Tag Archives: Mike Morath

From The Texas Tribune: Federal officials tell Texas to go beyond plan for special education overhaul

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
Oct. 19, 2018

Federal officials tell Texas to go beyond plan for special education overhaul” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Jean Gearhart gives a tearful statement with her husband Troy Gearhart to the panel about her special needs child. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education. Photo by Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

Federal officials said Texas should be doing even more to improve special education — and they’re planning a visit early next year to check.

In a letter Friday, officials from the U.S. Department of Education dissected Texas’ proposed plan for overhauling special education for kids with disabilities — in many cases urging state officials to do even more than they had originally planned. Earlier this year, a thorough investigation found Texas had failed to provide students with disabilities with a proper education, violating federal special education law, and demanded it undertake a long list of corrective actions to shape up.

After finalizing a plan in April, the Texas Education Agency has to date dramatically changed the structure of its departments overseeing special education, hired about 40 people to staff them (including a new special education director), and posted a long list of grants totaling more than $20 million to help school districts overhaul their policies. It anticipates spending an additional $3 billion over the next few years as more students enroll in special education.

“TEA has already completed more than half of the required activities in that Corrective Action Response,” Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement Friday. “We continue to adhere to a commitment to transparency and engagement throughout the plan’s implementation.”

In Friday’s letter, federal officials okayed some parts of Texas’ improvement plan, which they noted outlines many “necessary steps” the state is taking to address their findings.

But they also said Texas should do more to make sure school districts understand how to comply with federal special education law. The investigation uncovered many educators who misunderstood what the law said about identifying students with disabilities and providing them with the right educational services.

The letter said TEA should take a “representative sample” of school districts and thoroughly review their policies and procedures for identifying students who may need special education. It also should specify how it will identify and hold accountable school districts that do not comply with federal law.

Parent advocates have argued school districts don’t make information available to them about how to make sure their children can access the appropriate special education services.

The Department of Education told the TEA to ensure state officials provide information to parents on their rights and responsibilities under federal special education law in their native languages, unless it’s “clearly not feasible to do so.” The TEA should also come up with a specific process for how it will make sure school districts communicate with families of students who may have been denied special education services in the past, “through means other than postings on websites.”

Federal officials plan to review the progress Texas has made and will work with the TEA to schedule an in-person monitoring visit in early 2019.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/10/19/federal-officials-tell-texas-go-beyond-plan-special-education-overhaul/.

 

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.

TEA and TRS both lay out their budget requests to LBB

During a full day of marathon hearings on Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Executive Director Brian Guthrie both laid out their agencies’ Legislative Appropriations Requests (LARs). The presentations were made to a panel of staffers representing the Governor’s and Lt Governor’s offices, as well as House and Senate budget writers.

ATPE previously issued a statement about the state’s continued shift in reliance on local property taxes, and away from non-property tax revenue, to fund public education represented in TEA’s LAR. The agency’s LAR predicts a reduction of $3 billion in state aid, or $1.5 billion per year, over the next biennium.

There is an available video archive of Morath’s presentation in addition to TEA’s full LAR document, which lays out much of the commissioner’s agenda for the next two years.

Guthrie laid out his agency’s substantial appropriations request later in the day, which included increased contributions of $1.6 billion for the biennium to cover the decrease in projected investment revenue attributable to TRS’s lowering the assumed rate of return on pension fund investments. The TRS budget request also includes approximately $400 million in additional funding to cover the projected shortfall for TRS-Care, the retired educators’ health insurance program. While funding for the active educator health insurance program flows through TEA, not TRS, Guthrie did bring up the fact that the cost of active educator healthcare was also of concern and would be appropriate to address in the upcoming legislative session. While the funding does not flow through the agency, TRS does administer TRS-ActiveCare, which many districts use to provide insurance to their employees.

A video archive of Guthrie’s presentation is available to watch, in addition to the documents that TRS provided to the Legislative Budget Board for this week’s hearing.

Commissioner updates SBOE on SpEd, contracting, budget

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) opened its Wednesday meeting with an update from Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

The commissioner began by praising the board’s work on the Long-Range Plan for Public Education, and suggested that there is significant overlap with the agency’s own strategic plan.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath testifying before the SBOE, September 12, 2018.

Morath caught members up to speed on the recent debate over a cosmetology course, and indicated that the course is not expected to go away. The commissioner testified he asked staff to look into ways to ameliorate the high cost of the associated licensure.

Regarding special education, Morath claimed progress in a number of areas. The commissioner said the agency has accomplished more than half of the items under the corrective action plan. The agency was tasked with setting up a large field apparatus, and 70 percent of 55 vacant positions have been filled, including all leadership positions. Justin Porter, who helped write the corrective action plan, is the special education director.

A total of 14 grants have been posted, and an additional five have been completed internally and will be finished within the next couple months. Statements of work have been drafted for 15 of the contracts related to strategic plan.

On a separate but related note, Commissioner Morath acknowledged recent contracting issues that resulted in a rebuke from the Texas State Auditor’s office, while defending staff involved. Morath state that starting in November of last year, the agency initiated a top-to-bottom review of contracting practices.

With regard to the agency’s legislative appropriations request (LAR), in which the agency submits its budget requests for the next biennium to the Texas Legislature, Morath noted that the agency is requesting two exceptional items. These consist of $50 million to support districts providing compensatory services in order to comply with the special education corrective action plan, and roughly $50 million for health and safety, $20 million of which is aligned to the governor’s school safety plan.

The commissioner then offered a review of “A through F” school district ratings, which were released in August. Additionally, Morath noted that the state saw a one-year reduction of 247 “improvement required” (IR) campuses. This marks the last set of campus ratings under the “met standard” or IR labeling system, and campuses will instead receive A-F ratings next August.

Finally, Commissioner Morath briefed members on the first TEA annual report on the state of public education in Texas and solicited feedback from members. Relating to teacher recruitment and retention, Morath noted board members will receive a briefing on the Texas lesson study initiative tomorrow.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Aug. 24, 2018

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


Last week, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick sent a letter to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) insisting that the body not raise insurance premiums on retired educators. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter breaks down why many feel the letter is nothing more than a political stunt in this blog post.


Donna Bahorich

Texas State Board of Education Chair Donna Bahorich will be participating in a listening session for the Federal Commission on School Safety on Tuesday, August 28, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama. This listening session is the fourth in a series of panels that have been held across the nation with the goal of devising strategies to improve school safety. Tuesday’s afternoon event will be live-streamed. Find more information and read the press release in its entirety here.


U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reported to be considering allowing the use of federal funds from Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants to arm educators. The grants are intended to improve academic achievement; however, nothing expressly forbids the funds from being used to purchase firearms. In the wake of recent school shootings the Texas Education Agency (TEA) received a number of inquiries asking whether the funds could be used for such measures. Wile the agency never received an official response from the Department of Education, the proposal may very well become legitimized. You can learn more in this article from the Texas Tribune.


This week the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a proposed rule change filed by Commissioner Mike Morath regarding students who’ve taken high school end-of-course (EOC) assessments in middle school. Students in grades 3 through 8 who are enrolled in a course that awards high school credit may currently take STAAR EOC assessments prior to entering high school. This includes Algebra I, English I, and English II. However, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires all students to take a math and reading or language arts test in high school.

In order to satisfy this federal requirement, the new rule will require schools to use the SAT or ACT to assess high school students who completed their math or English EOC assessments before their freshman year. This change is expected to cost districts about $50 for each student tested in this way, which number an estimated 109,000 statewide. The total statewide impact is therefore estimated at $5.45 million. The new rule appears in today’s Texas Register and you can read it in its entirety here.

 


 

Texas school districts receive first A-F letter grades

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the new A-F letter grade ratings for Texas school districts today. Despite concerns from educators and other advocates, the legislature, with strong backing from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has worked to adopt and finalize the new rating system over the past three legislative sessions.

ATPE was among the education groups to express strong concerns about moving to an A-F rating system, especially considering the basis of any rating depends on the underlying accountability system that is too heavily reliant on state standardized tests. In a press release issued by ATPE, we reiterated our concerns and called for additional study of the new system’s impact.

“Educators across Texas have opposed assigning overly simplistic letter grades that may unfairly label schools and their staff and students as failures,” said Jennifer Mitchell, ATPE Governmental Relations Director. “Many educators worry that A-F will stigmatize schools with accountability grades based disproportionately upon data from high-stakes standardized tests.”

Today’s release of A-F ratings is specific to Texas school districts (campuses are not scheduled to receive A-F ratings until next school year), but campus accountability ratings according to the previous system were also released. While ATPE is happy to see an historic reduction in the number of Texas campuses requiring improvement, we stress that we should be considering more than a letter grade when praising their success.

“ATPE recognizes that under any accountability system so heavily determined by test scores, there will be winners and losers,” said Mitchell. “It is important not to overestimate the significance of poor grades assigned to some school districts, but it is equally vital to look behind the letter grades of those schools that have shown improvement. Additional study, much like research commissioned by ATPE in the past to examine the factors influencing successful school turnaround, is warranted with the roll-out of this new system.”

Mitchell referred to a teacher quality study commissioned by ATPE in 2008, in which researchers from the University of Texas explored strategies implemented at schools that had shown significant improvement in their students’ test scores. The researchers interviewed teachers and school leaders at those schools and found that they were prioritizing such practices as recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, empowering teachers to make instructional decisions, and providing high-quality professional development and financial resources.

TEA released its own series of press releases on the topic of school accountability ratings, covering a high-level breakdown of the A-F district ratings and the campus accountability ratings. Commissioner Mike Morath also praised the 153 school districts that received an A rating today.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 29, 2018

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


This week the Supreme Court struck a decisive blow against public sector unions in its ruling in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME). With its strong right-to-work laws, Texas remains unaffected. However 27 states including Illinois, where the case originated, will have to change the way unions collect “agency fees” — fees collected by unions to cover the cost of collective bargaining. It’s important to note that ATPE is not a union and supports the right of employees to choose whether or not they wish to pay fees or belong to a professional association.

“There really isn’t a direct impact from this ruling,” said ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter in this Austin American-Statesman article about the ruling. You can read more about the ruling in this blog post by Exter. ATPE’s official statement on the ruling can be found here.


House Public Education Committee meeting June 27, 2018.

School safety and mental health were the focus of two House committee meetings this week. On Wednesday, the House Public Education Committee met to discuss interim charges on school safety and emergency preparedness. The committee heard testimony from members of the public education community, mental health advocates, and safety product vendors. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath spoke about school marshals and partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, and Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen spoke on how physical security affects schools safety. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins recapped the hearing here.

On Thursday, a joint meeting of the House Public Education Committee along with the House Public Health Committee was held to discuss an interim charge on providing mental health services for children. The hearing included testimony from a panel of high school-aged activists, as well as school counselors, a representative from the community based organization Communities in Schools, and Billy Philips, who testified on behalf of the Texas Tech University Health Science Center’s new initiative that uses telemedicine to provide assessment and referral to students displaying behavioral issues. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins breaks down the hearing in this post. 


Education was the central focus of several actions on Capitol Hill this week. An education funding bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 was marked up by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. While the bill must go through several other phases before a version of it would ultimately become law, this early version of the bill demonstrates how the Senate intends to pay for education.

A bill reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act was passed out of the committee on Thursday. States with CTE standards aligned with those in the reauthorized bill would be able to receive funding at around the same levels under the proposed FY 2019 budget.

Lastly, the Federal Commission on School Safety commenced a series of regional listening sessions aimed at addressing the issue of school safety from the federal level. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) also announced its intention to apply for a federal grant entitled the STOP School Violence Prevention and Mental Health Training Program, which is administered by the Department of Justice.

Read more about this week’s activity in the nation’s capital in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Gov. Greg Abbott has called for a special election on July 31 to replace former Senator Carlos Uresti, who resigned earlier this month after being convicted of 11 felonies, including money laundering and fraud.

As of Monday’s filing deadline, eight candidates have filed to run to represent senate district 19 for the remainder of Uresti’s term, which runs through Jan. 2021.

Special elections are unique in that multiple candidates from the same party can be on the ballot with multiple candidates from other parties. In this instance, four Democrats, three Republicans, and a Libertarian will be on the ballot.

The Democratic candidates include current state Rep. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio; current state Rep. Tomas Uresti of San Antonio, who lost his bid to continue representing his current house district during the primaries largely due to the scandal surrounding his brother; former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine; and Charlie Urbina Jones of Poteet, who has previously run unsuccessfully for Texas’s 23rd Congressional District.

The Republican candidates include Pete Flores of Pleasanton, who unsuccessfully challenged Carlos Uresti in 2016; Jesse Alaniz of Harlandale, a former president of the Harlandale ISD board; and Carlos Antonio Raymond of San Antonio, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for House District 117 in March.

The Libertarian candidate is Tony Valdivia of San Antonio, one of two SD 19 representatives on the State Libertarian Executive Committee (SLEC)

House committee discusses school security issues

The House Public Education Committee met Wednesday to discuss two interim charges related to school safety. Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) explained the significance of these charges in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and a list of school safety recommendations released by Gov. Greg Abbott. Rep. Huberty opened the meeting by reading the interim charges aloud:

  • Review the effectiveness of schools’ current multi-hazard emergency operation plans. Determine any areas of deficiency and make recommendations to ensure student safety. Research violence prevention strategies, such as threat assessment, that are available for school personnel to identify students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Identify resources and training available to schools to help them develop intervention plans that address the underlying problems that caused the threatening behavior.
  • Examine current school facilities and grounds. Consider any research-based ‘best practices’ when designing a school to provide a more secure environment. Review the effectiveness of installing metal detectors, cameras, safety locks, streaming video of school security cameras, and other measures designed to improve school safety.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath was the first to testify, and addressed the school marshals program that allows districts to arm teachers and staff who voluntarily undergo special training. Morath noted that this is an option for districts that choose to use it. He also encouraged districts to partner with local law enforcement organizations to find innovative ways to increase police presence on campus, such as by inviting officers to take their breaks on school campuses.

House Public Education Committee meeting June 27, 2018.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont) asked whether school marshal candidates must undergo a psychological evaluation in order to ensure individuals who volunteer for the position do so for the right reasons. Morath indicated that individuals must be nominated by others, and stressed the training requirements for the program.

Much of Commissioner Morath’s testimony mirrored what he told a Senate committee earlier this month. State Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) indicated funding is a challenge for making additional training and supports available for character education. Morath suggested that teacher certification redesign may help, but the redesign isn’t schedule until 2022.

Committee Vice-Chair Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) recommended more mental health personnel, such as trauma counselors, on school campuses. State Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) asked the commissioner directly whether the legislature should require and fund trauma counselors. Morath punted on the question, saying needs and resources vary from district to district. On further questioning from state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), Morath acknowledged that mental health services could be part of a special appropriations request independent of TEA’s regular budget submission. Chair Huberty pressed the commissioner on the question – clearly indicating the committee is focused on getting more counselors into school with a potential state funding assist.

Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen testified regarding a number of physical security issues, such as fire alarms and building design. Fagen indicated that making the changes proposed by the governor’s office could cost between $100,000 and $250,000 per campus. Members heard from a total of nine panels, covering everything from student mental health services to how schools are designed. Representatives from groups representing school social workers and licensed specialists in school psychology emphasized the difference between their jobs and those of standard school counselors, who are primarily focused on preparing students to graduate. Public testimony consisted of a mix of school safety product vendors and advocates for students with mental health issues — the latter of whom warned against unfair discrimination.

 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 15, 2018

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


ATPE leaders and staff meet with Rep. Kevin Brady.

A delegation of ATPE leaders and staff were in Washington, D.C. this week for several days of meetings covering multiple topics pertaining to public education policy at the federal level. Primarily, the contingent met with members of the Texas delegation in Congress as well as other key decision makers about the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), which negatively impacts the Social Security benefits of too many educators in Texas and across the country. Among their agenda was a meeting with U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX), who has led a push to replace the current WEP with a fairer formula for calculating the Social Security benefits of those affected. The team of ATPE advocates also discussed our recent efforts to prevent federal vouchers and pressed for maintaining Title II funding within the Higher Education Act that supports educators, among other issues. Learn more about the work ATPE did in Washington this week in this post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday.

 


The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security met Monday and Tuesday for its inaugural meetings. The committee was established late last month by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick following Gov. Greg Abbott’s roll out of a 40-page plan to address school safety following the school shooting tragedy in Santa Fe. So far the Lt. Gov. has assigned the committee four charges to study between now and the end of August, when he expects the committee to wrap up its work and offer recommendations on next steps. Two of the four charges were discussed this week. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins has a recap of the the Monday meeting covering school infrastructure and design techniques aimed at improving school safety. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was at Tuesday’s hearing, and she has more on that day’s discussion covering school security programs. ATPE provided written testimony to the committee encouraging members of the committee to respect that the needs of local school districts differ broadly, understand that adequate funding must accompany proposals to address school safety, and engage educators as conversations on school safety continue. The committee is expected to meet again in July to focus on mental health.

 


The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) met this week in Austin. Leading the headlines from the four-day meeting was coverage of developments regarding a long fought battle to establish a course focused on Mexican-American studies. That began on Tuesday when a meeting allowing public comment on a number of curriculum issues was largely focused on public comments regarding the newly approved course. A set of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) were adopted for the course, and it was ultimately renamed based on input from public testifiers. Originally titled “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Mexicans of American Descent” the course was changed by the board to “Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies.” The board also heard updates from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath regarding Hurricane Harvey, the Santa Fe school shooting, and assessment woes; voted to approve new charter applicants; and amended the dyslexia handbook. Linked in the text above are a series of posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins who attended the meetings and reported extensively on their work this week. Today’s final meeting gave the board the opportunity to finalize all of its work earlier in the week.

 


 

Morath suggests developing school safety building standards in SBOE update

The State Board of Education (SBOE) began its Wednesday meeting with a regularly scheduled update from Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath. The commissioner touched on a lengthy list of issues, including the agency’s response to recent disasters.

SBOE hears update from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on June 13, 2018.

The first item Morath discussed was the agency’s follow-up on the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. The agency issued letter to administrators Friday apprising them of steps that could be immediately taken to improve school safety in the near term.

“There’s no such thing as perfect safety,” said Morath, adding, “But there are reasonable steps that can be taken.”

The commissioner acknowledged the difficulty and expense of securing more than 8,600 campuses across the state, but offered a list of specific steps the agency believes may be useful. These steps include increasing law enforcement support, and using more school marshals in rural schools where hiring more officers may not be an option. Training for marshals is now freely available all summer long, and likely will be for some time. Morath noted that teachers are not the only staff members who may be marshals. The commissioner acknowledged that marshals won’t be a useful option everywhere.

In addition, the agency recommended administrators review the threat assessment report compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in response to the Columbine shootings. Furthermore, districts are advised to coordinate with local law enforcement organizations to encourage officers to use schools for their restroom and break stops in order to increase the visible presence of law enforcement on campus.

The agency’s most recent action in response to Hurricane Harvey was the release of state accountability rating adjustments for districts impacted by the historic storm. In prior storms, schools at which classes were canceled for ten or more days were subject to a “not rated” provision. Due to scope of Hurricane Harvey, the criteria were expanded to include campuses that were relocated, campuses to which relocated students were transferred, and campuses where ten percent of students or staff were forced from their homes. These campuses will be labeled as “met standard” unless they were due to receive an “improvement required” rating. In those cases, campuses will be labeled “not rated.” Similar criteria were applied for district-level ratings.

The commissioner approved four new charter school applicants, which will be subject to the board’s approval this week. The four were the only applicants to advance from a pool of 21 interested parties. Morath compared the vetting process to that commonly employed by venture capital or angel investors. Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) expressed concern that one of the schools up for consideration plans to subject prospective students to criminal background checks. Cortez also criticized what he characterized as misleading marketing on the part of one applicant regarding teacher-student ratios.

Regarding assessments, Morath updated the board on what has been a frustrating year after what he called a “high-water mark” for successful test administration in 2017. Nearly 42,000 students who were testing online experienced a 20-minute connectivity slowdown in April, followed by a slowdown in May that affected roughly 59,000 students. This group of students will be taken into account in this year’s campus and district ratings. Morath waived 5th and 8th Grade student success initiative (SSI) requirements for affected students, but noted the commissioner does not have waiver authority over end-of-course (EOC) exams. Morath added it’s conceivable that some students may have been attempting to pass a third EOC after multiple retakes, but probably numbered fewer than a dozen. In response to the glitches, the agency has assessed liquidated damages in the amount of $100,000 to test administrator ETS.

The agency also released accountability rules for the “A through F” ratings framework under House Bill (HB) 22 and has made some changes based upon feedback from stakeholders. The agency doubled the weighting of high school graduation rates under Domain I: Student Achievement to 20 percent of the score. Under the career, college and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators, TEA added credit for the completion of dual credit courses and added partial credit for students who complete a coherent sequence of courses aligned with industry certification. The agency also adjusted the relative performance curve under Domain II: School Progress. Districts will be rated under the A-F system this year, and campus A-F ratings will be released in 2019.

Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth) praised TEA for its response to both Hurricane Harvey and the Santa Fe shooting. Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) asked about adapting mental health first aid training to students and adding it to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for health. Morath said educators are asking for more mental health training after the Santa Fe incident.

Member Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio) asked about schools using a single point of entry like airports, though acknowledging that strategy may not be effective in high schools, where students are often spread across multiple buildings. Morath told the board there is no one approach that can fix everything and solutions will depend heavily on local context. The commissioner expressed interest in convening architects and school administrators to develop recommended practices for the construction of safe school buildings, much like architects have developed for designating the environmental friendliness of buildings.

The board’s Wednesday agenda includes a review of the long-term strategic asset allocation plan for the permanent school fund (PSF).

Police, architects testify in Senate school safety hearing

The Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security began its first hearing Monday with a moment of silence for the victims of school shootings. Chaired by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), the select committee was assigned by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick after Gov. Greg Abbott released a list of school safety proposals, many of which would require legislative action.

The select committee is composed of six Republicans and three Democrats, and is scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday to discuss potential ways to prevent future school shootings like the one in Santa Fe, Texas. Monday’s agenda included considering testimony on the following:

“Improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats, and discuss various proposals to harden school facilities, including limiting access points, improving screening and detecting of weapons, retrofitting school facilities with improved locks, emergency alarm systems, and monitoring cameras.”

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath was the first witness invited to testify, and briefed members on steps the agency has taken to improve school safety. Morath noted that Santa Fe ISD was in fact one of 186 districts that received a special designation for going above and beyond school safety requirements. The commissioner added the agency has secured $62 million in additional federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which it is directing toward school safety. Morath noted that TEA lacks the authority to implement many of the governor’s proposals without specific instructions from the legislature. The state will also compete for a fraction of $75 million available through a nationally competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) discussed legislation he passed during the 2017 legislative session to provide training for school staff to identify students who may be experiencing or at risk of a mental health crisis. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) expressed interest in this idea, albeit while expressing a concern that students’ private mental health records remain confidential. Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked members to evaluate the current state of mental health services in Texas and consider whether adequate resources are in place.

Asked by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) whether the legislature should expand the agency’s authority to implement some of the governor’s proposals, Morath hesitated to offer an opinion. The commissioner ultimately stated that TEA is weak both in terms of capacity and regulatory authority when it comes to school safety. Morath testified TEA has only one quarter of one full-time equivalent staff member dedicated to school safety.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) suggested that local school boards are too fractious to make many school safety decisions, and suggested that TEA study the cost of implementing airport-style checkpoints in schools statewide.

The next invited witness was Christopher Huckabee, who chairs the Texas Society of Architects School Safety Workgroup. Huckabee explained how campus architecture has changed in response to school shootings going back to Columbine, such as efforts to push the public back from campus buildings and direct visitors through a single entrance. Huckabee testified that fire codes are very specific when it comes to having multiple entrances and exits for students and staff. He explained, “Even the best hardened campus are not perfect scenarios in this regard.” Chairman Taylor suggested that fire codes may need to be revisited, and the focus may need to shift away from fire safety. Sen. West asked about distinguishing between fire alarms and lockdown alarms, and Huckabee suggested schools could use an app to communicate emergency alerts via mobile devices.

Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) contended that implementing metal detectors is the only surefire way to prevent guns from being brought into schools in the first place. Huckabee stated the challenge to districts would primarily be one of resources, and warned students may still find ways to get around metal detectors. Chair Taylor pointed out that congestion resulting from metal detectors may create a new potential target in a large group of students awaiting entry.

San Antonio ISD Police Chief Joe Curiel led off a panel of law enforcement officers, and testified with regard to training and procedures currently in place. Chief Curiel mandated child crisis intervention training (CCIT) for all SAISD officers, which involves talking with students and building relationships in order to identify potential issues early on. Chief Curiel testified he believes identifying potential shooters is all about human intelligence.

Chair Taylor asked about the ability of law enforcement to track students’ social media accounts. Chief Curiel indicated that an officer is dedicated to assessing social media posts, but not necessarily monitoring all accounts.

Sen. Lucio asked Chief Curiel his position on whether teachers should carry guns, and how officers would respond if they encountered an armed teacher during an active shooting. Chief Curiel indicated he is neutral on the issue, but warned that “things could go wrong” if officers encountered someone who is armed when the shooter had not been identified yet. The chief also cautioned against viewing metal detectors as the sole solution, and repeated that human intelligence is the key.

“We can fortify our campuses all we want, but that does not guarantee a weapon will not be carried in,” said Chief Curiel.

Sen. Creighton pushed Chief Curiel for a firmer answer on whether adding armed teachers to the mix would save lives, providing that they were well-trained and potentially from a military or law enforcement background. Chief Curiel repeated his concern that responding officers, in particular those who don’t work at the school, would not immediately know the difference between the teacher and the active shooter.

“Having people armed within the campus would have to require a lot of training and the coordination effort that takes place when a situation like that takes place,” said Chief Curiel.

Pressed by Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills) to take a position on whether the potential of facing armed staff would be more of a deterrent than the baseline prohibition against firearms other than those carried by law enforcement officers, Chief Curiel stated that an individual who has determined to carry out a school shooting is not in a rational mental state and would likely make their decision without regard to district firearm policy. Chief Curiel emphasized that the department is neutral on the issue of arming teachers, and would adjust their policies and procedures to accommodate any decision the local board of trustees decides to take.

Midway ISD School Resource Officer Jeff Foley testified on the behalf of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, and told members that programs to arm teachers, such as the school marshals program, may be beneficial to rural districts where law enforcement may not be able to quickly respond. On the other hand, he expressed concern over such programs in urban and suburban schools that have law enforcement personnel assigned to the campus.

Mike Matranga, Executive Director for Security and School Safety at Texas City ISD, said no school can be 100 percent secured. More importantly, he said, is addressing students’ mental health needs. Matranga indicated he believes the larger issue is one of weakening social values, a lack of personal responsibility and children lacking appropriate avenues to channel their frustration. Matranga suggested that many civilian school boards lack the expertise to make the most informed decisions regarding school security, and opined that hiring an additional police officer would be better than a school marshal. Matranga contended teachers play a different, albeit equally important, role.

“Our teachers are our first line of defense,” said Matranga, emphasizing the role of teachers in identifying kids who are having problems. Yet pointing to the state of school funding, Matranga acknowledged that the state is asking teachers to do more each year without adequate compensation.

Public testimony began with metal detector industry respresentatives. Their testimony focused on the real and perceived benefits of metal detectors, such as their potential to discourage potential criminals. One witness argued that x-ray machines are a larger cause of congestion than metal detectors, which can come in the form of either walkthrough units or handheld wands. The speed of detection can vary depending upon sensitivity and the procedure used for checking people who set off alerts.

The committee will meet again Tuesday morning to consider the following charge:

“Improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats, and discuss various proposals to harden school facilities, including limiting access points, improving screening and detecting of weapons, retrofitting school facilities with improved locks, emergency alarm systems, and monitoring cameras.”

Members will hear invited testimony on these topics, and members of the public will be limited to two minutes of testimony.