On Wednesday, the board voted to increase its distribution from the Public School Fund to 2.9%. This action takes place after a dispute earlier this year between the SBOE and the General Land Office’s School Land Board (SLB). Both the SBOE and the SLB manage investment portfolios that fund public education, but an unusual move by the SLB to bypass the SBOE and put funding directly into the Available School Fund (ASF) means that the SBOE will have less money to support classrooms directly.
Other topics of discussion this week included the streamlining of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for social studies, the board’s final discussion on the Long Range Plan (LRP) for public education, and the SBOE’s legislative priorities for the upcoming session in 2019.
The Board also heard from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. The commissioner addressed concerns that the agency’s Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) seeks less state funding than in previous years, telling the board the agency is simply following the funding formulas established by the legislature.
During the Board’s discussion with Commissioner Morath, members also requested updates on issues such as Senate Bill (SB) 1882, a bill passed during the 85th legislative session that allows public school districts to partner with privately-run charter schools; the recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the U.S. Department of Education’s punitive actions against Texas for underfunding special education programs; and transparency regarding the instructional materials portal launched in 2017.
In a press conference earlier this week, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) announced that the race for Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives was “over,” as he had secured enough pledges for votes to make him the definitive winner. While the Speaker’s race won’t officially be over until January, when the House convenes for the 86th legislative session and formally votes for the next speaker, that hasn’t stopped Bonnen from proceeding as the presumptive speaker-elect, hiring key staff and putting in place a transition team.
Rep. Bonnen suggested that school finance will be the top priority of the Texas House in the upcoming legislative session, and he has vowed to work with his counterpart across the rotunda. Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a joint statement this week affirming their commitment to unity and working together in the upcoming session. Rep. Bonnen wrote, “The Lieutenant Governor and I share a strong commitment to doing the people’s business.”
School finance commission working group on revenues meeting, November 13, 2018.
On Tuesday, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on revenues discussed the issue of wealth equalization through recapture, which is commonly referred to as “Robin Hood” under the current school finance system.
Led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), the group heard testimony from a variety of stakeholders, including former state Sen. Tommy Williams, who testified on behalf of the governor’s office. Williams delivered the first public explanation of the governor’s plan to cap local tax revenue. A detailed account of the meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
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.
On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness released its formal report containing recommendations for ensuring Texas remains the nation’s most desirable destination for relocating or opening up new businesses.
Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) formed the committee in October 2017 in response to concerns that the 85th Texas Legislature pursued a number of legislative proposals that resulted in Texas dropping precipitously in the rankings of America’s Top States for Business.
“Texas has long enjoyed a booming economy and staggering job growth. Our economic strength has been predicated on a number of factors: high oil prices, geography, the tax and regulatory environment within the state, and the can-do attitude of millions of Texans,” Straus explained when he announced the committee. “However, there are forces, if left unchecked, that could derail the success our state has enjoyed.”
The committee conducted several hearings and weighed testimony from 42 prominent and influential witnesses from the business, law enforcement and local communities. The committee documented several findings related to education. Most notably, the report underscored the important role public schools play in ensuring the educated workforce necessary to sustain businesses operating in today’s economy. The following passage is taken directly from the committee’s report:
Public education teaches students basic skills before entering the workforce and fosters innovation. Policymakers must deal with school finance, examining not just the amount of money allocated for education, but how we distribute it — and how we can better incentivize public educators and institutions. The governor’s recently proposed 2.5 percent cap on property tax revenue will be detrimental to school funding since school districts receive 40 to 60 percent of property taxes across the state. The Texas House passed a 6 percent cap during the 85th Legislature, but the measure was killed by the Senate; this new proposal will severely reduce school resources unless more funding is appropriated by the legislature.
House Bill 21 of the 85th Legislature would have increased the state’s share of school funding and reduced the need for higher property taxes — easing the burden on homeowners — but the legislation died after being altered by the Senate. After all, how can the challenges facing the future competitiveness of the state’s workforce be addressed if Texas turns its back on its public school system, or does not address its method for allocating resources to public schools?
The importance of local control for school districts was stressed with the explanation that local control granted from the state is important for hiring staff and providing a safe campus for students. Educators want their graduates to meet the specific needs of where their district is located, which makes local control imperative for creating curriculum and making decisions about how to meet those needs. Testimony also demonstrated the need for presenting high school students with information about technical programs, rather than only promoting four-year universities. Public schools must address the needs of students with disabilities, but programs to help them transition to the workplace and speech, occupational and physical therapies are consistently underfunded.
Based upon these observations, the committee included a number of proposals specifically related to public education. From the report:
Recommendation: The legislature must prioritize funding for public education that is regularly adjusted to account for growth in population and inflation. Policymakers should closely examine the effectiveness of public education expenditures to ensure that dollars are used to maximize student success, and ensure the state’s academic accountability system increases the performance of schools and students.
In response to declines in state tax revenue, the 82nd Legislature reduced entitlement funding for public education by $5.4 billion. While subsequent legislatures have increased funding for public education, the majority of funds have been used only to cover costs created by the growth in the number of students.
Adjusted for increases in population and inflation, state spending on public education has decreased by nearly 16 percent since 2008. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of students who are classified as “economically disadvantaged” and are therefore more expensive to educate.
As the majority of new funding provided by the legislature simply addresses population growth, there have been few opportunities to invest in programs that have proven to increase academic achievement — such as technical career education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM courses, dual-credit offerings, and bilingual education.
As the state’s share of public education funding has declined, the burden on local property taxes and recapture payments has grown, eliminating any opportunity for local property tax rates to be reduced. About 54 percent of all property taxes paid in Texas are collected by school districts. Therefore, the fastest and most effective way to reduce the property-tax burden is for the state to pay more of the cost of public education.
Many of the school finance formula weights and allotments — such as the Cost of Education Index or Transportation Allotment — have not been updated or adjusted for the effects of population and inflation in more than two decades. Increases in state funding should be tied to regular adjustment of these weights, combined with the elimination of funding elements that are inefficient or no longer represent the diverse needs of Texas’ public education system.
The legislature must increase funding for special education programs and Early Childhood Intervention programs so that children with disabilities can successfully enter pre-kindergarten programs, while also providing more reliable funding for programs that help students with disabilities transition to the workplace.
Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) submitted the report Tuesday. It will be presented to the 86th Texas Legislature, which is scheduled to meet in January 2019. You read the full report here, courtesy of the Texas Tribune.
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 school finance.
Perhaps no issue impacts every Texan more than school finance. For all of the lip service politicians pay to reducing property taxes, the only way Texans will ever see meaningful property tax relief is if the legislature puts more state money into public education.
Journalists such as Texas Monthly‘s R.G. Ratcliffe and the Texas Tribune‘s Ross Ramsey have exhaustively reported how state lawmakers have gradually reduced the share of state dollars spent on schools, shifting the burden instead onto the backs of local taxpayers. School funding has gone from a roughly fifty-fifty split between state and local funding sources a decade ago to a situation in which local taxes make up more than half of the burden, with the state ponying up just 38 percent. That’s an inconvenient reality for some incumbent lawmakers who want to place the blame elsewhere for the rising costs on Texas homeowners, even going so far as to characterize well-documented reports of the decline in state funding as “fake news.”
The current school finance structure that relies so heavily on locally generated property taxes is a great deal for legislators: First, they run campaigns promising to lower property taxes and rein in government spending. Then they get points for reducing state spending, and let local officials face the music when they’re forced to jack up property taxes to make up for the state’s miserliness. The budget signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 actually reduced the amount of state dollars spent on public schools by $1.1 billion, and let the balance fall once again into the laps of local taxpayers.
Yet some legislators have shown an interest in restoring the balance. Under the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus, the Texas House passed legislation during the 85th Texas Legislature that would have put as much as $1.9 billion in new dollars into the public education system. The infusion of new money was intended to begin the long process of fixing the state’s “lawful but awful” system of public school finance. The Texas Senate slashed that amount to $530 million, then ultimately killed the legislation as payback for the House’s refusal to pass a voucher bill.
Those hoping for school finance reform in 2017 had to settle instead on a new state commission created to study school finance. Some fear this commission could devolve into yet another vehicle for those pushing school privatization, and educators are watching closely.
The next chance to fix the school finance system and lighten the load on local taxpayers will come when the legislature meets in 2019, but public education supporters will have their work cut out for them. The next two-year state budget is expected to be even tighter, and lawmakers will have to carefully prioritize spending in order to meet even their most basic funding obligations.
What this means is simple: Texans will only see lower property taxes and better-funded schools if they elect legislators and leaders who will prioritize public school funding as a core principle. Without additional public education supporters in the Texas Capitol, the current leadership can be expected to continue the trend of defunding public schools and dumping the load onto local taxpayers.
Our kids deserve better.
Go to the CANDIDATESsection 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!
ELECTION UPDATE: Early voting for the 2018 Texas primary elections began this week and continues through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6.
Today, Feb. 23, 2018, is Student Voting Day in Texas, as designated by Secretary of State Rolando Pablos. Pablos issued a proclamation for Student Voting Day and has encouraged Texans to urge eligible students to vote today. We applaud all of the educators and parents who have worked hard to help students learn about and exercise their right to vote.
If you know a student voter or if you are new to voting in Texas, we’ve got some helpful basic tips on voting in this primary election. Check out this blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz, newly updated with some additional guidance about the prohibition on using cell phones in the voting booth. Looking for background information about those Republican and Democratic party ballot propositions? We’ve got a list of all the non-binding party platform propositions here, along with some analysis from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter here.
Have you checked at our new series of blog posts for Teach the Vote on Why March 6 Matters? ATPE’s lobbyists are writing about some of the top legislative issues at stake in the primary elections happening now, explaining why the choices made by voters at the polls over the next week and a half will have a gigantic impact on the future success or failure of bills dealing with teacher pay, retirement benefits, private school vouchers, and more. Check out the posts we’re published so far and watch for more analysis of “Why March 6 Matters” on the Teach the Vote blog next week.
ICYMI: ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was quoted in today’s brand new PolitiFact article about a claim made in one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s re-election campaign ads. Patrick raised eyebrows with the radio and television ads in heavy rotation right now when he claimed to have proposed a $10,000 pay raise for teachers last session. The journalists of PolitiFact investigated and rated the claim as “mostly false” on its Truth-o-Meter, concluding that “Patrick made no proposal to direct more of the state’s education budget to teacher salaries,” instead touting a preference for an unfunded mandate on school districts that did not pass. Read the full analysis here.
ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey and Lobbyist Monty Exter testified before the school finance commission on Feb. 22, 2018.
The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met again in Austin on Thursday, Feb. 22, and ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey was one of the witnesses invited to testify at the hearing. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided a report on the day’s discussions, which focused on the importance of the teacher pipeline and early childhood education. Godsey, joined by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter, urged the commission to consider recommendations for strengthening educator preparation, support, compensation, and retention in order to avoid the high cost of teacher turnover. Read more in Mark’s blog post here.
By now readers of our blog are probably familiar with the antics of Empower Texans, the dark money group that in addition to trying to influence elections through massive campaign spending has been at the center of efforts to intimidate educators and shut down get out the vote (GOTV) efforts within the education community. We’ve written recently on our blog about how Texas educators responded to the group’s threatening “whistleblower” letters with their own #blowingthewhistle social media campaign. Today, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus also took to social media and penned a newsletter urging educators to vote this weekend and expressing his support for our coalition efforts to create a culture of voting in school districts across the state.
This week we learned that Empower Texans is under criminal investigation for highly questionable tactics it has employed in an effort to convince Ft. Worth residents to vote against one of their state legislators, Rep. Charlie Geren. Geren is presently facing a challenge in the primary election by an Empower Texans-funded candidate, and the group has attacked the incumbent for being married to a lobbyist. As reported by the Texas Tribune, prosecutors are looking into a postcard mailed to voters in Rep. Geren’s House District 99 that was designed to look like an official state document and sent by an entity called the “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board.” The mail piece was paid for and sent by Empower Texans, which recently filed documents with the Secretary of State to use the name “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board” as an alias, giving unsuspecting voters the impression that the postcard was sent by an official government agency, which does not exist.
ALERT to voters! There is no state government agency called the “Texas Ethics Disclosure Board.” Glad to see some real #blowingthewhistle here on deceptive and unethical campaign ads by desperate billionaires… https://t.co/0mx2PsJPjG
With Empower Texans spending so much money to try to unseat legislators that it deems to be too friendly toward public education, it’s no surprise that there has been growing interest in learning more about the sources of money being used by the group. Empower Texans is not required to disclose all of those who contribute money to the organization, but campaign finance reports for the Empower Texans PAC are publicly available, as is the case with all political action committees. One person who has spent considerable time reviewing those campaign finance reports and chasing the trail of money connected to Empower Texans is Chris Tackett, a former Granbury ISD trustee and parent who has written extensively about his findings. This week, we republished Tackett’s article entitled “Following the money in Texas politics: A citizen’s look at the influence of mega-donors in contested elections.” The piece illustrates how a small group of wealthy families have used the Empower Texans PAC and a few other PACs to steer millions of dollars in campaign contributions to certain candidates, giving the impression that they have broader support. Learn more in Tackett’s guest blog post here.
A huge thank you to @TeachTheVote for being interested in publishing my guest post. It’s a consolidated look at money pouring into Texas politics, how one family is driving it, who‘s involved, and what you can help do about it (Vote!) #txlege#txedhttps://t.co/Yj5N7S3NE1
The Dallas Morning News also published an extensive article this week describing how west Texas’s Wilks family, the largest funding source for Empower Texans, has been using its wealth to influence contested races around the state in 2018. That includes nearly half a million dollars spent to help Sen. Bob Hall try to win re-election despite a serious primary challenge and targeted efforts to shape the election of a new Texas House Speaker when the 86th Legislature convenes in January 2019. The same family is profiled in a brand new website sponsored by an unidentified citizens’ group that also appeared this week called WhoOwnsTexas.com.
Voters can learn about candidates vying for their support in the primary elections happening now by checking out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. The profiles include detailed voting records for incumbents, responses provided to our ATPE candidate survey on education issues, links to the candidates’ own websites and social media accounts, and additional information such as endorsements from well-known groups or major newspapers. ATPE does not endorse candidates, so you won’t find endorsements from us, but we’ll tell you which candidates have received the endorsement of Empower Texans and other groups to help you make informed decisions at the polls.
The State Board of Education’s steering committee for the Long-Range Plan for Public Education also met this week. The meeting focused largely on the issue of educator preparation with a goal of improving recruitment and retention. Read more about the conversations in Wednesday’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
Today is the final day to submit comments to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). As we previously shared, the committee is working to rewrite the federal law that pertains to higher education, and several programs dealing with educator recruitment, training, and retention are housed under the law. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reports that while the Senate committee works to write its bill, its U.S. House counterpart has already advanced legislation to the full House that omits these programs. ATPE submitted comments to the Senate committee expressing our concern over the House omission and stressing the importance of programs like these. “Educator training that is held to high expectations and standards plays a vital role in ensuring every student has access to a well-prepared, productive educator. It also has a lasting impact on retaining those strong educators in the classroom.”
ATPE’s full comments encouraging the committee to maintain federal support of these programs can be read here.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) is sending a strong message to educators across Texas: The Speaker stands with educators who are encouraging a culture of voting across the state, and against recent voter intimidation efforts directed at the education community.
As the first week of early voting continues, Speaker Straus reminded voters that the polls are open this weekend for those who would like to vote early in the March 6 primary. Early voting continues through March 2, and polls will be open again from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day, March 6.
In his letter, the Speaker explicitly called out voter intimidation efforts aimed at educators. It’s no secret that educators are mobilizing like never before ahead of the March 6 primary elections, and many school districts are enthusiastically exercising their legal obligation to encourage voting and civic engagement. As a member of the Texas Educators Vote coalition, ATPE has worked alongside other education and civic groups to increase voter turnout among educators and share nonpartisan election resources with school employees. These efforts came under attack earlier this year when state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) engaged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a naked attempt to chill these efforts.
Soon after, the state’s most notorious privately funded special interest group staged its own voter intimidation campaign directed at teachers. The campaign backfired spectacularly, with the internet uniting behind the social media hashtag #BlowingTheWhistle to highlight the impactful stories of dedicated educators making a difference. ATPE wrote about the Twitter backlash on our Teach the Vote blog.
In his letter Friday, Straus wrote:
“I’ve often said that we need more Texans voting in primaries so that candidates are responsive and accountable to a broader set of Texans and their concerns. Unfortunately, some elected leaders in Austin and their allies have been trying to discourage voting among one important group of Texans: School teachers.
Some members of our community have received a letter from an Austin special interest group criticizing local school leaders for promoting a “culture of voting.” This group apparently feels threatened by the fact that education leaders are encouraging civic participation.
It’s easy to understand why educators and others who support public schools want to vote. Those of us who have prioritized public education have been met with resistance from other elected leaders. As a result, our school finance system still desperately needs reform, and the lack of state dollars going into public education is driving local property taxes higher and higher.”
During the 2017 legislative session, Speaker Straus led the Texas House in blocking harmful bills aimed at weakening the public education system and fought to pass a school finance reform bill that would have increased school funding by as much as $1.9 billion. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate killed that bill, which would have benefited 5.4 million Texas students, as payback.
ATPE lobbyists presented House Speaker Joe Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by the ATPE House of Delegates in July 2017.
Speaker Straus was honored as “Texan of the Year” by the Dallas Morning News for his efforts to avoid controversial crusades and keep the legislature focused on the business of improving Texans’ lives. This week, he was awarded “International Citizen of the Year” as well by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio. During the 2017 special session, ATPE also presented Straus with an honorary resolution adopted by our House of Delegates last summer in recognition of his support for public education.
Educators MUST VOTE NOW or risk facing a hostile legislature in 2019. ATPE encourages you to look up who’s running in your area on the CANDIDATES page of our website, then go to the polls and use your teacher voice!
Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed into law a major tax overhaul bill approved by Congress this week. The president also signed off on a short-term funding bill to keep the federal governmental operational for a few more weeks until longer-term legislation can be passed. The final $1.5 trillion tax bill omits some provisions that were worrisome for educators employed in public schools, which ATPE urged our congressional delegation to remove from earlier versions of the legislation. For more on the tax law that was approved, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.
Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has announced his appointments to two key state commissions. First, the speaker revealed his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance, authorized by the legislature earlier this year. The House appointments include Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Ken King (R-Canadian). Fittingly, all three of the representatives chosen by the speaker also hold leadership roles on the House Public Education Committee: Huberty as committee chair, Bernal as committee vice-chair, and King as chair of the Subcommittee on Educator Quality. Also appointed to serve on the commission is Nicole Conley Johnson, who is currently employed as Chief Financial Officer for Austin ISD. Additional members of the school finance commission were previously announced by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Yesterday, Straus also announced that Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) would serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission, along with public member and retired accountant Ron Steinhart of Dallas. The commission is charged with overseeing and making recommendations to the legislature on periodic reviews of various state agencies.
Twenty Texas school districts will have an opportunity to take part in a pilot program using locally designed accountability measures. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath named the districts selected earlier this week from a pool of 50 applicants. The pilot program falls under Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 22 passed earlier this year. For more on the local accountability pilot study, view information on the Texas Education Agency’s website here.
ATPE state officers with Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017
Texas political circles were shaken up this week by a pair of election announcements from top leaders in the Texas House of Representatives.
First came a surprise announcement on Wednesday that House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) will not seek reelection in 2018. The news of the departure of the popular house speaker was a disappointment to many in the public education community who appreciated his rational approach to leading the Texas House and willingness to prioritize school needs over divisive ideological battles.
ATPE state officers with Rep. Byron Cook in Feb. 2017
Straus’s announcement was followed by a similar one from Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) on the same day. Cook, who has chaired the powerful House State Affairs Committee and the newly created House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, similarly announced that he will step down at the end of his current term.
For more on Wednesday’s big announcements, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was in Dallas yesterday for a stakeholder meeting regarding data collection for educator preparation in Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnered with Educate Texas and other entities to solicit input and recommendations on data the agency collects to assess and improve educator preparation programs (EPPS) across Texas. A bill passed earlier this year during the 85th regular legislative session, Senate Bill (SB) 1839, added new requirements to data collection for EPPs. The work to solicit input will help guide the agency and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) as they work to implement the new law.
As Kuhlmann reports, teachers, school districts, EPP representatives, and other engaged stakeholders convened in Dallas this week to consider and identify data that would would offer transparency for candidates considering future programs, provide diagnostic value to programs, and improve upon current data used to hold programs accountable. All agreed that a focus should be placed on presenting the data in a more easily accessible manner, such as a user-friendly online dashboard. Participants also agreed that the presentation of such data should include differentiated interfacing specific to consumers (future EPP candidates and the general public), school districts, and EPPs.
Yesterday’s meeting was the second of four scheduled stakeholder meetings. Two more will be held next week in Lubbock and Austin. The TEA, under the direction of the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), will also convene a formal stakeholder committee to make recommendations on the matter and is reaching out to various standing committees for input. The agency expects to begin discussion on next steps for implementing recommendations at SBEC’s March 2018 meeting, once the initial stakeholder input has been collected. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.
Today, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees is meeting in Austin, where ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter is attending and has contributed the following report on the meeting:
The TRS Board of Directors convened today for a short meeting. After taking brief public testimony, they received an update from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie, which focused primarily on administrative housekeeping with regard to the agendas of future meetings. Guthrie did drop one bomb during his update, informing the board that there has been some discussion in Washington of reclassifying the contributions to retirement systems like TRS such that they would no longer be tax-deferred. Such a move would be a monumental policy shift dramatically impacting both educators and the pension fund itself.
After Guthrie’s comments, the board received its first update on the TRS Enterprise Application Modernization or (TEAM) program since the go live date on which we’ve previously reported. The transition has not been without the “hiccups” that accompany any such major technology transition, but the new system is stable and operational and the transition has been mostly smooth.
Next, the board worked its way through a series of administrative items before taking up proposed rules on 403(b) vendor rates. There has been significant back and forth between the board and a large segment of the 403(b) vendor community with regard to these rule changes. Many vendors acknowledge that the rules have been significantly improved, from their perspective, throughout the process. That said, most vendors still do not favor the new rules. Despite the board’s adoption of the rules, many expect this issue to remain a topic of discussion for the 86th legislature in 2019.
Finally, the board received its first overview presentation on the TRS experience study the board will undertake early next year. The experience study will help the board set many of the assumptions that are used to determine the actuarial health of the pension fund. The actuarial picture of a fund can help lawmakers makers determine contribution rates and is often used by anti-pension advocates to push for abandonment of defined-benefit pension plans based on their unfunded liabilities. Additionally, in the case of TRS, the actuarial soundness as defined by a funding horizon of less than 31 years is what allows TRS to give a COLA to retirees.
The last TRS board meeting of 2017 will be in December, and the first board meeting of 2018 will be a board retreat scheduled to commence on Valentine’s Day, February 14th.
Interim charges have now been released for both House and Senate committees to study in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. The charges issued by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick direct standing committees in the House and Senate, respectively, to convene hearings and gather feedback from stakeholders on hot topics expected to be debated by the 86th legislature.
Rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Harvey are among the numerous charges for multiple committees, but there are also several directives that focus specifically on public education. The Senate Education Committee, for instance, will study such issues as teacher compensation, virtual learning, student discipline, dual credit, and school choice. The House Public Education Committee is tasked with studying teacher retention, educating students with disabilities, charter school laws, and ways to assess student performance other than using standardized test scores. Other committees will examine public pension systems and the TRS healthcare programs for educators.
Read more about the House interim charges here and Senate interim charges here. ATPE’s lobbyists will be covering all of the education-related interim hearings and providing updates here on our Teach the Vote blog and on Twitter.
One week of early voting remains for the Nov. 7 constitutional amendment election. As part of our work with the Texas Educators Vote coalition to create a culture of voting in the education community, ATPE urges our members and all other registered voters to participate in this and all elections. Early voting runs through Friday, Nov. 3. The Texas Secretary of State also declared today, Oct. 27, as #StudentVotingDay, encouraging eligible high school students who registered to vote to get out and cast their ballots today. Learn more about what’s on the Nov. 7 ballot and how to be an engaged voter in this ATPE Blog post.
Texas Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) announced yesterday that he will not be running for re-election to the Texas House of Representatives, and therefore will not return to lead the Texas House of Representatives when the 86th Texas Legislature convenes in January 2019. In addition, state Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, announced the same day that he will not run for re-election in 2018.
The significance of yesterday’s announcements can’t be overstated. Speaker Straus and Chairman Cook each have played a tremendous role in protecting public school students and teachers, and their leadership during the 2017 legislative session prevented the worst anti-public education and anti-teacher legislation from becoming law.
ATPE presented House Speaker Joe Straus with an honorary resolution passed in July 2017, recognizing his support for public education.
Under Speaker Straus, the Texas House made public education its top priority. As part of House Bill (HB) 21 during the regular session, the House proposed $1.9 billion in increased funding for all Texas students. This legislation was opposed by the Texas Senate under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has repeatedly made private school vouchers a top legislative priority. The Texas House blocked Senate voucher legislation during both the regular and special sessions, as well as legislation that would have taken away the rights of teachers who choose to advocate for their children as members of professional associations like ATPE.
It is unclear who will step into the void created by the absence of Speaker Straus and Chairman Cook. What we do know is that anti-education forces are already celebrating victory, and those hoping to privatize public education and revoke the rights of students and educators will only be emboldened by this week’s announcements.
It is therefore all the more important that we use our teacher voices in both the March primary and November general elections in 2018 to put public education supporters in office.
Rep. Byron Cook joined Corsicana ATPE members at a pro-public education rally in July 2017.
It is likely that there will be more news in the coming days related to leadership in the Texas Legislature, and we will continue to provide you with updates here at TeachTheVote.org. You can also check back soon at TeachTheVote.org to find out how your individual representatives voted during the 2017 legislative sessions.
The next Texas House speaker will have some mighty boots to fill. In the meantime, please join us on Twitter and Facebook as we say #thankyoujoestraus for all he’s done for public education.
The Texas Tribune’s annual “TribFest” event has become a regular gathering spot for folks who live and work around the Texas Capitol. This year’s festival, which kicks off today and runs through Sunday, will feature more than 60 sessions and 250 speakers. Panels will cover just about every active policy area at the state and federal level, with education once again among the issues expected to generate the most interest.
The public education discussion will get in gear Saturday morning with a panel on higher education funding, followed by a discussion on testing, accountability, and college readiness featuring the superintendents of Austin ISD, Round Rock ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Harlingen CISD, and Alief ISD. Public school finance will come front and center Saturday afternoon with a panel that will include House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), Vice-chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and pro-public education state Reps. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) and Donna Howard (D-Austin). Finally, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will discuss ways to improve Texas schools late Saturday afternoon.
Over the years, these TribFest discussions have offered interesting public insight into how these policies are viewed and discussed behind the scenes. The media spotlight generated by the festival means these panels often provide a chance to set the narrative heading into elections or a legislative session.
In addition to the public education track, the festival will feature keynote remarks from Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), U.S. Congressman and Cruz’s Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso), as well as Congressmen Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) and Will Hurd (R-San Antonio). ATPE will be covering the weekend’s discussions, and I’ll be tweeting from @MarkWigginsTX.
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