due to the effects of inflation on stagnant pension payments and crushing new healthcare costs caused such an outcry from retired educators that by the time legislators came back to Austin in the summer of 2017 for a special session, they felt compelled to put a modest amount of one-time extra dollars into the system to temporarily soften the blow of the impending changes to TRS-Care. However, those additional one-time funds were only a short-term band-aid on a much larger problem that remains.

Even with the draconian measures taken by the 85th legislature, resulting in significant rate hikes for many plan participants, TRS-Care is projected still to have a funding shortfall that will have to be addressed by the 86th legislature. In other words, lawmakers must act in 2019 if TRS-Care is to continue to exist for retired educators

Finding real solutions to the crisis of access to affordable healthcare for the state’s active and retired educators is a complex and expensive task. It cannot and will not be achieved by legislators whose singular priority is creating the appearance of cutting state spending without solving the problems faced by our state’s more than 1 million active and retired school employees. The elections that will determine who occupies those critical legislative seats and will have the power to decide the future of healthcare funding for educators are happening right now. Active and retired public school employees who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating our 5.4 million young Texans have the power to shape the outcome of this battle simply by voting in the 2018 primaries.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on school finance and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Why March 6 Matters: Teacher Pay

Early voting begins TOMORROW (Feb. 20, 2018) for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so over the next few days we are taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! In this first post in our series, we’re taking a closer look at teacher pay.


By now, you’ve probably seen the recent campaign advertisements by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick regarding pay raises for teachers, which many people believe are laughably disingenuous. This brings us to another important reason for educators to head to the polls this year: the desire for better teacher pay.

The average Texas teacher earned $52,525 in 2016, below the national average of $58,064. Nationwide, average teacher salaries in 2016 ranged from $42,025 in South Dakota on the low end to a high end of $77,957 in New York.

Texas educators have tirelessly advocated for better pay. Each legislative session, pro-public education legislators file bills to raise teacher salaries, while anti-education legislators file bills to eliminate salary minimums. Because of the costs associated with increasing pay across-the-board for more than 350,000 teachers, raises have historically been blocked by legislators who argue schools already get too much state funding. These same legislators are often the ones behind bills that would allow schools to pay less by repealing the minimum salary schedule that functions as a minimum wage for educators.

Recently, some anti-education officeholders have begun to offer lip service in support of raising teacher pay as a means of providing cover for their efforts to defund schools and weaken teachers’ political voice.

Examples of this can be found in the special session of the 85th Texas Legislature. Gov. Greg Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Patrick, and others spent the entire regular session promoting unpopular and harmful voucher programs that would have stripped desperately-needed resources from public schools in order to subsidize private businesses. At the same time, they pushed deeply offensive legislation that singled out educators in an attempt to make it more difficult for them to join professional associations like ATPE. Meanwhile, educators learned that their healthcare costs would soon be going up dramatically.

Faced with withering criticism by outraged educators at the start of the 2017 special session, Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick hastily proposed giving teachers a $1,000 raise – but refused to offer any state funding to pay for it. The Texas Senate quickly whittled the idea down to a one-time bonus, before abandoning it altogether. In the meantime, more serious proposals were left to wither on the vine.

Perhaps ironically for Abbott and Patrick, the ordeal had the rather unintended consequence of galvanizing educators to pursue a meaningful, permanent, and fully-funded increase in teacher pay. Yet the only way such a raise will be successfully passed is if Texas voters elect enough pro-public education legislators willing to prioritize this issue. Otherwise, teacher pay will continue to take a back seat to other issues during future legislative sessions.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on teacher pay and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TOMORROW!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 16, 2018

Here’s ATPE’s wrap-up of education news developments this week:


ELECTION UPDATE: Tuesday, Feb. 20, marks the start of early voting for the March 6 primary elections. ATPE is urging all educators and registered voters in Texas to participate in the primaries, where most of Texas’s elected offices are filled. For more tips on when and where to vote, check out this blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz.

We’ve known for a long time that educators have power to use their numbers to influence the outcomes of these pivotal primaries. Now it’s becoming clear that some politicians and special interest groups are very worried about the potential for high voter turnout within the education community. With enthusiasm growing among grassroots groups like Texans for Public Education, which is promoting a #blockvote campaign to elect pro-public education lawmakers in the Republican primary, some elected officials facing primary challengers are taking to the airwaves in a last-ditch effort to tout their own records on education. For example, the Texas Tribune reports that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spent $5.1 million in January for television ads, amounting to roughly one-third of his campaign war chest. Several of the lieutenant governor’s ads, both on tv and radio, feature claims about support for public education and efforts to raise teachers’ salaries by $10,000, but many are questioning the veracity of the ads in light of failed leadership-backed bills last session that called for much lower pay increases, which school districts would have been forced to fund without new or additional money from the state.

Another group aiming to influence these elections is the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is proud to be a member. We are continuing our efforts to get out the vote, despite disturbing attempts by some in power to intimidate school leaders and shut down our nonpartisan initiatives. This week, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued cease and desist letters to three school districts, alleging that their leaders had used school district resources for “unlawful electioneering.” The basis for the threatening letters from the AG’s office appears to be a handful of Twitter posts and retweets, which likely involved no expenditure of school district funds, and some districts’ adoption of our coalition’s nonpartisan resolution promoting a “culture of voting,” which obviously does not advocate in any way for specific candidates or ballot measures.

ATPE is dismayed that school board members and administrators are being unfairly targeted for efforts to encourage educators to vote, and that support for public education in general is now being characterized by some elected officials as a “partisan” endeavor. ATPE is not alone in objecting to the witch hunt; Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) this week wrote back to AG Paxton asking him to withdraw the cease and desist letters. In his letter, Sen. Menendez wrote, “As elected officials,… our role includes urging people to vote, not intimidating them from participating in this highly regarded democratic process.” Menendez further suggested that intervention by the federal Department of Justice might become necessary.

We at ATPE have worked along with other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition to help educators understand the restrictions on using school district resources for political advertising, and we believe that most, if not all, school officials have complied with the law. It is not illegal for individual educators to endorse candidates, and there is nothing partisan or illegal about encouraging school employees to vote and to support the cause of public education. We hope that Texas voters will not be deterred by the efforts of a few politicians and dark money groups to keep educators from exercising their constitutional right, and we encourage the school community to  continue spreading the word about the importance of the 2018 elections. Most importantly, get out and vote early next week!

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board of trustees has been meeting in Edinburg, Texas this week. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board has been discussing a change to the retirement fund’s assumed rate of return, which will have a significant impact on the future of the fund and budget discussions when the legislature returns in January 2019.

For more on the implications of these changes, read Exter’s blog post this week about the additional funding that TRS will be needing and why the upcoming primary elections will have so much impact on active and retired teachers’ pensions and healthcare.


On Friday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that it will be extending to Tuesday, February 20, the deadline for members of the public to participate in a survey regarding its corrective action plan for special education.

In January, TEA released the initial draft of a plan to make good on the state’s legal obligation to serve all students with special needs. The U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to take corrective action after an investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the state had wrongfully denied special education services to thousands of Texas children through the enforcement of a de facto cap on the number of students allowed to participate.

Members of the public are encouraged to review the four-point plan and submit feedback by taking an online survey available on the TEA website. The survey was originally scheduled to close Sunday, February 18, but the agency announced Friday that survey responses will be accepted through Tuesday, February 20. According to the TEA, the survey takes roughly 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

Once public comments have been received, a revised draft plan will be posted and open to additional feedback in March.


President Trump released his 2019 federal budget proposal this week, which highlight’s the president’s priorities before lawmakers begin work on the actual budget in Congress.

Much like last year’s budget request, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal requests a big chunk of funding for public and private school choice, maintains funding levels for Title I and special education, and seeks large cuts to hand-chosen K-12 programs within the Department of Education (ED). Read more about the president’s proposal in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.