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Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 5, 2019

It was another groundbreaking week in the Texas legislature, and here’s a look at the headlines from ATPE Governmental Relations:


On Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives passed landmark school finance reform legislation. By a vote of 148-1, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) House Bill 3 passed the lower chamber, clearing the way for its consideration next by the Texas Senate.

The ATPE-supported school finance bill as finally passed by the House allocates billions in new money for public schools, reduces recapture, and provides homeowners with property tax relief. The House added bipartisan compromise language to HB 3 during Wednesday’s floor debate to ensure that all full-time public school district employees in non-administrator roles will also receive pay raises.

Read more about the bill and Wednesday’s major vote in this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as attention turns to the Senate to find out how the upper chamber will respond to the school finance bill.


The Senate Education Committee and House Public Education Committee both held multiple meetings this week to hear a variety of education bills.

The Senate Education Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, largely focused on hearing bills pertaining to dual credit. The agenda for Thursday, April 4, included a host of bills relating to virtual schools, including some bills that ATPE opposes. Other pending bills previously heard by the committee were also voted out with favorable recommendations for the full Senate. Read more about the Senate committee’s activities this week in blog posts here and here from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins who covered the hearings.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House Public Education Committee’s Tuesday hearing covered topics ranging from pre-K to technology and educator preparation. The agenda for the committee’s Thursday hearing also featured a wide variety of issues, including one bill that ATPE opposes to require school districts to let home-schooled students participate in UIL activities. ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier covered the House Public Education Committee hearings, and you can read her reports on the two meetings from this week in blog posts here and here.


ATPE is urging educators to oppose two Senate bills that would endanger free speech rights and limit the ability to teach students about content that relates to “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” The bills are Senate Bill 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) and Senate Bill 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), and both of them got a favorable nod from the Senate State Affairs committee this week.

SB 1569 and SB 905 would expand current laws that restrict the use of public resources for “political advertising.” The bills are unnecessary, since state law already prohibits using school resources for electioneering which is enforced by the Attorney General, and these two bills will have harmful unintended consequences.

SB 1569 would broaden the definition of political advertising, impose harsh restrictions on political speech by public school employees, and make it nearly impossible to teach students about elections or civic responsibility or anything deemed to fall under the vague category of “a matter of public interest.” SB 904 also tries to limit political speech by restricting access to government communication systems like a school district’s Wi-Fi network. It also calls for fining any third party that sends political advertising to a government email address. SB 904 will unreasonably penalize innocent third parties and have a chilling effect on free speech and political involvement by educators, even making it hard to teach students about anything related to politics.

Both SB 1569 and SB 904 appear to be reactions to the surge in educator participation in elections last year, and both bills are likely to spark constitutional challenges if passed. Based on their obvious targeting of the education community, both bills are reminiscent of unsuccessful efforts last legislative session to dissuade educators from joining professional associations that advocate for public education. With yesterday’s committee vote, these two bills have the potential to reach the full Senate for a floor debate very soon. ATPE is urging educators to contact their senators and ask them to reject SB 1569 and SB 904. Read more about the bills in this blog post. ATPE members can click here to visit Advocacy Central and send a quick message to their senator.


As we have been reporting here on Teach the Vote, the legislature is considering ATPE-supported bills to increase contributions into the TRS pension fund. This week the House Committee on Pensions, Investments and Financial Services considered one of the bills, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which the full Senate has already passed unanimously.

SB 12 is being sponsored on the Senate side by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R- League City), who chairs the Article III (education) subcommittee in House Appropriations and is the author of another bill to increase funding for TRS via House Bill (HB) 9. (That bill, which ATPE also supports, was already heard by the House Pensions committee last week.) ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that during this week’s hearing on SB 12, Chairman Bonnen offered a committee substitute version of Senate Bill 12 that would replace its language with the language from his HB 9. After a brief hearing on the bill, the committee took the somewhat unusual step of immediately voting the committee substitute version of SB 12 favorably out of committee and recommending that it go to the full House for further consideration. The bill, which appears to be on an expedited track, will next go to the House Calendars Committee which has the authority to set the bill on a House calendar for a scheduled for debate. Once the bill has been approved by the full House, which it is expected to easily do, it will return to the Senate where Sen. Huffman will likely send SB 12 to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate language.

While both versions of the bill would increase the overall contribution rate into the TRS pension system and provide current retirees with a 13th check, the House language does so by focusing the entire increase on the state’s contribution rate without raising the rates of educators or school districts. Additionally, the House version provides for a substantially larger 13th check, up to $2400 per retiree vs $500 dollars per retiree in the Senate version of the bill.


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 29, 2019

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


The Texas House of Representatives debated its budget bill, March 28, 2019.

During a late night floor session on Wednesday, the Texas House unanimously approved a $251 billion state budget billHouse Bill (HB) 1. The bill includes a $9 billion appropriation for improving the state’s school finance system and providing property relief to homeowners. The public education-related funding increases in the House budget would be implemented via HB 3, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) omnibus bill that ATPE supports. The full House is slated to debate HB 3 on the floor next Wednesday, April 3.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee is preparing to approve its budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, in the coming days. During a meeting yesterday, the committee decided to add money to its bill to match the House’s $9 billion funding proposal for public education. The two chambers are likely to disagree, however, on how that money should be spent.

Read more about the House’s big budget vote in this article from The Texas Tribune republished on our Teach the Vote blog. We urge ATPE members to use our convenient tools on Advocacy Central to send a message to House members thanking them for their vote on the budget to increase public education funding and urging them all to similarly support HB 3 next week.


ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified before a House committee, March 26, 2019.

This week two important bills affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) advanced in both the House and Senate.

House Bill (HB) 9 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), which increases contributions to TRS and provides retirees with a 13th check, received a hearing the House Committee on Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services on Tuesday. The bill was left pending in  committee but is expected to be voted out favorably in the near future. ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in favor of HB 9 during the hearing.

Also, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) was voted out of the full Senate by a unanimous vote on Monday. SB 12, which ATPE also supports, raises the contribution rates into TRS, albeit differently from the House’s bill, and provides retirees with a 13th payment, but the payment would be lower. For more information on the differences between the two bills, check out this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.


On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), heard a number of bills focused on student discipline issues. ATPE supported bills such as Senate Bill 1451, which prohibits negative action on a teacher’s appraisal solely on the basis of the teacher’s disciplinary referrals or documentation of student conduct, and Senate Bill 2432, which would add harassment to the list of conduct that will result in the mandatory removal of a student from the classroom. For more information on the bills heard, plus other pending bills that were voted on during this week’s committee hearing, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


Meetings of the House Public Education Committee have been known to take on a theme and focus on bills that pertain to the same issue. The theme of this week’s meeting of the committee was school safety. Members of that committee on Tuesday heard 35 bills related to topics in school safety such as school hardening, access to mental health resources, and increased law enforcement on school campuses. ATPE registered a position in support of six bills including House Bill 2994 by Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), which would require the Commissioner of Education to develop mental health training material for school districts. A thorough breakdown of the bills heard during this committee meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.


FEDERAL UPDATE: On Thursday, March 28, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat before the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the Department of Education. DeVos faced questions on her support for increasing federal funding for school choice while eliminating or decreasing funding aimed at teacher effectiveness, special populations, and loan assistance. Watch more coverage of the hearing here for the full scoop.


ELECTION UPDATE: The 86th Texas Legislative session is more than halfway over, and issues like school finance, teacher pay, and school safety remain key topics. This is a direct result of the tremendous educator turnout during the 2018 elections and proof of the power of democracy – informed and engaged citizens holding their elected officials accountable. Practicing and modeling civic engagement require voting in every election. On May 4, 2019, many Texans will have the chance to vote in local elections for school boards, mayoral seats, bonds, and more. Make sure your voter registration is up to date so you will be able to participate. The last day to register to vote in the May election is April 4. Early voting runs April 22-30, 2019. Visit VoteTexas.gov to learn more about how to register and vote.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas House approves 2020-21 budget plan, with extra $9 billion for school finance, property tax relief

By Edgar Walters, Cassandra Pollock and Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune
March 27, 2019

Texas House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, talks with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on March 27, 2019, as the House took up the budget debate. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune

Texas House approves 2020-21 budget plan, with extra $9 billion for school finance, property tax relief” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.

Debate on HB1, the House state budget bill, continues into its 12th hour as State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Dallas, shows the strain of a long night. March 27, 2019.
Debate on HB1, the House state budget bill, continues into its 12th hour as State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Dallas, shows the strain of a long night. March 27, 2019. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune. 

 

A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.

Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.

The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.

“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, addresses the house floor during budget night at the State Capitol on March 27, 2019
Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, addresses the house floor during budget night at the State Capitol on March 27, 2019. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune 

 

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.

A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.

Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.

Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.

“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”

“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.

A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.

Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.

Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.

The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.

Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.

State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond (right), speaks with Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston (left), in the House Chamber on March 27, 2019, the day the House will take up HB1, the 2020-21 budget plan.
State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond (right), speaks with Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston (left), in the House Chamber on March 27, 2019, the day the House will take up HB1, the 2020-21 budget plan. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune 

 

The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.

A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.

The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.

Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.

The supplemental bill also includes:

  • Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
  • About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
  • Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
  • $2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/03/27/texas-budget-house-2019/.

 

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

TRS bills move forward in both chambers

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in the House Pensions Committee, March 26, 2019.

The 86th Legislature has been considering bills to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), which ATPE supports. Preserving the solvency and defined-benefit structure of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension program for educators is an ATPE legislative priority this session.

On the Senate side, one high-profile measure on the move pertaining to this priority is Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R – Houston). After the bill received approval last week from the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which Sen. Huffman chairs, the full Senate passed SB 12 unanimously out of the upper chamber on Monday, March 25, sending it on its way to the House.

Meanwhile, a House committee today heard its own version of how to increase financial support for TRS, as well as for the state’s current retired educators. House Bill (HB) 9 by Greg Bonnen (R – Friendswood) was heard this morning by the House Committee on Pensions, Investments & Financial Services. The bill was left pending in committee today but is expected to receive a favorable committee vote in the near future.

Byron Hildebrand

ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand delivered our association’s testimony strongly supporting HB 9 in committee today. Hildebrand, who is also a retired educator, thanked legislators for taking a positive step forward with legislation aimed at making the TRS pension found sound, and he encouraged lawmakers to continue to take steps to do great things for active and retired teachers. Click here to watch today’s committee hearing, where HB 9 was the first bill considered. (Hildebrand’s testimony begins at approximately the 43-minute mark in the archived broadcast.)

While SB 12 and HB 9 both increase contributions to TRS and provide a 13th check to current retirees, the bills differ on the amount of the increased contribution, who would pay for it, and the size of the 13th payment. At 2.5%, the overall increase in TRS contributions under SB 12 would be a half percent more than the 2% increase called for by HB 9. However, HB 9 puts the responsibility for paying for the entire contribution increase on the state by raising the state’s rate from 6.8% up to to 8.8%. SB 12 only raises the state’s contribution rate from 6.8% to 8.25%, while also raising the active member rate from 7.7% to 8.25%, and raising the school district contribution rate from 1.5% up to 2%. HB 9 also begins and finishes raising the contribution rate a year sooner than SB 12 would. In terms of 13th payments, SB 12 offers all retirees a $500 bonus, while HB 9 would provide current retirees a 13th check in the same amount as their regular monthly annuity up to $2,400.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on these two ATPE-supported bills as they continue to move through the legislative process.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 22, 2019

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


Now that the bill filing deadline has passed and the 86th legislative session is beyond its halfway point, it’s time for the legislature to do the one thing that it is mandated to do in every session: pass a budget. “Budget Day,” though it doesn’t have an official date in each legislative session, is when the House or Senate passes its version of a budget bill. Things get heated, legislators stay on the floor until the wee hours of the morning, staving off delirium to fight for every penny possible for their constituents’ legislative priorities. At stake this session is the future of public education funding, deemed an emergency issue this session by Gov. Greg Abbott and a top priority of the leadership in both the House and Senate.

For its part on the school finance front, the House Public Education Committee unanimously approved Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) comprehensive school funding bill, House Bill (HB) 3, on Tuesday of this week after making a number of changes requested by ATPE and other education stakeholders. Those changes included removing a controversial merit pay proposal from the bill. Read more about the revisions made to HB 3 in this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell. The new and improved school finance and tax reform bill is expected to be brought up by the full House for a floor debate within a couple of weeks.

With the momentum behind major public education bills like HB 3, it is now up to lawmakers to put aside enough money for the next biennium to make those school funding proposals a reality. On the House side, those budget decisions will be made via HB 1, which is the House’s version of the budget bill that is scheduled for a floor debate next week. State representatives will be spending the weekend drafting and pre-filing their amendments to the massive budget bill before its lengthy budget debate happens on Wednesday, March 27. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote and be sure to follow us and our lobbyists on Twitter for updates on the budget debate next week.

 


House Public Education Committee hearing, March 19, 2019

In addition to approving HB 3 earlier this week, the House Public Education committee also heard 21 other bills when it met on Tuesday, March 19. The subjects of the bills ranged from the compensatory allotment to  a proposal to make personal financial literacy courses mandatory for graduation. The committee also voted to send 14 previously heard bills to the House floor, including the high-profile school finance and tax relief bill, HB 3. For more information on the bills heard during Tuesday’s committee meeting, read this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. Next Tuesday, the committee will meet again to hear a long agenda full of school safety bills.

Senate Education Committee hearing, March 19, 2019

The Senate Education committee also met Tuesday, March 19, to hear a number of bills, including several relating to educator misconduct. Most of the bills heard on that subject were filed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt as follow-ups to his Senate Bill 7 enacted by the legislature in 2017. The Senate Education Committee voted to advance three bills to the Senate floor. Read more in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. On the agenda for next week’s Senate Education Committee hearing are several bills relating to student discipline.

 


Two high-profile bills positively affecting Teacher Retirement System (TRS) pension benefits are slated for legislative action next week.

First, Senate Bill (SB) 12, by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is on the calendar for debate by the full Senate next week. As we reported in last week’s wrap-up, SB 12 was previously heard and approved by the Senate State Affairs Committee. SB 12 would shore up the educator pension fund by gradually increasing what the state, school districts, and educators contribute to TRS over a period of six years.

The second bill is House Bill (HB) 9 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), which is scheduled for a public hearing by the House Pensions/Investments/Financial Services Committee on Tuesday morning, March 26, 2019. ATPE will be testifying in support of the bill. HB 9 would increase contributions to the TRS pension fund placing the entirety of the responsibility of paying for the contribution increase on the state. It also provides for TRS retirees to receive a 13th check equal to up to $2400 of their annuity payment.

Despite their different methods, both of these ATPE-supported bills are aimed at making the pension fund actuarially sound, which would make it possible for the state to provide a much-needed cost of living adjustment to those retired educators who are receiving TRS benefits.

 


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: March 15, 2019

Here’s your wrap-up of education highlights from another busy week for the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testifying before the House Public Education Committee on March 12, 2019

Members of the House Public Education committee heard more than 12 hours of testimony this Tuesday on House Bill 3 (HB 3), the House’s comprehensive school finance reform bill. Stakeholders from parents to teachers and even children on spring break testified about the $9 billion bill. Many witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing expressed support for the bill, but a number of them shared reservations about its move to roll funding for gifted and talented programs into the basic allotment and a proposed merit pay plan that the commissioner of education would oversee under HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood).

ATPE testified neutrally on HB 3 stating that while the bill as filed has many positive qualities and would inject much-needed funding into the public education system, it also includes some troubling changes regarding the state’s minimum salary schedule and using teacher evaluations and student performance data for merit pay. Many witnesses, including ATPE, who expressed concerns about the merit pay plan noted that it would be difficult if not impossible for the commissioner to determine which teachers might receive merit pay under HB 3 without using data from student test scores, even though the bill itself does not specifically call for the use of the STAAR for this purpose. ATPE opposes the use of student performance data, including test scores, as the primary measure of a teacher’s effectiveness for purposes of compensation, which ATPE shared with the committee during our testimony that was delivered by Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter on Tuesday.

Currently, HB 3 is still pending in committee with a substitute version of the bill expected to be discussed next Tuesday, March 19. Read more about Tuesday’s school finance hearing in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

On Wednesday, the House Public Education Committee reconvened to hear a host of other bills related to topics such as Districts of Innovation (DOI) and school start dates. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of HB 1051, a bill that would make permanent the Goodwill Excel center permanent, a charter school offering a successful dropout recovery program for adult students. ATPE also supported HB 340 relating to full-day pre-k and HB 1276 relating to educator certification. More details on bills heard during Wednesday’s hearing can be found here.

 


Earlier this week, the White House released the president’s 2020 budget proposal, which is little more than a statement of the president’s priorities given that Congress actually passes the federal budget. The proposal would cut billions from the Department of Education’s budget compared to what Congress previously enacted, while funding controversial programs such as school privatization and performance-based compensation. Read a more detailed analysis of the President’s budget proposal on our Teach the Vote blog here.

 


The Senate State Affairs Committee met Thursday morning to hear a number of bills. Among them was Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). SB 12 would increase the TRS contribution rate and get the fund back to a point of actuarial soundness by the end of the biennium. In addition to the increased contribution rate, the bill would also fund a small 13th check of $500 for current TRS retirees. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill. For more background on why TRS contribution increases are now needed, check out this previous blog post about actions taken by the TRS board of trustees in the summer of 2018.


Residents of the San Antonio area’s House District 125 elected Democrat Ray Lopez to represent them in the House in a special election held this Tuesday. Lopez, a former city council member will be serving in the seat vacated by current Bexar County Commissioner and former HD 125 state representative Justin Rodriguez. ATPE congratulates Representative-Elect Lopez and looks forward to working with him. This election was the last in a series of special elections meant to fill seats that were vacated after last fall’s elections. As we reported last week, Houston area residents of House District 145 last week elected Democrat Christina Morales to fill the seat vacated by former representative and now Senator Carol Alvarado.

 


ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneyLast Friday evening the Senate released its version of a school finance reform proposal, Senate Bill 4 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). While the Senate has worked diligently to pass an across-the-board teacher pay raise bill this session (SB 3), its version of a more comprehensive school finance reform plan is a little less robust than its counterpart in the House. SB 4 includes provisions for outcomes-based funding and merit pay for classroom teachers. Read more information about the Senate bill in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

 


Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 15, 2019

It’s been another busy week in the Texas capital. Here’s a wrap-up of this week’s education news highlights from ATPE Governmental Relations:


School finance reform continues to dominate the conversations taking place within multiple committees during this 86th session of the Texas Legislature.

On Monday, Feb. 11, the Senate Finance Committee met to continue its review of state budget proposals. The committee heard from the leaders of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) before inviting stakeholders to weigh in on the topic of education funding. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter testified about the need to prioritize funding for teacher compensation, healthcare, and the TRS pension fund. Read more about Monday’s hearing in this blog post.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 12-13, the House Public Education Committee heard two days’ worth of invited testimony from stakeholders about school finance. Witnesses included former chairs of the committee, school superintendents, and representatives of education groups, who shared input on the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance that lawmakers are considering whether or not to adopt this session. Again, ATPE’s Monty Exter provided invited testimony, focusing his remarks on proposed changes to the state’s funding formulas, teacher quality considerations, the need for across-the-board salary increases, and concerns about outcomes-based funding. For a detailed summary of the hearings, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


ATPE has joined with 14 other groups in releasing a joint policy agenda for charter schools. The coalition that has spent several months looking at current laws and regulations on charter schools includes associations representing educators, school board members, school districts, and community partners. The groups agreed on seven major findings and recommendations for ways to increase the transparency and efficiency of charter schools. Read more about the effort and download a copy of the joint policy agenda in this blog post.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s Texas House District 125 went to the polls this week for a special election on Tuesday to fill the unexpired term of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez. Because none of the five candidates vying for the seat received a majority of the votes needed for an outright win, a runoff will be necessary to fill the seat. Those advancing to the runoff will be Republican businessman Fred Rangel, who garnered 38% of the vote, and Democratic former city council member Ray Lopez, who earned 19% of the vote. A third-place finisher trailed by only 22 votes in the close race.

The San Antonio district is one of two whose voters are currently unrepresented in the Texas House of Representatives due to vacancies. Another special election is pending in Houston’s House District 145, where two Democratic candidates, Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales, are awaiting a runoff election on March 5, 2019. Early voting for that runoff election will begin Feb. 25.

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 8, 2019

Here’s your chilly edition of this week’s education news highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations staff:


Andrea Chevalier

ATPE is excited to welcome Andrea Chevalier, the newest lobbyist to join our Governmental Relations team.

Andrea joins us most recently from the office of state Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), where she served as Legislative Director and oversaw a host of issues, including public education. She is also a former classroom teacher with experience working in both the traditional public school and charter school environments. Andrea attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied chemistry; earned her Masters of Education in Secondary Education at the University of North Texas; and is currently working on completing her doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from UT.

Andrea will be lobbying and reporting on a variety of issues being debated by the legislature this session, working closely with the House Public Education Committee, and covering educator quality regulations considered by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Watch for her blog posts here on Teach the Vote and follow her on Twitter at @ATPE_AndreaC.

 


On Tuesday, Gov. Gregg Abbott addressed a joint session of the 86th Legislature, delivering his traditional “State of the State” address. He outlined his legislative priorities for the session, punctuated by the declaration of six issues as emergency items that would warrant expedited action by lawmakers. All six of the issues bear close ties to public education, including most notably school finance, school safety, and teacher pay. Abbott’s declaration of these school-related emergency issues is a testament to the impact of the 2018 election cycle in which the Texas public education community was much more noticeably vocal and active. Tuesday was also the day for President Donald Trump to deliver his State of the Union address. That speech, which had been postponed due to the recent federal government shutdown, contained far less education-related content. Read more about both the State of the State and State of the Union speeches in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

 


The two legislative committees that oversee public education policy issues in Texas have begun holding regular meetings and hearing testimony. The Senate Education Committee held its first meeting of the legislative session this week, receiving an overview presentation by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The committee also learned about the status of special education programs in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this detailed summary for Teach the Vote.

The House Public Education Committee, which began its work a little earlier this session, held two meetings this week, both heavily focused on the topic of school finance. The committee similarly heard from Commissioner Morath, along with members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Read more about those hearings in this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier. The committee is slated for two more meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the agenda will include testimony by stakeholders about school finance and the recommendations of the commission that studied the issue last year. ATPE has been invited to testify on Wednesday, and we’ll provide details next week here on our blog and on @TeachtheVote on Twitter.

 


On Monday of this week, the House Appropriations Committee announced its subcommittees that will work on various sections of the state budget. Committee members were also briefed by staff of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS). ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided an in-depth report here for our blog. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee has also been holding several meetings to review the draft budget. Next week, Senate Finance committee members turn their attention to Article III, which contains the education budget. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter will be there for those meetings starting Monday and will provide updates next week for Teach the Vote.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: Voters in San Antonio’s House District 125 will head to the polls Tuesday to elect a new state representative. Early voting has taken place this week for the special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Justin Rodriguez, after he resigned to serve as Bexar County Commissioner. The five candidates vying for the HD 125 seat are Steve Huerta (D)Ray Lopez (D)Fred Rangel (R)Coda Rayo-Garza (D), and Art Reyna (D).

There also remains a vacancy in Houston’s HD 145, where Democrats Melissa Noriega and Christina Morales have advanced to a runoff in that special election. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced, but is likely to be held in March. Read more about the two runoff candidates in this article from the Houston Chronicle.

 


 

House Appropriations hears from TEA and TRS

The House Committee on Appropriations met Monday to hear from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Teacher Retirement System (TRS) on the issues of school safety, school finance, the teacher pension system, and active and retiree educator health insurance. Before delving into the meat of the hearing, Cmomittee Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulsher) also announced membership of the subcommittees that will be overseeing separate subject areas of the budget.

The subcommittee on Article III that oversees public education funding will be chaired by Rep. Greg Bonnen, and include Vice-chair Armando Walle and Reps. Mary Gonzalez, Donna Howard, Matt Schaefer, Carl Sherman, Lynn Stucky, and Gary VanDeaver.

House Appropriations Committee meeting Feb. 4, 2019

Other subcommittees include: the subcommittee on Articles I, IV, V; the subcommittee on Article II; the subcommittee on Articles VI, VII, VIII; and a new subcommittee on  Infrastructure, Resiliency, and Investment.

The committee heard first from Texas Education  Commissioner Mike Morath on the topic of school safety, including physical precautions such as metal detectors and alarms. Morath noted there is no single investment in school safety that will address all current weaknesses and that the agency isn’t and hasn’t traditionally been tasked or resourced to help districts with regard to mental health components of school safety.

TEA’s Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez followed with a high-level overview of how public schools are funded. Lopez explained how the basics of tax rates, weights, allotments, and adjustments work to together to create a districts M&O entitlement; facilities funding; charter funding; and recapture. Also mentioned during the discussion were statutory quirks and system complexities like the fact that the basic allotment is set in statute, but legislators each session have the option of funding at higher levels through the appropriations bill. The committee also discussed how in 2011 the legislature created a mechanism called the Regular Program Adjustment Factor that allows lawmakers to decrease the entire Foundation School Program (FSP) entitlement for every district with a single adjustment.

TR) Executive Director Brian Guthrie walked committee members through pension fund operations. Guthrie explained the TRS board’s decision to lower the assumed rate of return last summer to 7.25 percent down from 8 percent, which came as a result of market forecasts and input from the fund’s actuary. This caused the funding period for pension fund liabilities to extend from 32 years up to 87 years. Under state law, the TRS fund cannot offer a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to retirees unless the amortization period noted above is within 31 years.

Guthrie noted that the agency is requesting a 1.8 percent increase in the contribution rate in order to achieve a 30-year amortization period, which would allow for the possibility of a future increase in benefits, such as a COLA. This would cost $1.6 billion for the biennium from all funds.

Responding to a question from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, Guthrie estimated the average pension payment for a TRS annuitant to be about $2,000 per month. This average figure covers all classes of public education employees, including auxiliary staff, such as bus drivers and custodial staff. For classroom teachers who have worked in Texas schools for 30 years, that amount is closer to $4,000 per month.

Guthrie then explained the healthcare programs under the agency’s umbrella: TRS-Care for retired educators and TRS-ActiveCare for active educators. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed in Texas, despite rising at a level slightly below the national average. This resulted in a $1 billion shortfall for TRS-Care heading into the previous legislative session, which was addressed by a temporary infusion of additional state funding, coupled with a significant increase in fees and reduction in benefits. The fund continues to run at a deficit.

Rep. Schaefer asked what impact a pay increase would have on the pension fund. Guthrie indicated that if all teachers saw a raise, there would be a negative short-term impact for TRS as a result of higher salary calculations for retiring members without the benefit of higher contributions. Guthrie suggested this could be mitigated by phasing in the salary increases’ impact on the calculation of a member’s highest five years of earnings. Guthrie suggested the short-term impact on TRS-Care would be positive.

Asked by Rep. Stucky how much it would cost to make TRS-Care sustainable, Guthrie suggested it would take more than $12-15 billion to create a corpus sufficient to produce funding as a result of investment returns. Even then, that process would take some time to get up and running. The deteriorating value of TRS-Care has led many retirees to leave the program, which exacerbates the financial stresses facing it. Guthrie added that the population was beginning to stabilize.

TRS-ActiveCare, which allows smaller and mid-size school districts to enjoy the benefits of group coverage through a combined risk pool, also faces affordability challenges due to statutory restrictions on how that program is funded. Five percent of districts – primarily the state’s largest districts, such as Austin and Houston – have opted out of TRS-ActiveCare. Last session, legislation was considered to allow districts a one-time opportunity to opt in or opt out, but such a bill was not passed ultimately.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 1, 2019

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


Legislators and SBOE members gathered for the board’s swearing-in ceremony, Jan. 28, 2019.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) held its first meetings of the new year this week in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meetings and provided updates for our blog.

Things kicked off on Monday when all members of the board, both newly elected and re-elected, were sworn in by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). Members of the board adopted operating rules for the body, discussed the board’s authority in relation to charter schools, and also approved committee assignments and officer elections,  including naming Marty Rowley (R) of Amarillo as Vice Chair and Georgina Perez (D) of El Paso as Secretary of the board. Additional committee assignments and chair appointments can be viewed in this blog post from Wiggins.

On Tuesday, the board was briefed by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath on the “State of the State of Public Education” annual report. Morath also discussed the creation of curriculum guides by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), educator compensation, and other topics as noted in this blog post. Wednesday, the board participated in a learning roundtable at the Austin Convention Center where it discussed its Long-Range Plan for Public Education, a list of goals and recommendations to improve public schools by 2030.

Lastly, the SBOE ended its meetings by unveiling today the new logo for the Permanent School Fund, which was designed by Melissa Richardson of Dripping Springs High School as part of a contest. The board will meet again on April 2-5, 2019.

 


SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: El Paso residents turned out on Tuesday to elect a new state representative for Texas House District 79. El Paso Community College Chairman, Art Fierro, won the House seat with 53% of the votes in the special election. Fierro will be completing the term of former Rep. Joe Pickett who resigned recently due to health complications. Fierro’s term will expire in 2021. ATPE congratulates Representative-Elect Fierro and looks forward to working with him.

Meanwhile, some Houstonians will still have to wait in order to find out who will be replacing former Rep. Carol Alvarado, who vacated her House seat in District 145 order to run successfully for the Texas State Senate in another special election for Senate District 6. As for the new representative for House District 145, the race has been narrowed down to two Democratic candidates, Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced.

Lastly, one more seat in the Texas House remains vacant, that of San Antonio Democrat Justin Rodriguez who vacated his seat to run for (and get elected) Bexar County commissioner. Early voting for the House District 125 special election begins Monday with the election being held on Feb. 12. View profiles of the special election candidates on Teach the Vote, and read more about each race in this article by The Texas Tribune.

 


Earlier today, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its accreditation statuses for Texas public schools for the 2018-19 school year. The statuses based on academic accountability ratings and the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (also known as School FIRST) recognize schools and districts that meet certain academic and financial benchmarks. According to TEA, 99% of Texas schools were designated as accredited for the 2018-19 year. More information can be found in this press release from the agency.

 


House Committee on Public Education

The House Public Education Committee convened its first meeting of the regular session this week. Led by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) who is serving his third term as chair, the committee heard from Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff about issues such as STAAR testing, educator certification, and TEA’s Special Education Strategic Plan. The committee will reconvene several times over the next two weeks to hear invited testimony from members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance and other stakeholders regarding the commission’s recommendations for school finance reform. Learn more in this blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, who attended this week’s first hearing.

 


The House Appropriations Committee also began meeting this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter attended the first few meetings and provided this update. After opening remarks from Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), including some gentle ribbing about punctuality that will likely turn into a session long running joke, the committee heard from what is likely the last stop on the Comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate tour. The committee also received from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) some high-level budget numbers, including  on public education and the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). The committee is scheduled to hear more in-depth testimony on TRS, school safety, and school finance on Monday, Feb. 4. Most of the truly in-depth work on the initial House budget bill is done by subcommittees, including an Article III subcommittee that reviews the education portion of the budget. The members of those subcommittees are determined by the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and will likely be named next week.

The Senate Finance Committee also continued to meet this week but on areas other than public education. The Senate committee will turn its attention to education funding later this month, and ATPE’s lobby team will provide updates here on our Teach the Vote blog.