Tag Archives: pension

Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 5, 2019

It was another groundbreaking week in the Texas legislature, and here’s a look at the headlines from ATPE Governmental Relations:


On Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives passed landmark school finance reform legislation. By a vote of 148-1, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) House Bill 3 passed the lower chamber, clearing the way for its consideration next by the Texas Senate.

The ATPE-supported school finance bill as finally passed by the House allocates billions in new money for public schools, reduces recapture, and provides homeowners with property tax relief. The House added bipartisan compromise language to HB 3 during Wednesday’s floor debate to ensure that all full-time public school district employees in non-administrator roles will also receive pay raises.

Read more about the bill and Wednesday’s major vote in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as attention turns to the Senate to find out how the upper chamber will respond to the school finance bill.


The Senate Education Committee and House Public Education Committee both held multiple meetings this week to hear a variety of education bills.

The Senate Education Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, largely focused on hearing bills pertaining to dual credit. The agenda for Thursday, April 4, included a host of bills relating to virtual schools, including some bills that ATPE opposes. Other pending bills previously heard by the committee were also voted out with favorable recommendations for the full Senate. Read more about the Senate committee’s activities this week in blog posts here and here from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins who covered the hearings.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Public Education Committee’s Tuesday hearing covered topics ranging from pre-K to technology and educator preparation. The agenda for the committee’s Thursday hearing also featured a wide variety of issues, including one bill that ATPE opposes to require school districts to let home-schooled students participate in UIL activities. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier covered the House Public Education Committee hearings, and you can read her reports on the two meetings from this week in blog posts here and here.


ATPE is urging educators to oppose two Senate bills that would endanger free speech rights and limit the ability to teach students about content that relates to “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” The bills are Senate Bill 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) and Senate Bill 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), and both of them got a favorable nod from the Senate State Affairs committee this week.

SB 1569 and SB 905 would expand current laws that restrict the use of public resources for “political advertising.” The bills are unnecessary, since state law already prohibits using school resources for electioneering which is enforced by the Attorney General, and these two bills will have harmful unintended consequences.

SB 1569 would broaden the definition of political advertising, impose harsh restrictions on political speech by public school employees, and make it nearly impossible to teach students about elections or civic responsibility or anything deemed to fall under the vague category of “a matter of public interest.” SB 904 also tries to limit political speech by restricting access to government communication systems like a school district’s Wi-Fi network. It also calls for fining any third party that sends political advertising to a government email address. SB 904 will unreasonably penalize innocent third parties and have a chilling effect on free speech and political involvement by educators, even making it hard to teach students about anything related to politics.

Both SB 1569 and SB 904 appear to be reactions to the surge in educator participation in elections last year, and both bills are likely to spark constitutional challenges if passed. Based on their obvious targeting of the education community, both bills are reminiscent of unsuccessful efforts last legislative session to dissuade educators from joining professional associations that advocate for public education. With yesterday’s committee vote, these two bills have the potential to reach the full Senate for a floor debate very soon. ATPE is urging educators to contact their senators and ask them to reject SB 1569 and SB 904. Read more about the bills in this blog post. ATPE members can click here to visit Advocacy Central and send a quick message to their senator.


As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the legislature is considering ATPE-supported bills to increase contributions into the TRS pension fund. This week the House Committee on Pensions, Investments and Financial Services considered one of the bills, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which the full Senate has already passed unanimously.

SB 12 is being sponsored on the Senate side by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R- League City), who chairs the Article III (education) subcommittee in House Appropriations and is the author of another bill to increase funding for TRS via House Bill (HB) 9. (That bill, which ATPE also supports, was already heard by the House Pensions committee last week.) ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that during this week’s hearing on SB 12, Chairman Bonnen offered a committee substitute version of Senate Bill 12 that would replace its language with the language from his HB 9. After a brief hearing on the bill, the committee took the somewhat unusual step of immediately voting the committee substitute version of SB 12 favorably out of committee and recommending that it go to the full House for further consideration. The bill, which appears to be on an expedited track, will next go to the House Calendars Committee which has the authority to set the bill on a House calendar for a scheduled for debate. Once the bill has been approved by the full House, which it is expected to easily do, it will return to the Senate where Sen. Huffman will likely send SB 12 to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate language.

While both versions of the bill would increase the overall contribution rate into the TRS pension system and provide current retirees with a 13th check, the House language does so by focusing the entire increase on the state’s contribution rate without raising the rates of educators or school districts. Additionally, the House version provides for a substantially larger 13th check, up to $2400 per retiree vs $500 dollars per retiree in the Senate version of the bill.


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 15, 2019

Here’s your wrap-up of education highlights from another busy week for the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before the House Public Education Committee on March 12, 2019

Members of the House Public Education committee heard more than 12 hours of testimony this Tuesday on House Bill 3 (HB 3), the House’s comprehensive school finance reform bill. Stakeholders from parents to teachers and even children on spring break testified about the $9 billion bill. Many witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing expressed support for the bill, but a number of them shared reservations about its move to roll funding for gifted and talented programs into the basic allotment and a proposed merit pay plan that the commissioner of education would oversee under HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood).

ATPE testified neutrally on HB 3 stating that while the bill as filed has many positive qualities and would inject much-needed funding into the public education system, it also includes some troubling changes regarding the state’s minimum salary schedule and using teacher evaluations and student performance data for merit pay. Many witnesses, including ATPE, who expressed concerns about the merit pay plan noted that it would be difficult if not impossible for the commissioner to determine which teachers might receive merit pay under HB 3 without using data from student test scores, even though the bill itself does not specifically call for the use of the STAAR for this purpose. ATPE opposes the use of student performance data, including test scores, as the primary measure of a teacher’s effectiveness for purposes of compensation, which ATPE shared with the committee during our testimony that was delivered by Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter on Tuesday.

Currently, HB 3 is still pending in committee with a substitute version of the bill expected to be discussed next Tuesday, March 19. Read more about Tuesday’s school finance hearing in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

On Wednesday, the House Public Education Committee reconvened to hear a host of other bills related to topics such as Districts of Innovation (DOI) and school start dates. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of HB 1051, a bill that would make permanent the Goodwill Excel center permanent, a charter school offering a successful dropout recovery program for adult students. ATPE also supported HB 340 relating to full-day pre-k and HB 1276 relating to educator certification. More details on bills heard during Wednesday’s hearing can be found here.

 


Earlier this week, the White House released the president’s 2020 budget proposal, which is little more than a statement of the president’s priorities given that Congress actually passes the federal budget. The proposal would cut billions from the Department of Education’s budget compared to what Congress previously enacted, while funding controversial programs such as school privatization and performance-based compensation. Read a more detailed analysis of the President’s budget proposal on our Teach the Vote blog here.

 


The Senate State Affairs Committee met Thursday morning to hear a number of bills. Among them was Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). SB 12 would increase the TRS contribution rate and get the fund back to a point of actuarial soundness by the end of the biennium. In addition to the increased contribution rate, the bill would also fund a small 13th check of $500 for current TRS retirees. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill. For more background on why TRS contribution increases are now needed, check out this previous blog post about actions taken by the TRS board of trustees in the summer of 2018.


Residents of the San Antonio area’s House District 125 elected Democrat Ray Lopez to represent them in the House in a special election held this Tuesday. Lopez, a former city council member will be serving in the seat vacated by current Bexar County Commissioner and former HD 125 state representative Justin Rodriguez. ATPE congratulates Representative-Elect Lopez and looks forward to working with him. This election was the last in a series of special elections meant to fill seats that were vacated after last fall’s elections. As we reported last week, Houston area residents of House District 145 last week elected Democrat Christina Morales to fill the seat vacated by former representative and now Senator Carol Alvarado.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneyLast Friday evening the Senate released its version of a school finance reform proposal, Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). While the Senate has worked diligently to pass an across-the-board teacher pay raise bill this session (SB 3), its version of a more comprehensive school finance reform plan is a little less robust than its counterpart in the House. SB 4 includes provisions for outcomes-based funding and merit pay for classroom teachers. Read more information about the Senate bill in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


12 Days of Voting: Retirement

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at retirement.


Everyone who decides to become an educator enters into a special agreement with the State of Texas. It goes something like this: If you devote your life to preparing our children for the future, Texas promises to be there for you when you retire at the end of a long career of service.

Only that promise is constantly under attack.

Let’s start with some basics. Your retirement is administered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS), which oversees the pension trust fund. The state and individual educators each contribute to the fund, and a team of professional staff supervise a diverse investment portfolio that makes up the body of the fund. These full-time agency employees ensure the fund’s health and safety. After paying for the cost of administration and benefits, the money from those investments is plowed right back into the fund.

TRS is structured as a “defined benefit” retirement plan, which means that an individual who pays into the plan is guaranteed a set amount of money each month in retirement that will last for the rest of his or her life. The more common type of retirement plan is a “defined contribution” plan, such as a 401(k). Unlike the promise of a stable monthly pension check upon retirement offered by a defined benefit plan, a defined contribution plan promises merely a set contribution into an employee’s retirement account while the individual is actively working. Investment returns on that account are subject to the whims of the market. The level of retirement security that can be provided by those funds at the end of an educator’s career is not guaranteed. Under a defined contribution scenario, there is a real threat that a retired educator may outlive the retirement funds accumulated during his or her career, and end up with nowhere to turn for help — not even Social Security.

You may have noticed that most businesses in the private sector have gone the defined contribution route. The reason is largely because 401(k) plans are cheaper and don’t require dedicated staff to administer. Most are run for a profit by large Wall Street corporations, and advisers often have a financial stake in the investments they recommend. This leaves plenty of opportunities for others to make money, but little guarantee of stable retirement income for the retiree. The defined benefit plan administered by TRS is, by contrast, of great value to retirees, who can rest easier knowing that they will receive a guaranteed income for as long as they are alive.

As with most big pots of public money, the TRS pension fund has unfortunately become the focus of those looking to brag about shrinking government while making a few bucks for their friends.

In 2017, the Texas Senate confirmed Josh McGee as chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), which oversees state pension systems including TRS. Prior to being appointed to that position by Gov. Greg Abbott, McGee worked as a professional advocate for converting public pensions to defined contribution plans that would reduce the money guaranteed to retirees, and his position at the helm of PRB naturally raised alarm bells.

Adding to the concern, lawmakers have filed a number of bills in 2017 and in prior legislative sessions that would likewise weaken TRS. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) – who made headlines recently with his objections to efforts to improve voter turnout among educators – filed a pair of bills last year aimed at converting TRS from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan or a hybrid of the two. Both bills died without a hearing, fortunately, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is keeping the idea alive as part of his interim charges for the Texas Senate to study before the legislature reconvenes in 2019.

Most troubling is the decision by the TRS Board of Trustees to lower the assumed rate of return for the $147 billion pension fund from 8.0 percent down to 7.25 percent. The decision was based on observations of current market forces, and while fiscally prudent, it radically changes the plan’s outlook on paper. Like all pension plans, the TRS fund must be considered solvent before the legislature or board can consider any potential increases in benefits. With the lower assumed rate of return, TRS will head into the 2019 legislative session needing an additional $1.5 billion for future solvency, and they’ll be asking for that money from lawmakers who frequently are looking to cut spending, not increase it.

Politicians like Sen. Bettencourt frame their attacks on educators’ pensions by claiming the defined benefit structure is too expensive for the state to maintain into the future. In fact, the state’s share of an educator’s pension (at 6.8 percent) is less than half the teacher retirement contribution rate set by the next lowest state that is not paying into Social Security. The truth is that a more conservative assumed rate of return, coupled with a proper contribution rate, will guarantee TRS stays healthy well into the future.

The bottom line: Like public education as a whole, Texas gets a phenomenal bargain for what it spends, but more funding is necessary to fully realize the implicit promise made to educators.

Lawmakers will face tremendous pressure in 2019 from investors and politicians who want to gamble with teachers’ retirement. Unless Texans elect more pro-public education lawmakers and statewide elected officials, the legislature may very well look to your pension as an area to further cut corners. Texas will only keep its promise to educators if lawmakers respect educators’ voices at the polls in this pivotal election year.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!