Tag Archives: Texas Tribune

From The Texas Tribune: Will Texas school finance panel tell schools to do more with less? Some members think it’s predetermined

By Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Justice Scott Brister, chairman of the Commission on Public School Finance, listens to a commission member at the panel’s second meeting Feb. 8, 2018. Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune.

A state panel responsible for proposing improvements to Texas’ embattled public school finance system is facing criticism from an unexpected source: some of its own members, who say the panel’s hearings seem geared toward a predetermined outcome of making schools do more with their current funding.

Texas school districts have repeatedly sued the state over the past few decades, arguing it hasn’t provided enough money to ensure public school students an adequate education. During the 2017 session, lawmakers failed to make immediate changes to how the state allocates money to public schools — and instead agreed to create a 13-member commission to undertake a longer-term study.

That panel, which includes appointees from House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the State Board of Education, has held four hearings since it was assembled in January. Its next hearing is scheduled for Monday.

In those hearings, some commission members argue, presentations by experts have been skewed toward making the case that schools do not necessarily need more money to produce better outcomes for students.

“There’s a steady stream of presenters … trying to convince us that there’s enough money in the system and that adding more will not show results — that districts are essentially spending the money incorrectly,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, one of four members appointed by Straus.

He said the commission has also heard from school leaders with innovative ideas, such as how to keep the best teachers at the most challenging schools and how to use full-day pre-K to get students at an academic baseline early in life.

“Those two things without question cannot be funded or sustained with the current funding levels we have,” Bernal said. “Even the districts that piloted it said they were about to run out of money.”

But the panel’s chair, Scott Brister, disagreed that the hearings were staged for any predetermined outcomes. He said the Texas Education Agency’s staff has worked to bring experts who can provide a framework for how school finance works and what an adequate education looks like.

“You’ve got to figure out what you would like the schools to look like before you figure out whether you need more money or less money or where that money’s going to come from,” said Brister, a former state Supreme Court justice. Appointed to the commission by Abbott, Brister was the sole justice to dissent in a 2005 lawsuit brought by school districts claiming the school finance system was inadequate and inefficient. The court ruled in favor of the districts and forced lawmakers to overhaul the funding system.

“I’m not interested in spending more money and getting no change. What’s the point of that?” Brister said this week. “The Constitution requires school districts to be free and efficient. … Surely it means you don’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work and doesn’t make a difference. That’s one of our constitutional standards. We have to consider it.”

Over the past decade, the state has decreased its share of public education funding, allowing rising local property taxes to make up the difference. Currently, less than 40 percent of school funding comes from the state, while local property taxes pay for more than half. In 2011, lawmakers cut more than $5 billion from schools to close a budget deficit and never completely restored the money.

Texans will have their first, and potentially only, chance on Monday to publicly address the commission. Texas school leaders and public education advocates are expected to spend several hours, if not the whole day, testifying that they want the state to invest more money in public schools, instead of relying on local property tax revenue, and that they cannot educate students on the budget they have.

“Only after you get past that question [of adequate funding] do you get to talk about how to spend that funding,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators, who plans to testify Monday. Exter said he sees three different groups on the commission: one that wants to increase funding to public schools, another that believes public schools are important but that increasing funding isn’t feasible, and a third that wants to defund public schools.

“My argument is that you haven’t funded us enough to get better outcomes,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, a member of the commission and chief financial officer of Austin ISD.

According to the TEA, Austin’s school district is expected to pay the state $545 million this school year to help subsidize poorer school districts, through a function of the school finance system nicknamed “Robin Hood.” Austin ISD has the highest Robin Hood payment in the state and has gone through several rounds of budget cuts over the last few years.

Johnson, who was appointed to the commission by Straus, agreed that the commission hearings seem to be skewed toward efficiency: “They want more for the same amount of resources.”

During the inaugural commission hearing in January, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch showed members a chart of 2011 student state test scores for school districts mapped against the amount of money those districts spent.

“There is a pattern here, but the pattern is not based on how much money is available,” he said. “In fact, the school district that performs the best is the school district that gets $2,000 less per student than the average funding.”

He suggested the state look into why certain school districts do better with less funding, and why others do worse with more. “Scholars and education experts are divided on the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education. The thing that matters is student outcomes,” based on test scores or high school graduation rates, he said.

Johnson and fellow commission member Doug Killian, the superintendent of Pflugerville ISD, pushed back on Enoch’s chart, pointing out the data was outdated and not comprehensive.

Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, said the commission should be trying to ask what schools need to educate students, instead of asking what they can do with existing resources. “Let the Legislature decide if they want to raise taxes or shift other priorities in the budget,” she said. “I don’t think the [commission] should prematurely tie their hands.”

The commission will split into three subcommittees to brainstorm recommendations to the Legislature at the end of the year on where the state should get revenue to fund public schools, how it should overhaul existing formulas to allocate funding more equitably, and what it should expect its public school students to achieve. Each subcommittee will get to decide whether and how to include the public in its discussions, according to Brister.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican chairing the panel’s revenue subcommittee, said it’s too early to say what those recommendations will look like.

“We’ve been drinking from the fire hose on public policy. I haven’t had any discussions with anybody yet to step back and get out of the line of fire and see where we are now. For me personally, I’m still in listening mode,” he said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the Center for Public Policy Priorities have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/school-finance-efficiency/.


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 AG Ken Paxton ramps up fight against schools’ “illegal electioneering”

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune
March 16, 2018

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera.

The first Valentine’s Day note that Kevin Dyes received from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last month was a “cease-and-desist” letter. The next two were open records requests.

All three seemed aimed at warning Dyes — the superintendent of Holliday ISD, a North Texas school district that enrolls just over 1,000 students, employs just over 100 staff, and occupies just under 300 square miles — to stop his “illegal electioneering.”

That was not what Dyes thought he’d been up to in the months leading up to Texas’ March 6 primary election.

“All I was trying to do in any of that — on Twitter, or in communications with my staff or the public — was to advocate for public education,” he said.

Dyes suspects that it was his Twitter presence, where he often retweets educators pledging to “#blockvote” in favor of pro-public education candidates, and that of the district, that drew Paxton’s attention.

Dyes was one of more than a dozen administrators whose districts were hit last month with open records requests from the Texas Attorney General’s Office seeking district communications about Texas primaries, voting and certain candidates and races, documents obtained by The Texas Tribune in a records request show.

And he was one of a smaller group of educators whose district also received a cease-and-desist letter from Paxton, the state’s top lawyer. After sending three letters last month, Paxton’s office sent two more Friday morning — to Elgin ISD and Galena Park ISD, both districts that had received records requests — asking administrators to stop using taxpayer money to advocate for political candidates.

“School districts violate the Texas Election and Education codes when they exhort faculty or others to vote for a particular person or ballot measure,” Paxton said in a statement Friday. “Spending taxpayer dollars on advocating for or against political candidates is unacceptable.”

The letters are just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the role Texas public schools play in elections. Long-standing civic engagement initiatives aimed at getting more Texas teachers out to vote have come under fresh attack this election cycle, with conservative groups and Paxton himself warning that some efforts constitute “illegal electioneering.” A January ruling from his office advised districts that busing teachers and voting-age students to polling places is illegal unless such trips serve an “educational purpose.”

The records requests probe school administrators’ words and actions in an effort to identify illegal activity committed on the taxpayers’ dime. Public school employees can register students to vote and promote civic engagement, but they’re not allowed to use public money or other resources to support particular political candidates or parties.

The AG’s office did not return requests for comment on the records requests themselves, but has said several times it’s investigating complaints of election law violations and will continue to do so. But educators and advocates see a political motivation behind the probes, and the other missives that preceded them.

“To me it’s voter suppression — an attempt to bully us,” Troy Reynolds, the founder of Texans for Public Education and an administrator in Splendora ISD, which did not receive an AG request last month. “I’ve never seen anything like this before… They’re trying to shut us up.”

But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who asked Paxton in December to weigh in on whether schools could bus employees to the polls, said claims that Paxton’s work is politically motivated are “an emotional response not based in reality.”

“When I see political activity not just creeping into schools but galloping into schools, you just gotta pull the reins and stop it,” Bettencourt said, adding that Paxton is merely working to ensure schools “educate the kids, not get into politics.”

Paxton’s office’s recent inquiries went to school districts of all sizes all across the state. Many requests were broad, asking for communications among top school officials that included words like “vote,” “voting,” “Texas Legislature” and “primary.” The AG’s office also sought campaign emails and information about “get out the vote efforts.”

While Paxton’s office said it’s targeting suspected lawbreakers, educators and advocates have pointed out that many were sent to the sites of tight Republican primary races, including two districts — Frisco ISD and Allen ISD — that fall into Senate District 8, where Paxton’s wife Angela Paxton recently won an expensive, hard-fought Republican primary against Phillip Huffines.

Granbury ISD — whose superintendent, Jim Largent, had the backing of many in the education community in his unsuccessful challenge against state Rep. Mike Lang — received three separate requests from the AG. Lang, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had the support of Empower Texans.

The AG’s office asked Granbury ISD for a copy of an email from Largent to district staff announcing his campaign and another from the superintendent containing the words “Their goal is to demonize and destroy public education and it is working.”

“One could probably connect the dots and come up with some theories about what they were doing,” Largent said in an interview this week.

Many requests also honed in on another Republican race: the face-off between sitting Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and challenger Scott Milder, a public education advocate backed by many in the education community. Milder ultimately lost to Patrick by more than 50 percentage points.

Milder said he sent campaign emails to about 100,000 educators, and those messages appeared in response to several of the AG’s requests. A disclaimer at the top of one Milder email advises recipients that “forwarding this email would be considered a violation so please do not forward from district email or device,” but merely receiving the email at a district address “is not a violation of any law.”

Some district administrators took care to pass the email along from their personal email addresses, records show. But others shared it from their official district addresses.

Joe Coleman, a principal in Galena Park ISD, was cited for doing just that in Paxton’s second round of cease-and-desist letters Friday.

“I agree that we need to support Scott Milder in his quest to become the Texas Lieutenant Governor,” Coleman wrote, passing along Milder’s email. “Remember, to ask for Republican Ballott, you can vote in Texas in the primaries for a Republican or Democrat. Let’s support Scott Milder. Please tell all of your friends and family this is critical.”

Coleman wrote back the next day: “I probably broke some type of rule with this email, probably not good judgement. I have not had a complaint but just letting you know in case you get one. Joe.”

Milder said it was “thoroughly disappointing” that Paxton would go to such lengths to “intimidate educators” out of voting.

“We know that the AG runs in the same circle as the lieutenant governor and they’re going to help each other out with their re-election campaigns,” Milder said. “The best way for the AG to get involved to help the lieutenant governor and the Empower Texans candidates is to intimidate regular Texans, rational Texans from voting. And it’s working.”

Some advocates allege that the process behind the AG’s office sending the requests was political as well.

Before the AG’s office began submitting records requests, school districts had already received similar inquiries from conservative groups, including the aggressive and influential Empower Texans. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a voting-focused advocacy group, pledged this week to “shine a light on any coordination” between the groups. Empower Texans did not return a request for comment on this story.

Dyes said the coordination is obvious. In October, his district signed on to a “culture of voting” resolution. Dyes said his office turned the signed resolution over to Empower Texans when that group submitted a records request, but that the document wasn’t posted anywhere online.

Then, a copy of the signed resolution appeared in the cease-and-desist letter Paxton’s office sent to Holliday ISD last month.

“They must be working together,” Dyes said. “Evidently somebody in Empower Texans gave them that resolution… because it’s not available anywhere else.”

Reynolds, the education advocate, agreed.

“I don’t believe that’s an accident at all. I think there’s an agenda behind it,” he said. “It’s so they can maintain the power they have in the Legislature and push vouchers. No one’s ever had a problem with public sector employees activating before.”

Some educators suspect that the new scrutiny on their election-related activities is motivated not by a concern for the law, but a concern that education-backed candidates could unseat many of the Legislature’s most conservative members. After lawmakers failed to deliver the school finance overhaul many sought during last year’s legislative sessions, educators pledged to come out to the polls in force this election cycle.

Educational advocates said those numbers had begun to scare those in power  — although last week’s primary results suggest educators’ numbers were not as high as some anticipated.

“I think it’s absolutely politically motivated,” said Laura Yeager, whose educational engagement group’s years-old voting resolution has been attacked for the first time this election cycle as suspicious and illegal. “It’s just so disappointing. Really, they should be encouraging people to vote…. This is not what our country is supposed to be about.”

Disclosure: Laura Yeager has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/16/texas-ken-paxton-illegal-electioneering-school-districts/.


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.

House panel report includes education recommendations

On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness released its formal report containing recommendations for ensuring Texas remains the nation’s most desirable destination for relocating or opening up new businesses.

Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) formed the committee in October 2017 in response to concerns that the 85th Texas Legislature pursued a number of legislative proposals that resulted in Texas dropping precipitously in the rankings of America’s Top States for Business.

“Texas has long enjoyed a booming economy and staggering job growth. Our economic strength has been predicated on a number of factors: high oil prices, geography, the tax and regulatory environment within the state, and the can-do attitude of millions of Texans,” Straus explained when he announced the committee. “However, there are forces, if left unchecked, that could derail the success our state has enjoyed.”

The committee conducted several hearings and weighed testimony from 42 prominent and influential witnesses from the business, law enforcement and local communities. The committee documented several findings related to education. Most notably, the report underscored the important role public schools play in ensuring the educated workforce necessary to sustain businesses operating in today’s economy. The following passage is taken directly from the committee’s report:

Public education teaches students basic skills before entering the workforce and fosters innovation. Policymakers must deal with school finance, examining not just the amount of money allocated for education, but how we distribute it — and how we can better incentivize public educators and institutions. The governor’s recently proposed 2.5 percent cap on property tax revenue will be detrimental to school funding since school districts receive 40 to 60 percent of property taxes across the state. The Texas House passed a 6 percent cap during the 85th Legislature, but the measure was killed by the Senate; this new proposal will severely reduce school resources unless more funding is appropriated by the legislature.

House Bill 21 of the 85th Legislature would have increased the state’s share of school funding and reduced the need for higher property taxes — easing the burden on homeowners — but the legislation died after being altered by the Senate. After all, how can the challenges facing the future competitiveness of the state’s workforce be addressed if Texas turns its back on its public school system, or does not address its method for allocating resources to public schools?

The importance of local control for school districts was stressed with the explanation that local control granted from the state is important for hiring staff and providing a safe campus for students. Educators want their graduates to meet the specific needs of where their district is located, which makes local control imperative for creating curriculum and making decisions about how to meet those needs. Testimony also demonstrated the need for presenting high school students with information about technical programs, rather than only promoting four-year universities. Public schools must address the needs of students with disabilities, but programs to help them transition to the workplace and speech, occupational and physical therapies are consistently underfunded.

Based upon these observations, the committee included a number of proposals specifically related to public education. From the report:

Recommendation: The legislature must prioritize funding for public education that is regularly adjusted to account for growth in population and inflation. Policymakers should closely examine the effectiveness of public education expenditures to ensure that dollars are used to maximize student success, and ensure the state’s academic accountability system increases the performance of schools and students.

  • In response to declines in state tax revenue, the 82nd Legislature reduced entitlement funding for public education by $5.4 billion. While subsequent legislatures have increased funding for public education, the majority of funds have been used only to cover costs created by the growth in the number of students.
  • Adjusted for increases in population and inflation, state spending on public education has decreased by nearly 16 percent since 2008. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of students who are classified as “economically disadvantaged” and are therefore more expensive to educate.
  • As the majority of new funding provided by the legislature simply addresses population growth, there have been few opportunities to invest in programs that have proven to increase academic achievement — such as technical career education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM courses, dual-credit offerings, and bilingual education.
  • As the state’s share of public education funding has declined, the burden on local property taxes and recapture payments has grown, eliminating any opportunity for local property tax rates to be reduced. About 54 percent of all property taxes paid in Texas are collected by school districts. Therefore, the fastest and most effective way to reduce the property-tax burden is for the state to pay more of the cost of public education.
  • Many of the school finance formula weights and allotments — such as the Cost of Education Index or Transportation Allotment — have not been updated or adjusted for the effects of population and inflation in more than two decades. Increases in state funding should be tied to regular adjustment of these weights, combined with the elimination of funding elements that are inefficient or no longer represent the diverse needs of Texas’ public education system.
  • The legislature must increase funding for special education programs and Early Childhood Intervention programs so that children with disabilities can successfully enter pre-kindergarten programs, while also providing more reliable funding for programs that help students with disabilities transition to the workplace.

Committee Chairman Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) submitted the report Tuesday. It will be presented to the 86th Texas Legislature, which is scheduled to meet in January 2019. You read the full report here, courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

From the Texas Tribune: One Texas Board of Education primary result could spell a return to culture wars

Left to right: State Board of Education District 11 incumbent Pat Hardy and her two Republican primary challengers, Feyi Obamehinti and Cheryl Surber. Photos from Facebook campaign pages

Over her 16 years on the State Board of Education, Pat Hardy has rallied for her share of socially conservative measures. She’s endorsed keeping “pro-American” values in history textbooks. She’s backed emphasizing “states’ rights” instead of slavery as the cause of the Civil War. And she’s supported teaching “both sides” of arguments around climate change.

But her Republican challengers in the March 6 primaries — Feyi Obamehinti and Cheryl Surber— are telling voters that they’re even further to the right. (Surber’s campaign Facebook page even refers to her as the “Donald Trump of the Texas State Board of Education” candidate.)

“It’s probably true!” Hardy said. “Which is funny because I’m very conservative. But they are to the right of me.”

The Fort Worth representative, a retired public school social studies teacher, is fighting to keep her seat in one of the most anticipated State Board of Education contests this year. Hardy’s District 11 seat is one of seven up in the 2018 midterms, including three other seats where incumbents are also fending off challengers. Three other incumbents are stepping down, prompting open races.

But experts say Hardy’s race in particular could help determine whether the board will retain its recent political equilibrium or return to a more polarized iteration characterized by frequent head-butting among the board’s liberal, moderate Republican and social conservative factions, which has earned it national notoriety for decades.

“With three open seats, this is a really important election for the state board, because the board has moved closer to the center over the last several election cycles,” said Dan Quinn, spokesperson for left-leaning state board watchdog Texas Freedom Network. “The question is whether it will continue to do that or if we’ll see a swing back to the fringe politics that have dominated the board for the last 20 years, or longer than 20 years.”

Whoever wins will be responsible for setting curriculum standards and making textbook recommendations for schools across the state, deciding what 5.4 million Texas students learn.

Over the next couple of years, the new board’s responsibilities will include the politically fraught duty of tackling a full revision of health standards, including how schools teach sex education, informing the content for textbooks Texas teachers will use for years.

“What students learn about contraception in a state with one of the highest rates of teen birth rates in the nation will be up for debate,” Quinn said.

Challenging a swing vote

The State Board of Education has 15 members, each representing nearly 2 million Texans. Though the board is made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats, its debates often divide the board three ways — between Democrats, moderate conservatives and social conservatives.

Hardy describes herself as a Republican who doesn’t always fit the mold, often a swing vote on the board.

“You have a balance on the board, which means that each of those three groups are compelled to work with one of the others to accomplish their goals,” said David Anderson, a longtime education lobbyist at Hillco Partners. “If you lose Pat to one of the other two candidates, you lose a critical part of that balance.”

Hardy’s district covers Parker County and parts of Dallas and Tarrant counties.

Hardy does not believe Texas should subsidize private school tuition for parents. “I’ve always felt the public school was a unique thing that historically set us apart from other countries because we had free education,” she said.

Her opponents argue parents should be able to use state money to go to any type of school they want. Obamehinti, a former public school teacher and current education consultant from Keller, also homeschooled her daughter for 11 years and wants to make it easier for other parents to have the same option.

The board has no jurisdiction over whether to approve vouchers or similar programs, but candidates’ views on this issue may indicate whether they want to improve the current public education system or overhaul it in favor of a more free-market approach.

Obamehinti also supports teaching creationism in science classrooms and is skeptical of the idea that the state should approve a Mexican-American studies course, a current consideration on the board. She argues she can do a better job of reaching out to constituents than Hardy has done. “I live in District 11, and I have never had any outreach in 16 years,” she said.

Surber said she would never be a swing vote on the board. “I’m like the Donald Trump of this race. I want to hear various sides, even sides that might disagree with me,” she said. She said she is not in favor of a Mexican-American studies course for Texas because students are “in the United States of America. We’re not in Mexico. We’re not in Canada. We need to learn American history.”

She holds extreme views on many subjects and often affirms various conspiracy theories on her personal Facebook page. This week, she put up a few posts suggesting survivors of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting who have publicly advocated for gun control measures are “crisis actors,” not students, a notion that has been widely debunked.

Two Democrats are also running for Hardy’s seat: Carla Morton, a pediatric neuropsychologist and special education advocate in Fort Worth, and Celeste Light, who has no campaign website set up and has not responded to media requests for comment.

Decisive primaries

Three State Board members — Beaumont Republican David Bradley, Dallas Republican Geraldine “Tincy” Miller and Fort Worth Democrat Erika Beltran — are stepping down this year. In all three seats, a candidate from the incumbent’s party is running unopposed in the primary: Matt Robinson in Bradley’s District 7, Pam Little in Miller’s District 12, and Aicha Davis in Beltran’s District 13.

Given their voting history, those districts are unlikely to change party hands, meaning those three candidates will win, said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “We often talk about how the primaries are decisive. In the State Board of Education, they’re 100 percent decisive,” he said. “There’s no doubt whatsoever about who’s going to win in November because of the way the districts have been drawn.”

Bradley, one of those incumbents, is widely considered one of the most socially conservative and most divisive members on the board, supporting abstinence-only education and creationism in science classes.

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” he said, before the board voted to adopt more right-leaning social studies curriculum standards in 2010. “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

In 2016, he sent an email proposing board members walk out of a discussion about a Mexican-American studies textbook that advocates and academics considered racist, in order to “deny the Hispanics a record vote.”

Bradley’s likely replacement is Robinson, a Friendswood ISD board member and physician, the only Republican running for the District 7 seat. Bradley endorsed Robinson a few months after he filed paperwork to run.

“Generally speaking, if you voted for David Bradley in the past, you’d feel good about voting for me,” Robinson said. “If you didn’t, you might still be happy with me.”

Robinson said schools should teach abstinence-only sexual education: “I think that should be the limit of what they do.”

He supports state subsidy programs that would help parents pay for private schools, such as vouchers or education savings accounts — generally opposed by public education advocates, who see the subsidies as a potential financial drain on public schools.

But, unlike many conservatives who support these subsidies, Robinson argues a child who takes state money to a private school should have to take the state standardized test or participate in some other form of state accountability. “It would not really be fair to have no restrictions or oversight whatsoever for private schools where state dollars are going,” he said.

Miller, also leaving her seat at the end of the year, is generally considered more moderate than Bradley and is best known for pushing the state’s first law mandating schools serve kids with dyslexia. Miller has endorsed her likely replacement, Pam Little, who is a retired regional vice president at publishing company Houghton Mifflin. Little said she supports abstinence as the first approach to sex education, and has not yet made up her mind on whether health standards should include education on contraception.

When Little ran for Miller’s seat in 2012, she said that local communities should be able to decide whether to offer any additional sex education, given the state’s high teen pregnancy rate.

Beltran endorsed Davis, her likely replacement, upon retiring from the board. A 2011 transplant to Texas, Davis has been a middle and high school science and engineering teacher for the past decade.

Disclosure: Hillco Partners and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/02/23/texas-board-education-primary-could-spell-return-culture-wars/.


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: Feb. 9, 2018

Check out this week’s education news headlines from ATPE:

At its second meeting, the Texas Commission on Public School Finance on Thursday elected a new vice-chair and heard from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and other witnesses about the current state of public education funding. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meeting and provided this report for Teach the Vote. The commission’s next meeting on Feb. 22 will feature invited testimony from ATPE Executive Director Gary Godsey. The commission will also meet on March 7 and will allow members of the public to testify at another meeting on March 19. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates as the commission fulfills its interim charge to study and make recommendations for how Texas funds its public schools.


ELECTION UPDATE: We’re now less than two weeks away from the start of early voting for the March 6 primary elections. ATPE urges educators to check out our Teach the Vote candidate profiles ahead of the first day of early voting on Feb. 20. All candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, State Board of Education, Texas State Senate, and Texas State House are profiled on our website, with additional information about incumbents’ voting records, the candidates’ responses to ATPE’s survey about education issues and priorities, and links to their campaign websites and social media accounts.

As you gear up for the primaries, we’ve also got information about the nonbinding propositions that will be included on your ballot as way to shape the platforms of the state Republican and Democratic parties. Find out what will be on your ballot by checking out this blog post from ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday. In addition, we’ve shared tips courtesy of our friends at the Texas Tribune on how voters can get more involved in shaping party platforms by participating in election year conventions. Read about the process for becoming a convention delegate here. We’ll have even more election resources for you on Teach the Vote next week, so stay tuned!


As ATPE, the Texas Educators Vote coalition, and other groups work to motivate educators to vote in the 2018 elections, those fearful of high voter turnout among the education community are getting desperate in their attempts to intimidate teachers. Today on our blog, ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday reports on the surprising and heartwarming way that educators used social media this week to respond to threatening letters they received from an anti-public education lobbying group. Check out her new post about teachers who are #blowingthewhistle here.


ATPE’s lobbyists were interviewed this week for multiple stories about the impact of Texas’s District of Innovation law on teacher certification. The DOI law passed by the legislature in 2015 allows certain school districts to exempt themselves from many education laws. One such law is the requirement for hiring certified teachers, which the Texas Tribune wrote about this week. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was interviewed for the story, which highlights the fact that half of Texas’s school districts are now able to ignore the certification law by using DOI exemptions. In Waco, Taylor Durden reported for KXXV-TV about how area school districts have used the DOI law to waive certification requirements for some of their teachers, and ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell Canaday was interviewed for that story. Check it out here. For more about the DOI law, see the resources available from ATPE on our website here.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today released the accreditation statuses for school districts and charter schools for the 2017-2018 school year. The accreditation status is primarily based upon the new “A through F” accountability system and the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST).

A total of 1,185 out of 1,201 districts and charters received a status of “Accredited” for the current school year, and four districts received a “Not Accredited-Revoked” status. Four districts and five charters received warnings to fix deficiencies in academic or financial performance or face probation or revocation. Two districts were placed on probation for exhibiting deficiencies over a three year period.

Districts whose accreditation has been revoked have an opportunity for review by the TEA and the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). For the 2017-2018 school year, those districts include Buckholts ISD, Sierra Blanca ISD, Winfield ISD and Marlin ISD – the latter two of which were given an “A” in the overall state accountability ratings despite earning “improvement required” designations under the previous accountability system.

Carpe Diem Schools, Dell City ISD, Dime Box ISD, Hart ISD, Montessori For All, Natalia ISD, The Lawson Academy, Trinity Environmental Academy and Zoe Learning Academy all received warnings. Hearne ISD and Trinity ISD were placed on probation.

The full list of accreditation statuses can be found on the TEA website.



Texas teachers are #blowingthewhistle in the best possible way

With enthusiasm growing within the education community for voting in the upcoming primaries, we’ve been reporting here on Teach the Vote about the efforts of some elected officials and special interest groups to try to quell educators’ momentum by questioning the legality of our nonpartisan get out the vote (GOTV) programs. Now it appears that those efforts, which many believe are aimed at voter suppression, are backfiring as educators continue to rally their colleagues to vote later this month.

We’ve recently reported on an attorney general’s opinion issued at the request of Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) who objected to GOTV initiatives led by the Texas Educators Vote coalition of which ATPE is a proud member. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly issued a nonbinding opinion that school districts should not bus staff and students to the polls, because Paxton questioned the educational value of such an activity.

We’ve also watched as the notorious anti-public education group Empower Texans (ET) and its affiliates have used scare tactics to try to shut down GOTV initiatives in schools and political activism by education employees. Late last year, ET, whose wealthy donors have spent millions to fund the campaigns of Paxton, Bettencourt, and other officeholders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, bombarded school districts with open records requests demanding copies of employee emails and other documentation that they hoped would show evidence of illegal activities. When the open records requests apparently yielded no bombshells, Empower Texans resorted to the desperate measure of mailing letters to individual educators around the state inviting them to act as “whistleblowers” and report on colleagues who might be violating the attorney general’s “ruling.” Many of you educators who are readers of Teach the Vote have reported receiving one of these letters from ET’s lead attorney, general counsel Tony McDonald.

The letters that ET has spent huge sums of money to mail to teachers are misleading and unethical. First, the text of the letter mischaracterizes AG Paxton’s nonbinding opinion as a “ruling,” implying that it has the force of law when it is merely an advisory expression of Paxton’s views on the law. The letters also irresponsibly fail to mention that Texas’s whistleblower laws would not provide teachers any legal protection for reports made to an outside entity like ET. ATPE Managing Attorney Paul Tapp points out why the letter from ET’s lawyer is problematic and does not reflect how our state’s whistleblower statutes actually work.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. McDonald has mischaracterized Texas law in a way that he apparently believes would benefit his organization at the expense of those he claims to care about,” says Tapp. “There would be no ‘whistleblower’ protection for any report to Empower Texas. As an attorney, Mr. McDonald should know that a report of suspected illegal activity is only protected if it is made to the appropriate law enforcement entity.”

It is highly unlikely that ET’s intimidation campaign will reveal any evidence of school administrators and trustees unlawfully using school district resources to campaign for specific candidates, and the Texas Educators Vote coalition has always included in its outreach materials guidance for educators on what types of political activities are and are not allowed in schools. In the meantime, educators are reacting to ET’s continuing attacks on the public school community by turning to social media.

Starting yesterday, educators took to Twitter in droves to share their support for public schools. Incorporating the hashtag #blowingthewhistle and tagging ET in many of their tweets. Teachers and other public education supporters used the social media tool not for ratting out colleagues for talking about the election as ET had hoped, but instead for praising educators who go the extra mile every single day to help students.

ATPE member Cristie Plummer, who teaches at Bastrop Middle School, was one of the educators who shared her own #blowingthewhistle tweet yesterday and was featured in this article by the Austin American-StatesmanATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins also tweeted his support for the teachers in his own family by #blowingthewhistle on them via Twitter.

The Twitter backlash from teachers was featured today in a new article from the Texas Tribune about the Texas Educators Vote coalition. Reporter Emma Platoff wrote about how our coalition’s GOTV efforts have rankled ET and Tea Party groups who are also worried about other grassroots movements igniting on social media and encouraging teachers to #blockvote in the Republican Party primary for pro-public education candidates. The #blockvote campaign mentioned in the article is being promoted by the Facebook group known as Texans for Public Education, and not by the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. However, both groups share a desire to see higher turnout among educators at the polls this year.

The reaction this week to the ET whistleblower campaign proves, once again, that educators are rising above the baseless threats of the politicians and special interest groups that want to dismantle public education. The billionaires backing candidates and officeholders who refer to hard-working teachers as “educrats” and think that using taxpayer dollars to fund unregulated private schools should be the state’s top education priority are clearly terrified of the potential for high voter turnout in the March 6 primary.

We applaud Texas educators for their classy response to the continuing attacks on their profession. ATPE hopes that our members and their colleagues will keep highlighting the outstanding things happening in our public schools every day and will never weaken their resolve to be active and informed voters in the 2018 primaries and all other Texas elections. Kudos, educators!

From the Texas Tribune: Here’s how Texans can get involved in their party conventions

Attendees listen to speakers at the Texas Federation of Republican Women Convention in Dallas on Oct. 19, 2017. Photo by Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune.

Today’s Texplainer question was inspired by reader Grace Chimene.

Hey, Texplainer: How do I join in on the action at the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian party conventions? Essentially, how do I get hyper-involved?

Texas primary season is quickly approaching, which means some Texans are wondering how they can engage with state politics beyond just casting votes.

Participating in political conventions is one way to get involved, and each party has lower-level conventions that build up to their state conventions. First there’s a precinct convention, then a county or senatorial convention — a senatorial district convention is held when the county includes two or more state senate districts — and a state convention.

The March 6 primaries and state conventions are right around the corner, so it’s important to start getting involved in the process now.

What happens at a convention?

At each convention level, delegates are elected to move up the hierarchy and represent their party. To participate as a delegate in a convention, a person has to have voted in his or her party’s primary. Anyone can attend a convention without becoming a delegate, but delegates have more power to determine the course of their party. Among other tasks, the delegates shape party platforms, elect leadership and update party rules.

We talked to officials from the Democratic, Libertarian and Republican parties to help us explain how to navigate the convention system.

What’s each party’s process like for getting involved in conventions?


Glen Maxey, a senior party adviser for the Texas Democratic Party, said getting involved in conventions is the best way to begin a political network, take advantage of volunteer opportunities and meet candidates and party officials. It’s also easy — all you have to do is vote, show up for the convention and fill out some forms. Here’s how it goes, according to Maxey:

  1. Visit texasdemocraticconvention.com to find out where your county convention is being held and register.

  2. Once you’re at the county convention, you’ll debate resolutions on policies and issues. If any policies or rule changes are passed at the county level, they’ll be added to the agenda at the state convention.

  3. Rather than holding separate precinct conventions, Democrats caucus together with their precincts during the county convention to elect their delegates to the state convention. Maxey said this process is more competitive during presidential election years, but in most cases anyone who really wants to be a delegate to the state convention will be elected in a non-presidential election year.

  4. Once you’ve made it to the state convention, you’re ready to participate in the highest level of party governance in the state. You’ll elect party leadership, write and adopt the state party platform, pass resolutions and update party rules. This year’s convention is June 21-23 in Fort Worth.


Becoming a party delegate is a way to amplify voters’ voices, said Libertarian Party of Texas Chair John Wilford. Here’s how he suggests getting involved:

  1. Start by getting involved at the local level. Find out who’s the county party chair of your area. Introduce yourself and be vocal about your intent to become a delegate. Becoming a delegate for the Libertarian Party is competitive, especially during presidential years.

  2. Find out where and when your precinct convention is taking place on your county chair’s website, social media or your county commissioners court bulletin board.

  3. At the precinct convention, run for a position as a delegate.

  4. Take the same steps to participate in the county/senatorial and state conventions. This year’s state convention is April 13-15 in Houston.


Going to a convention gives a regular voter a glimpse into the lives of legislators, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said. It’s a fun, active process that allows voters to help shape the platform of their party, he said. Simpson told us the best way to get involved in the Republican conventions:

  1. Vote in the primaries and then attend the precinct convention on the same day. Details of the precinct conventions are usually posted on the county party’s website. Inform the county chair of your intent to become a delegate.

  2. It’s typically pretty easy to become a delegate in the precinct convention because there are usually more spots than people to fill them.

  3. Attend the county or senatorial convention and follow the same steps to become a delegate for the state convention. This year’s convention is June 14-16 in San Antonio.

In addition to conventions, getting involved in the local level is just as important, Simpson said.

“I’m a big believer in doing more than just going to conventions,” he said.

Members of all three parties can also volunteer for campaigns or join local party clubs. Visit Texas’ party websites and county chairs’ websites to find out more about how to get involved beyond the conventions.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/02/07/heres-how-texans-can-get-involved-their-party-conventions/.

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: Feb. 2, 2018

Happy Groundhog’s Day! Here’s this week’s education news digest from ATPE:

Monday, Feb. 5, is your last chance to register to vote in the March 6 primary election. Registrations must be postmarked by Monday’s 30-day-out deadline in order to be effective for the upcoming Republican and Democratic primary elections. Visit the Texas Secretary of State’s website to verify your registration status, especially if you have moved since the last election.

ATPE urges all educators to participate in the upcoming primary election, for which the early voting period begins on Feb. 20, 2018. The outcomes of the overwhelming majority of elections in Texas are determined by the results of the primaries rather than the general election that takes place in November. This is because many district boundaries are drawn during the redistricting process to favor one political party over others. As a result, some races will only feature candidates from a single political party, meaning that party’s primary election will determine the ultimate winner of the race no matter what happens in November.

Since Texas is an open primary state where all voters can choose to participate in either the Republican or Democratic party primaries in March, we encourage educators to look at the candidates running in their area and decide which primary election will give them the best opportunity to decide who will represent their interests in the coming years as an elected official. Remember that regardless of which primary you choose in the spring, you can vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliations in the November general election. Use our “Candidates” search page here on Teach the Vote to find out which candidates are running in your area and where they stand on education issues.

Carl Garner

ICYMI: ATPE State President Carl Garner penned an editorial about why it’s important for educators to vote and promote a culture of voting. As certain politicians and wealthy special interest groups continue their efforts to intimidate educators out of voting in the upcoming primaries, ATPE’s elected leader urges his colleagues to make sure they are registered to vote, aware of the candidates’ positions on public education, and ready to make informed choices at the polls. “My fellow educators and I are fired up about voting,” wrote Garner. “We want to model what we teach, showing our students what informed and engaged citizens are supposed to do.” For more, check out Carl’s piece published yesterday by the Texas Tribune for its TribTalk website.


SBOE meeting in Austin, Feb. 2, 2018.

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) concluded its first meeting of 2018 today in Austin. The board approved a raft of items from its subordinate committees and delayed action on consideration of new curriculum standards for a Mexican-American studies course, as discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. More from that discussion can be found in this report by the Texas Tribune.

The board engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding the training required for local school board trustees. Training requirements were altered by legislation passed by the 85th Texas Legislature, which necessitated updates to administrative rules. Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff reminded the audience of the remaining public meetings to solicit input regarding the Long-Range Plan for Public Education:

  • Feb. 7, 9 to 11 a.m., Region 1 ESC, Edinburg
  • Feb. 8, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Region 4 ESC, Houston
  • Feb. 20, 4 to 6 p.m., TEA Headquarters, Austin
  • Feb. 28, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Region 16 ESC, Amarillo

An online survey regarding the plan is open at the TEA website through March 2, 2018.

Read more highlights of this week’s SBOE meetings in the following blog posts from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins:




From The Texas Tribune: Feds say Texas illegally failed to educate students with disabilities

  • by Aliyya Swaby, The Texas Tribune
  • Jan. 11, 2018

Vanessa Tijerina addresses the panel about her 13-year-old special needs child who has been denied special education for 4 years on December 13, 2016. U.S. Department of Education officials held a meeting in Edinburg on their tour of Texas to hear community members’ experiences with special education, continuing an investigation of whether Texas is capping services for students with disabilities. Photo by Eddie Seal/The Texas Tribune.

A U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with an adequate public education.

After interviews and monitoring visits with parents, school administrators and state officials, the federal investigation found that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized some school districts to deny services to eligible students.

It also told TEA that it needs to take several corrective actions, including producing documentation that the state is properly monitoring school districts’ evaluations for special education, developing a plan and timeline for TEA to ensure that each school district will evaluate students previously denied needed services and creating a plan and timeline for TEA to provide guidance to educators on how to identify and educate students with disabilities.

“Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act],” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a statement Thursday. “I’ve worked directly with TEA Commissioner [Mike] Morath on resolving these issues, and I appreciate the Texas Education Agency’s efforts to ensure all children with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated and served under IDEA.

“While there is still more work to be done, leaders in the state have assured me they are committed to ensuring all students with disabilities can achieve their full potential.”

In response to the report, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Morath demanding that TEA prepare an initial plan to reform special education within the next seven days, with the input of parents, advocates and educators. He also demanded TEA develop legislative recommendations to help ensure districts comply with federal and state special education laws.

Legislators passed a law in May prohibiting Texas from capping special education services. Special education advocates and parents had lobbied for a number of smaller reform bills during the session, few of which passed.

“Federal officials have provided no definitive timeline for action by TEA, but parents and students across our state cannot continue waiting for change,” Abbott wrote. “I am directing you to take immediate steps to prepare an initial corrective action plan draft within the next seven days.”

In a statement Thursday, Morath said he will continue to increase training and support for educators on educating students with disabilities.

“We have added significant resources focused on increasing technical assistance and training for our school systems, including 39 statewide special education support staff in the last year,” he said. “I am committing today that there will be more.”

The federal investigation was prompted by a series of reports from the Houston Chronicle alleging TEA had denied needed special education services to thousands of students with disabilities across the state. Texas provides special education to a small percentage of students compared to other states. That number has gone up from 8.5 percent in 2015-16 to 8.8 percent last school year, according to TEA’s statewide academic performance report.

TEA has denied all allegations that it capped services for students.

The report comes more than a year after federal officials traveled to five Texas cities in December 2016 and heard parents tell numerous stories about educators who had not been properly trained on what services they were legally required to provide students with disabilities. The agency also collected more than 400 public written comments from those who could not attend a meeting in person.

Federal officials returned to Texas last February to tour selected school districts for a firsthand look at local special education data and policies.

The report Thursday confirmed the complaints of many the parents who spoke out at those meetings. It said:

  • TEA was more likely to monitor and intervene in school districts with higher rates of students in special education, creating a statewide system that incentivized denying services to eligible students. School district officials said they expected they would receive less monitoring if they served 8.5 percent of students or fewer.
  • According to internal reports reviewed by federal officials, administrators at multiple districts worked to decrease the percentage of students identified for special education services — even though there was no evidence to indicate those actions were necessary.
  • School administrators provided some students suspected of having disabilities with intensive academic support as a way of delaying or refusing to evaluate them for necessary federally funded special education services. Teachers and staff did not understand how to deploy this support in a way that complied with federal law.
  • Texas has a policy to only provide federally funded services to students with dyslexia if those students also have another disability. That violates federal law, the report said, since it denies some eligible students federally funded special education services. School districts were found to be inconsistent in how they interpreted and carried out this state policy.
  • Many school district staff members said they saw evaluation for federally funded special education services as a “last resort” for students who were struggling to learn. They did not understand that students could receive these services in both special education and general education classrooms.

The agency’s attempts to address some of these problems in the last several months collapsed recently after it awarded a contract to overhaul special education to a company with a short track record without letting other firms bid for the job. After parents of students with disabilities argued the contract was poorly thought out, Morath terminated it — with $2.2 million in federal funding already spent for services rendered. The agency is now conducting an internal review of its contracting processes.

Texas now lacks both a special education director and a long-term plan for overhauling special education, leaving parents and advocates frustrated and concerned.

Reference Material

USDE special education monitoring visit letter

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/01/11/federal-special-education-monitoring-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.

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

Here’s a look at the week’s education news stories from the ATPE lobby team:


The board of trustees for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) met this week in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter attended the meetings and provided this report for our blog, summarizing the board’s discussions about data system upgrades and possible future actions pertaining to retire/rehire policies for educators and the assumed rate of return associated with the pension fund.


TEA_assessmentsThe Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been busy rolling out new STAAR testing resources for educators and parents. Its TexasAssessment.com website offers tools and data for parents, teachers, and administrators to help understand and analyze information related to the state’s standardized testing system. This week, TEA made available to educators the ability to view sample reports that parents can access for their children. The goal is to help teachers provide guidance to their students’ parents who may have questions about the STAAR reports. For more information on the new resources, check out this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


This weekend, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins is attending the Texas Tribune’s annual TribFest. Learn more about the education-related panel discussions that are taking place at the festival in this blog post from Mark. ATPE’s Governmental Relations staff members are also out on the road this weekend attending ATPE meetings in Regions 12 and 14, with many more scheduled in the next few weeks. Learn more about these events in today’s blog post from ATPE Political Involvement Coordinator Edwin Ortiz.