State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is sworn in as House speaker by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Looking on is Bonnen’s wife Kimberly. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. The Angleton Republican replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.
Whereas Straus was known as a mild-mannered leader, Bonnen has developed more of a combatant’s reputation in the House. He seemed to lean into that perception in his remarks. “I’ve never seen the use in sugarcoating things,” Bonnen said. “I am direct and I am a problem solver.”
Lawmakers praised his leadership ability in a series of speeches preceding the vote. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks, in which she said Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served.”
The new speaker pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting “caught up in things that don’t lead to real results.” He named public school funding as his top priority, in addition to school safety, combating human trafficking and reforming property tax collection. He even went so far as to replace the drinking cups in the House members’ lounge with new ones reading, “School finance reform: The time is now.”
“You will be reminded every day,” Bonnen said.
Bonnen’s election was hardly a surprise; he first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November, working behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. In his closing remarks, after asking for unity among House members, he gave a tearful tribute to his father, recalling some advice from the elder Bonnen, who passed away in 2017.
“Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it,” he said. “There’s a saying we have in Texas: As Texas goes, so goes the nation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott praised Bonnen’s “tenacity” and echoed some of his legislative priorities in a speech to the lower chamber. “You have the ability — and we will achieve it — that we are going to reform school finance in the state of Texas this session,” Abbott said. “And we are going to reform property taxes in Texas this session.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead. Patrick’s office later said the meeting was about border security.
Before a crowd of doting spouses and toddling grandchildren, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to a slate of new and returning state senators. Among them were state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who gave up his powerful committee chairmanship last week after an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation, and incoming state Sen. Angela Paxton, who was accompanied by her husband, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Nelson, performing a duty traditionally left to the lieutenant governor, joked that she was certainly the first grandmother of 11 to gavel in a session of the Texas Legislature. Soon after, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and the former mayor of the capital city, was elected president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the governorship after Patrick.
Other visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.
This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next five months, the two legislative bodies will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?
But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.
The festivities reached all corners of the building.
Huddled in the Capitol’s rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.
“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.
Elsewhere, children clutched their parents’ hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors.
A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the Governor’s Mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Abbott to address global warming. By early afternoon, when the swearing-in ceremonies were finished and lawmakers adjourned for the day, the fog had dissipated.
Texas’ decision to spend $33.3 million less on students with disabilities in 2012 will likely cost it millions in future federal funding after a Wednesday afternoon 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
According to the New Orleans-based court, the U.S. Department of Education was within its rights to try to withhold the same amount from Texas’ special education grants, since a 1997 federal statute prohibits states from reducing their funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. Texas had appealed the department’s decision, arguing that statute was vague and unenforceable.
A little more than a month after hearing both sides, and the day after a momentous midterm election, the three-judge panel effectively upheld the education department’s decision to financially penalize Texas in an opinion that called the state’s argument “unpersuasive.” The 13-page opinion questions Texas’ current system for funding special education, saying it could give the state reason to minimize the needs of kids with disabilities in order to save money.
The court also ruled that Texas must pay the federal government’s appeal costs. Texas has not publicly indicated whether it will try to appeal the ruling.
Since 1995, Texas has weighted funding for kids with disabilities, paying schools more to educate kids who have more severe disabilities or need more personalized attention in order to learn. It argued it spent $33.3 million less in 2012 because its special education programs successfully got students to “overcome their disabilities,” decreasing their need. School districts reported students in need of less expensive services that year and so the state allocated less money, lawyers argued.
The federal government’s argument is simple: States cannot decrease their funding from year to year, a provision that ensures they use the additional federal money to enhance services, instead of cutting their budgets.
Texas’ weighted funding system “poses the potential for future abuse” of that statute, the panel said in an opinion written by Judge Jerry Smith, who had expressed skepticism towards the state’s argument in October.
“Though Texas law requires the state to allocate funding based on the needs of disabled children, it is the state itself that assesses what those needs are,” Smith wrote. “Hence, the weighted-student model creates a perverse incentive for a state to escape its financial obligations merely by minimizing the special education needs of it students.”
At a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing last month, state education officials prepared lawmakers for a potential loss at the 5th Circuit, saying the penalty — which amounts to 3 percent of Texas’ annual federal special education grant — would have minimal impact on their special education programs.
Texas is separately working to overhaul its special education programs after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded earlier this year that the state had effectively denied services to thousands of students with disabilities who needed them. Officials estimate spending $3 billion more on kids with disabilities over the next three years, since more students are likely to be eligible for services.
Early voting for the 2018 general election began on Monday with Educator Voting Day. Educators were encouraged to the head to the polls and cast their ballots alongside friends, family, and colleagues. Many educators took to social media to share their “I voted” selfies. While there is no tally of how many educators have turned out at the polls thus far, counties across the state are seeing record numbers of voter turnout for early voting in a midterm election.
Educators especially must remember what’s at stake during this election with regard to school funding, teacher pay, retirement benefits, and a myriad of other issues. It is important to go into this election as informed as possible. For more information on candidates, where to find polling places in your county, and what’s needed in order to vote, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
With such a robust start to the early voting period, it’s only fitting that this week end with today’s Student Voting Day. As decreed by Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos last October:
The first Friday of the early voting period [is] Student Voting Day in Texas. This is a day when our entire community is called upon to urge and encourage all eligible students in Texas to make their voices heard by casting their ballots at ANY polling location in the county of their registration.
Early voting will continue through Nov. 2. For many voters, this weekend offers the only opportunity to early vote on the weekend. The general election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Whether you vote early or on election day, take time to learn about the candidates and build and print out your sample ballot before heading to the polls.
Much attention has been paid nationally to the competitive race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz and his challenger Congressman Beto O’Rourke, but Texans know that isn’t the only race at issue in this election. Contests for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other down ballot races will be decided in this election, and the outcomes of those contests on Nov. 6 could set the course for education policy in Texas for generations to come. As recent media reports show, educators and public education issues are taking center stage in a number of high-profile races, including statewide contests.
“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.” – as reported by the Texas Tribune.
In an article published this week by the Texas Tribune and reposted here on Teach The Vote, ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter explained that for quite some time the education community has been expected to lay down and take whatever the legislature gives them. But that tide may be starting to change. Educators have been becoming increasingly vocal and active in recent elections. A popular target of educators’ dissatisfaction with the status quo has been Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), and the Texas Tribune‘s article highlights the role educators have played in the bid by Democratic challenger Mike Collier to unseat him.
Another statewide race where public education has emerged as an issue, somewhat surprisingly, is the election for Texas Attorney General. There, Justin Nelson (D) is challenging the current AG Ken Paxton (R) and calling out the incumbent for eyebrow-raising stances he has taken on questions of political involvement by educators. Earlier this year when educators started activating behind another challenger vying to unseat Lt. Gov. Patrick in the Republican primary election, Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion questioning the propriety of certain actions being taken by school officials and pro-public education groups like ATPE to increase voter turnout among educators and even students who are eligible to vote. Paxton has used the AG’s office to continue to intimidate school district leaders out of promoting voting, and Nelson has responded by appealing directly to educators in the late stages of his campaign.
Read more about how educator involvement in this election has become a central focus in the AG’s race and how the education community is responding to the attempts to tamp down educators’ enthusiasm in this post by ATPE’s Exter. For public school employees who still have questions about what is and is not permissible political speech under state law, the Texas Educators Vote (TEV) coalition of which ATPE is a member also created this guide on Election Do’s and Dont’s for educators.
If you want to beat the crowds on Election Day, you’ll want to turn out at the polls during the “12 Days of Voting” happening now. But ATPE can point to numerous other reasons for educators to get out and vote regardless of the crowds or lines.
As has been stated many times before, the results of this election happening now are crucial to every Texan but to educators especially. During this early voting period, we’ve begun highlighting some of the reasons why educators should take this election to heart. It doesn’t take much to see that with state leaders campaigning on boasts about non-existent pay raises for teachers, with continuous increases in the cost of healthcare, and with local taxpayers bearing more and more of the burden for school funding, it doesn’t take much to see that it’s time for a change. Check out the latest installments of our 12 Days of Voting series at the links below, and keep watching for new posts in our blog series throughout the early voting period:
A brand new poll released by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune today shows that high numbers of Texas voters are enthusiastic about the general election happening now. As reported by the Texas Tribune today, 76 percent of the voters polled said they were “absolutely certain” they would be voting in the midterms. Both Republican and Democratic voters displayed such enthusiasm according to the new polls results. In most recent midterm elections, the actual percentage of registered voters who turned out at the polls in Texas has been only about 38 percent.
The poll also showed statewide officeholders holding considerable leads over their challengers among likely voters. Here are more excerpts from the Texas Tribune‘s reporting:
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.