Tag Archives: Monty Exter

From The Texas Tribune: Will Texas school finance panel tell schools to do more with less? Some members think it’s predetermined

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Justice Scott Brister, chairman of the Commission on Public School Finance, listens to a commission member at the panel’s second meeting Feb. 8, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune.

A state panel responsible for proposing improvements to Texas’ embattled public school finance system is facing criticism from an unexpected source: some of its own members, who say the panel’s hearings seem geared toward a predetermined outcome of making schools do more with their current funding.

Texas school districts have repeatedly sued the state over the past few decades, arguing it hasn’t provided enough money to ensure public school students an adequate education. During the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to make immediate changes to how the state allocates money to public schools — and instead agreed to create a 13-member commission to undertake a longer-term study.

That panel, which includes appointees from House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the State Board of Education, has held four hearings since it was assembled in January. Its next hearing is scheduled for Monday.

In those hearings, some commission members argue, presentations by experts have been skewed toward making the case that schools do not necessarily need more money to produce better outcomes for students.

“There’s a steady stream of presenters … trying to convince us that there’s enough money in the system and that adding more will not show results — that districts are essentially spending the money incorrectly,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, one of four members appointed by Straus.

He said the commission has also heard from school leaders with innovative ideas, such as how to keep the best teachers at the most challenging schools and how to use full-day pre-K to get students at an academic baseline early in life.

“Those two things without question cannot be funded or sustained with the current funding levels we have,” Bernal said. “Even the districts that piloted it said they were about to run out of money.”

But the panel’s chair, Scott Brister, disagreed that the hearings were staged for any predetermined outcomes. He said the Texas Education Agency’s staff has worked to bring experts who can provide a framework for how school finance works and what an adequate education looks like.

“You’ve got to figure out what you would like the schools to look like before you figure out whether you need more money or less money or where that money’s going to come from,” said Brister, a former state Supreme Court justice. Appointed to the commission by Abbott, Brister was the sole justice to dissent in a 2005 lawsuit brought by school districts claiming the school finance system was inadequate and inefficient. The court ruled in favor of the districts and forced lawmakers to overhaul the funding system.

“I’m not interested in spending more money and getting no change. What’s the point of that?” Brister said this week. “The Constitution requires school districts to be free and efficient. … Surely it means you don’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work and doesn’t make a difference. That’s one of our constitutional standards. We have to consider it.”

Over the past decade, the state has decreased its share of public education funding, allowing rising local property taxes to make up the difference. Currently, less than 40 percent of school funding comes from the state, while local property taxes pay for more than half. In 2011, lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from schools to close a budget deficit and never completely restored the money.

Texans will have their first, and potentially only, chance on Monday to publicly address the commission. Texas school leaders and public education advocates are expected to spend several hours, if not the whole day, testifying that they want the state to invest more money in public schools, instead of relying on local property tax revenue, and that they cannot educate students on the budget they have.

“Only after you get past that question [of adequate funding] do you get to talk about how to spend that funding,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, who plans to testify Monday. Exter said he sees three different groups on the commission: one that wants to increase funding to public schools, another that believes public schools are important but that increasing funding isn’t feasible, and a third that wants to defund public schools.

“My argument is that you haven’t funded us enough to get better outcomes,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, a member of the commission and chief financial officer of Austin ISD.

According to the TEA, Austin’s school district is expected to pay the state $545 million this school year to help subsidize poorer school districts, through a function of the school finance system nicknamed “Robin Hood.” Austin ISD has the highest Robin Hood payment in the state and has gone through several rounds of budget cuts over the last few years.

Johnson, who was appointed to the commission by Straus, agreed that the commission hearings seem to be skewed toward efficiency: “They want more for the same amount of resources.”

During the inaugural commission hearing in January, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch showed members a chart of 2011 student state test scores for school districts mapped against the amount of money those districts spent.

“There is a pattern here, but the pattern is not based on how much money is available,” he said. “In fact, the school district that performs the best is the school district that gets $2,000 less per student than the average funding.”

He suggested the state look into why certain school districts do better with less funding, and why others do worse with more. “Scholars and education experts are divided on the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education. The thing that matters is student outcomes,” based on test scores or high school graduation rates, he said.

Johnson and fellow commission member Doug Killian, the superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, pushed back on Enoch’s chart, pointing out the data was outdated and not comprehensive.

Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the commission should be trying to ask what schools need to educate students, instead of asking what they can do with existing resources. “Let the Legislature decide if they want to raise taxes or shift other priorities in the budget,” she said. “I don’t think the [commission] should prematurely tie their hands.”

The commission will split into three subcommittees to brainstorm recommendations to the Legislature at the end of the year on where the state should get revenue to fund public schools, how it should overhaul existing formulas to allocate funding more equitably, and what it should expect its public school students to achieve. Each subcommittee will get to decide whether and how to include the public in its discussions, according to Brister.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican chairing the panel’s revenue subcommittee, said it’s too early to say what those recommendations will look like.

“We’ve been drinking from the fire hose on public policy. I haven’t had any discussions with anybody yet to step back and get out of the line of fire and see where we are now. For me personally, I’m still in listening mode,” he said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/school-finance-efficiency/.


Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 9, 2018

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

Tuesday was primary Election Day in Texas, and there is a lot to unpack. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter has an inital analysis of the primary results here, and he highlights two major takeaways after Tuesday night: voter turnout increased and incumbents did well.

Voter turnout hit record highs in both parties. Like Exter points out in his post, a Texas Educators Vote Coalition statement praising  voter turnout in the primary election also notes that turnout increased across Texas by almost 700,000 voters compared to the most recent midterm primary election in 2014. The number of Democratic voters getting to the polls exceeded 1 million, while Republican voter totals topped off at more than 1.5 million. Both parties saw an increase in their voter turnout, with Democrats nearly doubling the total number of voters since 2014 (a number that represented a midterm primary record high for the party not hit since 1994). Republicans experienced a more modest increase in the largely red state, but the party’s turnout still represented record numbers.

As a proud member of the Texas Educators Vote Coalition, ATPE is thrilled to see the uptick in civic engagement and encourages educators and other voters to maintain that energy through November and future elections. ATPE was also excited to see a large percentage of ATPE-supported candidates prevail in their elections; Exter’s recap of the election has more on those results. While many are focused on the bigger races at the top of the ticket, it is important to consider all of the great candidates elected further down ballot. One thing is clear based on voter turnout, the energy built among educators, and the impact already felt: this movement is only beginning!


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) submitted Texas’s final state plan to satisfy the new federal education law, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), this week. The final plan has been in the making for quite some time. Here is a quick recap:

The final plan submitted this week reflects a number of revisions required by ED in their initial feedback. TEA’s press release announcing this week’s submission can be read here. To read the final plan or learn more about the Texas ESSA plan and related content, visit TEA’s ESSA web page. The plan must now receive a final review by Secretary Betsy DeVos, but she is not tied to a certain time period for revisions. On Monday, DeVos addressed members of the Council of Chief State School Officers at their annual conference, offering them “tough love” over what she considered state ESSA plans that lacked creativity and innovation.


ATPE submitted comments this week on new proposed Commissioner’s rules regarding certain out-of-state educators. These rules would exempt educators that are certified out of state and who meet certain qualifications from Texas required certification assessments as they work to obtain certification in Texas. The rule proposal stemmed from legislation passed last session. ATPE encouraged the commissioner to raise the standard from one to at least two years of experience in order for an out-of-state educator to benefit from the exemption. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann writes more about ATPE’s comments, the proposed rules, and context for the legislation here.


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met again in Austin this week, this time to discuss “efficiency” at the classroom, campus, and district levels. A panel of invited witnesses was dedicated to each category. The classroom efficiency panel focused on blended learning, while the campus efficiency panel featured partnerships with charters and higher education. The district efficiency panel largely entailed discussions regarding charter schools. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and has a full report here.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


ATPE’s Kate Kuhlmann testifying at a recent SBEC meeting

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



Carl Garner

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



Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 23, 2018

Happy Student Voting Day! Here’s your update from the ATPE lobby team on what’s been happening in Texas this week:

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.

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.

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.



ATPE testifies before school finance commission

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this morning, Feb. 22, in Austin to consider another round of testimony, this time largely focused on teacher quality. Chairman Justice Scott Brister began the meeting by announcing subcommittee assignments.

Texas Commission on Public School Finance meeting, Feb. 22, 2018.

The Revenue Committee will be led by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and include state Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), Nicole Conley Johnson, Elvira Reyna, and Justice Brister. The Expenditures Committee will be led by state Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and include state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), state Sen. Larry Taylor, State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Keven Ellis (R-Lufkin), and Justice Brister. The Outcomes Committee will be led by Todd Williams and include state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Dr. Doug Killian, Melissa Martin, and Sen. Taylor.

The first to testify was Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez, who presented information that $28.8 billion of combined state, local, and federal funding was spent on instruction in 2016, which comprised 47.7 percent of total education spending. Rep. Huberty, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, pointed out that when factoring in instructional materials and other classroom supports, the 47.7 percent figure does not accurately capture the percentage of funding spent directly on students in the classroom.

Rep. Bernal, who is vice-chair of the House Public Education Committee, asked about the cost to the state that can be attributed to teacher turnover. Austin ISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson answered that each teacher who leaves her district costs between $7,000 and $12,000, which doesn’t even address the negative impact on students. Teacher turnover has been estimated to cost the nation $2.2 billion per year.

The commission heard next from Dr. Eric Hanushek, a professional paid witness who has made a living for decades testifying in court against efforts to increase and equalize school funding, as well as advocating for private school vouchers. Hanushek laid most of the blame for poor student performance at the feet of teachers, but argued against increasing teacher pay. Member Ellis contended that there is a strong statistical relationship between total school spending and results, and that how much is being spent is at least of equal importance as the manner in which the money is spent. Several other commission members, including Conley Johnson and Rep. Bernal, pushed back on Hanushek’s attempts to minimize the importance of adequate school funding.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojisa testified regarding his district’s efforts to implement a robust performance-based pay system. The Dallas system provides teachers significant tiered pay increases based on performance. Rep. Huberty lauded the concept, but raised questions about cost and affordability. Hinojosa conceded that the program is unsustainable going forward, and as such is being “recalibrated” in order to bring costs under control. Hinojosa also pointed out that public school districts offer many “school choice” options, which include magnet schools and district transfers. According to data presented by Todd Williams, who advises Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings on education policy, implementing Dallas ISD’s ACE program costs $1,295 per student, or roughly $800,000 per campus. The commission heard from several more witnesses describing various performance pay programs.

ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey and Lobbyist Monty Exter testify before the school finance commission.

ATPE executive director Gary Godsey testified before the commission, and began by stating the obvious: Texas schools need more money. Godsey informed the commission that teachers often experience low morale, difficult working conditions, and the feeling they are underappreciated. Teacher turnover costs Texas an estimated $500 million per year. Some initiatives, such as mentorship programs, could reduce turnover with a minimal impact on school budgets. Regarding pay, Godsey testified that teachers are very concerned about efforts to repeal the minimum salary schedule (MSS), which guarantees a minimum level of pay for educators that increases over time. In addition to other low-cost initiatives to reduce turnover, Godsey suggested modifying funding weights and tracking the distribution of teacher quality. Regarding performance pay programs, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified that incentive pay must be complemented by adequate base pay and should not be tied solely to student test scores. Exter added that any incentive pay program must be financially viable in the long term in order to achieve buy-in from educators and administrators.

The final panel addressed prekindergarten programs, and witnesses emphasized the importance of pre-K in getting children prepared to learn and excel in elementary school. Witnesses testified that dollars invested in early education are dollars saved in remediation later on in a student’s educational career.

The commission is scheduled to meet next on March 7, followed by a March 19 meeting that will be open to comments from members of the public. Another meeting is scheduled for April 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 19, 2018

The snow and ice have melted, and here’s the latest education news from ATPE’s Governmental Relations team:

After federal officials criticized Texas for failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released a draft of its plan to take corrective action to improve special education. Gov. Greg Abbott gave the state agency one week to develop the plan after findings of the federal investigation were announced last week. The proposed corrective actions by TEA include hiring additional staff to monitor the identification and evaluation of students who may need special education services and creating professional development opportunities and resources for educators.

Read more about TEA’s plans in this new blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


On Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an advisory opinion about certain get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts in public schools. The opinion was requested by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who has complained about activities promoted by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member, to increase voter turnout among school district employees and eligible students. The senator suggested in his opinion request and related press statements that school district resources, including school buses, were being used to promote  partisan activities in support or opposition of specific candidates. The attorney general wrote in his opinion that using school buses to transport school employees to the polls might run afoul of the Texas constitution, and he also noted that school districts should not use public funds to promote websites that support particular candidates.

ATPE has pointed out in media statements following the release of the opinion that all of the coalition’s GOTV initiatives and website resources, including ATPE’s own TeachtheVote.org website, have been nonpartisan. Read more about the opinion in this week’s blog post.


State grants are being made available to school districts to encourage high school students to enter the teaching field and to prepare future principals for certification. TEA has announced its launch of the “Grow Your Own” and “Principal Preparation” grant programs for the 2018-19 school year. The first of the two programs is a grant that can be used to interest high school students in the teaching profession and to support student teachers, paraprofessionals and classroom aides in their pursuit of certification. The latter grant program is for educators pursuing certification as a principal.

The application deadline for both grants is March 13, and potential applicants may learn more about the grant programs through webinars to be offered by TEA on Feb. 1. For additional information, check out the information on the TEA website here.


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) announced today a grace period it is offering for retirees or dependents who recently left the TRS-Care program but would like to return. From now through Feb. 28, TRS will allow former participants to re-enroll in TRS-Care if they terminated coverage or dropped a dependent due to the 2018 plan changes.

For additional information on the announcement from TRS, check out today’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Jan. 5, 2018

Happy New Year! Here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:

As the first week of January comes to a close, many people are setting their New Year’s resolutions for 2018. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter suggests adding a resolution to become a more engaged and informed voter in 2018 to your list. Read more tips in his blog post here.


The State Board of Education (SBOE) is hosting a series of upcoming meetings to gather feedback from educators on the state’s Long-Range Plan for Public Education. Stakeholder events are scheduled this month and next month in Houston, San Antonio, Salado, Amarillo, and the Rio Grande Valley. To learn more about how educators can register to participate in these community conversations, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Federal education officials have weighed in on the Texas Education Agency’s draft state plan for compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As reported in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann, the state is preparing a revised submission next week to address revisions sought by the U.S. Department of Education.



Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 15, 2017

As you’re preparing for a holiday break, here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE:

As ATPE and other associations are working to encourage the education community to get out the vote in the 2018 elections, our GOTV efforts are rankling some officeholders and the special interests that have supported them financially. Seemingly frightened by the prospect of high voter turnout among educators, at least one lawmaker is complaining about school districts fostering a culture of voting among their staffs and students. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported yesterday on our blog, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) is asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a legal opinion to try to stifle the nonpartisan voter education efforts being spearheaded by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE and other groups involved in the movement were quick to defend the nonpartisan work of the coalition, which is comprised of several groups that do not endorse candidates at all. The League of Women Voters, for example, tweeted, “The League’s mission is Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy! We are proud to partner with Texas Educators Votes and support their mission to create a culture of voting in Texas.”

Some educators naturally questioned why a sitting state senator would want to dissuade educators from voting and teaching students about the importance of voting. “Why would a leader not want school boards to adopt a resolution that encourages students, faculty, and staff to #vote?” asked former ATPE State President Cory Colby (@EffectualEdu) on Twitter. Another educator (@drdrbrockman) tweeted, “Looks like @TeamBettencourt doesn’t want educators to turn out to vote. Nothing in the Texas Educators Vote resolution pushes particular candidates or electoral outcomes.” ATPE member Rita Long commented on our blog, “I will vote in every election and encourage every citizen to vote. It is my right and privilege to have a voice in our elections. Educators must use their votes to have a voice in what is happening in public education. Our students are our future. Education issues should be a top priority with every American.”

Responding to the growing criticism on social media, Sen. Bettencourt doubled down on his unfounded claim that the coalition was using public school resources to promote particular candidates or ballot measures. The senator has not yet identified any examples of particular candidates allegedly being promoted by way of the coalition’s GOTV efforts.

By law the Attorney General’s office has six months to respond to Bettencourt’s request for an opinion, but AG Paxton is likely to issue a ruling ahead of the 2018 primaries. Several education groups involved in the coalition efforts will be submitting briefs to the AG’s office in the coming weeks. Stay to tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Related content: As part of our ongoing effort to encourage educators to participate in the 2018 primary and general elections as informed voters, be sure to check out our candidate profiles right here on our nonpartisan Teach the Vote website. This election cycle, we’re featuring profiles of every candidate running for a Texas legislative seat, State Board of Education, governor, and lieutenant governor. Profiles includes incumbents’ voting records on education-related bills, responses to our candidate survey, contact information for the campaigns, and additional information compiled by ATPE’s lobby team. New information is being added daily as we learn more about the candidates. If candidates in your area have not yet answered our candidate survey, please encourage them to do so. Inquiries about Teach the Vote and our candidate survey may be sent to government@atpe.org.



The U.S. Congress conference committee established to hash out disagreements between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Republican tax plans has come to an agreement on a final plan. The committee met Wednesday to review the plan in a public hearing. Much of the high-profile provisions of the final plan have been discussed in public and reported by the media. For example, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 to 21 percent, the top tax rate for individuals would go from almost 40 to 37 percent, the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance would be removed, and the state and local taxes (SALT) deduction would be kept but capped at $10,000. Still, many smaller details of the negotiated plan remain unknown. Those include two issues raised in an ATPE letter to members of the Texas delegation: (1) a deduction for educators who use personal money to buy classroom supplies, and (2) a potential new tax for public pension investments, such as those in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) trust fund.

The details of the bill are expected to be released later today. Follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and watch for more updates as information becomes available. The tax bill must still receive a final vote of support in both chambers and receive the signature of the president before it becomes law, which Republican leadership hopes to have completed by Christmas.


Students in some school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey will see relief from certain standardized testing requirements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday that Commissioner Mike Morath would waive some STAAR requirements for certain students affected by the massive storm. The commissioner has remained reluctant to provide relief in the form of STAAR testing schedules or accountability requirements, but he changed his tune slightly after Gov. Greg Abbott joined the chorus of those in favor of loosening accountability and testing requirements for Harvey-affected students and schools. Morath sent a letter to impacted school districts on Thursday explaining that fifth and eighth grade students who fail to pass the required state standardized tests twice can advance to the next grade level if district educators agree they are ready. Learn more about Morath’s decision to waive some testing requirements in this article from the Texas Tribune.


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and State Board of Education (SBOE) will host a free conference on teacher preparation and retention in January. The one-day event will feature roundtable and panel discussions on how Texas can better prepare its future teachers, support those in the classroom, and retain teachers tempted to the leave the field. It will also feature keynote speeches from Doug Lemov, who authored Teach Like a Champion, and Peter Dewitt, the author of Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences that Matter Most.

The conference, titled Learning Roundtable: Recruiting, Preparing and Retaining Top Teachers, will be held at the Austin Convention Center from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm on Thursday, January 25, and will offer up to 5.5 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) to participating educators. To view the full-day agenda, learn more about the event, or register to attend, visit the Texas Education Agency’s conference web page.

Related content: SBEC met last week for its final meeting of the year to discuss a broad agenda that included rulemaking resulting from bills passed during the 85th legislative session. The board also rejected revisiting a controversial and unnecessary pathway for superintendent candidates to seek certification without prior experience in a classroom, school, or managerial role. Read a recap of the meeting from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann who attended the meeting and testified on behalf of ATPE.


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board met yesterday and today, and ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was in attendance. As reported in Exter’s blog post, the meeting included a discussion of the annual reports on the actuarial valuation of the TRS pension and healthcare funds.



TRS Annual Review

Each year the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) puts out an annual review of both the TRS Pension Fund and the TRS health care systems / trust funds which they present to the TRS Board members.

The TRS health care update this year is focused on an in-depth analysis of the changes from the 2017 Care and ActiveCare plans to those going into effect during the 2018 plan year, as a result of legislative action during 85th regular and special sessions. ATPE has reported a number of times on the TRS-Care and ActiveCare changes as they have unfolded. The changes to TRS are set to take effect Jan 1, 2018.

TRS has produced two helpful videos to help explain the new insurance program, one for participants who are Medicare eligible and another for participants who are non-Medicare.

You can click the link here to view the full TRS health care document produced by TRS.

The Board also received its annual review on the health of the TRS pension trust fund, including a preview of some major actions the staff intends to undertake in the coming year. The review of the pension fund was a much rosier conversation in the recent past than the health care discussion, but the board is planning to undergo an experience study in early 2018 that could present some new long term challenges if it results in lowering the assumed return of the fund.

The headline from the pension report is the TRS Trust Fund earned a return of 12.9% and ended the 2017 fiscal year at a market value of $147 billion compared to a market value of $134 billion for the fiscal year ending 8/31/16.

Results of the 8/31/17 valuation and comparisons to the 8/31/16 valuation are summarized below:

The strength of the previous year raises the fund’s 10-year return to over 8%, and the fund’s returns since inception (approximately thirty years) continue to exceed 8% as well.

Despite TRS’s exceeding the assumed rate of return during both of these time frames, there is a strong expectation that external consultants who will perform the experience study in early 2018 will come back with a strong recommendation to lower the assumed rate of return for the fund from 8% to somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5%. The result of such a move, in isolation, is to dramatically increase the unfunded liability of the fund on paper, which also increases the number of years required to fully fund the pension. Under the state’s definition of actuarial soundness, the funding window must be less than 30 years to consider the fund actuarially sound for purposes of increasing retiree benefits, such as by providing retirees with a cost of living adjustment (COLA).

Should TRS ultimately lower the assumed rate of return, it will be incumbent upon the agency, active and retired teachers, and those groups that represent them to impress upon the legislature the absolute necessity of increasing TRS funding to make up for the assumed loss of investment income. The amount of new funding needed to offset a decrease in the assumed rate from 8% to 7.5% will be approximately $800 million per biennium.

You can click the link here to view the full TRS Pensions document produced by TRS.