Tag Archives: Monty Exter

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

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


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

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

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

 


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

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

 


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

 


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

 


 

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

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

 


From the Texas Tribune: Are charter schools private? In Texas courts, it depends why you’re asking.

Texas charter schools are sometimes private and sometimes governmental — a legal framework that has helped them avoid costly lawsuits.

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

In 2006, in Dallas, a construction company sued a charter school, alleging that the school stiffed workers on a building contract to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Eight years later, in Houston, a third grade teacher sued the charter school where she worked, alleging that it had falsified test scores, that it failed to properly provide for students with disabilities and that mold in her classroom had made her sick.

Their claims did not make it very far.

The teacher couldn’t sue the charter because, the Texas Supreme Court said, it’s not a government entity. The construction company couldn’t sue, the same court said years earlier, because it was.

Questions about the legal status of charter schools — which receive taxpayer money but are privately run, usually by nonprofit corporations — are broad, existential ones in Texas, where disputes over school funding are among the Legislature’s most contentious. But those categories take on intense practical significance in the courtroom, where the rules that govern private- and public-sector employers vary widely. In two significant Texas Supreme Court cases over the last decade, charter schools and their lawyers have sidestepped lawsuits over employment and contract issues by playing both sides of that fence. In some cases, charter schools can’t be sued because they’re government entities; in others, they’re immune because they’re private.

That difference is intentional. Charter schools were designed, as former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett wrote in the construction company opinion, to “operate with greater flexibility than traditional public schools, in hopes of spurring innovation and improving student achievement.”

Because of that aim, charter schools are not subject to all the same laws as their traditional counterparts. That legal structure helps charter schools retain their “freedom and flexibility,” said Joseph Hoffer, who argued successfully for the charter school in the Houston case.

But some advocates point out that the rules for charter schools seem to target the wrong things.

The Whistleblower Act — which did not allow the teacher to sue — is perhaps the best example.

“How is it innovative to ensure that your employees are silenced if you are doing something inappropriate?” questioned Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “I would think that you would want to have those internal watchdogs looking out for kids.”

“When do the rules apply to you?”

There are a lot of unresolved legal issues surrounding charter schools, which are still relatively young educational institutions. Most of them center, as former State Board of Education Vice Chair Thomas Ratliff puts it, on the question, “Is a charter school a public school or a private entity?”

“It’s not that easy,” Ratliff said. “The answer, in a lot of cases, is both.”

In 2015, lawmakers said that for the purposes of the law, charter schools should be considered government entities when the lawmakers say so — and only then.

Some of those “when”s are common sense. Charter schools are subject to the Texas Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Their teachers can be covered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. And they enjoy, for the most part, the same protections and immunities from lawsuits that traditional public school districts have, said David Anderson, who worked as the Texas Education Agency’s general counsel for two decades.

In other instances, charter schools are considered private; in many cases, they’re protected from suit. That’s a good thing, Hoffer said.

“Remember,” he said, “since they’re publicly funded, we want to protect the public funds from being attacked.”

But traditional public schools subject to whistleblower claims are also publicly funded. Employees who claim retaliation under the law can win monetary damages or even get their jobs back. That’s not the case with charter schools, and advocates say it’s unfair that those schools are given essentially all the protections of a school district while also enjoying some benefits of private employers.

“You have a charter school that can, in one breath, say, ‘Hey, we’re a public school, don’t sue us,’ and in the next say, ‘Hey, we’re not a public school, don’t sue us,’” said Lorna McMillion, who defended the would-be whistleblower in Houston. “If you’re a charter school who wants to get funding like a public school and wants to be treated like a public school, when do the rules apply to you and when do they not?”

The public-private dance has saved charter schools, in several cases, from lawsuits — like those filed by the third-grade teacher (the charter school’s lawyer dismissed her as a “serial litigator” — the TEA looked into a “testing security” complaint but determined it did not merit a full investigation) and by the construction company (the charter school’s lawyer in that case said the school followed its written contract). In the case of the few charter schools not run by nonprofit corporations, the legal waters are even murkier.

Lindsey Gordon, general counsel for the Texas Charter Schools Association, said the organization supports the Legislature’s current framework and protested that charter schools are not harder to sue than school districts. Every lawsuit, she argued, succeeds on its individual merits.

But would-be litigators have at least some options for suing a traditional public school that they can’t use to sue charter schools. McMillion said the Texas Supreme Court has made it impossible to sue charter schools using the most common legal avenues.

Meanwhile, charter schools have to follow some of the laws that many educators argue most directly impede schools’ ability to innovate. Charter schools are subject to the same test-based accountability system as school districts.

The legal exemptions, advocates said, seem not to foster creativity but rather to help the non-traditional schools avoid costly litigation.

“Charter schools are straddling the fence, on both sides, to make sure they have an advantageous legal position where it is harder to get them,” sad Evan Lange, a Dallas workers’ rights attorney who recently lost a case to an area charter school. “They take the benefits of being private and the benefits of being government. They’re choosing both.”

The Legislature has, in the past, added legal restrictions to charter schools when the need presented itself. In 2013, the Legislature brought nepotism laws for charter schools in line with those for other public schools. The change came after the Texas Education Agency investigated several potential abuses where charter school board members hired family members and paid them generous salaries.

The Whistleblower Act might very well go that way, said Thomas Fuller, a North Texas lawyer who works mostly with charter schools. While the law continues to develop on the relatively new species of school, there may be some “curious outcomes,” he said.

“It left a lot of us scratching our heads, too,” Fuller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a number of those [bills] filed in the next session making charter schools subject to the Whistleblower’s Act.”

But in the meantime, advocates warn, the ruling could deter other charter school teachers from reporting abuse they see at work. Just this year, Michael Feinberg, the founder of one of the country’s most successful networks of charter schools, was dismissed following claims that he sexually abused a student in Houston in the 1990s. Cases like Feinberg’s make clear why it’s important for school personnel to feel safe bringing forward such allegations, advocates said.

And while the Legislature can go back and correct oversights that arise, it will be difficult for lawmakers to predict every possible legal fight that could ensnare a charter school — meaning more oversights are near-unavoidable.

“Not a good place to be an employee”

The peculiar legal status of charter schools has a particular impact on employees.

Teachers in traditional public schools enjoy a suite of protections that is not mandated for charter school teachers — including, for the most part, year-long contracts that grant teachers due process rights, Exter said. Texas charter school teachers don’t all have to be certified teachers, meaning they’re more easily replaced. They’re easier to fire in the middle of the year. And if they’re fired, they have even less recourse for challenging the decision.

And unlike teachers at private schools, charter school teachers don’t get the shield of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains some of the nation’s strongest protections against unfair labor practices. Texas charter schools — unlike other states’ equivalents — are not included in that protection because they are considered arms of the government. Texas is, so far, the only state whose charter school teachers are not protected by that act.

That’s thanks to a ruling that came down in March. The case made a difficult scenario worse for teachers in a state that’s already “not a good place to be an employee,” said Lange, the Dallas workers’ attorney.

Charter school supporters might argue that more freedom for the schools allows them to get rid of bad teachers and bring in better ones.

But in a sector of public education with far less oversight than traditional school districts, it’s easy to see how a teacher could find herself fired and out of options. A public school teacher who speaks out against a school practice she disagrees with — STAAR testing, say — is protected from government retaliation by the First Amendment.

But, Lange said, a charter school employee, who enjoys no such protection, could be fired more easily. Their schools, meanwhile, can in one breath claim the privileges of being public and in the next enjoy the freedom of the private sector.

“They literally want to have their cake and eat it too. That’s all charter schools do,” Lange said.

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

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

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 4, 2018

It’s been a busy week of school finance discussions in Austin. Here’s your wrap-up of this week’s education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Panelists discuss school finance at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune and co-sponsored by ATPE on May 4, 2018.

The Texas Commission of Public School Finance and its various subcommittees or “working groups” were busy this week. The commission’s working group on expenditures for the Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this morning to discuss education spending. The working group is chaired by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), who also chairs the House Public Education Committee. Today’s meeting followed an appearance by Huberty and other commission members as part of a panel discussion on school finance hosted by the Texas Tribune. ATPE was a sponsor of that event.

At today’s expenditures working group meeting, several witnesses discuss funding formulas for special education and anticipated future funding needs for those programs. Learn more about today’s hearing in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins who attended the meeting.

Texas Commission on Public School Finance working group on outcomes meeting May 2, 2018.

The Commission’s working group on outcomes met Wednesday to discuss early childhood education and post-secondary education among other topics. The group, which is led by Todd Williams of Dallas’s Commit Partnership, also includes high school teacher and ATPE member Melissa Martin, Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), and Superintendent of Pflugerville ISD Doug Killian.

The working group on Wednesday listened to testimony from TEA Deputy Commissioner Penny Schwinn regarding the amount of money Texas spends per student on testing and whether or not more online testing is a viable option for the future. Schwinn also gave testimony on kindergarten readiness, stating that only 59 percent of Texas children are prepared when they enter kindergarten.

H.D. Chambers, Superintendent of Alief ISD, gave testimony about a “teacher crisis” currently facing Texas, noting that any meaningful change in education policy must be accompanied by a raise in teacher pay. Chambers also gave input on how improved professional development programs have raised the quality of pre-k in his district, the potential benefits of public-private partnerships for pre-k, and the difference between traditionally certified and alternatively certified teachers. Chambers questioned the STAAR test as an accurate measure of student progress.

Read more about the outcomes working group meeting here in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


The full School Finance Commission also met Thursday to discuss early childhood education, the weights and allotments under the states’ current budget, and the Permanent School Fund.

Testimony provided by Alexandra Hale of Good Reason Houston suggested that veteran teachers be placed in pre-k classrooms to maximize impact. Meanwhile, former U.S. Undersecretary of Education, Linus Wright suggested the elimination of grade 12 in order to provide more funding for early childhood education. TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez offered testimony regarding the six categories (special education, compensatory education, career and technical education, Public Education Grants, and the High School allotment) that receive weighted funding under the current school finance structure and account for 28% of the state’s Tier I education funds. Lastly, outgoing SBOE member David Bradley (R-Beaumont) updated the commission on the status of the Permanent School Fund (PSF).

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was on hand to cover the meeting described more in depth in this blog post.

 


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced Tuesday that six school districts are seeking “Turnaround Partnerships.” The partnerships were created with the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 1882 during the 85th legislative session in 2017, and they allow for districts with campuses that fall into the Improvement Required (IR) status of the state’s accountability system to enter into partnerships with institutes of higher education, non-profits, government entities, or charter school in order to improve education outcomes. The six districts seeking partnerships are Austin ISD, Ector County ISD, Hearne ISD, San Antonio ISD, Victoria ISD, and Waco ISD. You can find more details here.

 


ELECTION UPDATE: Tomorrow, May 5th, marks the first of two important elections that will be happening this month. At stake in tomorrow’s election will be issues specific to your community like school board elections and school bond propositions. These are important elections that set the tone for the local policy decisions and funding of your community’s public schools. All registered voters are eligible to vote in tomorrow’s election, although not all voters have municipal races or proposals on their ballots. To find out what’s on your local ballot, visit your county election website, use VOTE411.org to generate your local election voter guide, or check out the resources available from your local League of Women Voters. As part of our commitment to supporting a culture of voting, ATPE encourages all Texas educators to find out about their local elections and vote in every election possible, starting tomorrow, May 5.

If you happen to live in House District 13, you’ve also got a special election happening tomorrow, May 5. Voters in that district will select a new state representative to fill the unexpired term of former Rep. Leighton Schubert, who recently resigned from office. The same candidates running in tomorrow’s special election are also on the ballot this election year for a full term of office to begin in January 2019. Learn more about the race in this article from the Texas Tribune.

For many Texas voters, there is a second opportunity to vote this month. The second round of primary elections, where many of the state’s elections will be decided, will take place on May 22nd with the Democratic and Republican party runoff elections. As we approach that date, ATPE is highlighting a few of the runoff contests where education has emerged as a preeminent topic. Find out more about the Republican candidates competing for the votes of House District (HD) 4 residents in this latest blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter. Stay tuned to the Teach the Vote blog next week for more runoff previews, and be sure to check out our candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote.

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 27, 2018

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


This May, many Texans will be making not one, but two trips to the ballot box. ATPE wants to ensure that all educators are aware of the two important elections taking place next month.

Saturday, May 5th is the uniform election date when municipal propositions, elections, and issues will be decided. Meanwhile, Tuesday, May 22nd is when state level primary runoff elections will be held. While any registered voter can participate in the May 5th municipal election, participation in the primary runoffs depends on whether you previously voted in the March primaries and in which primary election you voted.

For more information about the candidates and your eligibility to vote in the upcoming primary runoffs, check out this new blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.

 


Texas has a new “Grow Your Own” grant program designed by the Texas Rural Schools Taskforce to address  challenges faced by rural school districts and foster a more robust and diverse teaching force. This week, TEA released the names of the 25 school districts that received the 2018-19 “Grow Your Own” grant. Read more about them in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Specialist Bria Moore.

 


The Texas Education Agency has finalized its plan to address special education. Professional development for special education teachers; resources and outreach for parents of special needs children; funding at the district level for students previously denied access to special education services; and additional staffing and resources were the four final measures proposed by TEA in its efforts to redress issues plaguing special education in the state. While the proposed measures would cost the state $212 million over the next five years, TEA is unable to commit additional funds to support the plan leaving the burden to fund these measures on the shoulders of the 86th Legislature which is set to reconvene in 2019. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann explains more about the plan in this blog post.

 


Houston ISD has notified district teachers of its plan to begin staff layoffs. As reported by the Houston Chronicle this afternoon, district employees received correspondence informing then that an unspecified number of layoffs would begin shortly due to budget constraints in the district. The financial strain of Hurricane Harvey coupled with new recapture woes have resulted in a projected deficit of $115 million for the district. The HISD administration has said that the number of layoffs will depend on how many teachers leave the district through attrition at the end of this school year.

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of a highly contentious HISD board meeting earlier this week that was shut down when protests broke out over a planned vote to turn over management of some of the district’s struggling campuses to a charter school operator. That move is part of a plan authorized by new legislation that ATPE opposed in 2017. Schools otherwise facing closure have an option to partner with charter holders for a temporary pause in their progressive sanctions, and HISD has proposed this course of action for 10 of its campuses despite heavy opposition from the community. Waco ISD also took similar action this week, opting to partner with a charter operator to avoid the closure of five struggling campuses in that district.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on this developing story.

 


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

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

 


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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


 

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

By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Photo by Jacob Villanueva/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 


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

 


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

 


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

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

 


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

 


 

Senate State Affairs Committee discusses future of TRS pension fund

The Senate State Affairs Committee met in Austin this week to discuss interim charges about the health of various state and municipal pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. The committee heard invited testimony from the staff and members of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), as well as the heads of several pension systems, including TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie.

Some of the more general discussion included senators, including Sen. Charles Schwertner in particular, making the case that defined benefit pension systems are somehow inherently flawed and should be scrapped and replaced with 401(k)-style defined contribution systems. This now tired pitch, whose real aim is to line the pockets of private money managers, has been soundly refuted on many fronts, particularly as it applies to TRS. First 401(k)s have proven to be not so wonderful retirement vehicles. For the average American population which relies on them for the bulk of their retirement planning, these investment vehicles have proven to be a tool that generally leads to a woefully underfunded retirement account that is highly sensitive to market volatility and has left many in bad positions with regard to their retirement security. Second, 401(k)s were never meant to stand alone. They were really meant to be a supplement to a more traditional pension system, but even as that has gone by the wayside for many, they are still intended to be on top of Social Security benefits. However, most Texas educators will not receive full Social Security benefits because neither the educator nor the state is paying into Social Security on their behalf. This leads to the final falsehood promulgated by retirement privatizers, that defined benefit pension plans simply cost too much. The truth is Texas has been getting by on the cheap for decades.

Retirement experts will tell you that you should be putting away around 25 percent of your pre-retirement income for use in retirement. Half of that amount, 12.5 percent, is normally covered by contributions to Social Security. Any reasonably good private employer will put up a match of 4 percent, or better, toward an employee’s individual retirement account, in addition to paying the required 6.25 percent employer’s share of Social Security. This means that these private employers are on the hook for a little more than a 10 percent toward their employee’s retirement. Likewise, their employees must also put the required 6.25 percent into Social Security and typically an additional 4 percent or more into their own retirement accounts to access the employer’s match. For years the state of Texas only contributed 6 percent, the constitutional minimum, into the TRS pension system. Thanks in large part to the work of ATPE the state bumped that contribution up to 6.8 percent a few sessions ago. However, at only 0.55 percent above what the state would otherwise have to pay into Social Security, Texas still contributes less than half of what the next lowest state not paying into Social Security pays towards it educators’ retirements. Most Texas teachers are themselves contributing 7.7 percent, or just 1.45 percent above what they would otherwise be paying toward Social Security, into their pension system. When you add in the 1.5 percent districts are contributing into the TRS pension plan, the total contribution comes to 16 percent. At 16 percent, contributions into TRS are substantially less than what even average employers and employees are contributing toward retirement, and despite being many educators only source of retirement income, that is only 64 percent of what experts recommend putting away. So far from being “too expensive” as some lawmakers insist, the TRS pension system has been an exceedingly good deal for the state of Texas.

This discussion is of particular importance at this moment because while TRS has been reasonably healthy for a long time and has been on track to be actuarially sound (very healthy) within the next five years, those statistics have been based on TRS’s current assumed rate of return of 8 percent. Based on the advice of the external actuarial firm with which TRS contracts, the TRS board is considering lowering that assumed rate of return. In order to maintain the positive trajectory of the fund, legislators will need to increase the contribution rate going into the fund. Per the discussion above, these increased contributions are long overdue, and had lawmakers increased them previously, the fund would be in a much better place today. Additionally, many retirees wouldn’t have gone more than a decade without a cost of living adjustment. If TRS lowers its assumed rate of return, however, the decision to increase contributions will no longer be a luxury; it will be an imperative. ATPE is advocating for this process to take place gradually over a number of years so that the increased contributions, corresponding to a gradually decreased assumed rate of return on investments, won’t be a shock the system for either the state or educators who will both share the burden of increased contributions.

Whether a gradual approach is taken or a more “one and done” approach is used, as is being advocated by TRS, the important thing is that educators stay fully engaged with their legislators, and in choosing their legislators this election year, so that the health of the pension fund is secured.

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

Here’s a look at this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE lobby team:


Congress advanced the omnibus spending bill to President Trump overnight and it received his signature this afternoon. The $1.3 trillion spending plan played out in a dramatic fashion, emerging Wednesday with support from both Republican and Democratic leadership, but with some waffling from President Trump.

After a bipartisan U.S. House vote of support (256-167) on Thursday and a similar vote in the Senate (65-32) that followed early Friday morning, President Trump again expressed consternation over the deal. He tweeted that he was considering a veto based on two missing pieces: full funding for his border wall and a plan for individuals that fall under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Ultimately, President Trump signed the legislation, but not without additional expressions of concern. Before the press this afternoon, he called the bill a “ridiculous situation” and told Congress he would never vote for a bill like this again, referring to its high price tag and lack of transparency. Trump said he was only signing it because it was a matter of national security and included increased spending for the military, the largest in history. He also highlighted several things he considers wins, like some initial funding to begin work on his border wall and dollars to address the opioid epidemic.

President Trump’s signature prevents a government shutdown that loomed at midnight tonight. Learn more about the spending plan, particularly as it relates to a funding boost for education, in this post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.

 


ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance on March 19, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met in Austin this week on Monday, March 19. The commission spent the day taking both invited and non-invited testimony from the public as the members consider their recommendations to the 86th Legislature for modifying the state’s school finance system. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter offered public testimony on behalf of ATPE, highlighting ways the school finance system could be overhauled to provide property tax relief. (The commission previously heard invited testimony from ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey during an earlier meeting last month.) Read a full recap of Monday’s hearing and the extensive public testimony in this week’s blog post.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, a consortium of education groups briefed the media on a new poll showing that most Texans support increasing the amount spent on public education. For more on the poll results, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

A subcommittee or working group of the school finance commission tasked with studying school expenditures also held a meeting the following morning to take additional testimony relative to their charge. The working group is chaired by Rep. Dan Huberty, who also chairs the House Public Education Committee. Read more about Tuesday’s working group session here.

The chair of the full commission sparked controversy this week after he made comments questioning whether the state should spend money on students he referred to as “slow learners.” Special education advocacy groups were quick to complain about Chairman Scott Brister’s remarks, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman in this article that also features a quote from ATPE’s Exter.

The next meeting for the Commission will be on April 5, 2018 at 9 a.m. in the William B. Travis Building, Room 1-104, located at 1701 N. Congress Ave., Austin, TX. The meeting will be webcast at: http://www.adminmonitor.com/tx/tea/.

 


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its Draft Special Education Improvement Plan and Corrective Action Response this week to fix critical failures in the state’s special education system. The draft plan varies little from an initial draft the agency circulated in January, and the agency is seeking public comment on the latest version. You can e-mail feedback to TexasSPED@tea.texas.gov.

The plan carries a $211 million price tag, which does not include a substantial cost anticipated to be incurred by local school districts. The districts will be expected to perform the bulk of the work meeting the needs of children who were wrongfully denied special education services in the past due to districts’ following a TEA directive to limit special education enrollment. Because of this funding challenge, many school administrators are warning they will need additional financial support from the state in order to properly serve qualifying children. The Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE) noted this in a press release this week, saying the TEA plan “is rich with school district monitoring and compliance measures, but fails to offer adequate financial and other support to districts.” Read the full TCASE press statement here.

 


Interim legislative hearings are in full swing now, and multiple committees are discussing how to address the state’s funding challenges that have a direct impact on public education.

Earlier this week, the Senate Finance Committee met to consider “options to increase investment earnings of the Economic Stabilization Fund,” often referred to as the state’s rainy day fund. Texas State Comptroller Glenn Hegar warned this week that the state could face a downgrade of its credit rating if it does not look at changing the way the $11 billion fund is invested. Decisions about the fund could have future implications for how the state funds teacher pensions and other education-related endeavors. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter has written more about the hearing in his blog post this week.

Another tough issue being debated by numerous committees this interim is teacher compensation. Several high-profile elected officials running for re-election have made teacher pay raises a key talking point in their campaign messaging, but few concrete plans or identified sources of funding have been proposed. On Monday, March 26, the Senate Education Committee will take its turn at debating the issue. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann has been invited to testify on the issue. Stay tuned to our blog next week for updates on this and other hearings.

 


 

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.