Tag Archives: press

Does Gov. Abbott want to spend more on schools?

Election season is truly magical.

There’s just something about the seething mercury, the colorful proliferation of yard signs, and the specter of an existential showdown that awakens a – dare we call it – miraculous clarity in political combatants seeking votes.

When else can one witness folks who’ve spent the past 20 months fighting in bitter opposition to a particular set of constituents suddenly discover a deep love for the values they hold? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s no surprise that we’re now hearing support for improving the school finance system from unexpected corners. To a certain degree, it’s positive evidence that educators are being heard, and that the powers-that-be realize that there is more to gain by working with the education community than working to dismantle it.

That doesn’t mean that efforts to dismantle it behind the scenes will stop. In politics as in statistics, things tend to revert toward the mean. The governing happens long after the polls close. Nonetheless, election season opens a brief window of opportunity to use our seat at the table to advance the conversation.

Let’s apply this lens to the latest Dallas Morning News opinion column by Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas), with the promising headline, “Texas must boost school funding.” The key passage summarizing Gov. Abbott’s message is as follows:

“We need to pay our best teachers more, reward teachers and districts for student growth, prioritize spending in the classroom and reduce the burden of skyrocketing property taxes. I’ll add up front that I believe the state will have to provide more funding.”

That last line seems to offer an acknowledgment of what we in the education committee have known for some time, but which many in the Capitol have resisted mightily.

The problem, of course, is that many of the people who have opposed investing more state dollars in public education have falsely argued that the state is already increasing education spending year over year. They point to raw dollars going back to a low-water point in 2006 in order to obscure the reality of the deliberate and steady erosion of state support for local schools. Troublingly, Gov. Abbott takes this very tack in writing that “overall education spending in Texas has increased by more than 50 percent since 2006, and the state is contributing 29 percent more education funding per student in that time period.”

Let’s look at that claim.

The numbers in the latter half of that statement come from a Texas Education Agency (TEA) presentation before the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. The headline of the slide below seems to confirm the governor’s assertion, but look at the orange line indicating funding adjusted for inflation. It clearly shows that in terms of purchasing power, total per-student funding has risen only slightly since 2006, and is roughly equal to per-student funding in 2008. (Click the image to view a larger version.)

Source: Texas Education Agency

What’s perhaps more telling is the blue bar indicating how much funding the state has contributed. I’ve added the red brackets and red horizontal line to make the minute changes easier to see. You can tell that the raw dollar amount the state has contributed has actually decreased slightly since 2008 – and that’s not even adjusted for inflation.

To get to the inflation-adjusted number, we look at the Legislative Budget Board’s (LBB) Fiscal Size-up for the 2016-2017 biennium. In the chart below, we can see how spending from local property tax revenue (circled in green) has increased, while state aid (circled in blue) has changed little from 2008 levels. In total constant dollars adjusted for inflation (near the red arrow), we see that total funding has in fact decreased.

Source: Legislative Budget Board

The governor also wrongly suggests that funding is not making it into classrooms. According to the TEA’s 2016-17 Pocket Edition statistics, districts only spend an average of 3.1 percent on administrative costs.

To his credit, the governor advocates that increases in funding should go to teachers. No disagreement there. His idea is to implement a system in which top-performing teachers can earn significantly higher pay by teaching in areas facing the most need – similar to the “ACE” system tested in Dallas ISD. It’s a conversation that’s worth having, provided that educators are involved in the process and that the system doesn’t rely primarily on student test results to identify those “top-performing” teachers.

Governor Abbott also suggests moving away from a per-pupil funding model and, implicitly, toward a more outcomes-based approach. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is identifying which metrics with which to measure student performance and the threat of schools faced with the most significant socioeconomic challenges receiving even less support.

Finally, the governor writes that school finance reform must be accompanied by reforms in property taxes. It’s true the two are inextricably intertwined.

Increasing the state’s share of public education funding is the surest way to provide relief in property taxes. The governor proposes forcing taxing entities to lower their rates as appraisals go up, with the state presumably stepping in to make school districts whole. That’s a lot to presume, especially to do so in perpetuity.

Districts could hardly be blamed for wanting to see the legislature commit money up front before committing to voluntarily lower their tax rates – and it will take a sizable appropriation to shift the burden back toward the state in a way that will be meaningful to local property owners. School board members are politicians too, and they don’t want to be blamed for high taxes any more than their counterparts in Austin.

So what does it all mean? Does the governor’s column signify a dramatic reversal of his stance on public education, and school finance in particular? Does it mean he’s ready to stop attacking educators through anti-teacher payroll deduction bills and focus on improving teacher pay instead?

At a minimum, the governor is now talking about public education as an important priority, and that’s a good thing. The onus is on us to engage respectfully yet forcefully, and to shape the conversation, to the extent we can, by correcting inaccuracies and providing meaningful input. At best, we hope the governor will listen to educators and incorporate our feedback, even after the elections are over.

Of course, just as election season begins in the frantic furnace of summer, it ends in darkness on a winter night. When the legislature returns in January, we’ll all be faced with cold reality.

From The Texas Tribune: Analysis: School districts are getting report cards. They shouldn’t be the only ones.

Analysis: School districts are getting report cards. They shouldn’t be the only ones.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

A “Come and Take It” flag depicting an apple instead of the traditional cannon at the Save Our Schools rally at the Texas Capitol on March 12, 2011. Photo by Bob Daemmrich.

It’s time to start grading the papers of the people elected to run the state of Texas, to translate voters’ thoughts and feelings about the way things are going into the job reviews that will be delivered in this year’s general election.

It’s the seasonal cycle of this electoral democracy. We elect them. They do stuff. We decide whether to keep or replace them.

Elected officials adore this sort of judgement when it’s directed at others.

Later today, for instance, the state will issue its inaugural set of A-F grades for more than 1,000 public school districts. That has agitated a lot of Texas educators; when the grades are out, odds are good that it will agitate — in ways both negative and positive — parents, business people and taxpayers. If the politicos are lucky, it will divert angst over public education in Texas away from the folks who’ll be on the November ballot.

Accountability is an admirable thing in politics. It can show citizens where responsibility lies, the better to direct their blame and, more to the point, where to repair or replace policies that don’t work.

It can also diffuse responsibility. When today’s school grades come out, keep an eye on who’s taking the heat and who’s getting the credit. Ask yourself, as it unrolls, whether the right people are getting the right kind of attention.

This is supposed to be a way for the government ministers in Austin and the public across the state to see what results they’re getting for their money. It’s controversial, to say the least. Educators contend the grading system is both too general — not taking the complexity of any given school district into account — and too reliant on standardized tests and other inappropriate yardsticks that don’t give accurate readings of educational progress. Many are not crazy about grades of any kind, but they’re irked that these grades, in their view, will give voters and policymakers false readings about school districts’ performance.

But for a Legislature that can’t muster a consensus for what public schools should do and what they should cost, it’s a way to outsource the blame from the pink building to local “educrats.”

It’s a pre-election test of whether voters trust politicians more than teachers.

Education isn’t the only forum for this sort of deflection. The telling sign is when the people at the top try to separate themselves from the people who work for them, a strategy that allows them to make policy and take credit for passing laws while also blaming someone else when the execution of those instructions falls short.

Maybe the blame should crawl up the management ladder; they’d rather you didn’t make the connection.

Rats, mold and other filth in state buildings? The budgeteers at the Capitol have been skimping on building maintenance and upkeep for years. Multi-billion-dollar contracting troubles at the Health and Human Services Commission? That sort of thing happens if you put all those disparate agencies into one pot and then wander off, forgetting the second part of the business maxim: “Put all your eggs in one basket — and then watch that basket very carefully.”

A federal “zero tolerance” immigration policy that splits adults and children at the border and then cannot reconnect them — whether they’re staying here or being sent home? That is, in fact, a bureaucratic nightmare. But it’s a product of bad design, of putting a policy in place before figuring out how it’s going to work. The blame for that kind of empty-headed governance belongs at or near the top of the organization chart. Roughly 500 of those kids are still unattached to the adults with whom they entered the country. That terrible foul-up took place at the border, but the credit and blame really belong to the high officials who got things rolling.

This is going to be a hard day for some school superintendents and school boards and a great day for others. In both situations, some of them deserve it. Some of them don’t. Examine the results. Make your own judgements. And when you pass out cheers and jeers, think of the people who are responsible for education policy who aren’t on today’s report cards.

They’ll be on your election ballot a few weeks from now.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/08/15/analysis-texas-school-report-card-election-2018/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Republican Pete Flores, Democrat Pete Gallego set for runoff for Uresti seat

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
July 31, 2018

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallegos (left), a Democrat, and Republican Peter Flores are running for state Senate District 19. Photo by Bob Daemmrich: Gallego/Campaign website

Republican Pete Flores, Democrat Pete Gallego set for runoff for Uresti seat” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Republican Pete Flores and Democrat Pete Gallego are headed to a runoff in the special election to replace convicted former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Flores led Gallego by 5 percentage points, 34 percent to 29 percent, according to unofficial returns. At 24 percent, state Rep. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio came in third in the eight-way race, and he conceded in a statement. The five other candidates were in single digits, including Uresti’s brother, outgoing state Rep. Tomas Uresti of San Antonio.

The first-place finish by Flores, who unsuccessfully challenged Carlos Uresti in 2016, is a boon to Republicans in the Democratic-leaning district. In the home stretch of the race, Flores benefited from a raft of endorsements from Texas’ top elected officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Their heft will continue to be tested in a district considered friendly to Democrats, if not solidly in their column. After taking congratulatory calls from Abbott and Patrick, Flores issued a statement insisting a second-round victory was within reach.

“I know we can win this runoff,” Flores said. “We will win this runoff. The real work begins tomorrow.”

Rallying supporters in San Antonio, Gallego promised his campaign would not get outworked in the yet-to-be-scheduled overtime round. “I know, in the final analysis, we win,” he said.

The special election was triggered in June, when Carlos Uresti resigned after being found guilty of 11 felonies, including securities fraud and money laundering, tied to his work with a now-defunct oilfield services company. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison days after he stepped down.

Much of the action in the race centered on Gutierrez and Gallego, a former congressman and longtime state House member from West Texas. Gutierrez went after Gallego over questions about whether he lives in the district, among other things, while Gallego highlighted Gutierrez’s history of tax problems.

Flores, a former Texas game warden, was the best-known of three Republicans on the ballot Tuesday. He received 40 percent of the vote against Carlos Uresti two years ago in SD-19, which encompasses a 17-county area that starts on San Antonio’s East Side and sprawls hundreds of miles west.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/07/31/sd-19-special-election-results/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has “no plans” to debate Democratic opponent Mike Collier

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
July 23, 2018

Photos of Mike Collier and Dan Patrick from the Texas Tribune.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has “no plans” to debate Democratic opponent Mike Collier” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick does not intend to debate his Democratic challenger, Mike Collier, before Election Day, according to Patrick’s campaign.

“It’s no secret Lt. Governor Patrick relishes debates, but since his opponent shows no sign of grasping even the most basic rudiments of state government, our campaign has no plans to debate him,” Patrick strategist Allen Blakemore said in a statement to the Tribune. “There isn’t anyone in the Lone Star State who isn’t absolutely clear about where Dan Patrick stands on the issues. He told us what he was going to do, then he did it. That’s why Dan Patrick has the overwhelming support of the conservative majority in Texas.”

Collier has not formally challenged Patrick to any debates but has needled him on Twitter over the topic, suggesting the incumbent will not spar with him because he does not want to discuss his record.

“The Lt. Governor is rejecting debates before invitations are even sent out by media,” Collier said in a statement. “As I assumed he would, he’s dodging and refusing to answer for his record.”

“If the Lt. Governor ‘relishes debates’ then I see no reason why we shouldn’t hold several all across the great state of Texas,” Collier added.

Patrick’s snub of Collier comes as debate drama heats up in two other statewide races. In recent weeks, Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, have both accepted debate invitations — though not to the same event. At the same time, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke have gone back and forth over when to start coordinating debates, with O’Rourke pushing for six meetings and Cruz expressing openness to debating but not committing to any specifics yet.

Patrick’s campaign was similarly dismissive about debating his primary challenger, Scott Milder, who the lieutenant governor easily defeated. After Milder issued a debate challenge to Patrick in January, Blakemore called it the “unmistakable gasps of an attention starved candidate” and similarly insisted Patrick’s issue positions are widely known. Milder is now backing Collier.

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/07/23/lt-gov-dan-patrick-no-plans-debate-democratic-opponent-mike-collier/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

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

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


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

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

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

 


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

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

 


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

 


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

 


 

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

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

 


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

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

by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

May 7, 2018

istock.com

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

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

Their claims did not make it very far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When do the rules apply to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a good place to be an employee”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


 

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

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


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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

 


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

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

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

 


 

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

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Texas AG Ken Paxton ramps up fight against schools’ “illegal electioneering”

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera.

The first Valentine’s Day note that Kevin Dyes received from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month was a “cease-and-desist” letter. The next two were open records requests.

All three seemed aimed at warning Dyes — the superintendent of Holliday ISD, a North Texas school district that enrolls just over 1,000 students, employs just over 100 staff, and occupies just under 300 square miles — to stop his “illegal electioneering.”

That was not what Dyes thought he’d been up to in the months leading up to Texas’ March 6 primary election.

“All I was trying to do in any of that — on Twitter, or in communications with my staff or the public — was to advocate for public education,” he said.

Dyes suspects that it was his Twitter presence, where he often retweets educators pledging to “#blockvote” in favor of pro-public education candidates, and that of the district, that drew Paxton’s attention.

Dyes was one of more than a dozen administrators whose districts were hit last month with open records requests from the Texas Attorney General’s Office seeking district communications about Texas primaries, voting and certain candidates and races, documents obtained by The Texas Tribune in a records request show.

And he was one of a smaller group of educators whose district also received a cease-and-desist letter from Paxton, the state’s top lawyer. After sending three letters last month, Paxton’s office sent two more Friday morning — to Elgin ISD and Galena Park ISD, both districts that had received records requests — asking administrators to stop using taxpayer money to advocate for political candidates.

“School districts violate the Texas Election and Education codes when they exhort faculty or others to vote for a particular person or ballot measure,” Paxton said in a statement Friday. “Spending taxpayer dollars on advocating for or against political candidates is unacceptable.”

The letters are just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the role Texas public schools play in elections. Long-standing civic engagement initiatives aimed at getting more Texas teachers out to vote have come under fresh attack this election cycle, with conservative groups and Paxton himself warning that some efforts constitute “illegal electioneering.” A January ruling from his office advised districts that busing teachers and voting-age students to polling places is illegal unless such trips serve an “educational purpose.”

The records requests probe school administrators’ words and actions in an effort to identify illegal activity committed on the taxpayers’ dime. Public school employees can register students to vote and promote civic engagement, but they’re not allowed to use public money or other resources to support particular political candidates or parties.

The AG’s office did not return requests for comment on the records requests themselves, but has said several times it’s investigating complaints of election law violations and will continue to do so. But educators and advocates see a political motivation behind the probes, and the other missives that preceded them.

“To me it’s voter suppression — an attempt to bully us,” Troy Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education and an administrator in Splendora ISD, which did not receive an AG request last month. “I’ve never seen anything like this before… They’re trying to shut us up.”

But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who asked Paxton in December to weigh in on whether schools could bus employees to the polls, said claims that Paxton’s work is politically motivated are “an emotional response not based in reality.”

“When I see political activity not just creeping into schools but galloping into schools, you just gotta pull the reins and stop it,” Bettencourt said, adding that Paxton is merely working to ensure schools “educate the kids, not get into politics.”

Paxton’s office’s recent inquiries went to school districts of all sizes all across the state. Many requests were broad, asking for communications among top school officials that included words like “vote,” “voting,” “Texas Legislature” and “primary.” The AG’s office also sought campaign emails and information about “get out the vote efforts.”

While Paxton’s office said it’s targeting suspected lawbreakers, educators and advocates have pointed out that many were sent to the sites of tight Republican primary races, including two districts — Frisco ISD and Allen ISD — that fall into Senate District 8, where Paxton’s wife Angela Paxton recently won an expensive, hard-fought Republican primary against Phillip Huffines.

Granbury ISD — whose superintendent, Jim Largent, had the backing of many in the education community in his unsuccessful challenge against state Rep. Mike Lang — received three separate requests from the AG. Lang, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had the support of Empower Texans.

The AG’s office asked Granbury ISD for a copy of an email from Largent to district staff announcing his campaign and another from the superintendent containing the words “Their goal is to demonize and destroy public education and it is working.”

“One could probably connect the dots and come up with some theories about what they were doing,” Largent said in an interview this week.

Many requests also honed in on another Republican race: the face-off between sitting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and challenger Scott Milder, a public education advocate backed by many in the education community. Milder ultimately lost to Patrick by more than 50 percentage points.

Milder said he sent campaign emails to about 100,000 educators, and those messages appeared in response to several of the AG’s requests. A disclaimer at the top of one Milder email advises recipients that “forwarding this email would be considered a violation so please do not forward from district email or device,” but merely receiving the email at a district address “is not a violation of any law.”

Some district administrators took care to pass the email along from their personal email addresses, records show. But others shared it from their official district addresses.

Joe Coleman, a principal in Galena Park ISD, was cited for doing just that in Paxton’s second round of cease-and-desist letters Friday.

“I agree that we need to support Scott Milder in his quest to become the Texas Lieutenant Governor,” Coleman wrote, passing along Milder’s email. “Remember, to ask for Republican Ballott, you can vote in Texas in the primaries for a Republican or Democrat. Let’s support Scott Milder. Please tell all of your friends and family this is critical.”

Coleman wrote back the next day: “I probably broke some type of rule with this email, probably not good judgement. I have not had a complaint but just letting you know in case you get one. Joe.”

Milder said it was “thoroughly disappointing” that Paxton would go to such lengths to “intimidate educators” out of voting.

“We know that the AG runs in the same circle as the lieutenant governor and they’re going to help each other out with their re-election campaigns,” Milder said. “The best way for the AG to get involved to help the lieutenant governor and the Empower Texans candidates is to intimidate regular Texans, rational Texans from voting. And it’s working.”

Some advocates allege that the process behind the AG’s office sending the requests was political as well.

Before the AG’s office began submitting records requests, school districts had already received similar inquiries from conservative groups, including the aggressive and influential Empower Texans. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a voting-focused advocacy group, pledged this week to “shine a light on any coordination” between the groups. Empower Texans did not return a request for comment on this story.

Dyes said the coordination is obvious. In October, his district signed on to a “culture of voting” resolution. Dyes said his office turned the signed resolution over to Empower Texans when that group submitted a records request, but that the document wasn’t posted anywhere online.

Then, a copy of the signed resolution appeared in the cease-and-desist letter Paxton’s office sent to Holliday ISD last month.

“They must be working together,” Dyes said. “Evidently somebody in Empower Texans gave them that resolution… because it’s not available anywhere else.”

Reynolds, the education advocate, agreed.

“I don’t believe that’s an accident at all. I think there’s an agenda behind it,” he said. “It’s so they can maintain the power they have in the Legislature and push vouchers. No one’s ever had a problem with public sector employees activating before.”

Some educators suspect that the new scrutiny on their election-related activities is motivated not by a concern for the law, but a concern that education-backed candidates could unseat many of the Legislature’s most conservative members. After lawmakers failed to deliver the school finance overhaul many sought during last year’s legislative sessions, educators pledged to come out to the polls in force this election cycle.

Educational advocates said those numbers had begun to scare those in power  — although last week’s primary results suggest educators’ numbers were not as high as some anticipated.

“I think it’s absolutely politically motivated,” said Laura Yeager, whose educational engagement group’s years-old voting resolution has been attacked for the first time this election cycle as suspicious and illegal. “It’s just so disappointing. Really, they should be encouraging people to vote…. This is not what our country is supposed to be about.”

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

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/texas-ken-paxton-illegal-electioneering-school-districts/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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