Tag Archives: tax reform

86th Legislative Session Highlights from ATPE

As the 86th Texas Legislature began its regular session in January 2019, it was dubbed the “session of the teacher” and was marked by abounding promises to fix school finance and provide pay raises to the most important in-school factor contributing to student success: our teachers. Indeed, this session’s legislation included several pro-public education proposals such as a multi-billion dollar school finance and property tax reform bill, efforts to provide an across-the-board teacher pay raise, school safety enhancements, and measures to shore up the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), while mostly avoiding troublesome and divisive topics such as payroll deduction and tactics to privatize education.

However, bills rarely reach the finish line in the same form as they started, while most others don’t make it at all. In fact, there were more than 10,000 bills and resolutions filed this session, but only 1,429 House and Senate bills were finally passed. As a reminder, bills that do finally pass the legislature are still subject to review by the governor. Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed three bills that were on ATPE’s tracking list. The governor vetoed House Bill (HB) 109 by Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco), which would have required charter schools to give students Memorial Day off as school districts are currently required to do, yet the bill exempted districts of innovation (DOI). Gov. Abbott explained in his veto statement that the bill would have exempted up to 859 school districts, and suggested the legislature draft more targeted legislation in the future. The governor vetoed HB 455 by Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston), which would have required the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to develop a model policy on recess that encourages age-appropriate outdoor physical activities. Despite praising the bill’s good intentions, the governor called HB 455 “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.” Gov. Abbott also vetoed HB 3511 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston), which would have created a “Commission on Texas Workforce of the Future.” The governor called the bill redundant and duplicative of work being done by the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative, which involves the Texas Workforce Commission, TEA, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). 

To learn how education issues fared during the 2019 session that ended on Memorial Day, ATPE offers this comprehensive summary prepared by our lobbyists: Jennifer Mitchell, Monty Exter, Mark Wiggins, and Andrea Chevalier. You’ll also find within this post an update on the actions taken by the 86th Texas Legislature on ATPE’s legislative priorities for 2019.

Here’s a list of the topics covered in this post:


School Finance:

ATPE’s top legislative priority this year was improving Texas’s school finance system, and more specifically, supporting legislation to dramatically improve that system in order to provide every child access to an exemplary public education.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared school finance reform to be one of his top priorities and an emergency item for early consideration by the 86th Legislature. Newly elected House Speaker Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) did his part to keep school funding on the minds of state representatives by providing them with cups reading, “School Finance Reform – The Time is Now.” While a handful of school finance bills were filed this session, House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) quickly became the session’s signature piece of legislation. HB 3 was a culmination of selected recommendations from last year’s Commission on Public School Finance that was created by the 85th legislature, as well as other input from education stakeholders such as ATPE.

ATPE supported the version of HB 3 that was approved by a vote of 148-1 in the House chamber. The House-approved bill called for providing billions of dollars to public schools; included important programmatic changes such as full-day pre-K and dyslexia and dual language funding; and it increased the basic allotment. Importantly, the bill as it left the House did not include merit pay provisions ranking teachers competitively or basing their compensation on their students’ performance; nor did the bill tie district funding to the results of student assessments like the STAAR. The Senate sponsor of HB 3, Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), pushed forward a revised version of the bill in the upper chamber, which was approved by the Senate on a vote of 26-3 with two senators “present not voting.” As an updated version of the bill progressed through the Senate and ultimately reached a conference committee, ATPE continued to work to keep merit pay and other negative provisions out of the final bill.

State leaders announced on May 23, 2019, that a deal on HB 3 and other key legislation had been reached. Known as the Texas Plan, the final version of HB 3 as passed by the House and Senate now awaits the Governor’s signature as of our writing of this report. It is important to note that the final bill includes approximately $5.2 billion for property tax compression in addition to the $6.2 billion for school resources, and it reduces school districts’ vulnerability to recapture.

In its final form, HB 3 also makes a number of education policy changes that fall outside the scope of traditional school finance legislation, addressing such topics as the creation of a “do not hire” registry for educators who have been accused of misconduct and requiring teachers to demonstrate proficiency in the science of teaching reading. Fortunately, HB 3 as finally passed does not rank educators across or within districts and expressly prohibits compensation being tied to testing in local teacher designation systems. The bill also does not tie school funding to students’ third grade reading scores.

Read more about the major changes to school finance and education policy that are contained in HB 3 in this detailed ATPE blog post about the omnibus bill here on Teach the Vote.

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Educator Pay: 

Increasing educator compensation through plans that foster both retention and a robust workforce at every Texas public school was another ATPE legislative priority this session. We advocated for compensation plans that would allow for local flexibility, encourage educator input, involve factors more meaningful than students’ standardized test scores, and align with other efforts to promote and enhance the education profession.

Leading up to the November 2018 Texas elections and heading into this year’s legislative session, Lt Gov. Dan Patrick (R) made teacher pay a central tenet of his communications. During campaign messaging, he first promised educators a $10,000 pay raise before ultimately scaling back his plan to the $5,000 pay raise encapsulated in Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound).

SB 3’s first high-profile hearing by the Senate Finance Committee coincided with the timing of ATPE at the Capitol, our lobby day event held every legislative session, and several ATPE members testified at the hearing. The Senate quickly passed the more than $4 billion bill out of the upper chamber within the first 60 days of session, after Gov. Abbott declared teacher pay to be another emergency item this year. SB 3 as passed by the Senate called for across-the-board pay raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

However, SB 3 stalled in the House as the lower chamber grappled with its larger school finance bill, HB 3. For its part, House members proposed smaller, state-funded, across-the-board pay raises at the district level that would cover all public school employees except administrators in their version of HB 3. Later in the session. SB 3-style pay raise language momentarily regained life in the Senate’s version of HB 3, but did not make it into the final version of the school finance bill. Ultimately, the combination of legislators opposed to across-the-board raises and the prioritization of property tax compression by state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Patrick, doomed the proposal for a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise.

While it does not guarantee an across-the-board, state-mandated pay raise, the final compromise version of HB 3 does contain two significant provisions on educator compensation. The first requires districts to spend 30 percent of the new revenue they receive under HB 3 on compensation. Seventy-five percent of that portion must be spent on teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses; with a prioritization of spending the money to increase compensation for classroom teachers with more than five years of experience. Districts are not required to give to every employee within this category an increase. The remaining 25 percent of the compensation carve-out may be spent on compensating other full-time staff who are not administrators. Additionally, districts likely can choose to spend these dollars on benefits such as insurance premiums in lieu of salary hikes.

HB 3 also allows districts to assign their teachers performance designations and draw down additional state funding for compensation based on the combination of a teacher’s designation and the student demographics of the campus in which they teach. The additional funding ranges from $3,000 to $32,000, depending on a teacher’s designation and other factors, but the total amount of money budgeted by the state for this program is only $140 million for the biennium, meaning that it may end up being limited to only a handful of districts. Based on the wording of HB 3, state funding under this program will flow to the districts rather than directly the individual teachers who may earn the designations, allowing districts substantial discretion in how they spend the additional money.

For more information on the compensation provisions found in HB 3 as finally passed, view our blog post about the bill’s details here on Teach the Vote.

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Teacher Retirement System (TRS):

ATPE had two legislative priorities for this session that were connected to the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). Our first priority was preserving educators’ pension benefits, which have remained largely stagnant for several years as a result of the legislature’s failure to inject more money into the system. This year, ATPE actively supported legislative efforts to preserve both the solvency and the defined-benefit structure of the TRS pension program. We also teamed up with Equable, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for pension plan sustainability, to jointly promote legislation that would address the TRS funding shortfall.

ATPE’s other TRS-related legislative priority was funding educators’ healthcare needs. We aimed to help the state and school districts provide active and retired public educators with more affordable and accessible healthcare benefits. With healthcare costs on the rise nationally, active and retired educators alike have seen their medical costs eat up an increasingly larger percentage of their take home pay or TRS annuities.

Retired teachers can rest a little easier knowing that the passage of Sen. Joan Huffman’s (R-Houston) SB 12 (pending the Governor’s signature, of course) will provide a much needed increase in contributions to TRS, making the fund actuarially sound and ensuring that the primary retirement income for many Texas educators will be viable for decades to come. Read more on the details of changes made to TRS, including the provision of a 13th check for current retirees, in this ATPE blog post for Teach the Vote.

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School Safety and Student Health: 

One of the most sweeping bills the legislature passed this session was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), which was aimed at improving school safety in the aftermath of the 2018 deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. School safety and mental health were among the issues that Gov. Abbott declared as emergency items for the 86th legislative session, following round-table discussions his office held with stakeholders, including ATPE state officers, during the interim.

Although SB 11 and a related mental health bill, SB 10, took a meandering path through the session, legislators ultimately placed a specific focus on improving students’ mental health and assigning specialized teams at each campus to identify individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or others. The bill’s largest component sends $100 million to school districts over the next two years through a school safety allotment for use on facilities and security programs. Read the rest of what SB 11 does in this ATPE blog post for Teach the Vote.

Other school safety-related bills that were passed this session include HB 1387 by Rep. Cole Hefner (R-Mt. Pleasant), which removes caps on the number of school marshals who can serve a public or private school, and HB 2195 by Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas), which requires that a school district’s multihazard emergency operations plan include a policy on responding to an active shooter situation. Freshman Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Ft. Worth) also passed a bill that pertains to the information law enforcement officials are required to share with school districts when a student is arrested. Her SB 2135 helps superintendents and school boards work together with law enforcement  agencies to exchange information that can be used to conduct a threat assessment or prepare a safety plan related to a student who may pose a threat.

Another noteworthy bill that passed this session and could be directly attributed as a reaction to recent school shootings was HB 496 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio). It sets forth protocols for the provision and use of bleeding kits in public schools, as well as training of students and staff to respond to traumatic injuries.

A couple of education-related bills were passed this session that aim to prevent or respond to the growing problem of child sex trafficking. HB 111 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), calls for school district employees’ training to include recognizing the signs of sexual abuse and sex trafficking of children with significant cognitive disabilities. HB 403 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) similarly requires superintendents and school board trustees to undergo training in identifying and reporting sexual abuse, human trafficking, and other maltreatment of children.

Lawmakers also approved bills this session that address students’ mental health, HB 18 by Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) is a bill that grew out of interim recommendations and strives to help school employees be aware of and provide interventions for students with mental health challenges, substance abuse, or a history of trauma. HB 19, also by Rep. Price, requires mental health professionals in each Education Service Center (ESC) region to provide training and resources to help address public school students’ mental health. Additionally, Rep. Todd Hunter’s (R-Corpus Christi) HCR 137 designates the month of September as Suicide Prevention Month for the next 10 years. Also, SB 435 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) requires local school health advisory councils to recommend appropriate opioid addiction and abuse curriculum that can be used by the school district.

Finally, there are some student health-related bills that passed and are worth mentioning. This session Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) finally passed HB 76, a bill he has carried for several sessions aimed at providing student athletes access to cardiac assessments before they participate in certain activities sponsored by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) also passed HB 684 enabling school nurses and other trained public school employees to provide assistance to students with seizure disorders. Likewise, HB 2243 filed by physician and Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Houston) aims to help school nurses administer asthma medication to certain students. SB 869 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) calls for an ad hoc committee to consult with the commissioner of education on updating guidelines for the care of students with food allergies who are at risk for anaphylaxis.

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Student Testing:

A handful of bills pertaining to student testing are on their way to the governor’s desk as of our writing of this report. Sen. Kel Seliger’s (R-Amarillo) bill to continue Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs), SB 213, has already been signed into law by Gov. Abbott. The ATPE-supported bill originally aimed to make the IGC law permanent, but its final version simply extends the sunset date for the law to September 1, 2023, making it ripe for consideration again during the 2021 or 2023 legislative session.

The largest testing bill that passed this session is HB 3906 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), which makes a variety of changes to how state assessments are administered and the content of the tests. Additionally, HB 1244 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) changes the end-of-course exam for U.S. History to include 10 questions from the civics test used in the naturalization process; and HB 1891 by Rep. Lynn Stucky (R-Denton) will allow those who reach a required score on high school equivalency exams to be exempt from taking the Texas Success Initiative assessment.

Read more about these bills and others pertaining to testing in this ATPE blog post for Teach the Vote.

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Special Education:

During the interim, special education advocates worked diligently on the state’s Special Education Strategic Plan and Corrective Action Response, which was ordered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) due to Texas’s artificial 8.5% cap on special education enrollment. Advocates also worked with the Texas Commission on Public School Finance last year, carrying legislators into the session with renewed energy for special education reforms.

To invigorate everyone even more, news broke just before session that our state faced penalties from ED due to the Texas Education Agency’s failure to maintain “state financial support” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Essentially, the state spent $33.3 million less on special education in 2012 than in the year before, and thus, Texas was being assessed a $33.3 million financial penalty by ED. Unfortunately, the state has continued this trend, and it is now estimated that the federal penalty will reach $233 million.

Legislation passed this session hopes to address this issue going forward. The funding changes in the major school finance bill, HB 3, and under the state’s supplemental appropriations bill, SB 500 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), should help address Texas’s issue with maintenance of financial support. HB 3 raises the mainstream weight from 1.1 to 1.15; creates a new dyslexia weight of 0.1; and establishes a special education allotment advisory committee. SB 500, the supplemental budget, includes over $219 million to settle maintenance of financial support costs and prevent future penalties.

Other bills will impact special education beyond funding, such as HB 165 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), which will allow students in special education programs to earn high school endorsements on their transcripts, and SB 139 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), which will provide parents with clearer notice on special education rights, including information related to evaluation and eligibility. Additionally, SB 522 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) improves the development of individualized education programs (IEPs) for students who are visually impaired, and SB 2075 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) aims to improve school districts’ compliance with dyslexia screening and parental notification.

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Payroll Deduction:

Protecting educators’ right to use payroll deduction for the voluntary payment of their professional association dues was another ATPE priority for 2019. In 2017, ATPE and other groups that represent public employees fought off vigorous, politically motivated efforts to repeal the payroll deduction statute, with the issue being named a top priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and even being added to Gov. Greg Abbott’s list of urgent issues that he felt necessitated a special session that summer. Those efforts failed last session, and ATPE was prepared to fight any similar legislative efforts this session.

Despite frequent pleas from far-right groups like Empower Texans and the Texas Public Policy Foundation to compel the 86th Texas Legislature to do something about the “union dues” issue, ATPE is pleased to report that not a single bill was filed this year aiming to eliminate payroll deduction for educators. There were some efforts in the final days of the session to try to amend language onto other bills that could prevent public employees from using payroll deduction, but those efforts failed.

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Class Sizes:

Early in the session, the House Public Education Committee heard HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford). This bill would have changed the current hard cap of 22 students in a single elementary grade classroom to a campus-wide, grade-level average, having the effect of allowing class sizes to dramatically expand. ATPE strongly opposed this bill, but it was unfortunately voted favorably out of the committee. After weeks of inaction on the bill, the language from HB 1133 was abruptly amended as a House floor amendment onto one of Rep. Huberty’s school accountability bills, HB 3904. The next day, this language was stripped from HB 3904 following a third-reading amendment by Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie). What followed was quite extraordinary. Within hours, HB 1133 was added to a floor calendar and set to be voted on by the full House. Rep. Stickland postponed a vote on the bill three times, and when he finally allowed for a vote, the House defeated HB 1133 by a vote of 44 yeas and 97 nays. For more about the debate and to find out how your legislator voted on HB 1133, check out our coverage here on the Teach the Vote blog. ATPE thanks those who called their legislators and helped us oppose this bill in order to protect class-size limits, which are part of ATPE’s member-adopted legislative program.

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Private School Vouchers:

ATPE’s final legislative priority for the 86th legislative session was opposing the privatization of public schools through programs such as vouchers, scholarships, tax credits, education savings accounts, or allowing private entities to take over the authority and accountability vested in locally elected school boards. During the 2017 legislative sessions, private school vouchers were a top priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and voucher legislation easily passed the Texas Senate only to be stalled in the House. The House members’ unambiguous opposition to vouchers last session, combined with the strong statement made in 2018 by educators showing up in higher numbers at the polls, dissuaded lawmakers and even state leaders from pushing a voucher priority this year. ATPE is happy to report that no major private school voucher bills like the ones filed last session were heard in committee this time around.

There were a handful of bills considered this session that ATPE and others deemed to be virtual voucher bills. The primary bill in this group was SB 1455 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). SB 1455 would have eliminated statutory limitations on a student’s ability to demand access to more than three virtual school courses in a semester. The bill also called for expanding the number of full-time virtual school programs and access to those programs for students in grades K-2. Virtual school programs while accessed through a school district or charter school are operated almost exclusively by private, often for-profit, providers. Research has consistently shown that such full-time programs do a poor job of educating students compared to traditional brick-and-mortar schools, but they are a source of large profits for the providers at the expense of taxpayers. Other similar bills were filed this session by Sens. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Bob Hall (R-Edgewood). Thankfully, all of these ATPE-opposed virtual school expansion bills failed to make it out of the House Public Education Committee this session.

Although not technically a “voucher” bill, ATPE believes it is worth mentioning this session’s version of the so-called “Tim Tebow” bill. Session after session, lawmakers have filed bills named in honor of the famous athlete who was home-schooled. The bills attempt to force public schools to allow home-schooled students to participate in their activities through the University Interscholastic League (UIL). The latest iteration was HB 1324 by Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), which ATPE opposed based on our member-adopted legislative program. During its hearing by the House Public Education Committee, ATPE submitted written testimony against HB 1324, expressing our concern that there was no assurance under the bill that home-schooled students would be required to meet the same prerequisites for UIL participation as public school students. The bill was expected to be brought up for a committee vote a couple weeks later, but was left off of the vote list, likely in response to growing opposition to HB 1324. ATPE appreciates the members, educators, parents, coaches, and other stakeholders who called their legislators to oppose this bill.

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Charter Schools:

In the previous regular legislative session of 2017, charter schools walked away with $60 million in first-time state facilities funding and the ability to operate school district campuses and receive financial benefits through “1882 partnerships,” a reference to the enabling legislation, SB 1882 (2017). While charter school legislation did not take center stage this session, several bills affecting charter schools are headed to the governor’s desk.

Some bills that passed this session have the effect of treating charters in the same manner as traditional public schools. HB 109 by Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) prohibits charters from operating on Memorial Day; HB 2190 by Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) allows children of charter school employees to attend their parents’ school; and SB 372 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) allows charter governing bodies to employ security personnel, commission peace officers, and enter into agreements with law enforcement to assign school resource officers. Additionally, SB 2293 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) subjects charter school employees to the same collective bargaining and anti-striking laws as all other public school employees. SB 2293 also creates a common application for charter school admission and a requirement that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) maintain and report on the nebulous “charter waiting list” often cited by charter school proponents as justification for their further expansion.

While the above-referenced bills do bring some parity between charters and traditional public schools, ATPE also supported several bills this session that would have had an even greater impact but did not pass. For instance, HB 43 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) would have prohibited charters from using exclusionary admission policies based on students’ discipline history, and HB 1853 by Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio) would have required charter schools to employ certified teachers.

Other bills that passed this session will impact charter school finance and expansion. The previously discussed omnibus school finance bill, HB 3, affects charter school funding, including requiring charters to pay their fair share into TRS and removing the charter benefit of the small and midsize adjustment. SB 668, a mandate relief bill by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), allows charters to submit an expansion approval request up to 18 months before expanding and requires that charters notify school superintendents affected by the expansion. Unfortunately, this is a pared-down version of stricter notification requirements that were included in the bill as it left the House. Other related bills that passed include HB 4258 by Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), which provides the attorney general with the sole authority to approve the tax-exempt status of charter school bonds, nixing the authority of municipalities. Lawmakers also approved SB 2117 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), which provides the financial benefits of 1882 partnerships to previously established partnerships in Spring Branch ISD and Aldine ISD that were formed prior to the final implementation of SB 1882. Lastly, SB 1454 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) improves the transparency of the sale, lease, and disposition of closed charter schools and their assets.

A couple of other charter-related bills passed the legislature, including HB 4205 by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), which allows for large charter operators to repurpose a closed public school district campus with the requirement that the same students who were at the campus before it was closed be admitted. Finally, HB 1051 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) makes permanent the Goodwill Excel Center, an adult high school diploma and industry certification charter school pilot program, and codifies its best practices.

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Student Discipline:

Legislators also passed several bills related to student discipline this session. HB 3630 by Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Dallas) and SB 712 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) are identical bills prohibiting the use of “aversive techniques,” which are described as techniques or interventions intended to inflict pain or emotional discomfort. This includes sprays, electric shocks, using a device to restrain all four extremities, and denial of the ability to use the restroom. Teacher organizations worked with the bill authors to ensure that this legislation would not prevent an educator from using a technique outlined in a student’s behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or from removing a student from class when necessary.

Regarding the removal of students, SB 2432 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) adds criminal harassment against a district employee to the list of conduct that will result in a student’s automatic removal from a classroom. This would mandate that a student who threatens a teacher or sends them harassing electronic communications is immediately removed from class. Another bill also by Sen. Taylor, SB 1451, states that negative action may not be taken against an educator solely on the basis that the teacher made disciplinary referrals or documented student misconduct. ATPE supported these bills.

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School Turnaround:

Lawmakers spent considerable time this session discussing ways to improve student performance at public schools that are struggling under the state’s accountability system. Finding a programmatic “fix” that will dramatically improve performance in a reasonably short period of time, and in particular, one that is capable of being replicated, has long been an elusive goal of state and local policymakers and many education reformers. The latest attempt is called the “Accelerated Campus Excellence” (ACE) approach. The program, which began in Dallas ISD and has spread to a handful of other districts mostly in the DFW metroplex, has shown some promise and caught the attention of lawmakers when it was discussed during interim hearings of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance last year.

In a nutshell, ACE consists of a robust set of wraparound services for students at a persistently struggling campus, along with salary incentives and additional training for the teachers at the campus. The program utilizes a campus reconstitution approach, where a principal, often new to the campus, assembles a team of educators, some of whom are already teaching at the campus but many of whom are new. Many aspects of ACE mirror initiatives that ATPE has long advocated, such as using financial incentives to entice high-quality, often more experienced, educators to work at hard-to-staff campuses; offering robust mentoring and professional development; and providing students with robust wraparound supports. Unfortunately, the high cost of both the educator stipends and the wraparound services has made the longer-term sustainability of an ACE program questionable.

Several bills this session included provisions that would add ACE program language to state law, including both the House and Senate versions of HB 3. Regrettably, most of the provisions included in such bills featured heavy reliance on students’ standardized test performance data, including the use of STAAR data, to select educators for ACE campuses; provisions that rank teachers competitively by district or statewide, again based largely on student performance; and giving the appointed commissioner of education extreme control over the programs and their approval.

Ultimately, the ACE provisions were removed from HB 3, the omnibus school finance bill. However, the legislature did also pass HB 4205 by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) which had been amended with language from another stand-alone ACE bill, SB 1412 by Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock). HB 4205 as finally passed contains a watered down and unfunded provision that allows districts, subject to commissioner approval, to use a version of ACE as a turnaround plan for a multi-year IR campus under Section 39.105 of the Texas Education Code.

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Political Speech:

In addition to advancing pro-public education legislation, ATPE worked to stop proposals this session that would have hindered the ability of our schools, teachers, and students to receive the best education possible. Specifically, ATPE worked to block SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper) and SB 904 by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola). These bills would have had the combined effect of subjecting educators to extensive restrictions on political speech that go far beyond those that apply to any other group of public employees. Under these bills, teachers would have faced criminal penalties for all kinds of innocuous activities, including break room conversations of a political nature and teaching students about civic engagement as required by the Texas curriculum standards. Neither bill made it all the way through the legislative process.

ATPE also opposed SB 9, another controversial bill by Sen. Hughes that would have significantly increased the criminal penalties for mistakes made by voters, decreased voter privacy, and made voter registration more difficult. The Senate passed SB 9 on a party line vote, but the measure stalled in the House late in the session where it could not make it onto a calendar for floor consideration.

Another pair of bills that were of concern to some education groups were SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) and HB 281 by Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), aimed at preventing public entities from hiring lobbyists or paying dues to associations that lobby the legislature. While it is difficult to speculate what impact those bills might have had on groups like ATPE that do not receive their dues dollars from public entities, there is no question that weakening the ability of local schools to communicate their needs to the legislature was one of the authors’ goals. Fortunately, a deluge of messages from public education supporters all over Texas helped convince legislators to reject the bill in a major late-session vote on the House floor on May 20.

It is widely believed that these bills were filed in response to pressure from certain anti-public education groups reacting to the overwhelming pro-public education sentiment expressed by many voters in the most recent elections. Some of these bills came perilously close to becoming law, and ongoing advocacy by educators during the legislative session was among the key determining factors in preventing them from making it to the governor’s desk.

Indeed, if there is a single takeaway for the education community following the 2019 legislative session, it is reinforcement of the fact that political participation by educators is essential for the defeat of anti-public education bills. Stated differently, the engagement of educators in every election cycle and through grassroots communications with their elected officials, especially during a legislative session, is what produces successful outcomes for public education. ATPE thanks all those who helped prioritize the needs of public schools, educators, and most importantly, students during this 86th legislative session.

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From The Texas Tribune: Welcome to Hell Week for the Texas Legislature

Analysis by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune
May 20, 2019

Analysis: Welcome to Hell Week for the Texas Legislature” 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.

Dense fog blankets the dome of the Capitol in Austin. Photo by Emree Weaver / The Texas Tribune

Here at the beginning of a week in which most bills in the Texas Legislature will die, the big priorities set out at the beginning, in January, are still alive: school finance, property tax reform, school safety and responses to Hurricane Harvey.

Lots of other proposals are fading fast.

As of Friday, just over 5% of the 7,324 bills filed in the House and Senate this session had made it all the way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. That tells you a bit about what will happen in the next few days. When this is over, when lawmakers have gaveled out on Memorial Day, that percentage will have jumped considerably. Two years ago, 18% of the filed bills made it to the governor. Four years ago, it was 21%. And in 2013, it was 24.4%.

But don’t just look at success; that won’t explain the dramatic tension of the next few days. Look instead at the overwhelming failure rate. Only about 1 bill in 5 — 1 in 4 in a good year — makes it out of a regular session alive. Everything else (that hasn’t found new life as an amendment to other legislation) meets its final end in the final week — when procedural deadlines form a bottleneck that most of the stampeding legislation doesn’t survive.

Those failures are not always surprising to the authors of bills, but failure is a tough ending when a legislator has worked for 20 weeks or more to make some changes in the state’s law books.

The big stuff is all right — at least for a minute — but other things you’ve probably heard or read about are in peril, a list that includes new laws that would allow people and businesses to discriminate when that’s based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”; limits on local residents’ ability to block oil and gas pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure projects; and loosening of the state’s current restrictions on medical marijuana. There’s also the Senate confirmation of Abbott’s Secretary of State appointee, David Whitley, who presided over the state’s botched search for noncitizens on the state’s rolls of registered voters and who’s out of a job if the Senate doesn’t confirm him before the session ends. Until Sunday night, it also included changes to election laws sought by Republican lawmakers; that bill didn’t get onto the House’s final calendar, but its provisions could find their way into other legislation before the session ends.

That’s a tiny sample of what’s in the air, and it’s changing fast. Some of the items on that list have already died once or twice, only to pop up in some other form. You’ll know in a week or so — after Memorial Day — what’s really dead and what really passed.

The Texas Legislature’s Doomsday Calendar — the dramatic name for the deadlines that stack up at the end of a regular legislative session — only has a few squares left.

Four of those are red-letter days:

  • Tuesday, May 21, the last day Senate bills can be considered for the first time in the House.
  • Wednesday, May 22, the last day the House can consider Senate bills on a local and consent calendar, which is for uncontested legislation, for the first time.
  • Friday, May 24, the last day the House can decide whether to accept or negotiate Senate changes to bills.
  • Sunday, May 26, the last day the House and Senate can vote on final versions of bills they’ve been negotiating.

The last day — the 140th — gets a Latin name, but not a red border. It’s sine die, the last day of the 86th Texas Legislature’s regular session.

Another clock starts then, marking the time between the end of the legislative session and Father’s Day — June 16 — the last day Abbott can veto legislation passed by the House and Senate.

That’s an important deadline, but it’s not one that legislators can control. Their ability to steer the state will ebb soon — but not just yet. For them, we’re entering make-or-break week.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/20/welcome-to-texas-legislature-hell-week/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Senate approves school finance reform bill, but opts not to fund it with a sales tax hike

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks from the dais in the Senate chamber last month. Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate approves school finance reform bill, but opts not to fund it with a sales tax hike” 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.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

Since school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any tax relief effort would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools, if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.

Taylor had originally included several provisions that would provide ongoing tax relief, paid for by an increase in the sales tax by one percentage point.

Republican leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had thrown their support behind that sales tax swap, arguing it would help Texans who are currently being taxed out of their homes. But the proposal has serious detractors in lawmakers from both parties in both chambers who are opposed to a higher sales tax.

So Taylor stripped the increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

A few senators didn’t vote yes on HB 3 because they didn’t know the cost of the bill or how their school districts would be affected by it.

“The lack of a fiscal note delineating the total cost of the bill was unacceptable,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who voted against the bill along with state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.

Creighton echoed those concerns about not knowing the legislation’s price tag, though he said he agreed with its policy.

“Before the session ends, I will have another chance to vote on the final bill, and I look forward to supporting it once I have a clear understanding of the impacts on school districts in Senate District 4, and the true cost of the legislation, which will have implications for all Texas taxpayers,” he said in a statement after the vote.

State Sens. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, marked themselves “present, not voting.”

The House and Senate have passed versions of HB 3 that are similar in some ways: Both would raise the base funding per student — a number that hasn’t budged in four years — and would provide about $780 million for free, full-day pre-K for eligible students.

Among the disagreements: how to make sure school employees get much-needed raises. The Senate has prioritized $5,000 pay raises for all full-time teachers and librarians. The House has directed districts to give all school employees about $1,388 in raises on average statewide and designated extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion.

Senate Democrats’ efforts to extend those $5,000 raises to full-time counselors and other employees failed along party lines Monday.

Also controversially for some, the Senate includes money providing bonuses to schools based on third-grade test scores and funding districts that want to provide merit pay for their top-rated teachers. Many teacher groups have opposed both, arguing it would put more emphasis on a flawed state standardized test.

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, failed to get an amendment to the bill approved that would strike tying any funding to third-grade test scores.

Teachers, parents and advocates following on social media had paid attention to Powell’s amendment, mobilizing in support through a Twitter hashtag “#NoSTAARonHB3.”

Taylor pointed out that the bill also allows school districts to use assessments other than the state’s STAAR standardized test, which has lately come under renewed scrutiny, with researchers and advocates arguing it doesn’t adequately measure students’ reading abilities. He approved an amendment requiring the state to pay for school districts to use those alternative tests, which he estimated would cost about $4 million.

Emma Platoff contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/06/texas-senate-school-finance-sales-tax/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Governor Abbott declares emergency items, includes teacher pay

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a total of six emergency items in Tuesday’s State of the State address to a joint session of the 86th Texas Legislature. The State of the State is traditionally delivered by the governor at the beginning of each legislative session, and is the state equivalent to the national State of the Union address delivered by the president.

The governor often uses the State of the State as an opportunity to announce emergency items for the current legislature. The first 60 days of the legislative session are meant for organization and bill filing, and legislators cannot vote on bills until after 60 days have passed. Emergency items declared by the governor are the only exception.

Standing ovation for teacher pay announcement during State of the State address, Feb. 5, 2019.

Governor Abbott listed six emergency items on Tuesday: School finance reform, teacher pay, school safety, mental health, property tax relief, and disaster response.

What does this mean functionally? The legislature may vote on bills under these emergency headings immediately instead of waiting for the March 8 deadline, theoretically granting them a one-month head start ahead of other bills. Yet few of these bills have been filed, and none have begun the committee process that marks the first major step in a bill’s journey to becoming a law. For this reason, the practical impact of designation as emergency items has more to do with sending a signal to legislators and the public that these are the governor’s top priorities.

In addition, each of these items is expected to require a significant amount of state funding. The budget offered by the Texas House would provide $7.1 billion in new revenue for public education, contingent upon spending a significant portion of that money on providing property tax relief, ostensibly by rebalancing the state and local share of education funding. Increasing the state’s share will ease the burden on local property taxpayers, but will not increase overall public school funding. To increase overall school funding will require spending additional money on top of what is required to ease local tax pressure.

Increasing teacher pay will require another tranche of state funds. The Texas Senate has proposed Senate Bill (SB) 3, which would grant teachers a $5,000 annual raise. The bill’s cost is tagged at $3.7 billion for the first biennium. Gov. Abbott’s comments today on teacher pay implied that he prefers a plan under development by House leaders to provide a differentiated pay program that could create a path for select teachers to earn as much as $100,000. This would apply to far fewer teachers than the Senate’s plan and consequently carry a much smaller price tag.

School safety, mental health, and disaster response will each require further funding. Fortunately, the biennial revenue estimate delivered by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in January projects legislators will have roughly $12 billion more than they budgeted the previous two years. It’s important to note that some of that money will be taken up by inflation and population growth. Some of the emergency items, such as disaster response, are prime targets for one-time spending from the Economic Stabilization Fund. The state’s “rainy day fund,” as it is often called, is projected to total $15.4 billion by the end of 2021.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas school finance panel approves final report to lawmakers

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
Dec. 19, 2018

Texas Commission on Public School Finance member Todd Williams of Dallas, left, speaks with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, on Jan. 23, 2018. | Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

Texas school finance panel approves final report to lawmakers” 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.

After hours of discussion Wednesday, a state panel studying school finance stripped its final report of language that blamed the state for inadequate education spending — and that added urgency to a need for more money to improve student performance.

The original version of the report, unveiled last Tuesday, included stronger language that held the state accountable for the lack of education funding and urged lawmakers to immediately inject more than a billion dollars of new funding into public schools. Scott Brister, the panel’s chairman and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, led the charge to make those changes, which he said would be more palatable to lawmakers and keep Texas from being sued in the future.

“I do have a problem several places where it says our school system has failed. I do think that’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Some lawmakers and educators on the panel pushed back before agreeing to compromise.

“I think we have failed our schools and we haven’t funded them, in my view, adequately or equitably,” responded state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

Despite the conflict, the 13-member commission unanimously approved more than 30 recommendations on Wednesday aimed at boosting public education funding, improving student performance, cleaning up a messy funding distribution system — and providing property tax relief for Texans.

A final report will be sent to lawmakers, who are convening next month amid calls from state leadership to overhaul a long-embattled school finance system. Gov. Greg Abbott supported the panel’s vote in a statement Wednesday afternoon: “Today’s school finance commission report made clear that the state must reform the broken Robin Hood system and allocate more state funding to education. This session, we will do just that.”

The vote was the culmination of nearly a year of meetings and hours of testimony from school superintendents, education advocates and policy experts.

Panel members have bickered for months about basic foundational concepts, including whether the state had been underfunding public schools and whether they actually need more money in order to improve. The report takes a middle ground approach, promising more money to school districts that meet certain criteria or agree to offer specific programs such as dual language or merit pay for teachers.

Many of the debates among panel members Wednesday reflected their political divisions, with Brister — a conservative and Abbott appointee — arguing against citing a specific amount lawmakers should infuse into the public school funding system and school officials saying the panel should take an explicit stand based on its research.

An earlier version of the report said lawmakers should take the “important first step” of approving more than $1.73 billion in “new funding” for “the vast majority (if not all)” of the proposed programs.

The recommendation the commission approved Wednesday dropped that dollar figure.

Brister said he was uncomfortable sending a report to lawmakers that pressured them into making specific financial decisions.

“I am willing to say we will have to add new money to do these things. I am not willing to say, ‘And the first step is, every dime has to come from new money,” he said.

Nicole Conley-Johnson, chief financial officer of the Austin Independent School District, unsuccessfully argued to keep the paragraph in its original form.

“The spirit by which we were convened is to establish the changes and make recommendations,” she said. “I feel like we need to have the foresight to put in the estimated cost.”

Education advocacy groups criticized Brister’s decision. “There can be no real school finance reform that fails to address adequacy,” said Shannon Holmes, executive director of the Association of Texas Public Educators, in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “ATPE is disheartened that some members on the commission were unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the limitation of our state’s current funding levels out of fears of sparking litigation.”

The report still includes cost estimates for recommended programs and changes to how funding is divvied up among schools. But it no longer implores state lawmakers to pay for them.

Among the recommendations the commission plans to send to lawmakers are:

  • $100 million a year to school districts that want to develop their own teacher evaluation metrics and tie pay to performance. The total amount available should increase $100 million each year until it reaches $1 billion.
  • Up to $150 million to incentivize school districts to offer dual language programs, which instruct students in both English and Spanish, and to improve their dyslexia programs.
  • $800 million to incentivize school districts to improve students’ reading level in early grades and to succeed in college or a career after graduating high school.
  • $1.1 billion to improve education for low-income students, with school districts that have a higher share of needy students getting more money.
  • Create a new goal of having 60 percent of third-grade students reading on or above grade level and 60 percent of high school seniors graduating with a technical certificate, military inscription, or college enrollment without the need for remedial classes.
  • Cap local school district tax rates in order to offer property tax relief and a small amount of funding for schools —a proposal from Abbott.
  • No extra funding for special education programs until the state has completed overhauling those programs in line with a federal mandate.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/12/19/texas-school-finance-panel-approves-final-report/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

School finance commission discusses initial recommendations

School finance commission meeting Dec. 11, 2018.

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met Tuesday in Austin to discuss recommendations for the commission’s report, which is due to the legislature by the end of the month. The initial draft recommendations can be viewed here, and additional resources can be found here.

The draft report includes a recommendation that the 86th Texas Legislature “inject significant additional annual state revenue” through new strategic allotments and weights outlined in the commission’s report, including about $1.7 billion in specific areas. The report adds that for the purposes of new funding, members should note that an increase of $500 million in state funding is equal to a roughly 0.9 percent increase over the last budget biennium. This would be formula funding, targeted at the neediest studies, and tied to specific outcomes.

Commission Chair Scott Brister voiced reservations, suggesting that asking the legislature for significant additional funding is not the commission’s job. He later clarified that his chief opposition was to placing a dollar figure on additional funding. Several members pushed back, including House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston), who said he would not sign a report that does not call for additional school funding.

The report also calls for reallocating $5.34 billion in existing funds to more impactful spending and greater system-wide equity. The commission recommends significant investment to substantially increase third grade reading levels. Outcomes-based funding would be targeted toward early literacy and post-secondary access of career, military, or higher education without remediation.

The commission is recommending a high-quality teacher allotment, initially funded at $200 million, for districts wishing to offer differentiated compensation to pay their most effective educators higher salaries sooner in their career. This would be contingent on districts creating locally-developed, multi-measure evaluation and compensation systems based on an outline created by the legislature. This includes the state setting a goal that top teachers have a path to a $100,000 salary and incentivizing districts to assign top teachers to the most challenging campuses.

Finally, the draft report calls for statutorily increasing the basic allotment, though it does not specify a specific amount. It calls for increasing the yield on “copper pennies” and compressing the rate in order to provide tax relief, as well as reducing the role of recapture in the school finance system. The report makes no recommendations regarding special education, instead suggesting that the current corrective action plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education should be completed before any additional reforms are discussed.

Discussing the commission’s major findings, Brister acknowledged that schools are being asked to do more than ever before. This includes higher security standards and providing for the physical and mental well-being of students in addition to educating them. He then asked to strike language from the report that says the state has failed to adequately fund public education.

After breaking for lunch, the commission returned for more in-depth discussion on individual recommendations. Commission member Todd Williams of the Commit Partnership in Dallas pointed out that the teacher compensation portion of the plan (Section D) does not include specific funding for strategic staffing such as that implemented by the Dallas ISD ACE program, which is intended to incentivize top teachers to teach at the highest-need campuses. Williams argued the evaluation system and strategic staffing system should be treated as separate and funded accordingly.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) then laid out the recommendations from the working group he chaired on revenues. The group’s primary recommendation is to adopt Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to cap local property tax revenue growth. The plan suggests capping growth at 2.5 percent annually, and replacing revenue lost by school districts with state funding. The governor’s office does not specify how much this would cost or from where the replacement funding would come.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez presented a chart addressing the three plans endorsed by Bettencourt’s group, which suggests that the governor’s plan would reduce local maintenance and operations (M&O) tax collections by nearly $1 billion and increase school district revenue by $300 million in 2020 at a cost of roughly $1.3 billion. By 2023, the governor’s plan is projected to reduce M&O tax collection by $3.7 billion while increasing school district revenues by $74 million. Lopez pointed out that this is primarily a tax relief plan, as opposed to a school finance plan, which explains why future funding is projected to flatten out.

The commission discussed the level of emphasis that should be placed upon the governor’s revenue cap plan. Members pointed out the interrelation of property taxes and school finance, as well as the need to focus on the commission’s statutory charge, which is to fix the school finance system. The governor’s plan alone would not change the fundamental mechanics of the school finance system.

Sen. Bettencourt has argued that the state’s coffers will be flush heading into the next budget cycle based on tax revenue from booming oil and gas production, but the state comptroller has yet to release a formal biennial revenue estimate (BRE) with hard numbers upon which to base a budget. State Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian), who represents oil and gas-dependent west Texas, cautioned against relying on oil and gas as a reliable, long-term funding source. A combination of the governor’s plan and the commission’s recommendations for additional public education spending could add up to a price tag north of $5 billion for the upcoming budget biennium.

The commission is scheduled to meet next Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018, to vote on final recommendations. The commission is required by law to submit its report to the legislature by December 31.

From The Texas Tribune: A tight-fisted Texas Legislature with expensive ambitions

Analysis: A tight-fisted Texas Legislature with expensive ambitions” 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.

The Texas Legislature’s strong allergy to tax increases might be abating — just as long as you don’t call them tax increases.

They’re not saying so out loud — no point in riling up a price-sensitive electorate before the holidays, before the upcoming legislative session — or before lawmakers are ready to make their sales pitch.

But the talk of school finance as a top legislative priority guarantees a conversation about taxes. While there are many great policy reasons to mess with that persistent and gnarly issue, the political motivation here is simple: Texas property owners have made it clear to their representatives that they want lower property taxes.

When you do hear lawmakers talking about tax increases next year — whatever euphemisms they choose — they’ll be talking in terms of how that money will pay for property tax cuts. Cutting everyone’s current most-hated tax is the only way to explain so many conservative legislators making serious noises about increasing state revenue.

Given the way the state pays for public education — with a combination of local property taxes, and state and federal funding — the only ways to lower property taxes are to cut public education spending or to find money elsewhere to offset property tax cuts.

In the state’s 2019 fiscal year, the local share of school finance spending is estimated to be 55.5 percent of the total, while the state’s share is expected to be 35 percent, according to the Legislative Budget Board. The rest comes from the federal government.

The last time the Texas Legislature tackled school finance, the local and state shares matched. Years of rising property values – and rising local property tax revenue with them – have allowed the state to lower its share.

The price tag for a rebalancing would be enormous, though. And in spite of Democratic gains in last month’s elections, Texas still has a Republican-dominated state government, with GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, and Republicans in every statewide office. Many of them got where they are by opposing anything that sounded like higher taxes, which makes the road ahead pretty interesting.

If you do some quick arithmetic on those 2019 estimates, it would take a $5.7 billion increase in annual state spending to rebalance the state and local shares of public education spending. Doing that would put them both back where they were in 2008 — each covering about 45 percent of the load.

That’s easier to do on the back of an envelope than it is to do in the Legislature. The budget ahead is tight. House and Senate leaders have to pass what’s called a “supplemental appropriations bill” to take care of shortages in the current budget, Hurricane Harvey recovery costs, and so on. Early guesstimates are that they’ll start more than $5 billion short of what they need for the next budget — and that’s before they even bring up the expensive school finance project.

The governor already is circulating a document that dares to mention taxes in the title: “Improving Student Outcomes and Maintaining Affordability through Comprehensive Education and Tax Reforms.”

That gets right to the politics of the situation: State leaders are interested in easing property tax burdens, and school finance is the biggest lever in their toolkit. It’s also way out of balance and happens to need fixing. Lawmakers often blame the imbalance on school funding formulas. But they’re the authors of those dreaded formulas, and this is also a chance to put something better in place.

But it’s the tax problem — the price of owning property — that has made their price-sensitive voters potentially receptive to increases in other taxes. New money could come from eliminating exemptions, from property appraisal reforms, from raising existing tax rates or creating new taxes — any number of things. They’ll decide the details when they meet. They’ll figure out what to call it, too: It might be remarkable to see “tax” in the title of the governor’s presentation, but its neighboring word — “reform” — is the political touch.

They want to lower property taxes to make their voters happy, and to accomplish that expensive task without stirring up a new revolt from a different set of taxpayers.

At the end, someone in Texas has to pay for this stuff.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/12/03/tight-fisted-texas-legislature-school-finance-property-tax/.

 

Texas Tribune mission statement

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

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 22, 2017

Happy holidays! Here’s your week in review from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed into law a major tax overhaul bill approved by Congress this week. The president also signed off on a short-term funding bill to keep the federal governmental operational for a few more weeks until longer-term legislation can be passed. The final $1.5 trillion tax bill omits some provisions that were worrisome for educators employed in public schools, which ATPE urged our congressional delegation to remove from earlier versions of the legislation. For more on the tax law that was approved, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) has announced his appointments to two key state commissions. First, the speaker revealed his picks to serve on the new Texas Commission on Public School Finance, authorized by the legislature earlier this year. The House appointments include Reps. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Ken King (R-Canadian). Fittingly, all three of the representatives chosen by the speaker also hold leadership roles on the House Public Education Committee: Huberty as committee chair, Bernal as committee vice-chair, and King as chair of the Subcommittee on Educator Quality. Also appointed to serve on the commission is Nicole Conley Johnson, who is currently employed as Chief Financial Officer for Austin ISD. Additional members of the school finance commission were previously announced by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Yesterday, Straus also announced that Reps. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), and Poncho Nevarez (D-Eagle Pass) would serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission, along with public member and retired accountant Ron Steinhart of Dallas. The commission is charged with overseeing and making recommendations to the legislature on periodic reviews of various state agencies.


Twenty Texas school districts will have an opportunity to take part in a pilot program using locally designed accountability measures. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath named the districts selected earlier this week from a pool of 50 applicants. The pilot program falls under Rep. Dan Huberty’s House Bill 22 passed earlier this year. For more on the local accountability pilot study, view information on the Texas Education Agency’s website here.



 

Congress releases final tax bill

The U.S. House and Senate have finalized a conference tax bill that is expected to be voted on by each body over the course of next week. After the individual chambers passed their own bills pertaining to reforming provisions of the current tax code, a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences in the bills. The final bill must now receive the support of both chambers and the signature of the president before it becomes law.

ATPE wrote members of the Texas delegation last week to urge members of the conference committee and leaders in both chambers to stand with teachers on two issues: maintaining a credit for educators who spend personal money on classroom supplies and omitting a potential new tax on investments of public employee pensions like the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas. ATPE is pleased to report that the final bill reflects our requests on both issues.

The educator expense deduction was maintained at up to $250 a year, giving educators who use money from their own paychecks a nominal but meaningful credit for at least a portion of what is spent to give all students and classrooms access to needed supplies. The House bill originally scrapped the deduction altogether, while the Senate bill doubled the max deduction to as much as $500.

The Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), as it related to public pensions, was ultimately scrapped under the final bill. The House bill would have applied the tax to public pension investments, including the TRS trust fund, which could have weakened its financial soundness by subjecting it to new additional tax liability. The Senate’s bill did not apply the new tax to public pension investments.

Another issue that garnered significant attention was a provision termed to be one aimed at “school choice” and was included in varying forms under both bills. The Senate’s provision on the topic was added in the final hours of debate by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). The final bill includes a negotiated version of the provision, which expands spending eligibility for 529 college savings accounts. If the bill becomes law, parents will be able to use the money they’ve saved in a 529 account to pay for up to $10,000 a year in K-12 education expenses, including at private schools.

ATPE appreciates the conference committee’s final decision on both the educator expense deduction and the UBIT. We also appreciate the help of legislators and leaders who advocated on behalf educators. High-profile provisions of the final plan include a reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, a smaller top tax rate for individuals (at 37 percent instead of just under 40), omission of the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance, and a cap on the deduction of state and local taxes (SALT) at $10,000.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 15, 2017

As you’re preparing for a holiday break, here’s a look at this week’s education news from ATPE:


As ATPE and other associations are working to encourage the education community to get out the vote in the 2018 elections, our GOTV efforts are rankling some officeholders and the special interests that have supported them financially. Seemingly frightened by the prospect of high voter turnout among educators, at least one lawmaker is complaining about school districts fostering a culture of voting among their staffs and students. As ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported yesterday on our blog, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) is asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue a legal opinion to try to stifle the nonpartisan voter education efforts being spearheaded by the Texas Educators Vote coalition, of which ATPE is a member.

ATPE and other groups involved in the movement were quick to defend the nonpartisan work of the coalition, which is comprised of several groups that do not endorse candidates at all. The League of Women Voters, for example, tweeted, “The League’s mission is Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy! We are proud to partner with Texas Educators Votes and support their mission to create a culture of voting in Texas.”

Some educators naturally questioned why a sitting state senator would want to dissuade educators from voting and teaching students about the importance of voting. “Why would a leader not want school boards to adopt a resolution that encourages students, faculty, and staff to #vote?” asked former ATPE State President Cory Colby (@EffectualEdu) on Twitter. Another educator (@drdrbrockman) tweeted, “Looks like @TeamBettencourt doesn’t want educators to turn out to vote. Nothing in the Texas Educators Vote resolution pushes particular candidates or electoral outcomes.” ATPE member Rita Long commented on our blog, “I will vote in every election and encourage every citizen to vote. It is my right and privilege to have a voice in our elections. Educators must use their votes to have a voice in what is happening in public education. Our students are our future. Education issues should be a top priority with every American.”

Responding to the growing criticism on social media, Sen. Bettencourt doubled down on his unfounded claim that the coalition was using public school resources to promote particular candidates or ballot measures. The senator has not yet identified any examples of particular candidates allegedly being promoted by way of the coalition’s GOTV efforts.

By law the Attorney General’s office has six months to respond to Bettencourt’s request for an opinion, but AG Paxton is likely to issue a ruling ahead of the 2018 primaries. Several education groups involved in the coalition efforts will be submitting briefs to the AG’s office in the coming weeks. Stay to tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.

Related content: As part of our ongoing effort to encourage educators to participate in the 2018 primary and general elections as informed voters, be sure to check out our candidate profiles right here on our nonpartisan Teach the Vote website. This election cycle, we’re featuring profiles of every candidate running for a Texas legislative seat, State Board of Education, governor, and lieutenant governor. Profiles includes incumbents’ voting records on education-related bills, responses to our candidate survey, contact information for the campaigns, and additional information compiled by ATPE’s lobby team. New information is being added daily as we learn more about the candidates. If candidates in your area have not yet answered our candidate survey, please encourage them to do so. Inquiries about Teach the Vote and our candidate survey may be sent to government@atpe.org.

 

 


The U.S. Congress conference committee established to hash out disagreements between the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Republican tax plans has come to an agreement on a final plan. The committee met Wednesday to review the plan in a public hearing. Much of the high-profile provisions of the final plan have been discussed in public and reported by the media. For example, the corporate tax rate would be reduced from 35 to 21 percent, the top tax rate for individuals would go from almost 40 to 37 percent, the Obamacare-era tax fine for those who don’t buy health insurance would be removed, and the state and local taxes (SALT) deduction would be kept but capped at $10,000. Still, many smaller details of the negotiated plan remain unknown. Those include two issues raised in an ATPE letter to members of the Texas delegation: (1) a deduction for educators who use personal money to buy classroom supplies, and (2) a potential new tax for public pension investments, such as those in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) trust fund.

The details of the bill are expected to be released later today. Follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter and watch for more updates as information becomes available. The tax bill must still receive a final vote of support in both chambers and receive the signature of the president before it becomes law, which Republican leadership hopes to have completed by Christmas.

 


Students in some school districts affected by Hurricane Harvey will see relief from certain standardized testing requirements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Thursday that Commissioner Mike Morath would waive some STAAR requirements for certain students affected by the massive storm. The commissioner has remained reluctant to provide relief in the form of STAAR testing schedules or accountability requirements, but he changed his tune slightly after Gov. Greg Abbott joined the chorus of those in favor of loosening accountability and testing requirements for Harvey-affected students and schools. Morath sent a letter to impacted school districts on Thursday explaining that fifth and eighth grade students who fail to pass the required state standardized tests twice can advance to the next grade level if district educators agree they are ready. Learn more about Morath’s decision to waive some testing requirements in this article from the Texas Tribune.

 


The State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and State Board of Education (SBOE) will host a free conference on teacher preparation and retention in January. The one-day event will feature roundtable and panel discussions on how Texas can better prepare its future teachers, support those in the classroom, and retain teachers tempted to the leave the field. It will also feature keynote speeches from Doug Lemov, who authored Teach Like a Champion, and Peter Dewitt, the author of Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences that Matter Most.

The conference, titled Learning Roundtable: Recruiting, Preparing and Retaining Top Teachers, will be held at the Austin Convention Center from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm on Thursday, January 25, and will offer up to 5.5 hours of continuing professional education (CPE) to participating educators. To view the full-day agenda, learn more about the event, or register to attend, visit the Texas Education Agency’s conference web page.

Related content: SBEC met last week for its final meeting of the year to discuss a broad agenda that included rulemaking resulting from bills passed during the 85th legislative session. The board also rejected revisiting a controversial and unnecessary pathway for superintendent candidates to seek certification without prior experience in a classroom, school, or managerial role. Read a recap of the meeting from ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann who attended the meeting and testified on behalf of ATPE.

 


The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) board met yesterday and today, and ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was in attendance. As reported in Exter’s blog post, the meeting included a discussion of the annual reports on the actuarial valuation of the TRS pension and healthcare funds.