The big news in Texas politics this week is an announcement by a group of Republican members of the Texas House of Representatives that they have formed a new political action committee (PAC) to fill the void in fundraising created by Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s (R-Angleton) decision not to run for reelection.
Typically, the speaker coordinates fundraising efforts and doles out money to help endangered House incumbents who belong to the majority party. Democrats need just nine seats to win control of the Texas House, which places Republicans in a defensive position. Without Speaker Bonnen playing an active leadership role, Republicans are at a disadvantage. Enter Reps. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), Four Price (R-Amarillo), and Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), who filed paperwork this week to form Leading Texas Forward PAC. According to the Texas Tribune, the PAC aims to raise $5 million for GOP incumbents and lists none other than GOP strategist Karl Rove as its treasurer.
In other House news, Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chair Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) announced late last week he would not run for reelection after admitting to a drug-related incident. Nevarez told the Texas Tribune he intends to seek treatment.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the special runoff elections for House District (HD) 28, HD 100, and HD 148 will be held Jan. 28, 2020. The latter two seats are expected to remain under Democratic control, while HD 28 represents a hotly-contested race over a seat most recently occupied by a Republican.
A new University of Texas-Tyler poll shows President Donald Trump’s approval rating among Texans at 43 percent, compared to 49 percent on respondents who disapprove and 8 percent who have not made up their minds. That poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden leading the pack among Texans’ favored Democratic nominees, followed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. A separate Politico analysis predicts Trump will win Texas, but lists a number of contested Republican Congressional seats as likely Democratic pickups.
Voting is the most powerful thing you can do as an educator, and ATPE thanks those of you who voted in the Nov. 5 election. Voting in the upcoming 2020 elections will be critical in order to ensure legislators provide schools and teachers with the resources they need to help students grow and achieve. Visit the website for our Texas Educators Vote coalition today and sign up to receive text updates so that you never miss an important election!
The Texas House of Representatives debated its budget bill, March 28, 2019.
During a late night floor session on Wednesday, the Texas House unanimously approved a $251 billion state budget bill, House Bill (HB) 1. The bill includes a $9 billion appropriation for improving the state’s school finance system and providing property relief to homeowners. The public education-related funding increases in the House budget would be implemented via HB 3, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) omnibus bill that ATPE supports. The full House is slated to debate HB 3 on the floor next Wednesday, April 3.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee is preparing to approve its budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, in the coming days. During a meeting yesterday, the committee decided to add money to its bill to match the House’s $9 billion funding proposal for public education. The two chambers are likely to disagree, however, on how that money should be spent.
Read more about the House’s big budget vote in this article from The Texas Tribune republished on our Teach the Vote blog. We urge ATPE members to use our convenient tools on Advocacy Central to send a message to House members thanking them for their vote on the budget to increase public education funding and urging them all to similarly support HB 3 next week.
ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified before a House committee, March 26, 2019.
This week two important bills affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) advanced in both the House and Senate.
House Bill (HB) 9 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), which increases contributions to TRS and provides retirees with a 13th check, received a hearing the House Committee on Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services on Tuesday. The bill was left pending in committee but is expected to be voted out favorably in the near future. ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in favor of HB 9 during the hearing.
Also, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) was voted out of the full Senate by a unanimous vote on Monday. SB 12, which ATPE also supports, raises the contribution rates into TRS, albeit differently from the House’s bill, and provides retirees with a 13th payment, but the payment would be lower. For more information on the differences between the two bills, check out this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.
On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), heard a number of bills focused on student discipline issues. ATPE supported bills such as Senate Bill 1451, which prohibits negative action on a teacher’s appraisal solely on the basis of the teacher’s disciplinary referrals or documentation of student conduct, and Senate Bill 2432, which would add harassment to the list of conduct that will result in the mandatory removal of a student from the classroom. For more information on the bills heard, plus other pending bills that were voted on during this week’s committee hearing, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
Meetings of the House Public Education Committee have been known to take on a theme and focus on bills that pertain to the same issue. The theme of this week’s meeting of the committee was school safety. Members of that committee on Tuesday heard 35 bills related to topics in school safety such as school hardening, access to mental health resources, and increased law enforcement on school campuses. ATPE registered a position in support of six bills including House Bill 2994 by Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), which would require the Commissioner of Education to develop mental health training material for school districts. A thorough breakdown of the bills heard during this committee meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.
FEDERAL UPDATE: On Thursday, March 28, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat before the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the Department of Education. DeVos faced questions on her support for increasing federal funding for school choice while eliminating or decreasing funding aimed at teacher effectiveness, special populations, and loan assistance. Watch more coverage of the hearing here for the full scoop.
ELECTION UPDATE: The 86th Texas Legislative session is more than halfway over, and issues like school finance, teacher pay, and school safety remain key topics. This is a direct result of the tremendous educator turnout during the 2018 elections and proof of the power of democracy – informed and engaged citizens holding their elected officials accountable. Practicing and modeling civic engagement require voting in every election. On May 4, 2019, many Texans will have the chance to vote in local elections for school boards, mayoral seats, bonds, and more. Make sure your voter registration is up to date so you will be able to participate. The last day to register to vote in the May election is April 4. Early voting runs April 22-30, 2019. Visit VoteTexas.gov to learn more about how to register and vote.
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.
Last 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.
In each fiscal year (FY), which runs October 1 through September 30, the President releases his vision for the country’s budget. It really is just that- a statement on how the President believes money should be spent based on his (or her) priorities. Actual fiscal determinations are made by Congress. For example, past presidential budgets have proposed eliminating Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides over $2 billion in grants to states to improve teacher effectiveness. However, Title II has remained intact because Congress will not eliminate it.
The 2020 presidential budget proposal includes $62 billion for the Department of Education (ED) to provide K-12 and higher education programs and funding, which is an $8.5 billion or 12% decrease compared to what Congress enacted in the last budget. President Trump’s budget plan cuts K-12 education by $5.1 billion and calls for eliminating at least 16 programs. While maintaining current levels of funding for large programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the President’s budget pushes multiple controversial programs such as school privatization marketed as “school choice,” charter school expansion, and performance-based compensation, as well as funding for magnet schools and school safety. The proposal includes the following:
Creating a federal tax credit costing up to $50 billion over 10 years for donations to scholarship programs for families of elementary and secondary students to subsidize private school tuition
$500 million (an increase of $60M) to fund the opening, expansion, and facilities of charter schools
$107 million to expand magnet schools
$50 million in new funding for districts participating in the Title I student-centered funding pilot, which allows districts to to use federal, state, and local funding for public school choice
Raising the percentage of Title I dollars states can use to fund expanded educational choice for disadvantaged students from 3% to 5%
Increasing the funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship program, which awards scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools in Washington, DC
While the bulk of Title II under ESSA would be eliminated yet again, the FY 2020 Presidential budget proposes two main initiatives that affect teachers:
$200 million for the Teacher and School Leader Incentive grant program, which would support performance-based compensation systems and human capital management systems that include either mentoring of new teachers or increased compensation for effective teachers
$300 million (an increase of $170M) for Education Innovation and Research, mainly for studying teacher-driven professional development (PD) and providing stipends for teachers to attend PD
As for school safety, the budget includes:
$700 million ($354M increase) in Department of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services grants to give states and school districts resources to implement the recommendations of the Federal Commission on School Safety (FCSS)
$200 million (increase of $105M) will go to ED for School Safety National Activities, which provides grants to states and school districts to develop school emergency operations plans, as well as counseling and emotional support. $100M of this will be used for a School Safety State Grant program to implement the recommendations of the FCSS
Other points of interest include TEACH grants, which award annual amounts up to $4,000 to eligible undergraduate and graduate students to become full-time teachers in high-need areas for at least four years. The Presidential budget proposes cutting funding to this program by $3.1 million. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which allows the cancellation of federal student loans for non-profit and government employees after 10 years of on-time payments, is also eliminated in the budget.
In addition to the aforementioned maintained levels of Title I and IDEA funding, the FY 2020 Presidential budget proposal would maintain current levels of funding for many programs including state assessments, English language acquisition programs, migrant education, neglected and delinquent education, education for homeless children and youths, and rural education.
The budget would decrease funding to Indian education programs and impact aid, which helps to offset revenue loss to districts that serve areas that include federal lands. The budget plan also shifts around more than $12B in IDEA funding, cutting some programs entirely while increasing funding to others.
Lastly, the budget proposes elimination of many programs, including arts in education, full-service community schools, Promise neighborhoods, and Special Olympics educational programs. However, don’t despair! Remember, the president’s proposed budget is a suggestion and a statement of his priorities. Given the split control of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is even less likely that President Trump’s proposals as described here ultimately will be enacted.
The entire proposal includes all areas of funding across the government. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out the administration’s three-page overview. Keep in mind that these documents were created by the White House and do not represent an objective analysis.
ATPE will continue to monitor and report on the federal budget discussions in Washington with assistance from our DC-based federal lobby team. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.
ATPE is excited to welcome Andrea Chevalier, the newest lobbyist to join our Governmental Relations team.
Andrea joins us most recently from the office of state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), where she served as Legislative Director and oversaw a host of issues, including public education. She is also a former classroom teacher with experience working in both the traditional public school and charter school environments. Andrea attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied chemistry; earned her Masters of Education in Secondary Education at the University of North Texas; and is currently working on completing her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from UT.
Andrea will be lobbying and reporting on a variety of issues being debated by the legislature this session, working closely with the House Public Education Committee, and covering educator quality regulations considered by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Watch for her blog posts here on Teach the Vote and follow her on Twitter at @ATPE_AndreaC.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gregg Abbott addressed a joint session of the 86th Legislature, delivering his traditional “State of the State” address. He outlined his legislative priorities for the session, punctuated by the declaration of six issues as emergency items that would warrant expedited action by lawmakers. All six of the issues bear close ties to public education, including most notably school finance, school safety, and teacher pay. Abbott’s declaration of these school-related emergency issues is a testament to the impact of the 2018 election cycle in which the Texas public education community was much more noticeably vocal and active. Tuesday was also the day for President Donald Trump to deliver his State of the Union address. That speech, which had been postponed due to the recent federal government shutdown, contained far less education-related content. Read more about both the State of the State and State of the Union speeches in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.
The two legislative committees that oversee public education policy issues in Texas have begun holding regular meetings and hearing testimony. The Senate Education Committee held its first meeting of the legislative session this week, receiving an overview presentation by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The committee also learned about the status of special education programs in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this detailed summary for Teach the Vote.
The House Public Education Committee, which began its work a little earlier this session, held two meetings this week, both heavily focused on the topic of school finance. The committee similarly heard from Commissioner Morath, along with members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Read more about those hearings in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The committee is slated for two more meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the agenda will include testimony by stakeholders about school finance and the recommendations of the commission that studied the issue last year. ATPE has been invited to testify on Wednesday, and we’ll provide details next week here on our blog and on @TeachtheVote on Twitter.
On Monday of this week, the House Appropriations Committee announced its subcommittees that will work on various sections of the state budget. Committee members were also briefed by staff of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS). ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided an in-depth report here for our blog. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee has also been holding several meetings to review the draft budget. Next week, Senate Finance committee members turn their attention to Article III, which contains the education budget. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter will be there for those meetings starting Monday and will provide updates next week for Teach the Vote.
SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s House District 125 will head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new state representative. Early voting has taken place this week for the special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez, after he resigned to serve as Bexar County Commissioner. The five candidates vying for the HD 125 seat are Steve Huerta (D), Ray Lopez (D), Fred Rangel (R), Coda Rayo-Garza (D), and Art Reyna (D).
There also remains a vacancy in Houston’s HD 145, where Democrats Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales have advanced to a runoff in that special election. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced, but is likely to be held in March. Read more about the two runoff candidates in this article from the Houston Chronicle.
On Feb. 5, 2019, both the Texas Governor and President of the United States delivered high-profile speeches in front of a large audience of lawmakers and the public. In his 2019 State of the State address Wednesday, Governor Greg Abbott began by touting the “economic prowess” of Texas.
The U.S. Capitol, where Pres. Trump delivered his State of the Union address, Feb. 5, 2019
Later that same day, in his 2019 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump similarly expressed sweeping admiration for the successes of our American economy. Despite the idea that the foundation of a great economy is a stellar education, our governor and president differed greatly in the amount of attention they focused on educating our children.
Pres. Trump mentioned education twice during his address. In one instance, the president expressed that our schools were overburdened due to immigration. In another, he said, “To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.” Other than these two remarks, the president gave no other details regarding education.
Standing ovation for teacher pay during Gov. Abbott’s 2019 State of the State address
Gov. Abbott spent a large portion of his address speaking on the importance of improving student outcomes. He said that, in order to address low rates of third-grade reading readiness and similarly low rates of college and career readiness, we must target education funding to the people who matter most (other than parents). These are our educators.
Perhaps we can consider ourselves lucky that education is mostly left up to the states and that – at least for the early weeks of this legislative session – our governor is talking about making teachers and students a priority and not prioritizing harmful distractions such as private school vouchers. As we move forward with the legislative session, it is important to continue making the voice of the teacher heard on topics such as pay, incentives, and recruitment and retention. ATPE members can help by using our tools at Advocacy Central to send messages to lawmakers about these issues and our legislative priorities.
Tuesday, January 8, kicked off the 86th Texas Legislative Session amid great fanfare at the State Capitol.
Representative Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) was unanimously elected and sworn in as the new Speaker of the House on Tuesday afternoon. For the past 10 years, the House has been under the leadership of Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) who retired from the position and the legislature at the end of his term this month. Bonnen announced in November 2018 that he had amassed the requisite number of pledged votes to render the speaker’s race not much of a race at all. After that there was only the vote and ceremonial swearing in, which took place on Tuesday. Read more about Bonnen’s ascent to speaker in this post shared from The Texas Tribune.
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) was missing from Tuesday’s proceedings while visiting with President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, that day on the subject of border security. Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) presided over the upper chamber’s opening ceremonies in his place. The Senate swore in its new members and also elected Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) to serve as President Pro Tempore this session.
Gov. Greg Abbott spoke briefly to welcome the members of each chamber, signaling his intent for the legislature to tackle school finance reform and property tax relief this session. Bonnen and Watson also highlighted the prominence of the school funding issue this session, with new House Speaker going as far as announcing that he had stocked the members’ lounge with special styrofoam cups to remind them of their top priority: school finance reform. Improving the state’s school finance system is also a top legislative priority for ATPE this year.
ATPE Lobbyists Mark Wiggins and Monty Exter snapped a selfie with Humble ATPE’s Gayle Sampley and her husband at the Capitol on opening day.
ATPE’s lobbyists were at the Capitol on opening day and will be there for all of the action this legislative session. Be sure to follow @TeachtheVote and our individual lobbyists on Twitter for the latest updates from the Capitol.
ATPE members are also encouraged to sign up for free to attend our upcoming lobby day and political involvement training event known as ATPE at the Capitol on Feb. 24-25, 2019. Find complete details here.
While the legislative session officially began on Tuesday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar made news the day before with his release of the state’s Biennial Revenue Estimate (BRE). The BRE details how much money the state plans to receive and how much of it can be spent in any given legislative session.
Monday’s BRE announcement predicted revenue of $119.12 billion for the 2020-21 biennium. This biennium’s BRE comes with tempered expectations, which Hegar attributed to a drop in oil prices, market volatility, and rising interest rates. “Looking ahead to the 2020-21 biennium, we remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we are unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we have seen in recent months.” Hegar said in the report.
Once the comptroller has released the BRE for each legislature, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) meets to set the session’s constitutionally-required spending limit. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the LBB met today and set a limit of $100.2 billion for spending this session. The constitutional spending limit is set by applying the percentage of growth, which is determined by many factors, to the previous biennium’s spending limit. The constitutional limit applies only to expenditures of general revenue that is not constitutionally-dedicated. By comparison, the non-dedicated-revenue spending limit for the 85th session in 2017 was roughly $91 billion, whereas the total general revenue appropriated by the legislature that year was $106.6 Billion. As Exter explains, neither withdrawals from the Economic Stabilization Fund (the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund”) nor supplemental appropriations for the current biennium will count toward the constitutional limit that was announced today.
The Legislature must now decide what to do with its available revenue. Rest assured, they haven’t been given a blank check to do as they please. According to reporting by the Center For Public Policy Priorities the legislature must immediately spend $563 million as back pay for Medicaid funding that was deferred until this session. The legislature will also have to determine where $2.7 billion for Hurricane Harvey recovery costs will come from.
For more detailed reporting on the BRE as well as link to the full report, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
Late last week, the House Committee on Public Education released its interim report covering the committee’s work over the past year on interim charges assigned to it by the House Speaker. The report, which spans 88 pages, includes recommendations on how to approach a variety of education-related issues this session, such as Hurricane Harvey relief, teacher compensation, and school safety.
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) chairs the committee that produced its interim report. Among the suggestions were recommendations to consider possible legislation to help schools quickly replace instructional materials due to Harvey; creating paths to career growth for educators that would allow them to stay in the classroom, such as a “Master Teacher” certification; and making Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs) permanently available for students who have difficulty with STAAR testing.
You can read more about the committee’s interim charge recommendations in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. Read the interim report here.
In a statement released to the press on Monday, Governor Greg Abbott announced his appointment of Edward Hill, Jr., Ed.D., John P. Kelly, Ph.D., Courtney Boswell MacDonald, and Jose M. Rodriguez to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). The new appointees are replacing retiring SBEC members Suzanne McCall of Lubbock; Dr. Susan Hull of Grand Prairie; and Leon Leal of Grapevine.
ATPE thanks the members rolling off the SBEC board for their years of service and welcomes the new members. We look forward to working together with them to continue to improve the education profession for the betterment of Texas students.
The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?
Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.
TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.
Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?
“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”
He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.
“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.
On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.
Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.
Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.
But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?
“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”
Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.
As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.
Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”
But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.
Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.
But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.
“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”
Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.
In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.
Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.
On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”
“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.
“Public enemy number one for public education”
If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.
As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.
“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”
Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.
“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”
But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.
And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”
Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.
“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.
“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.
A “sleeping giant”?
There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.
“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”
Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.
Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.
Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.
A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.
Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.
“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”
Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.
There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.
“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”
The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.
At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.
“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.
While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.
“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT 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.
Congress passed a funding bill today that averts a looming government shutdown and, among other spending, includes FY 2019 funding for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The measure now heads to President Trump for his signature.
Under the spending measure, the overall federal education budget is increased based on current levels, with major programs like Title I and special education seeing program specific bumps. President Trump asked for more than $7 billion in overall budget cuts to ED in his budget request to Congress earlier this year. Congress’s education budget also largely ignores his request to funnel north of $1 billion to various school choice programs, but does include increased funding for charter school grants.
The bill increases funding levels for a grant aimed at creating safer schools. Despite efforts from Democrats, a prohibition on using certain funding under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) to arm teachers in schools did not make it into the bill. Texas has been at the center of the debate following questions from Texas school districts asking whether Title IV ESSA funding could be used to arm teachers. At a hearing on ESSA held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee yesterday, the issue again garnered significant attention. Education Secretary Betsy Devos has maintained that the law offers districts considerable flexibility and does not specifically prohibit spending on arming teachers.
President Trump said earlier today that he will sign the measure, which keeps the government running through December 7 and also funds the Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services Departments.
The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) met today in Austin. As ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann reported earlier this week, the board’s agenda included a controversial proposal to finalize rulemaking for an abbreviated educator preparation program for Trade and Industrial Workforce Training, Marketing, and Health Sciences certificates. Here is Kate’s recap of the board’s deliberations today:
The board adopted the proposal on a voice vote, but not without opposition from board members and stakeholders. ATPE was joined by teacher groups, administrator groups, and educator preparation programs offering opposition that together covered four primary areas of concern: (1) The proposal irresponsibly reduces the number of pre-service hours required of these specific educator candidates; (2) the proposal inappropriately adds the marketing and health science certificates; (3) the proposal allows entities other than approved educator preparation programs to provide some training; and (4) the proposal fails to prevent the certificate holders from seeking other certifications by merely passing an exam without required additional training.
Several board members also expressed concerns about the proposal. Members Suzanne McCall and Laurie Turner, who are teachers, and citizen member Tommy Coleman spoke to the importance of standards and consistency. They voted for an amendment to alter the proposal, but the amendment failed. Along with Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) Assistant Commissioner Rex Peebles, who serves as a non-voting member of the board, Turner and Susan Hull stressed that success in an individual trade is not the same as knowing how to teach that trade to young students. This is why abbreviated pre-service and even overall training hours are concerning; the lowered standard fails to support these candidates and their students with adequate training. While other members of the board argued the proposal was innovative, Coleman countered that as much as he likes innovation, he doesn’t want to see innovation at the expense of standards. The board ultimately passed the proposal on a voice vote. It now advances to the State Board of Education for final review.
Following up on its June announcement that districts and charters affected by Hurricane Harvey would be eligible for accountability waivers, TEA announced earlier this week that 109 independent school districts and open enrollment charters would qualify for such waivers. School districts where all campuses are eligible for a Harvey Provision or where 10% or more of the district is eligible for a Harvey Provision that receive B,C, D, or F ratings will be listed as “Not Rated” in the upcoming school ratings due out in August. The agency also announced that 1,188 campuses directly affected by Hurricane Harvey would qualify for a special evaluation in this year’s accountability ratings. A list of eligible campuses and districts can be found here.
Last week the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) reduced the expected rate of return on its pension fund from 8% to 7.25%.This change will make it more difficult for educators to obtain the cost of living increases they so desperately need. The onus is now on the legislature, which will convene in January of next year, to provide increased funding in order to ensure that the pension remains healthy and can meet the requirement to be fully funded in 30 years as the law says it must. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was on hand to provide testimony and comment to the media. Read more at the links below:
Earlier this week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) proposed legislation aimed at addressing teacher and principal shortages nationwide. The Preparing and Retaining Educators Act of 2018 aims to expand Teacher Quality Partnership Grants and require colleges and universities to report yearly on the number of licensed educators who graduate from their institutions, among other things. You can read the bill in its entirety here.
UPDATE: As we reported last week, President Trump signed the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act overhauling the primary laws that govern CTE. Read more about the bill in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlman.
After competing in a special election triggered by the early resignation of Sen. Carlos Uresti, Republican Pete Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego will face off in a runoff election later this year. Read more about it in this post from the Texas Tribune.
A NONPARTISAN VOTER EDUCATION PROJECT OF THE ASSOCIATION OF TEXAS PROFESSIONAL EDUCATORS