Tag Archives: Mike Morath

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: July 12, 2019

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


Commissioner of Education Mike Morath

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) invited education stakeholders, including ATPE, to a meeting with Commissioner Mike Morath on Monday to go over the agency’s plan for providing public information on the implementation of the tax compression and school finance bill, House Bill (HB) 3. The commissioner walked attendees through a high-level presentation on the various aspects of the 300-page bill that will be enacted over the coming months and years, including subjects related to teacher training and compensation.

The gist is that the agency has created an informational website and will be releasing a new video each week discussing a single topic of HB 3. This week, the agency released a new video detailing changes to the compensatory education allotment, which provides funding for economically disadvantaged students. You can watch that video here. Read your ATPE Governmental Relations team’s full post on Monday’s meeting here.


The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) board of trustees will be in Austin next week, July 18-19, for a regularly scheduled board meeting. Of note at this particular meeting, the board will decide the timing for delivery of the 13th check that will be delivered to retirees as a result of the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 12. Board materials and a link to a live stream of the meeting can found here.


ATPE is headed to Houston next week for the 2019 Summit, where educators from every corner of Texas will come together, elect ATPE state officers, and set our association’s policy agenda for the next year.

Members will enjoy valuable opportunities to network and make friends with colleagues across the state, as well as learn about important legislation and earn CPE credit. The ATPE Governmental Relations team will be presenting an update on what happened during the 86th legislative session, as well as what you can do to stay engaged and make sure the state follows through on promises made to educators in 2019. ATPE’s Washington, DC-based lobbyist, David Pore, will also participate in the legislative update for members, addressing federal issues of interest to the education community.

If you’ll be attending the ATPE Summit, we look forward to seeing you there!


TEA begins deep dives on HB 3 topics

The Texas Education Agency held an information session Monday, July 8, 2019, in which Commissioner of Education Mike Morath briefed education stakeholders, including ATPE’s lobbyists, on various components of House Bill (HB) 3 that will be rolling out over the next several months.

As the session’s major tax compression and school finance bill, HB 3 orders the state and school districts to implement several programmatic changes over the coming months and years. In order to make the process more transparent, TEA has created an HB 3 resource website, which you can view here.

DEEP DIVES

TEA’s website is intended to host a number of “deep dive” updates on various components of HB 3, with a new deep dive posted every week. One of the first is an update on master teacher certifications, which are being phased out as a result of HB 3. The ATPE Governmental Relations team has received several questions about what will happen to teachers who are currently certified as reading masters. The long and short of it is that all master certificates will be converted to “legacy” master certificates and remain valid until their expiration date. Current master teachers should consider whether their underlying certifications are aligned to their current teaching assignments and may reach out to ATPE or TEA with any questions. The official TEA guidance on the subject can be viewed here. The agency’s next deep dive will address compensatory education and is scheduled for release this Thursday, July 11, on the TEA’s HB 3 website. A list of scheduled deep dives can be found here.

SCHOOL FINANCE

The school finance bill should provide additional funding for most districts, worth an average of $635 more per average daily attendance (ADA). Along with the new funding, HB 3 orders school districts to do several things and suggests they do several more. Commissioner Morath conceded to stakeholders Monday that the state has not calculated whether the additional funding schools receive will be enough to do all of what they are being asked, and he indicated that it is likely that roughly 15 school districts will not receive sufficient funding to cover the increase in the educator minimum salary schedule (MSS) mandated under HB 3.

TEACHER PAY

Under HB 3, districts will have the option of accessing a “teacher incentive allotment” if they develop a local program to offer differentiated pay based on teacher quality. This allotment may provide participating districts from $3,000 to $32,000 in additional funding per teacher who qualifies under an approved local program, but it is important to note that this funding will not go directly to the teacher. Instead, that money will go to the district with the requirement that 90 percent of it be spent on compensation for teachers at the participating campus. Schools with existing programs will likely see additional funding in September 2020 for programs in effect during the upcoming school year, and new programs will likely be eligible to receive funding by 2021.

OTHER RULES IMPACTING EDUCATORS

The school finance bill also expanded the “do not hire registry” of public school educators who have been convicted of an inappropriate relationship to non-certified employees. This change is effective immediately, and a deep dive on this topic is scheduled to be released by TEA before the start of the fall semester.

Every teacher in kindergarten through grade 3 must attend a reading academy within the next three years at the school district’s expense. Each academy is expected to include a five-day summer institute, two days of pull-outs, and 12 coaching sessions during the year, plus three days the following summer. Educators will not receive a state stipend for attendance, but the agency indicated there is an expectation that districts will provide them with a stipend. All future K-3 educators will be required to cover the reading academy’s curriculum before placement, which means reading academy instruction will transfer to educator preparation programs (EPPs) going into the future.

New teachers certified for pre-K through grade 6 will also be required to demonstrate proficiency in the science of teaching reading (STR) by January 1, 2021. The agency is currently working on a test for STR proficiency.

OUTCOMES FUNDING

Districts may receive additional outcomes-based funding under HB 3 for each annual graduate above a certain threshold percentage who checks a box indicating they are college, career, or military ready (CCMR). Districts are expected to receive money this year for Class of 2018 graduates.

ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTIONAL DAYS

HB 3 allows schools to add instructional days beyond the current minimum of 180 days up to 210 days. These days will not be subject to compulsory attendance and will be optional at each district’s discretion. The funding will not cover the full cost of operating schools on those days, and the agency acknowledged that many districts may simply use this program to subsidize their existing summer school programs.

You can view the complete slide deck TEA presented to stakeholders on Monday by clicking here. This slide deck includes graphical presentations on many of HB 3’s main components. The agency will continue to produce informational content each week, with compensatory education scheduled for this week and pre-K scheduled for next week. You can see what the agency has already published by clicking on the HB 3 resource page.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: June 28, 2019

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


On Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched a new website that will serve as a resource portal for implementation of House Bill 3. In an introductory video, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath explained that TEA will release a series of videos covering different parts of the school finance reform bill. Read more about the new TEA resource in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. To learn more about House Bill 3 and other legislation that passed this year, check out the ATPE lobbyists’ in-depth analysis on Teach the Vote here and here.


In their first meeting since the 86th legislative session adjourned, members of the Pension Review Board (PRB) discussed the implementation of various pieces of pension-related legislation that passed this year. The discussion included a look at bills pertaining to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension fund. There was also a passing of the torch as outgoing Chair Josh McGee ended his term and incoming Chair Stephanie Liebe began hers overseeing the PRB. Read a more detailed review of the PRB meeting in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


TEA rolls out resource website for HB 3, school finance changes

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is rolling out a new website and video series to try and explain the various components of House Bill (HB) 3, the major school finance bill passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year.

At more than 300 pages in length, HB 3 sets in motion a significant number of policy changes that will have marked effects on schools and classrooms. Among these changes is language in the bill that directs school districts that see a substantial increase in school funding as a result of HB 3 to dedicate some of that new funding to increasing compensation for school employees, with priority given to classroom teachers with more than five years of experience.

In the month that passed since HB 3 became law, some districts have awarded raises for school employees, although it’s unclear whether HB 3 was the catalyst. Many districts will await further guidance from TEA before implementing the compensation sections of HB 3 in order to know exactly how they are expected to distribute any new funding and what form the additional compensation may take — i.e. salary, healthcare and retirement contributions, or other benefits that carry a dollar value.

To answer questions like these for the general public, TEA has set up an HB 3 information website that can be found here. The website currently hosts an introductory video by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. The agency plans to release a series of 30-minute videos entitled “HB3 in 30,” each of which is intended to explain specific components of HB 3. According to a press release from the agency:

“Videos will be released every Thursday and will be accompanied by supporting documents available for download. A full schedule of weekly release dates, a summary of HB3, frequently asked questions, and implementation guidance for school districts can be found on the TEA House Bill 3 information site.

The first video in the series, an overview of Budget Planning for Teacher Compensation, is scheduled for release on Thursday, June 26.”

Districts will continue to receive formal guidance documents from TEA, the first round of which was released earlier this month. Links to these documents are also provided at the bottom of the HB 3 information site.

For more on the anticipated impact of HB 3, be sure to check out the ATPE Governmental Relations team’s comprehensive analysis of the bill here on Teach the Vote.

SBOE rejects application for new charter by Harmony founder

SBOE meeting, June 14, 2019.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) met Friday, June 14, 2019, to conclude its nearly week-long meeting. As we reported on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog yesterday, the most high-profile item on this week’s agenda was the approval or veto of five new charter school applications. All were recommended for approval prior to this SBOE meeting by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.

The new charter applications being considered this week were on behalf of Elevate Collegiate Charter School (Houston), Houston Classical Charter School (Houston), Royal Public Schools (Austin, Houston), San Antonio Preparatory Charter School (San Antonio), and The Gathering Place (San Antonio). The full board discussed the applications today, following a similar review by an SBOE committee yesterday. After hours of testimony by educators and administrators universally opposed to each of the new applicants, members of the board’s Committee on School Initiatives voted 3-2 to veto all but one of the applicants on Thursday. Members of that committee voted 4-1 to approve the application from The Gathering Place.

During Friday’s full board meeting, SBOE Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) highlighted the ability of charter holders to expand in an unrestricted manner after their initial approval. He urged the board to vote against the new applicants. Members raised concerns including negative fiscal impacts on nearby school districts, lack of experience and qualifications among top staff of the applicants, and false information included in some applications. SBOE Member Matt Robinson (R-Friendswood) expressed concerns over the negative consequences each charter would have on the funding available to local schools in each district.

The board has the legal authority to veto applications for new charters that have been approved by the commissioner. Members voting to effectively approve the charters contended that it is not the board’s purview to reject new charters on a wholesale basis, and any issue with charters in general should be taken up by the legislature. The full board voted to reverse each of the committee’s veto recommendations and instead effectively approve the remaining applications, with one exception.

The board spent an extensive amount of time this week questioning Soner Tarim, the founder of Harmony Public Schools and principal applicant on behalf of Royal Public Schools. SBOE Member Georgina Perez (D-El Paso) walked Tarim through six pages of questions ranging from the lack of local and demographically appropriate board members to numbers in the application that indicate its schools would serve lower percentages of English language learners and students in special education than surrounding district campuses. Members ultimately voted 8-5 today to veto the application from Royal Public Schools.

Commissioner updates SBOE on HB 3 and other education bills

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath updated the State Board of Education (SBOE) today, June 12, 2019, on recent bills passed by the 86th Texas Legislature affecting public education. His remarks included comments on the major school finance and reform bill, House Bill (HB) 3.

Commissioner Morath began with a review of HB 3906, which makes several changes to how state assessments are delivered. Intended do reduce test anxiety, the bill bthis blog post from the ATPE lobby team.

Under HB 3, TEA is required to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a public institution to study the STAAR and ensure that the assessment meets certain criteria: It is to be written at the appropriate reading level; should only include content aligned with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for that grade level or earlier grades; and should only include passages written at or below the reading level of the grade level for the assessment. This report is due to the legislature by December 1, 2019.

Commissioner Mike Morath addressing SBOE members on June 12, 2019.

The commissioner provided the board with a high-level review of the main components of HB 3, which the agency estimates will provide an average increase of $635 per student in average daily attendance (ADA). You can read the full analysis of HB 3 by ATPE’s lobbyists here.

Aside from new legislation, Commissioner Morath indicated that the agency has found the financial resources to follow through with the SBOE’s request to create a charter school transparency website, which will provide easy access to more information on charter schools. A beta version of the website will be available by spring 2020. This segued into a discussion on TEA’s process of reviewing applications for new charters, and the commissioner walked the board through the five applications he has recommended for approval, which were announced late last week. SBOE member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) pointed out the short notice and requested that the agency provide its charter recommendations further ahead of time.

SBOE member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) asked the commissioner to review the incentive pay program created under HB 3. Morath noted that local school districts will be able to develop programs based upon the current T-TESS evaluation system, with Texas Tech University tasked with reviewing districts’ programs for quality control. The commissioner added that while “master” teacher designations were envisioned as roughly the top five percent of teachers based on performance, the bill requires that the system enable all teachers to be mathematically able to qualify for the designation. Commissioner Morath pointed out that HB 3 requires that 90 percent of a district’s incentive pay funding must be used to increase the salary of teachers working on the campus at which the incentive pay program is in place, though not necessarily each teacher. With that in mind, Morath suggested that districts could “craftily invest in a teacher group.”

After the commissioner spoke, TEA’s governmental relations team updated the board on how the SBOE’s legislative recommendations fared during the 2019 legislative session. Hunter Thompson walked members through changes the legislature made to governance of the Permanent School Fund (PSF), which the board oversees, as well as incentives to hire and retain teachers, which Thompson suggested were included in the provisions of HB 3. Thompson also credited HB 3 with accomplishing a number of objectives laid out in the board’s Long-Range Plan (LRP) for Public Education. SBOE chair Donna Bahorich (R-Houston) and member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin) suggested in the future that the board may consider drafting legislative recommendations earlier in order to spend more time educating legislators about those issues in the run-up to a legislative session.

With the legislative session clock ticking, major education bills remain pending

Four days remain in the regular session of the 86th Texas Legislature, and significant deadlines for bills attach to each day that passes.

On Tuesday night, the House worked actively until the midnight hour, which was the deadline for Senate bills to be passed on second reading in order to stay alive. (The deadlines for House bills to make it out of the lower chamber and be sent over to the Senate already passed earlier this month.) This week’s related deadline for passing Senate bills on third reading and final passage on Wednesday night was less dramatic, with House members wrapping up their business by about 7 pm. Over on the other side of the capitol, the Senate worked late into the night last night to catch up and get a number of House bills passed on second and third reading.

Among the bills that survived this week’s deadlines was the ATPE-supported Senate Bill 11, containing a number of school safety and mental health initiatives that were a top priority for the governor this session. Read more about that bill’s curious journey through the legislative process here.

The deadlines hitting this week signal that the overwhelming majority of the thousands of bills filed this session are dead (for the most part), leaving only those bills that have been approved in some form by both the House and Senate. If both chambers have approved a bill in the same form, then the bill is enrolled and sent to the governor. The process is trickier for bills that get amended in different ways by the House or Senate. Each chamber will spend the next couple of days examining their bills that have come over from the other chamber with amendments and deciding what to do with them. The author of each bill can move to concur with the changes made by the other chamber, or can request the appointment of a conference committee to negotiate a final version of the bill. Friday, May 24, is the last day for House members to make such decisions.

Some of this session’s most important bills, especially relating to public education and ATPE’s legislative priorities, remain pending in conference committees at this point. These include the budget, a bill to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), and a major school finance and reform bill that has dominated the conversations this session.

  • For House Bill 3, the school finance bill, senators and state representatives have taken very different approaches on how to tackle the issue of educator pay. With Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen repeatedly proclaiming “the time is now” for school finance reform, the House approved HB 3 with an across-the-board pay raise for all school district employees except administrators. Under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate has favored a larger pay raise for teachers and librarians only, and senators also included in their version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay plan that has been pushed hard by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. The conference committee for HB 3 also must grapple with differing views on how to help school districts generate sufficient funds for their operations while also facilitating property tax relief to homeowners.
  • The TRS bill, Senate Bill 12, is designed to increase state funding for the educators’ pension fund and give current retirees a 13th check, but its final language largely depends on how much money is available to achieve those goals. That decision hinges on what happens with HB 3 to address the state’s larger school finance needs.

A press conference scheduled for this afternoon by the governor, lieutenant governor, and house speaker may provide insight on the progress of these conference committees.

Sunday, May 26, is the very last day that lawmakers can vote on conference committee reports, which contain the negotiated versions of those bills. The pressure is on those legislators appointed to conference committees to work out agreements between the House and Senate language of these bills. In some cases, conference committees may add entirely new language to the bill and can ask the House and Senate to approve a motion to go “outside the bounds” of the original legislation. Even for the bills that make it all the way through the legislative process, there is another waiting period in which the governor can decide whether to exercise his veto authority. June 16 is the deadline for the governor to act.

The takeaway is that we still have a few days left to wait and see what, if any, compromises are struck on major bills like House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 12. Stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog for updates and follow us on Twitter for major developments in these final days of the session.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 8, 2019

Here’s your chilly edition of this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations staff:


Andrea Chevalier

ATPE is excited to welcome Andrea Chevalier, the newest lobbyist to join our Governmental Relations team.

Andrea joins us most recently from the office of state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), where she served as Legislative Director and oversaw a host of issues, including public education. She is also a former classroom teacher with experience working in both the traditional public school and charter school environments. Andrea attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied chemistry; earned her Masters of Education in Secondary Education at the University of North Texas; and is currently working on completing her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from UT.

Andrea will be lobbying and reporting on a variety of issues being debated by the legislature this session, working closely with the House Public Education Committee, and covering educator quality regulations considered by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Watch for her blog posts here on Teach the Vote and follow her on Twitter at @ATPE_AndreaC.

 


On Tuesday, Gov. Gregg Abbott addressed a joint session of the 86th Legislature, delivering his traditional “State of the State” address. He outlined his legislative priorities for the session, punctuated by the declaration of six issues as emergency items that would warrant expedited action by lawmakers. All six of the issues bear close ties to public education, including most notably school finance, school safety, and teacher pay. Abbott’s declaration of these school-related emergency issues is a testament to the impact of the 2018 election cycle in which the Texas public education community was much more noticeably vocal and active. Tuesday was also the day for President Donald Trump to deliver his State of the Union address. That speech, which had been postponed due to the recent federal government shutdown, contained far less education-related content. Read more about both the State of the State and State of the Union speeches in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


The two legislative committees that oversee public education policy issues in Texas have begun holding regular meetings and hearing testimony. The Senate Education Committee held its first meeting of the legislative session this week, receiving an overview presentation by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The committee also learned about the status of special education programs in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this detailed summary for Teach the Vote.

The House Public Education Committee, which began its work a little earlier this session, held two meetings this week, both heavily focused on the topic of school finance. The committee similarly heard from Commissioner Morath, along with members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Read more about those hearings in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The committee is slated for two more meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the agenda will include testimony by stakeholders about school finance and the recommendations of the commission that studied the issue last year. ATPE has been invited to testify on Wednesday, and we’ll provide details next week here on our blog and on @TeachtheVote on Twitter.

 


On Monday of this week, the House Appropriations Committee announced its subcommittees that will work on various sections of the state budget. Committee members were also briefed by staff of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS). ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided an in-depth report here for our blog. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee has also been holding several meetings to review the draft budget. Next week, Senate Finance committee members turn their attention to Article III, which contains the education budget. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter will be there for those meetings starting Monday and will provide updates next week for Teach the Vote.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s House District 125 will head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new state representative. Early voting has taken place this week for the special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez, after he resigned to serve as Bexar County Commissioner. The five candidates vying for the HD 125 seat are Steve Huerta (D)Ray Lopez (D)Fred Rangel (R)Coda Rayo-Garza (D), and Art Reyna (D).

There also remains a vacancy in Houston’s HD 145, where Democrats Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales have advanced to a runoff in that special election. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced, but is likely to be held in March. Read more about the two runoff candidates in this article from the Houston Chronicle.

 


 

Senate Education committee holds first meeting

Senate Education Committee meeting Feb. 7, 2019.

The Senate Committee on Education held its first meeting of the 86th Legislative Session on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the Texas Capitol. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) kicked off the meeting by welcoming members to “Season Three, Episode One” of his tenure as the committee chair, and introduced new and returning committee members.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath provided high-level testimony on the “State of the State of Public Education” report produced by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This report focuses on demographics, challenges, and progress toward the state’s “60×30” goal of ensuring 60 percent of students graduate high school with an industry certification or post-secondary credential by the year 2030. Commissioner Morath again stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in order to achieve this goal.

The commissioner also walked members through the current “A through F” accountability system, which is largely based upon different calculations of STAAR test results. Related to that, the commissioner explained efforts to develop STAAR test questions aligned to student expectations. Morath discussed the negative impact of poverty on student learning, which prompted comments by the vice chairman, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville), on related factors such as hunger. Both have a direct impact on the cost to educate a child.

In acknowledging criticisms of the STAAR test, including the high stakes attached to it, Commissioner Morath suggested the test could be broken into multiple, shorter sessions, or move away from multiple-choice answers. The commissioner noted that either could pose problems with regard to legal requirements and the time and money necessary for development.

TEA’s State Director for Special Education Justin Porter followed up with a briefing on special education, beginning with enrollment numbers. The agency documented a sharp decline in special education enrollment around 2004. Enrollment has increased in recent years, which coincides with corrective action the agency was forced to take after an investigation revealed the agency had been illegally implementing a de facto cap on enrollment. Despite the current upward trajectory, special education enrollment remains significantly below the national average.

Under the current accountability system, special education students are performing “significantly behind” their non-special education peers. Porter suggested this potentially could be ameliorated by changes to the current college, career, and military readiness (CCM-R) indicators.

The majority of Porter’s testimony focused on the strategic plan put in place as a result of the corrective action order. Under federal pressure, the agency has increased monitoring activities and identifying areas of noncompliance and improvement. Under federal law, all students have a right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE), and TEA has made efforts to inform local education agencies (LEAs) of their responsibilities. The agency is also hiring a contractor to launch a statewide media campaign to provide information about special education and parents’ rights. Sens. Royce West (D-Dallas) and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked questions regarding the marketing program, including the total cost and whether districts and stakeholder groups had been recruited into the process.

Porter indicated there is also a shortage in evaluation personnel, which has resulted in many LEAs paying for contract personnel. The agency has responded with a $10 million grant to Education Service Center (ESC) 20 in San Antonio to provide services and reimbursements to LEAs without access to evaluators.

In addition, the agency has focused on professional development geared toward administrators and general education teachers, as well as training for school board members. The agency has also set up a call center to answer questions related to special education.

House Appropriations hears from TEA and TRS

The House Committee on Appropriations met Monday to hear from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) on the issues of school safety, school finance, the teacher pension system, and active and retiree educator health insurance. Before delving into the meat of the hearing, Cmomittee Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulsher) also announced membership of the subcommittees that will be overseeing separate subject areas of the budget.

The subcommittee on Article III that oversees public education funding will be chaired by Rep. Greg Bonnen, and include Vice-chair Armando Walle and Reps. Mary Gonzalez, Donna Howard, Matt Schaefer, Carl Sherman, Lynn Stucky, and Gary VanDeaver.

House Appropriations Committee meeting Feb. 4, 2019

Other subcommittees include: the subcommittee on Articles I, IV, V; the subcommittee on Article II; the subcommittee on Articles VI, VII, VIII; and a new subcommittee on  Infrastructure, Resiliency, and Investment.

The committee heard first from Texas Education  Commissioner Mike Morath on the topic of school safety, including physical precautions such as metal detectors and alarms. Morath noted there is no single investment in school safety that will address all current weaknesses and that the agency isn’t and hasn’t traditionally been tasked or resourced to help districts with regard to mental health components of school safety.

TEA’s Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez followed with a high-level overview of how public schools are funded. Lopez explained how the basics of tax rates, weights, allotments, and adjustments work to together to create a districts M&O entitlement; facilities funding; charter funding; and recapture. Also mentioned during the discussion were statutory quirks and system complexities like the fact that the basic allotment is set in statute, but legislators each session have the option of funding at higher levels through the appropriations bill. The committee also discussed how in 2011 the legislature created a mechanism called the Regular Program Adjustment Factor that allows lawmakers to decrease the entire Foundation School Program (FSP) entitlement for every district with a single adjustment.

TR) Executive Director Brian Guthrie walked committee members through pension fund operations. Guthrie explained the TRS board’s decision to lower the assumed rate of return last summer to 7.25 percent down from 8 percent, which came as a result of market forecasts and input from the fund’s actuary. This caused the funding period for pension fund liabilities to extend from 32 years up to 87 years. Under state law, the TRS fund cannot offer a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to retirees unless the amortization period noted above is within 31 years.

Guthrie noted that the agency is requesting a 1.8 percent increase in the contribution rate in order to achieve a 30-year amortization period, which would allow for the possibility of a future increase in benefits, such as a COLA. This would cost $1.6 billion for the biennium from all funds.

Responding to a question from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Guthrie estimated the average pension payment for a TRS annuitant to be about $2,000 per month. This average figure covers all classes of public education employees, including auxiliary staff, such as bus drivers and custodial staff. For classroom teachers who have worked in Texas schools for 30 years, that amount is closer to $4,000 per month.

Guthrie then explained the healthcare programs under the agency’s umbrella: TRS-Care for retired educators and TRS-ActiveCare for active educators. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed in Texas, despite rising at a level slightly below the national average. This resulted in a $1 billion shortfall for TRS-Care heading into the previous legislative session, which was addressed by a temporary infusion of additional state funding, coupled with a significant increase in fees and reduction in benefits. The fund continues to run at a deficit.

Rep. Schaefer asked what impact a pay increase would have on the pension fund. Guthrie indicated that if all teachers saw a raise, there would be a negative short-term impact for TRS as a result of higher salary calculations for retiring members without the benefit of higher contributions. Guthrie suggested this could be mitigated by phasing in the salary increases’ impact on the calculation of a member’s highest five years of earnings. Guthrie suggested the short-term impact on TRS-Care would be positive.

Asked by Rep. Stucky how much it would cost to make TRS-Care sustainable, Guthrie suggested it would take more than $12-15 billion to create a corpus sufficient to produce funding as a result of investment returns. Even then, that process would take some time to get up and running. The deteriorating value of TRS-Care has led many retirees to leave the program, which exacerbates the financial stresses facing it. Guthrie added that the population was beginning to stabilize.

TRS-ActiveCare, which allows smaller and mid-size school districts to enjoy the benefits of group coverage through a combined risk pool, also faces affordability challenges due to statutory restrictions on how that program is funded. Five percent of districts – primarily the state’s largest districts, such as Austin and Houston – have opted out of TRS-ActiveCare. Last session, legislation was considered to allow districts a one-time opportunity to opt in or opt out, but such a bill was not passed ultimately.