Tag Archives: sb 904

Senate interim charges include investigating educators’ political activity

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) released interim charges for state senators late Wednesday. The Senate interim charges for the 86th Texas Legislature include language mirroring that used to justify a pair of bills this past session that were aimed at discouraging educators from being politically active.

After every legislative session, the Senate and House each release their own set of interim charges. Individual charges are assigned to each legislative committee and represent those legislators’ “homework” before returning to Austin for the next session. The idea is that members of each committee will study those charges, conduct hearings during the interim, and return the following legislative session prepared to file bills on those topics. The charges also typically include directions to monitor the implementation of bills recently passed into law and recommend any adjustments that may need to be made during the next legislative session.

The 2019 Senate interim charges include studying educator recruitment, preparation, and retention; a review of disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP); studying the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) corrective action plan for special education; a review of how investments are made by the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) and the Permanent School Fund (PSF); monitoring school districts’ implementation of the increases to teacher compensation ordered under House Bill (HB) 3; and investigating advocacy by local communities and public schools misleadingly characterized as “taxpayer lobbying.”

Of particular note is a charge directing the Senate State Affairs Committee to “ensure compliance with laws that prohibit school trustees and employees from improperly using public funds to advocate for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.” While ATPE fully agrees that public funds should not be used for electioneering, unfounded accusations targeting educators were used during the 2019 legislative session to justify a pair of bills aimed at chilling educators’ political speech. It is particularly worth noting that these accusations were leveled by officials who have taken positions opposed to public education in the past and were made following a 2018 election cycle in which the public education community was acknowledged to have played a major role in electing pro-public education candidates.

Senate Bill (SB) 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) would have dramatically expanded the legal definition of electioneering solely as it applies to educators. It would have subjected educators to criminal penalties for violating “political advertising” laws if they engage in the act of discussing anything of a political nature on school property, regardless of whether that conversation occurred in private, between friends, or off the clock. A similar bill, SB 904 by state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) would have imposed cumbersome restrictions on e-mail signups and public WiFi systems. You can read more about those bills here and here. Notably, Sen. Hughes has recently been appointed by Lt. Gov. Patrick as the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee that will conduct this investigation during the interim and would likely hear any such bills filed next session.

The following list includes excerpts from the 2019 Senate interim charges that may be of interest to educators. The charges are broken up by committee, each of which is listed in bold. You can read the full list of all interim charges released on Wednesday here.

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice

Crimes Against Students with Disabilities: Examine whether current laws are effectively protecting students with disabilities. Make recommendations to improve student safety, while also protecting educators’ abilities to maintain order and safety for everyone in the classroom.

Senate Education Committee

Teacher Workforce: Examine best practice models to recruit, prepare, and retain highly effective teachers. Review teacher professional development, continuing education, and training for teachers, and recommend improved training methods to improve student academic outcomes.

Alternative Education Students: Study current local, state, and national policies and programs for alternative education student populations. Make recommendations to strengthen existing programs and encourage the development of new innovative models.

Adult Education: Identify and evaluate current innovative programs that assist non-traditional students (first-time adult learners, re-enrolling students, working adults, and educationally disadvantaged students) in completing a high school diploma, GED, post-secondary degree, or workforce credential, including a review of adult education charter schools and their performance framework. Make recommendations to help successful expansion with partnered business and education entities.

Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs: Review disciplinary alternative education programs, including lengths of placement, quality of instruction, and the physical conditions of these facilities. Make recommendations to support and promote the academic success of these programs and enhance the ability of public schools to meet the needs of these students through innovative school models.

Digital Learning: Assess the Texas Virtual School Network and recommend model legislation that improves digital learning for students, families, and educators in a 21st Century classroom.

Special Education Services: Evaluate ongoing strategies to continuously improve special education services for students in public schools including, but not limited, to the Texas Education Agency’s corrective action plan.

Monitoring: Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Education passed by the 86th Legislature, as well as relevant agencies and programs under the committee’s jurisdiction. Specifically, make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance, or complete implementation of the following: Senate Bill 11, relating to policies, procedures, and measures for school safety and mental health promotion in public schools and the creation of the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium; House Bill 3, relating to public school finance and public education; and House Bill 3906, relating to the assessment of public school students, including the development and administration of assessment instruments, and technology permitted for use by students.

Senate Finance Committee

Investment of State Funds: Review the investment strategies and performance of funds invested through the Teacher Retirement System, the Permanent School Fund, and university funds. Make recommendations to better coordinate and leverage Texas’ purchasing power to maximize investment income to the state.

Monitoring: Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Finance passed by the 86th Legislature, as well as relevant agencies and programs under the committee’s jurisdiction. Specifically, make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance, or complete implementation of the following: Senate Bill 12, relating to the contributions to and benefits under the Teacher Retirement System; …House Bill 4388, relating to the management of the permanent school fund by the School Land Board and the State Board of Education and a study regarding distributions from the permanent school fund to the available school fund; House Bill 4611, relating to certain distributions to the available school fund; …District implementation of increases in teacher compensation provided by the 86th Legislature; and Efficiencies in state-funded health care programs that reduce or contain costs and improve quality of care. Assess the quality and performance of health plans that contract with the state, including contract compliance, financial performance and stability, quality metrics, and consumer surveys, among other indicators. Monitor the implementation of Health and Human Services Commission Rider 19 and Article IX, Section 10.06.

Senate State Affairs Committee

Elections: Study the integrity and security of voter registration rolls, voting machines, and voter qualification procedures to reduce election fraud in Texas. Specifically, study and make recommendations to: 1) ensure counties are accurately verifying voter eligibility after voter registration; 2) improve training requirements for mail-in ballot signature verification committees; 3) ensure every voter has access to a polling station, particularly in counties that have adopted countywide polling; 4) allow the voter registrar, county clerk, and Secretary of State to suspend an unqualified voter’s registration or remove an ineligible voter from a list of registered voters; and 5) ensure compliance with laws that prohibit school trustees and employees from improperly using public funds to advocate for or against any candidate, measure, or political party.

Taxpayer Lobbying: Study how governmental entities use public funds for political lobbying purposes. Examine what types of governmental entities use public funds for lobbying purposes. Make recommendations to protect taxpayers from paying for lobbyists who may not represent the taxpayers’ interests.

Senate bills threaten to chill educator speech

Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, April 1, 2019

The Senate State Affairs Committee met Monday, April 1, and considered two bills that present serious concerns about free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — particularly when it comes to educators.

Both bills relate to the use of public funds for political advertising, which is already prohibited by state law. ATPE agrees with the current statutes and ethics rules that prohibit public resources from being used for political purposes. Electioneering on school time and with school resources should be illegal. However, the two bills heard by the committee Monday morning would criminalize behavior that is not only nonpolitical, but in some cases even required under state law. Together, they threaten to undermine all of the positive work the Texas Senate has done for public educators so far this session.

Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) filed Senate Bill (SB) 1569, which would dramatically expand the legal definition of electioneering solely as it applies to educators.

Electioneering is currently defined as advocating for or against a candidate, political party, or ballot measure. For example: A communication created on school district time or using school district money in support of Proposition X or Candidate Y clearly constitutes electioneering and an unlawful use of public resources. As filed, SB 1569 would include activity that advocates for or against “a political philosophy” or “a matter of public interest.” Neither term is defined in law or in Sen. Fallon’s bill, and ATPE contends that each phrase is subject to widely varying interpretation. For example, extolling the virtues of American democracy and our free enterprise system could be considered advocating for a “political philosophy” under this bill – despite the fact that both are required elements of Texas public schools’ curriculum. Likewise, a sign on a school bulletin board promoting a food drive for Hurricane Harvey victims could easily be construed as advocating for “a matter of public interest” if SB 1569 were to be enacted.

Perhaps even more troubling, SB 1569 would expand the definition of “political advertising” to include any political communication “directed to an individual person or multiple persons through any form of communication (emphasis added).” This could treat private conversations between co-workers as political advertising and subject to criminal penalties. As a whole, SB 1569 would impose a separate set of restrictions on the speech of public school employees that is far more expansive than restrictions imposed upon any other category of public employees.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 1569 here.

SB 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) aims to prevent third party organizations from sending political advertising to public e-mail addresses, subjecting the sender to a $100 fine per e-mail. This seemingly straightforward idea is complicated by a number of technical factors. First, most political websites allow a visitor to enter their e-mail address and receive automatic campaign updates. This simple process could potentially be abused, either intentionally or unintentionally through “bots” and e-mail spoofing, to rack up massive fines.

SB 904 also extends prohibitions against political advertising to include the use of public communications systems, including WiFi networks. This could have the absurd effect of criminalizing the act of accessing a campaign website from a personal mobile device while off the clock and sitting in a school parking lot. It could also jeopardize a majority of computer use in the Texas State Capitol, where visitors are offered free public WiFi and politics is a major topic of discussion.

Read ATPE’s written testimony against SB 904 here.

Public resources clearly should not be used for electioneering, but such activity is already expressly prohibited in state law. ATPE believes expanding current law in an attempt to broadly restrict the speech of educators as proposed by SB 904 and SB 1569 is unnecessary, discriminatory, and raises serious concerns about potential violations of the First Amendment. Taken together, these bills would likely have a severe chilling effect on educators’ speech.

We urge you to contact your state senator and ask them to OPPOSE SB 904 and SB 1569. ATPE members can use our simple tools at Advocacy Central to send a message to their legislators about these bills.

UPDATE (added 4/5/19): The Senate State Affairs Committee met again on Thursday, April 4, and voted to send these two bills to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation. The vote was 6-1 on both SB 1569 and SB 904. Sen. Judith Zaffirini was the only member of the committee to vote against the harmful bills. We urge educators to contact their senators and ask them to keep these bad bills from becoming law.