Tag Archives: retirement

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.

 


House committee discusses teacher pensions, health care

The House Committee on Pensions met Thursday morning in Dallas to discuss items listed under the committee’s interim charges, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas.

The committee met in the chambers of the Dallas City Council, which oversees pensions for the city’s police and firefighters that have come under scrutiny as of late. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was the first witness to testify, thanking the committee for legislation dealing with issues pertaining to Dallas police and firefighter pensions and updating members on changes the city has put in place since the legislation’s passage.

House Pensions Committee meeting May 10, 2018 in Dallas.

Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified for TRS, laying out the basics of the $152 billion trust fund that serves 1.5 million active and retired members. The fund earned a return of 12.6 percent for fiscal year (FY) 2017, under an assumed rate of return of 8 percent. The fund carries $35.5 billion of unfunded liability and is 80.5 percent funded with an amortization period of 32.2 years, which Guthrie noted will change if the assumed rate of return is lowered. TRS manages two major healthcare programs: TRS-ActiveCare for active teachers and TRS-Care for retirees. Guthrie testified that TRS undertook a study in 2013 looking at the fund’s defined benefit structure, and will be producing an updated study this fall.

Turning to health care, Guthrie described TRS-Care as a “pay as you go plan.” The state’s contribution to the plan is 1.25 percent of active employee payroll, while school districts contribute .75 of active employee payroll and active employees contribute .65 percent of their paycheck. Retirees contribute to the plan through premiums. The plan faced a $1 billion projected budget shortfall heading into the last legislative session, and lawmakers of the 85th Texas Legislature put $700 million into the system in order to keep the fund from folding. While the infusion was able to prevent retirees from losing their health care, it wasn’t enough to avoid increases in costs and reductions in benefits.

Even with the changes, which included increasing premiums, the fund faces a $400-600 shortfall heading into the next biennium and ongoing shortfalls moving forward. Guthrie attributed the increase to legislation accompanying the added funding that directed the agency to ease cost increases. Guthrie indicated the primary problem is with the fundamental design of the funding formula, noting that healthcare costs are increasing far more quickly than revenue received from active employee payroll, which is the basis for the funding formula.

The largest cost increases are associated with plans that include coverage for dependents, and TRS initially offered retirees the option of permanently leaving TRS-Care for an insurance plan on the private market. Chairman Dan Flynn (R-Canton), members of the committee and legislators representing the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex pressed Guthrie to find a way to protect benefits, in particular prescription drug costs. Guthrie testified that the agency is studying all possible avenues, but the fund design presents the largest challenge.

Finally, Guthrie explained TRS-ActiveCare as a group insurance program for small to midsize school districts that would be otherwise unable to provide their own insurance programs. The state provides $75 per member, per month through the school finance formulas, districts contribute a minimum of $150 per month, and individual members are responsible for the remainder. Minimum state and district contribution levels have not changed since the plan’s inception in 2002, and employees’ share of the premiums has increased to 60 percent from 30 percent over the last 14 years. Because of rising healthcare costs, TRS board members voted at their most recent meeting to raise premiums for individual members between five and nine percent, or seven percent on average.

Because TRS-ActiveCare is funded through the school finance formulas, Guthrie suggested that any changes to TRS-ActiveCare would best be addressed as part of lawmakers’ broader efforts to reform the school finance system.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) sharply questioned Guthrie over the board’s anticipated July vote to lower the fund’s assumed rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8.0 percent, despite returning 12.6 percent for FY 2017. This would cost an additional $1.2 billion on top of the $400-600 extra needed for TRS-Care, for a total ask of $1.6 billion on top of the $3 billion in base funding already designated for TRS. Guthrie testified that the agency’s fiduciary responsibility requires staff to provide an accurate estimate of what the fund is anticipated to produce.

A representative from Arlington ISD asked the board to consider allowing school districts with more than 1,000 employees to opt out of TRS-ActiveCare and provide their own insurance programs, pointing out that family healthcare costs under the TRS-ActiveCare high-deductible plan could account for more than a third of a first-year teacher’s annual salary. Chairman Huberty noted that such an arrangement could adversely impact TRS funding by reducing the broader pool of active TRS members.

Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) Executive Director Tim Lee thanked the Texas Legislature for making the minimum changes necessary to keep TRS-Care from failing entirely. Lee suggested that 14 years may have been too long to go without increasing premiums, and pointed to the Employee Retirement System (ERS) as an appropriate benchmark for TRS. Going forward, Lee testified the only long-term solution is pre-funding the program, which would be even more costly than migrating TRS members to ERS. Lee indicated that retirees will be unable to countenance further cost increases, and noted that 36,400 people have decided to leave TRS-Care for the individual market.

Staff from the Pension Review Board (PRB) testified regarding the agency’s efforts to improve defined benefit programs. The board has ordered staff to develop an online dashboard of Texas public pension data, to study potential legislative recommendations regarding how systems whose funding is set by legislative statute can respond to changes in market systems, to study how systems of scale could be utilized to improve groups of smaller plans, and to conduct intensive actuarial reviews of systems with risk that threaten their long-term stability. PRB staff noted that ERS has already lowered its estimated rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8 percent, which TRS is currently contemplating.

The committee then opened the table to public testimony, and dozens of retired teachers voiced their concerns regarding healthcare and the defined benefit structure of the TRS pension program. Many shared heartbreaking stories of seeing fixed incomes virtually consumed by skyrocketing premiums even before paying the increased costs for services and medication. Retirees also expressed concerns regarding changes to the assumed rate of return.

 

Runoff Spotlight – Get to know the candidates in House District 4

When it comes to public education, the Texas Legislature has incredible power to decide how our students are educated, how our schools are funded, and how our educators are treated. From per-pupil funding to student testing to teacher pay and benefits, these issues and more will be at the forefront of the 2019 legislative session, making the 2018 election cycle extremely critical. Most of the legislators who will make up the ranks of the 86th legislature next January were decided on March 6 when Texas held its primary elections, and the bulk of the rest are looking toward competitive races in November. For the residents of a few key districts, however, the decision on who will represent them next session will be made on May 22, 2018, which is the date of the primary runoff election.

ATPE is taking a closer look at some of the runoffs that will be decided in May, where the candidates squaring off against each other have identified public education as a key campaign issue. Today, we’re analyzing the Republican primary runoff for House District (HD) 4. To learn more about the candidates vying for this seat, click on the candidate’s name and you will be taken to that candidate’s full profile on Teach the Vote.

The Candidates: Keith Bell (R) vs Stuart Spitzer (R)

HD 4 covers all of Kaufman and most of Henderson counties. The incumbent Rep. Lance Gooden (R) is running for a U.S. congressional seat, creating an open seat.

Candidate Keith Bell is a business owner and rancher who has served on the Forney ISD school board for 20 years. Responding to the ATPE Candidate Survey, Bell has said enhancing school funding is his biggest priority, should he get elected. He has been endorsed by the pro-public education groups Texas Parent PAC and Texans for Public Education.

Candidate Stuart Spitzer represented HD 4 during the 84th legislative session before losing his seat to Gooden. While he did not respond to this year’s ATPE Candidate Survey, Dr. Spitzer stated in response to the 2014 ATPE candidate survey that he believes TRS is a part of the “nanny” state and called 401(k) style investment of teacher retirement dollars a “liberty issue,” adopting language  commonly used by  those who support dismantling the TRS defined benefit pension system. Spitzer has been endorsed by the Texas Home School Coalition, a pro-voucher organization, and by Empower Texans/Texans For Fiscal Responsibility, which supports limiting state spending on public education; eliminating educators’ right to use dues deduction; private school vouchers; and privatizing the management of existing public schools.

For additional information on this race or the primary runoff elections in general, contact ATPE Government Relations at government@atpe.org.

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: April 6, 2018

Here’s a wrap-up of your education news from ATPE:


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several announcements this week regarding the draft plan to address special education in Texas. In addition to accepting public comments on the latest version of the draft plan, TEA has scheduled two hearings where members of the public are invited to express their input. Information on the two meetings is as follows:

  • Thursday, April 12, at ESC Region 1 – 1900 West Schunior, Edinburg, Tx.
  • Monday, April 16, at ESC Region 10 – 400 East Spring Valley Road, Richardson, TX.

Both meetings will begin at 1 pm, and those wishing to share feedback are asked to register onsite beginning at 12:30 pm (registration will end when the meeting begins). Registered participants will be called in the order they are registered and will be limited to three minutes. The hearing will end when all have testified or at 3 pm, whichever comes first. Those unable to attend either hearing can submit their written comments by email at TexasSPED@TEA.texas.gov by April 18 at noon.

To learn more about the two public hearings and the chance to submit written testimony, view TEA’s full press release, visit TEA’s special education webpage, and read ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’s post from earlier this week.

 


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath sent a letter to school administrators today regarding three recent changes to how the spring 2018 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams will be administered. The three changes involve offering medical exemptions for qualifying students, allowing for the transcribing of student responses that are recorded in the test booklet onto a blank answer document, and relaxing the rules around classroom displays. His letter indicates these moves are being made in response to district feedback and in an effort to “do all I can to help make this a positive experience and reduce stress for students and school district and charter school personnel.” Read Commissioner Morath’s full letter to learn more.

 


It was a busy Wednesday at the Capitol this week, and your ATPE Governmental Relations team was there to cover all the action. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter covered the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, where pension and healthcare issues were the topic of discussion. That meeting included conversations about the factors affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. For more information on how the hearing unfolded, read Exter’s recap of the meeting or watch an archived webcast. You can find ATPE’s testimony, and other public testimony, at the end of the recording.

 


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week in Austin for a discussion on property taxes and their role in the school finance system. A smaller working group of commission members met Wednesday to discuss outcomes. The highlight of Wednesday’s meeting was former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Luce, who suggested it’s time to do “more with more, not more with less” when it comes to funding public schools in Texas. This was particularly compelling advice from Luce, considering he was a key player in the state’s last major school finance reform – all the way back in 1984.

All 13 members of the commission met Thursday to hear several panels discuss property taxes. While there was general agreement on the burden imposed by property taxes, the debate between some members over how to calculate the state’s share of public education spending continued anew. Importantly, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) requested the state prepare a list of school revenue sources that have been cut over the last 10 years. You can read a full recap of Wednesday’s working group meeting by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here, and a rundown of Thursday’s full commission meeting here.

 


The Senate Education Committee rounded out a busy Wednesday in Austin with a hearing to discuss interim charges related to virtual schools, “high quality education opportunities,” and the federal E-rate program. ATPE offered written testimony to the committee concerning the virtual education charge, cautioning against moves to further expand the Texas Virtual School Network without carefully considering the status of virtual schools’ performance. Recent research highlights concerns regarding these schools nationwide and a look at Texas accountability measures fail to paint a drastically different picture in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was at the hearing and offers more on the discussion here.

 


 

Senate State Affairs Committee discusses future of TRS pension fund

The Senate State Affairs Committee met in Austin this week to discuss interim charges about the health of various state and municipal pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. The committee heard invited testimony from the staff and members of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), as well as the heads of several pension systems, including TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie.

Some of the more general discussion included senators, including Sen. Charles Schwertner in particular, making the case that defined benefit pension systems are somehow inherently flawed and should be scrapped and replaced with 401(k)-style defined contribution systems. This now tired pitch, whose real aim is to line the pockets of private money managers, has been soundly refuted on many fronts, particularly as it applies to TRS. First 401(k)s have proven to be not so wonderful retirement vehicles. For the average American population which relies on them for the bulk of their retirement planning, these investment vehicles have proven to be a tool that generally leads to a woefully underfunded retirement account that is highly sensitive to market volatility and has left many in bad positions with regard to their retirement security. Second, 401(k)s were never meant to stand alone. They were really meant to be a supplement to a more traditional pension system, but even as that has gone by the wayside for many, they are still intended to be on top of Social Security benefits. However, most Texas educators will not receive full Social Security benefits because neither the educator nor the state is paying into Social Security on their behalf. This leads to the final falsehood promulgated by retirement privatizers, that defined benefit pension plans simply cost too much. The truth is Texas has been getting by on the cheap for decades.

Retirement experts will tell you that you should be putting away around 25 percent of your pre-retirement income for use in retirement. Half of that amount, 12.5 percent, is normally covered by contributions to Social Security. Any reasonably good private employer will put up a match of 4 percent, or better, toward an employee’s individual retirement account, in addition to paying the required 6.25 percent employer’s share of Social Security. This means that these private employers are on the hook for a little more than a 10 percent toward their employee’s retirement. Likewise, their employees must also put the required 6.25 percent into Social Security and typically an additional 4 percent or more into their own retirement accounts to access the employer’s match. For years the state of Texas only contributed 6 percent, the constitutional minimum, into the TRS pension system. Thanks in large part to the work of ATPE the state bumped that contribution up to 6.8 percent a few sessions ago. However, at only 0.55 percent above what the state would otherwise have to pay into Social Security, Texas still contributes less than half of what the next lowest state not paying into Social Security pays towards it educators’ retirements. Most Texas teachers are themselves contributing 7.7 percent, or just 1.45 percent above what they would otherwise be paying toward Social Security, into their pension system. When you add in the 1.5 percent districts are contributing into the TRS pension plan, the total contribution comes to 16 percent. At 16 percent, contributions into TRS are substantially less than what even average employers and employees are contributing toward retirement, and despite being many educators only source of retirement income, that is only 64 percent of what experts recommend putting away. So far from being “too expensive” as some lawmakers insist, the TRS pension system has been an exceedingly good deal for the state of Texas.

This discussion is of particular importance at this moment because while TRS has been reasonably healthy for a long time and has been on track to be actuarially sound (very healthy) within the next five years, those statistics have been based on TRS’s current assumed rate of return of 8 percent. Based on the advice of the external actuarial firm with which TRS contracts, the TRS board is considering lowering that assumed rate of return. In order to maintain the positive trajectory of the fund, legislators will need to increase the contribution rate going into the fund. Per the discussion above, these increased contributions are long overdue, and had lawmakers increased them previously, the fund would be in a much better place today. Additionally, many retirees wouldn’t have gone more than a decade without a cost of living adjustment. If TRS lowers its assumed rate of return, however, the decision to increase contributions will no longer be a luxury; it will be an imperative. ATPE is advocating for this process to take place gradually over a number of years so that the increased contributions, corresponding to a gradually decreased assumed rate of return on investments, won’t be a shock the system for either the state or educators who will both share the burden of increased contributions.

Whether a gradual approach is taken or a more “one and done” approach is used, as is being advocated by TRS, the important thing is that educators stay fully engaged with their legislators, and in choosing their legislators this election year, so that the health of the pension fund is secured.

Making better use of the state’s rainy day fund when it’s not raining

The Senate Finance Committee met today to take up a number of Senate interim charges. Among them, the committee took up the charge to examine options to increase investment earnings of the Economic Stabilization Fund in a manner that minimizes overall risk to the fund balance and to evaluate how the Economic Stabilization Fund constitutional limit is calculated; considering alternative methods to calculate the limit, and alternative uses for funds above the limit.

the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, often referred to as the state’s rainy day fund, is a mechanism that diverts a part of the severance taxes the state collects on oil and gas production and sets those monies aside to fill budget shortfalls resulting from temporary economic downturns. The fund, which has been used many times since its inception, has in recent years grown to approximately $11 billion, larger than at anytime in its history.

During the last session lawmakers facing stiff budget constraints began to discuss how they could better utilize the rainy day fund, other than continuing to stuff cash into the state’s proverbial mattress. One idea floated by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar was to take a portion of the fund and invest it as an endowment such that the investment returns could be used to help pay for state priorities, like shoring up the state’s pension funds. Legislators were not comfortable acting on that idea without more time to vet it.

In today’s hearing Hegar reintroduced the idea of investing the whole of the rainy day fund in very liquid assets that would allow for a return that roughly matches the inflation rate and investing a portion of the fund, in excess of what legislators think they might need quick access to, in less liquid assets that would generate a higher return. The Comptroller’s office predicts that an investment of $3 billion, with additional biennial investments over a certain threshold, would within 10 years accumulate to a fund that generates $1 billion a year in usable revenue. In 20 years, that projection jumps to more than $2 billion a year. The idea was received fairly favorably.

One of the things the state has used the rainy day fund for in recent years is to justify credit rating firms’ assignment of a AAA (the highest) credit rating to the state. Having a AAA rating allows the state and school districts through the Permanent School Fund (PSF) bond guarantee program to pay the lowest possible rate on bond debt. It was pointed out in the hearing however, that the rainy day fund is only one factor those firms look at when assigning a score. Another, more heavily weighed factor is the health/unfunded liabilities of a state’s pension funds. Both TRS and ERS need improvement to ensure the state is able to keep its current rating. A downgraded rating could cost the state billions in additional interest over the life of the state’s and school dostricts’ many bonds.

Why March 6 Matters: Healthcare

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at healthcare for active and retired educators.


In our first post of this series we examined teacher pay, which lags behind the national average. While paychecks are a major concern, Texas also spends less than any other state on employee benefits, funding them only at about $967 per pupil, which includes the cost of health insurance. In fact, Texas spends less than our neighboring states Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are both under the national average as well but are spending $1,505 and $1,905 per pupil respectively, despite having significantly less wealth per capita than Texas (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF, released May 2016).

The ever-increasing amount of money being taken out of educators’ paychecks for healthcare is primarily due to the fact that state funding and state-mandated district funding for health insurance, including the TRS-ActiveCare plan used by many districts for their employees, has remained unchanged since the program first began some 17 years ago.

When the Legislature first decided to subsidize teacher health insurance premiums back in 2001, the $225 contribution for each employee (made up of $75 from the state and $150 from the school district) was in line with what private employers were paying toward healthcare for their employees. Since that time, health insurance inflation generally has been between eight and ten percent per year, and educator premiums have increased more than 250 percent. Also during that time frame, many private employers have increased what they pay toward employee health insurance premiums, but Texas’s funding of the healthcare program for public school employees has fallen way behind.

Legislative inaction has now led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial, and for many educators, it amounts to a pay cut year after year. Back In November 2014, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. It outlined numerous options for lawmakers to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Despite those recommendations, the legislature has failed to address exploding healthcare costs for active employees.

One reason the legislature has neglected to address healthcare costs for active employees, including during the most recent 2017 legislative sessions, is the sad fact that the state’s health insurance program for retired educators, TRS-Care, is in even worse shape. After years of inadequately funding retirees’ health insurance, the legislature has now faced back-to-back sessions in which the program was at risk of running out of money and collapsing in on itself —a prospect that would leave hundreds of thousands of retired educators with no health insurance, dramatically limiting their access to healthcare when they most need it.

Back in 2015, the 84th Texas legislature opted not to address the funding formulas that determine how our state pays for TRS-Care. Instead, they made a $700 million supplemental appropriation to keep TRS-Care afloat for one more budget cycle.

By the time the 85th legislature arrived in Austin in January 2017, the TRS-Care shortfall had ballooned to $1.2 billion. Again, lawmakers were unwilling to address the underlying funding formulas, and they similarly declined to make even a one-time appropriation to cover the full cost. Instead, the Senate under the guidance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, who chaired the Senate Committee on State Affairs that oversees TRS, pushed forward a plan that cut the cost of TRS-Care to the state by shifting more costs to retirees.

It’s worth nothing that retired educators have not seen a cost of living adjustment to increase their pensions for over a decade, during which time they’ve also had to endure dramatic reductions in their healthcare benefits as a result of restructuring of the health insurance plan. That combination of dwindling purchasing power due to the effects of inflation on stagnant pension payments and crushing new healthcare costs caused such an outcry from retired educators that by the time legislators came back to Austin in the summer of 2017 for a special session, they felt compelled to put a modest amount of one-time extra dollars into the system to temporarily soften the blow of the impending changes to TRS-Care. However, those additional one-time funds were only a short-term band-aid on a much larger problem that remains.

Even with the draconian measures taken by the 85th legislature, resulting in significant rate hikes for many plan participants, TRS-Care is projected still to have a funding shortfall that will have to be addressed by the 86th legislature. In other words, lawmakers must act in 2019 if TRS-Care is to continue to exist for retired educators

Finding real solutions to the crisis of access to affordable healthcare for the state’s active and retired educators is a complex and expensive task. It cannot and will not be achieved by legislators whose singular priority is creating the appearance of cutting state spending without solving the problems faced by our state’s more than 1 million active and retired school employees. The elections that will determine who occupies those critical legislative seats and will have the power to decide the future of healthcare funding for educators are happening right now. Active and retired public school employees who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating our 5.4 million young Texans have the power to shape the outcome of this battle simply by voting in the 2018 primaries.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on school finance and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting in the primary and making informed choices at the polls. Keep in mind that it is illegal to use school district resources to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, but there is no prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Why March 6 Matters: Retirement

Early voting is underway NOW for the March 6 Texas primary elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote in this election! Today, we’re taking a closer look at your retirement.


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

Only that promise is constantly under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on educators’ retirement and other public education issues. Because voting districts in Texas are politically gerrymandered, most elections are decided in the party primary instead of the November general election. That’s why it is so important to vote in the primary election taking place now. Registered voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, regardless of how you voted last time.

Early voting in the 2018 primaries runs Tuesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, March 2. Election day is March 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 16, 2018

Here’s ATPE’s wrap-up of education news developments this week:


ELECTION UPDATE: Tuesday, Feb. 20, marks the start of early voting for the March 6 primary elections. ATPE is urging all educators and registered voters in Texas to participate in the primaries, where most of Texas’s elected offices are filled. For more tips on when and where to vote, check out this blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz.

We’ve known for a long time that educators have power to use their numbers to influence the outcomes of these pivotal primaries. Now it’s becoming clear that some politicians and special interest groups are very worried about the potential for high voter turnout within the education community. With enthusiasm growing among grassroots groups like Texans for Public Education, which is promoting a #blockvote campaign to elect pro-public education lawmakers in the Republican primary, some elected officials facing primary challengers are taking to the airwaves in a last-ditch effort to tout their own records on education. For example, the Texas Tribune reports that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spent $5.1 million in January for television ads, amounting to roughly one-third of his campaign war chest. Several of the lieutenant governor’s ads, both on tv and radio, feature claims about support for public education and efforts to raise teachers’ salaries by $10,000, but many are questioning the veracity of the ads in light of failed leadership-backed bills last session that called for much lower pay increases, which school districts would have been forced to fund without new or additional money from the state.

Another group aiming to influence these elections is the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is proud to be a member. We are continuing our efforts to get out the vote, despite disturbing attempts by some in power to intimidate school leaders and shut down our nonpartisan initiatives. This week, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued cease and desist letters to three school districts, alleging that their leaders had used school district resources for “unlawful electioneering.” The basis for the threatening letters from the AG’s office appears to be a handful of Twitter posts and retweets, which likely involved no expenditure of school district funds, and some districts’ adoption of our coalition’s nonpartisan resolution promoting a “culture of voting,” which obviously does not advocate in any way for specific candidates or ballot measures.

ATPE is dismayed that school board members and administrators are being unfairly targeted for efforts to encourage educators to vote, and that support for public education in general is now being characterized by some elected officials as a “partisan” endeavor. ATPE is not alone in objecting to the witch hunt; Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) this week wrote back to AG Paxton asking him to withdraw the cease and desist letters. In his letter, Sen. Menendez wrote, “As elected officials,… our role includes urging people to vote, not intimidating them from participating in this highly regarded democratic process.” Menendez further suggested that intervention by the federal Department of Justice might become necessary.

We at ATPE have worked along with other members of the Texas Educators Vote coalition to help educators understand the restrictions on using school district resources for political advertising, and we believe that most, if not all, school officials have complied with the law. It is not illegal for individual educators to endorse candidates, and there is nothing partisan or illegal about encouraging school employees to vote and to support the cause of public education. We hope that Texas voters will not be deterred by the efforts of a few politicians and dark money groups to keep educators from exercising their constitutional right, and we encourage the school community to  continue spreading the word about the importance of the 2018 elections. Most importantly, get out and vote early next week!

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board of trustees has been meeting in Edinburg, Texas this week. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the board has been discussing a change to the retirement fund’s assumed rate of return, which will have a significant impact on the future of the fund and budget discussions when the legislature returns in January 2019.

For more on the implications of these changes, read Exter’s blog post this week about the additional funding that TRS will be needing and why the upcoming primary elections will have so much impact on active and retired teachers’ pensions and healthcare.


On Friday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced that it will be extending to Tuesday, February 20, the deadline for members of the public to participate in a survey regarding its corrective action plan for special education.

In January, TEA released the initial draft of a plan to make good on the state’s legal obligation to serve all students with special needs. The U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to take corrective action after an investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the state had wrongfully denied special education services to thousands of Texas children through the enforcement of a de facto cap on the number of students allowed to participate.

Members of the public are encouraged to review the four-point plan and submit feedback by taking an online survey available on the TEA website. The survey was originally scheduled to close Sunday, February 18, but the agency announced Friday that survey responses will be accepted through Tuesday, February 20. According to the TEA, the survey takes roughly 15 to 20 minutes to complete.

Once public comments have been received, a revised draft plan will be posted and open to additional feedback in March.


President Trump released his 2019 federal budget proposal this week, which highlight’s the president’s priorities before lawmakers begin work on the actual budget in Congress.

Much like last year’s budget request, Trump’s 2019 budget proposal requests a big chunk of funding for public and private school choice, maintains funding levels for Title I and special education, and seeks large cuts to hand-chosen K-12 programs within the Department of Education (ED). Read more about the president’s proposal in this post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.