Tag Archives: political advertising

Senate interim charges include investigating educators’ political activity

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) released interim charges for state senators late Wednesday. The Senate interim charges for the 86th Texas Legislature include language mirroring that used to justify a pair of bills this past session that were aimed at discouraging educators from being politically active.

After every legislative session, the Senate and House each release their own set of interim charges. Individual charges are assigned to each legislative committee and represent those legislators’ “homework” before returning to Austin for the next session. The idea is that members of each committee will study those charges, conduct hearings during the interim, and return the following legislative session prepared to file bills on those topics. The charges also typically include directions to monitor the implementation of bills recently passed into law and recommend any adjustments that may need to be made during the next legislative session.

The 2019 Senate interim charges include studying educator recruitment, preparation, and retention; a review of disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP); studying the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) corrective action plan for special education; a review of how investments are made by the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) and the Permanent School Fund (PSF); monitoring school districts’ implementation of the increases to teacher compensation ordered under House Bill (HB) 3; and investigating advocacy by local communities and public schools misleadingly characterized as “taxpayer lobbying.”

Of particular note is a charge directing the Senate State Affairs Committee to “ensure compliance with laws that prohibit school trustees and employees from improperly using public funds to advocate for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.” While ATPE fully agrees that public funds should not be used for electioneering, unfounded accusations targeting educators were used during the 2019 legislative session to justify a pair of bills aimed at chilling educators’ political speech. It is particularly worth noting that these accusations were leveled by officials who have taken positions opposed to public education in the past and were made following a 2018 election cycle in which the public education community was acknowledged to have played a major role in electing pro-public education candidates.

Senate Bill (SB) 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) would have dramatically expanded the legal definition of electioneering solely as it applies to educators. It would have subjected educators to criminal penalties for violating “political advertising” laws if they engage in the act of discussing anything of a political nature on school property, regardless of whether that conversation occurred in private, between friends, or off the clock. A similar bill, SB 904 by state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) would have imposed cumbersome restrictions on e-mail signups and public WiFi systems. You can read more about those bills here and here. Notably, Sen. Hughes has recently been appointed by Lt. Gov. Patrick as the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee that will conduct this investigation during the interim and would likely hear any such bills filed next session.

The following list includes excerpts from the 2019 Senate interim charges that may be of interest to educators. The charges are broken up by committee, each of which is listed in bold. You can read the full list of all interim charges released on Wednesday here.

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice

Crimes Against Students with Disabilities: Examine whether current laws are effectively protecting students with disabilities. Make recommendations to improve student safety, while also protecting educators’ abilities to maintain order and safety for everyone in the classroom.

Senate Education Committee

Teacher Workforce: Examine best practice models to recruit, prepare, and retain highly effective teachers. Review teacher professional development, continuing education, and training for teachers, and recommend improved training methods to improve student academic outcomes.

Alternative Education Students: Study current local, state, and national policies and programs for alternative education student populations. Make recommendations to strengthen existing programs and encourage the development of new innovative models.

Adult Education: Identify and evaluate current innovative programs that assist non-traditional students (first-time adult learners, re-enrolling students, working adults, and educationally disadvantaged students) in completing a high school diploma, GED, post-secondary degree, or workforce credential, including a review of adult education charter schools and their performance framework. Make recommendations to help successful expansion with partnered business and education entities.

Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs: Review disciplinary alternative education programs, including lengths of placement, quality of instruction, and the physical conditions of these facilities. Make recommendations to support and promote the academic success of these programs and enhance the ability of public schools to meet the needs of these students through innovative school models.

Digital Learning: Assess the Texas Virtual School Network and recommend model legislation that improves digital learning for students, families, and educators in a 21st Century classroom.

Special Education Services: Evaluate ongoing strategies to continuously improve special education services for students in public schools including, but not limited, to the Texas Education Agency’s corrective action plan.

Monitoring: Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Education passed by the 86th Legislature, as well as relevant agencies and programs under the committee’s jurisdiction. Specifically, make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance, or complete implementation of the following: Senate Bill 11, relating to policies, procedures, and measures for school safety and mental health promotion in public schools and the creation of the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium; House Bill 3, relating to public school finance and public education; and House Bill 3906, relating to the assessment of public school students, including the development and administration of assessment instruments, and technology permitted for use by students.

Senate Finance Committee

Investment of State Funds: Review the investment strategies and performance of funds invested through the Teacher Retirement System, the Permanent School Fund, and university funds. Make recommendations to better coordinate and leverage Texas’ purchasing power to maximize investment income to the state.

Monitoring: Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Finance passed by the 86th Legislature, as well as relevant agencies and programs under the committee’s jurisdiction. Specifically, make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance, or complete implementation of the following: Senate Bill 12, relating to the contributions to and benefits under the Teacher Retirement System; …House Bill 4388, relating to the management of the permanent school fund by the School Land Board and the State Board of Education and a study regarding distributions from the permanent school fund to the available school fund; House Bill 4611, relating to certain distributions to the available school fund; …District implementation of increases in teacher compensation provided by the 86th Legislature; and Efficiencies in state-funded health care programs that reduce or contain costs and improve quality of care. Assess the quality and performance of health plans that contract with the state, including contract compliance, financial performance and stability, quality metrics, and consumer surveys, among other indicators. Monitor the implementation of Health and Human Services Commission Rider 19 and Article IX, Section 10.06.

Senate State Affairs Committee

Elections: Study the integrity and security of voter registration rolls, voting machines, and voter qualification procedures to reduce election fraud in Texas. Specifically, study and make recommendations to: 1) ensure counties are accurately verifying voter eligibility after voter registration; 2) improve training requirements for mail-in ballot signature verification committees; 3) ensure every voter has access to a polling station, particularly in counties that have adopted countywide polling; 4) allow the voter registrar, county clerk, and Secretary of State to suspend an unqualified voter’s registration or remove an ineligible voter from a list of registered voters; and 5) ensure compliance with laws that prohibit school trustees and employees from improperly using public funds to advocate for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.

Taxpayer Lobbying: Study how governmental entities use public funds for political lobbying purposes. Examine what types of governmental entities use public funds for lobbying purposes. Make recommendations to protect taxpayers from paying for lobbyists who may not represent the taxpayers’ interests.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 19, 2019

The legislature packed a lot of work into a short week ahead of this holiday weekend. Here’s a summary of the latest education-related developments from our ATPE Governmental Relations team:


Senate Education Committee meeting April 16, 2019.

This week was a busy one for the Senate Education Committee. On Tuesday, the committee chose to postpone its originally posted hearing of the House’s school finance reform bill, House Bill 3. The committee postponed the hearing of HB 3 by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) in order to flesh out more of the Senate’s committee substitute for the bill. We expect HB 3 to heard later next week and are urging educators to reach out to their senators about the bill.

ATPE supported HB 3 as passed by the House almost unanimously. The bill was amended from its original version as filed to remove controversial language that would allow school districts to opt out of the the minimum salary schedule and fund merit pay that likely would have been tied to student test scores. ATPE encourages educators to contact their senators now and urge them to keep merit pay and other negative provisions out of HB 3 when it moves through the Senate. For additional information and direct communication links to lawmakers, ATPE members should visit Advocacy Central.

In lieu of HB 3, various other bills were discussed during Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting, with topics ranging from sex ed to charter school regulation to accountability laws. The committee also voted to advance several bills, such as Senate Bill (SB) 1412 to allow a school at risk of closure to execute an accelerated campus excellence turnaround plan. For more on Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing, read this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

The committee will meet again on April 23, 2019, to hear bills relating to school district funding and governance, student internships, staff development, and more. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for coverage of the hearing and announcements when HB 3 is scheduled for hearing.


On Wednesday, April 18, the full Senate passed a bill to further restrict the ability of school district employees and school board members to talk about political content at school.

SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) amends existing “political advertising” laws and was passed by a vote of 25 to 6. Senators who voted against the ATPE-opposed bill were Sens. Jose Menendez, Borris Miles, Beverly Powell, Kel Seliger, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini.

During the Senate floor debate, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. amended the bill to add prohibitions on electioneering using school resources by charter school employees or governing board members. Charter schools had not been included in the original version of SB 1569 as filed. Sen. Fallon also agreed to amend the bill on the floor to strike language from the original version that would have prohibited school districts from being able to share information that factually describes the purpose of a bond measure and does not advocate for its passage or defeat.

SB 1569 no longer includes highly troubling language in its original version that would have prohibited school employees from advocating for or against “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” However, ATPE notes that the bill still includes overly broad language aimed at stifling political involvement by public school employees, contractors, or board members. SB 1569 as passed by the Senate greatly expands the existing definition of political advertising to include support or opposition for a candidate, political party, public officer, or measure that is “directed to an individual person or multiple persons through any form of communication.” While Sen. Fallon indicated during floor debate that he does not intend for his bill to prevent educators from talking to one another about politics, especially after school hours, the language of the bill itself as quoted above suggests otherwise.

SB 1569 as passed by the Senate would also subject public school employees to criminal penalties if they “facilitate” legislative advocacy by students. ATPE is disappointed that senators would support legislation to prevent educators from teaching students about the legislative process without fear of being arrested.

Now that SB 1569 has been passed by the Senate, ATPE urges educators to contact their state representatives and ask them to oppose this unnecessary anti-public education bill. ATPE members can visit Advocacy Central for additional information on SB 1569 and communication tools.

Other bills on the move this session that have garnered scrutiny from the education community include HB 281 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville)  and SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) relating to political subdivisions’ use of public money for lobbying activities. These bills would prohibit school districts from using public funds to pay for lobbying, whether by an employee of the district paid to lobby or an outside association that uses the public funds for activities that might include lobbying. Neither bill would affect the ability of school district employees to use their own personal funds to join associations, such as ATPE, that engage in lobbying activities.


Legislators, staffers, and stakeholders crowded a conference room Thursday, April 18, 2019, for a quick meeting of the House Public Education Committee to vote on bills.

The House Public Education Committee met twice this week to hear bills on topics such as civics education, bullying, and virtual schools.

During the committee’s first hearing on Tuesday, April 16, ATPE offered testimony on bills like HB 496 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) aimed at improving student safety by requiring a bleeding kit program in public schools. Read ATPE’s written testimony here. ATPE also testified against HB 429 by Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), which would expand virtual school programs that may not be efficient or of adequate quality. Read ATPE’s written testimony against HB 429 here. Other bills heard on Tuesday included the ATPE-supported HB 3133 by Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) that would allow school district employees to use their personal leave for compensation on school holidays.

The committee met again on Thursday, April 18, for a hearing that lasted until 11 pm and again featured discussions of a wide variety of topics. ATPE supported bills such as HB 414 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) calling for a Teacher Protection Act, HB 3403 by Rep. Phillip Cortez (D-San Antonio) to require school district employment policies to include anti-bullying measures for educators, and HB 3638 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) to repeal certain laws identified as unnecessary or duplicative by a mandate relief working group on which ATPE served last year.

The committee also convened while the House was in session on Thursday to vote out additional bills, such as Rep. Gina Hinojosa’s HB 43 on charter admission policies and Rep. Diego Bernal’s HB 4242 calling for a study of the readability of STAAR tests.

Read more about the bills considered by the House Public Education Committee in this week’s comprehensive blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier here and here.


ATPE has long advocated for Texas lawmakers to increase funding of educators’ pension programs through the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). As we have been reporting throughout the session, the 86th Legislature is considering ATPE-supported bills to increase state contributions to the TRS pension fund and provide retirees with a 13th check.

In support of this ongoing effort, ATPE has joined forces with Equable, a national nonprofit organization that works to facilitate retirement plan sustainability and income security, to promote pension reforms this session that will address the TRS funding shortfall and help ensure that Texas educators have a stable retirement plan in the future. ATPE and Equable are urging educators to reach out to their legislators in support of bills like SB 12, which is scheduled for debate by the full House next week.

Learn more about our TRS-related advocacy and find additional resources at PayTheBillTX.org.


The one bill that the 86th Legislature must pass in order to avoid a special session – the state’s budget bill – is making further progress. Members of the House and Senate have voted to send HB 1 to a conference committee to iron out differences between the two chambers’ versions of the budget proposal.

On the House side, Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas will co-chair the conference committee joined by Reps. Greg Bonnen, Sarah Davis, Oscar Longoria, and Armando Walle. Senate conferees, which noticeably included no Democratic senators, are Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson plus Sens. Joan Huffman, Lois Kolkhorst, Larry Taylor, and Robert Nichols. The HB 1 conference committee has planned its first meeting for Tuesday, April 23.

Also sent to a conference committee was the legislature’s supplemental appropriations bill for the current biennium, SB 500. That bill’s conference committee is similarly  co-chaired by Sen. Nelson and Rep. Zerwas. The other conference committee members for SB 500 are Sens. Huffman, Kolkhorst, Taylor, and Chuy Hinojosa, along with Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, Mary Gonzalez, Rick Miller, and Toni Rose.

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

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


On Tuesday, April 9, the Texas Senate passed its version of the state budget for the next two years. The Senate’s substitute version of House Bill (HB) 1 received unanimous approval from the upper chamber.

Like the House, the Senate set aside $2.7 billion in the budget bill for “tax relief,” although it is yet to be determined exactly how the money will be spent to achieve that goal. The Senate also dedicated $6.3 billion to public schools, $4 billion of which is reserved for a $5,000 across-the-board pay raise for all full-time teachers and librarians through Senate Bill (SB) 3. That leaves only $2.3 billion in the Senate’s bill to try to make changes to the larger school finance system.

The Senate’s budget proposal differs from the House’s plan, which delivers more than $6 billion to school districts with instructions to spend the first 25 percent of any increase in the basic allotment, or approximately $2.4 billion, on salary increases for all non-administrative staff. While amounts of such a pay raise, if passed, would vary from district to district, the House’s plan would average out roughly to about $1,300 per full-time employee.

Next, each chamber will appoint members to a conference committee that will work out the differences between the version of HB 1 that the Senate passed this week and the version of the bill that the House passed last month. For its part, the House has already appointed its five members of the critical budget conference committee: House Appropriations Chairman Rep. John Zerwas will chair the committee, joined by Reps. Greg Bonnen, Sarah Davis, Oscar Longoria, and Armando Walle. Once the Senate appoints its conferees, negotiators will have until the session ends in late May to reach an agreement. The budget is the only bill the Texas Legislature is constitutionally required to pass, so any failure to come to an agreement within the 140-day regular session would result in legislators being called back for a 30-day special session to finish the budget.

 


The state’s ongoing difficulty in providing resources for students with disabilities continues to make headlines. On Thursday, April 11, Representative Mary González (D – Clint) and Representative Morgan Meyer (R – Highland Park) held a press conference to address Texas’s consistent underfunding for students with disabilities and lack of compliance with federal spending requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). ATPE and other stakeholder groups representing educators, students, and advocates for people with disabilities participated in the bipartisan press conference.

The state’s inadequate spending on students with special needs could cost Texas as much as $223 million in lost federal funding. Under the IDEA’s maintenance of financial support requirement, each state must spend at least as much on special education as it did in the previous year or face a financial penalty. Read more about the millions in penalties Texas faces here.

 


The Senate Education Committee convened twice this week to take action on bills pertaining to virtual schools and other miscellaneous items. The first meeting of the committee on Tuesday featured testimony about which entity should manage the Permanent School Fund and a discussion of school turnaround options. The committee also heard an ATPE-supported bill by the committee’s chairman, SB 1895 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), that would help educators receive professional development on blended learning.

Among the legislation voted out favorably by the committee on Tuesday were two bills pertaining to virtual schools, which ATPE opposed when they were heard by the committee the previous week. The committee advanced SB 2244 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), which prevents school districts from charging fees for virtual classes and makes it easier to enroll in virtual schools, and SB 1455 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which also expands virtual schools. ATPE previously submitted written testimony opposing both bills and citing research that calls into question the quality and performance of existing virtual schools. The committee also voted out a number of other bills, including SB 1256 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) that cleans up portions of his educator misconduct bill passed last session.

For a full recap of Tuesday’s committee meeting, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

During the Senate committee’s second hearing on Thursday, the bills discussed were mostly unrelated to each other. ATPE supported bills including SB 426 by Sen. Eddie Lucio,. Jr. (D-Brownsville), which would ensure that counselors spend the majority of their time counselling students as opposed to being assigned other duties such as test monitoring. The committee also took action on some pending bills, including a major school safety bill. Chairman Taylor’s SB 11, which ATPE had also supported, received a favorable vote by the committee on Thursday. SB 11 follows up on recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security that met during the interim last year.

More information on the bills heard and acted upon during Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Education Committee can be found in this additional blog post from ATPE’s Mark Wiggins.

On Tuesday, April 16, the Senate Education Committee is slated to meet again and is expected to hear the House’s major school finance bill, HB 3. ATPE urges educators to contact their senators about this widely support bill and keep up the momentum for passing meaningful school finance reform and an educator pay raise this session.

 


The House Public Education committee held a marathon meeting on Tuesday, hearing 38 bills that mostly pertained to charter schools. Several of the bills were aimed at regulating the expansion of charter schools and how charter schools handle student discipline, eliciting hours of public testimony. Other bills heard on Tuesday included the ATPE-supported HB 228 by Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) that would create new eligibility standards for Districts of Innovation (DOI), and HB 1853 by Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio), which would require charter schools to hire certified educators and protect the rights of educators. ATPE also provided neutral testimony on HB 3904 by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), which is considered a clean-up bill for Huberty’s HB 22 that was passed last session.

Find more information on the bills considered and passed by the House Public Education committee in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The committee will meet again on Tuesday, April 16, where it will consider a diverse agenda, including some virtual schooling bills similar to those acted upon by the Senate committee this week. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and follow us on Twitter for updates.

 


ATPE is encouraging educators to contact their senators asking them to oppose two bills that would infringe on educators’ free speech rights and limit the ability to teach studentsSB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) and SB 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) both deal with “political advertising” laws and are aimed at limiting the ability of school district employees and school board members to talk about political content while they’re at school.

SB 1569 has been placed on the Senate Intent Calendar for next week, meaning that it could come up for a floor vote as early as Tuesday. SB 904 has not yet been placed on the Senate Intent calendar but may also appear there at any time. While the authors did make some changes to these two bills compared to their versions as filed, ATPE remains concerned about likely negative consequences of SB 1569 and SB 904 and the chilling effect they would have on educators. For additional information, check out this blog post about the bills. ATPE members are urged to visit Advocacy Central for talking points and quick communication tools for reaching out to their senators.

 


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.


 

Senate bills threaten to chill educator speech

Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, April 1, 2019

The Senate State Affairs Committee met Monday, April 1, and considered two bills that present serious concerns about free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — particularly when it comes to educators.

Both bills relate to the use of public funds for political advertising, which is already prohibited by state law. ATPE agrees with the current statutes and ethics rules that prohibit public resources from being used for political purposes. Electioneering on school time and with school resources should be illegal. However, the two bills heard by the committee Monday morning would criminalize behavior that is not only nonpolitical, but in some cases even required under state law. Together, they threaten to undermine all of the positive work the Texas Senate has done for public educators so far this session.

Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) filed Senate Bill (SB) 1569, which would dramatically expand the legal definition of electioneering solely as it applies to educators.

Electioneering is currently defined as advocating for or against a candidate, political party, or ballot measure. For example: A communication created on school district time or using school district money in support of Proposition X or Candidate Y clearly constitutes electioneering and an unlawful use of public resources. As filed, SB 1569 would include activity that advocates for or against “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” Neither term is defined in law or in Sen. Fallon’s bill, and ATPE contends that each phrase is subject to widely varying interpretation. For example, extolling the virtues of American democracy and our free enterprise system could be considered advocating for a “political philosophy” under this bill – despite the fact that both are required elements of Texas public schools’ curriculum. Likewise, a sign on a school bulletin board promoting a food drive for Hurricane Harvey victims could easily be construed as advocating for “a matter of public interest” if SB 1569 were to be enacted.

Perhaps even more troubling, SB 1569 would expand the definition of “political advertising” to include any political communication “directed to an individual person or multiple persons through any form of communication (emphasis added).” This could treat private conversations between co-workers as political advertising and subject to criminal penalties. As a whole, SB 1569 would impose a separate set of restrictions on the speech of public school employees that is far more expansive than restrictions imposed upon any other category of public employees.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 1569 here.

SB 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) aims to prevent third party organizations from sending political advertising to public e-mail addresses, subjecting the sender to a $100 fine per e-mail. This seemingly straightforward idea is complicated by a number of technical factors. First, most political websites allow a visitor to enter their e-mail address and receive automatic campaign updates. This simple process could potentially be abused, either intentionally or unintentionally through “bots” and e-mail spoofing, to rack up massive fines.

SB 904 also extends prohibitions against political advertising to include the use of public communications systems, including WiFi networks. This could have the absurd effect of criminalizing the act of accessing a campaign website from a personal mobile device while off the clock and sitting in a school parking lot. It could also jeopardize a majority of computer use in the Texas State Capitol, where visitors are offered free public WiFi and politics is a major topic of discussion.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 904 here.

Public resources clearly should not be used for electioneering, but such activity is already expressly prohibited in state law. ATPE believes expanding current law in an attempt to broadly restrict the speech of educators as proposed by SB 904 and SB 1569 is unnecessary, discriminatory, and raises serious concerns about potential violations of the First Amendment. Taken together, these bills would likely have a severe chilling effect on educators’ speech.

We urge you to contact your state senator and ask them to OPPOSE SB 904 and SB 1569. ATPE members can use our simple tools at Advocacy Central to send a message to their legislators about these bills.

UPDATE (added 4/5/19): The Senate State Affairs Committee met again on Thursday, April 4, and voted to send these two bills to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. The vote was 6-1 on both SB 1569 and SB 904. Sen. Judith Zaffirini was the only member of the committee to vote against the harmful bills. We urge educators to contact their senators and ask them to keep these bad bills from becoming law.