The Texas House of Representatives debated its budget bill, March 28, 2019.
During a late night floor session on Wednesday, the Texas House unanimously approved a $251 billion state budget bill, House Bill (HB) 1. The bill includes a $9 billion appropriation for improving the state’s school finance system and providing property relief to homeowners. The public education-related funding increases in the House budget would be implemented via HB 3, Chairman Dan Huberty’s (R-Kingwood) omnibus bill that ATPE supports. The full House is slated to debate HB 3 on the floor next Wednesday, April 3.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Finance Committee is preparing to approve its budget bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1, in the coming days. During a meeting yesterday, the committee decided to add money to its bill to match the House’s $9 billion funding proposal for public education. The two chambers are likely to disagree, however, on how that money should be spent.
Read more about the House’s big budget vote in this article from The Texas Tribune republished on our Teach the Vote blog. We urge ATPE members to use our convenient tools on Advocacy Central to send a message to House members thanking them for their vote on the budget to increase public education funding and urging them all to similarly support HB 3 next week.
ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified before a House committee, March 26, 2019.
This week two important bills affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) advanced in both the House and Senate.
House Bill (HB) 9 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), which increases contributions to TRS and provides retirees with a 13th check, received a hearing the House Committee on Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services on Tuesday. The bill was left pending in committee but is expected to be voted out favorably in the near future. ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand testified in favor of HB 9 during the hearing.
Also, Senate Bill (SB) 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) was voted out of the full Senate by a unanimous vote on Monday. SB 12, which ATPE also supports, raises the contribution rates into TRS, albeit differently from the House’s bill, and provides retirees with a 13th payment, but the payment would be lower. For more information on the differences between the two bills, check out this blog post by ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter.
On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee chaired by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), heard a number of bills focused on student discipline issues. ATPE supported bills such as Senate Bill 1451, which prohibits negative action on a teacher’s appraisal solely on the basis of the teacher’s disciplinary referrals or documentation of student conduct, and Senate Bill 2432, which would add harassment to the list of conduct that will result in the mandatory removal of a student from the classroom. For more information on the bills heard, plus other pending bills that were voted on during this week’s committee hearing, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
Meetings of the House Public Education Committee have been known to take on a theme and focus on bills that pertain to the same issue. The theme of this week’s meeting of the committee was school safety. Members of that committee on Tuesday heard 35 bills related to topics in school safety such as school hardening, access to mental health resources, and increased law enforcement on school campuses. ATPE registered a position in support of six bills including House Bill 2994 by Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), which would require the Commissioner of Education to develop mental health training material for school districts. A thorough breakdown of the bills heard during this committee meeting can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.
FEDERAL UPDATE: On Thursday, March 28, 2019, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat before the Senate Appropriations Committee to defend President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for the Department of Education. DeVos faced questions on her support for increasing federal funding for school choice while eliminating or decreasing funding aimed at teacher effectiveness, special populations, and loan assistance. Watch more coverage of the hearing here for the full scoop.
ELECTION UPDATE: The 86th Texas Legislative session is more than halfway over, and issues like school finance, teacher pay, and school safety remain key topics. This is a direct result of the tremendous educator turnout during the 2018 elections and proof of the power of democracy – informed and engaged citizens holding their elected officials accountable. Practicing and modeling civic engagement require voting in every election. On May 4, 2019, many Texans will have the chance to vote in local elections for school boards, mayoral seats, bonds, and more. Make sure your voter registration is up to date so you will be able to participate. The last day to register to vote in the May election is April 4. Early voting runs April 22-30, 2019. Visit VoteTexas.gov to learn more about how to register and vote.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.
Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.
The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.
“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”
The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.
The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.
“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”
Some of the more contentious budget proposals floated by lawmakers never reached the floor. An amendment from state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, for example, would have asked members to vote on the issue of across-the-board pay raises for public school teachers. Such a proposal has divided the Legislature this session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Senate in favor and much of the House opposed. Raymond withdrew his amendment Wednesday evening, saying he planned to bring up the issue again when the House debates its school finance bill.
A proposal from state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, to prohibit disaster recovery dollars from benefiting noncitizens and “illegal aliens” was quietly withdrawn after sparking controversy earlier this week. Across the aisle, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, withdrew her amendment that would have required Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to prepare a report on domestic terrorist threats posed by white supremacists.
Bonnen worked behind the scenes in the days preceding the vote, House lawmakers said, in the hopes of avoiding the discord that has erupted during the chamber’s marathon budget debates in past sessions. On Tuesday, top lieutenants for Bonnen met for a handful of informal gatherings to offer concessions in exchange for lawmakers dropping some of their more controversial amendments, according to people familiar with the meetings.
The result was one of the shortest budget debates in recent memory. Lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the two-year spending plan minutes after the clock struck midnight. Under former House Speaker Joe Straus, lawmakers in 2017 and 2015 went home well into the morning, after several explosive exchanges between Straus’ allies and the chamber’s hardline GOP membership.
“This budget night is unlike any other I have experienced in my time in the House — both in it’s shorter duration and civil tone,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, a Fort Worth Republican and Freedom Caucus member, in a text message after the debate concluded. “I think Speaker Bonnen deserves the bulk of the credit for creating an environment of civility and decorum. This is how the Texas House should operate when debating the big issues for the state of Texas.”
So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.
Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.
State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”
Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.
In an earlier dustup just before 2 p.m., state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who led the House budget negotiations over health and human services programs, was seen in a heated exchange with state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
A few minutes later, Leach proposed an amendment that would allow Texas to expand Medicaid coverage for women up to a year after they give birth. To cover some of the costs, Leach’s amendment recommended cutting $15 million from a program in Abbott’s office that reimburses film and video game makers who work in Texas.
Extending postpartum Medicaid coverage “is simply more important and should be a higher priority” than the film incentives program, Leach said.
Democrats gathered at the back microphone to oppose the motion, saying the funding should come from elsewhere.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to help women’s health,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who said she supported the film incentives as a job-creation program. “If we found another source, would you create another amendment?”
“I’m not going to agree to hypotheticals,” Leach replied. The amendment subsequently passed without a recorded vote after putting Democrats in the awkward position of voicing opposition to a Medicaid coverage expansion they otherwise supported.
A more ambitious Medicaid coverage expansion, which would have provided publicly funded health insurance to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, failed for a fourth legislative session. The Medicaid expansion amendment brought by state Rep. John Bucy III, D-Austin, was rejected with 66 votes in favor and 80 opposed.
Still, Democrats saw some wins Wednesday. For example, an amendment by state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, that would require the Department of State Health Services to conduct a study on vaccination rates among children at licensed child care facilities was approved in a 79-67 vote. Another successful amendment by state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, directs the state to come up with a transition plan for when a pot of federal health care safety-net funding, known as the 1115 waiver, dries up in 2021 and 2022.
Complicating budget negotiations was news of an updated property tax reform proposal, which was expected to be laid out in committee before the House convened but was instead postponed until after the budget debate. Debate over that updated proposal, which drew opposition from Democrats and hardline Republicans, carried over onto the floor as its author, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with committee members to discuss the high-priority legislation.
The debate on the HB 1 ended with a procedural move spearheaded by Turner and Burrows to wrap up the remaining amendments and send them to the wish list portion of the wish list portion of the budget. That section of the budget, known as Article XI, is considered a graveyard for most line items.
Passing an amendment to the wish list is “just a way to get you off the main,” state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, said in protest earlier in the evening, shortly before one of her proposals was shot down.
The two-year budget wasn’t the only spending plan advanced by the House on Wednesday.
Lawmakers also approved a $9 billion supplemental spending plan to pay for leftover expenses that aren’t covered in the state’s current two-year budget, mostly for Hurricane Harvey recovery and health and human services programs.
A $4.3 billion withdrawal from the state savings account covers the largest share of expenses in the supplemental bill. Another $2.7 billion comes from the state’s general revenue, and $2.3 billion are federal funds.
The legislation, Senate Bill 500, returns to the Senate, whose stopgap spending plan approved earlier this month carried a $6 billion price tag.
Lawmakers in 2017 underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled, requiring a $4.4 billion infusion of state and federal funds. The Legislature must pass the stopgap funding bill before the end of May if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is to be able to pay health care providers on time.
The supplemental bill also includes:
Nearly $2 billion to reimburse school districts, state agencies and universities for costs they took on after Hurricane Harvey
About $1.3 billion to shore up a system that pays out teacher pensions, contingent on the passage of a pension reform bill, which includes $658 million from the state savings account to provide a one-time “13th check” made out to retired teachers
Nearly $11 million for the Santa Fe Independent School District, which experienced a mass shooting last year that left 10 dead and 13 wounded
$2 million for state mental hospital improvements, which includes funding to plan the construction of new hospitals in the Panhandle and the Dallas area.
Legislators and SBOE members gathered for the board’s swearing-in ceremony, Jan. 28, 2019.
The State Board of Education (SBOE) held its first meetings of the new year this week in Austin. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins attended the meetings and provided updates for our blog.
Things kicked off on Monday when all members of the board, both newly elected and re-elected, were sworn in by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). Members of the board adopted operating rules for the body, discussed the board’s authority in relation to charter schools, and also approved committee assignments and officer elections, including naming Marty Rowley (R) of Amarillo as Vice Chair and Georgina Perez (D) of El Paso as Secretary of the board. Additional committee assignments and chair appointments can be viewed in this blog post from Wiggins.
On Tuesday, the board was briefed by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath on the “State of the State of Public Education” annual report. Morath also discussed the creation of curriculum guides by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), educator compensation, and other topics as noted in this blog post. Wednesday, the board participated in a learning roundtable at the Austin Convention Center where it discussed its Long-Range Plan for Public Education, a list of goals and recommendations to improve public schools by 2030.
Lastly, the SBOE ended its meetings by unveiling today the new logo for the Permanent School Fund, which was designed by Melissa Richardson of Dripping Springs High School as part of a contest. The board will meet again on April 2-5, 2019.
SPECIAL ELECTION UPDATE: El Paso residents turned out on Tuesday to elect a new state representative for Texas House District 79. El Paso Community College Chairman, Art Fierro, won the House seat with 53% of the votes in the special election. Fierro will be completing the term of former Rep. Joe Pickett who resigned recently due to health complications. Fierro’s term will expire in 2021. ATPE congratulates Representative-Elect Fierro and looks forward to working with him.
Meanwhile, some Houstonians will still have to wait in order to find out who will be replacing former Rep. Carol Alvarado, who vacated her House seat in District 145 order to run successfully for the Texas State Senate in another special election for Senate District 6. As for the new representative for House District 145, the race has been narrowed down to two Democratic candidates, Christina Morales and Melissa Noriega. The date of the runoff election for HD 145 has not yet been announced.
Lastly, one more seat in the Texas House remains vacant, that of San Antonio Democrat Justin Rodriguez who vacated his seat to run for (and get elected) Bexar County commissioner. Early voting for the House District 125 special election begins Monday with the election being held on Feb. 12. View profiles of the special election candidates on Teach the Vote, and read more about each race in this article by The Texas Tribune.
Earlier today, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its accreditation statuses for Texas public schools for the 2018-19 school year. The statuses based on academic accountability ratings and the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (also known as School FIRST) recognize schools and districts that meet certain academic and financial benchmarks. According to TEA, 99% of Texas schools were designated as accredited for the 2018-19 year. More information can be found in this press release from the agency.
House Committee on Public Education
The House Public Education Committee convened its first meeting of the regular session this week. Led by Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) who is serving his third term as chair, the committee heard from Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff about issues such as STAAR testing, educator certification, and TEA’s Special Education Strategic Plan. The committee will reconvene several times over the next two weeks to hear invited testimony from members of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance and other stakeholders regarding the commission’s recommendations for school finance reform. Learn more in this blog post from ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, who attended this week’s first hearing.
The House Appropriations Committee also began meeting this week. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter attended the first few meetings and provided this update. After opening remarks from Chairman John Zerwas (R-Fulshear), including some gentle ribbing about punctuality that will likely turn into a session long running joke, the committee heard from what is likely the last stop on the Comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate tour. The committee also received from the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) some high-level budget numbers, including on public education and the Teacher Retirement System (TRS). The committee is scheduled to hear more in-depth testimony on TRS, school safety, and school finance on Monday, Feb. 4. Most of the truly in-depth work on the initial House budget bill is done by subcommittees, including an Article III subcommittee that reviews the education portion of the budget. The members of those subcommittees are determined by the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and will likely be named next week.
The Senate Finance Committee also continued to meet this week but on areas other than public education. The Senate committee will turn its attention to education funding later this month, and ATPE’s lobby team will provide updates here on our Teach the Vote blog.
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a rally at the Capitol for school choice January 24, 2017. Both Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick spoke in favor of expanding school choice options. Students, educators, activists and parents marched on the south lawn to show their support for expanding school choice options during National School Choice Week. Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune
Two years ago, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stood on the steps of the Texas Capitol before a throng of waving yellow scarves and urged lawmakers to vote for programs that give parents state money to attend private schools.
This Wednesday, those two top Republicans may not even attend the rally for National School Choice Week, let alone have speaking roles.
Though “school choice” supporters will still excitedly don their signature bright yellow scarves Wednesday, they will likely be fighting an uphill battle the rest of this session to get support in the Capitol.
In the months after 2017’s rally, House lawmakers unequivocally voted to reject school vouchers or similar programs that allow parents to use public money for private education. In 2018, a key election ousted some of the programs’ largest supporters, including Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, one of the loudest cheerleaders in the House. And as state Republicans tour the state making constituents a new set of education-related promises, many have swapped the words “school choice” for “school finance.”
So far, even Abbott and Patrick have rarely brought up their former pet issue without being asked directly — beyond Abbott’s routine proclamation for this year’s School Choice Week. The new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, said last week that the House would not pass legislation approving vouchers — and that he had consistently voted no on similar bills.
“I’m not willing to say, ‘hey, this issue is dead.’ But leadership seems to be saying that, at least for this particular session,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, one of the biggest opponents of those programs.
The issue was politically divisive last session, with public school educators arguing it would siphon money from public schools. The Senate passed a diluted version of the bill that would allow parents of students with disabilities to pay for private school and homeschooling, with supporters arguing it would empower families to make the best educational choices for their kids. Facing resistance in the House, Senate leaders refused to approve an overhaul of the school finance system without those subsidies — forcing a stalemate.
Abbott demanded lawmakers pass both in a summer special session. Both failed to pass again.
Randan Steinhauser, who along with her husband Brendan has helped lead the fight for voucher-like programs in Texas, said both Abbott and Patrick have been invited to support the cause from the stage at Wednesday’s rally. But they aren’t scheduled to give formal speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, both Republicans, are expected to speak and, she said, “having one elected official after another is not the most engaging thing for our audience.”
In 2017, Steinhauser helped start an organization called Texans for Education Opportunity, which hired about a dozen lobbyists to push the benefits of giving parents taxpayer money to use for private school tuition and homeschooling. This year, Texans for Education Opportunity has no lobbyists registered.
Steinhauser and Texans for Education Opportunity founder Stacy Hock both say they are instead focusing on organizing families to speak directly to lawmakers.
“Thankfully, we will not be doing a huge lobby effort this session,” Hock said. ‘What has become apparent to me is that the most important voice in this discussion is that of Texas families.”
Steinhauser rejects the idea that lawmakers got kicked out of office for supporting the issue.
“If that were the case, Dan Patrick would have lost. He’s the biggest champion in the state and he’s coming back for another term,” she said. “No one won or lost on the issue of school choice.”
But lawmakers appear to be putting distance between themselves and the issue, at least for the time being.
Sen. Larry Taylor, the Friendswood Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told a group of free-market conservatives earlier this month that school choice “is not going to be the focus this session” and “not part of the school finance bill.” That’s a far cry from 2017, when he authored the Senate’s bill for private school tuition subsidies.
But he’s not alone in his change of tone. Two years ago, sporting a yellow scarf of his own atop a navy blue suit, Patrick expressed his disappointment with the Texas House in front of thousands of students and family members from charter schools and private schools.
“We want a vote up or down in the Senate and in the House this session on school choice,” he said, amid loud cheers. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it.”
This year, when asked whether the issue would return to the Senate, Patrick was less direct: “We’ll see, we’ll see. It’s a long session.”
Disclosure: Stacy Hock and the Association of Texas Professional Educators 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.
Tuesday, January 8, kicked off the 86th Texas Legislative Session amid great fanfare at the State Capitol.
Representative Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) was unanimously elected and sworn in as the new Speaker of the House on Tuesday afternoon. For the past 10 years, the House has been under the leadership of Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) who retired from the position and the legislature at the end of his term this month. Bonnen announced in November 2018 that he had amassed the requisite number of pledged votes to render the speaker’s race not much of a race at all. After that there was only the vote and ceremonial swearing in, which took place on Tuesday. Read more about Bonnen’s ascent to speaker in this post shared from The Texas Tribune.
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) was missing from Tuesday’s proceedings while visiting with President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, that day on the subject of border security. Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) presided over the upper chamber’s opening ceremonies in his place. The Senate swore in its new members and also elected Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) to serve as President Pro Tempore this session.
Gov. Greg Abbott spoke briefly to welcome the members of each chamber, signaling his intent for the legislature to tackle school finance reform and property tax relief this session. Bonnen and Watson also highlighted the prominence of the school funding issue this session, with new House Speaker going as far as announcing that he had stocked the members’ lounge with special styrofoam cups to remind them of their top priority: school finance reform. Improving the state’s school finance system is also a top legislative priority for ATPE this year.
ATPE Lobbyists Mark Wiggins and Monty Exter snapped a selfie with Humble ATPE’s Gayle Sampley and her husband at the Capitol on opening day.
ATPE’s lobbyists were at the Capitol on opening day and will be there for all of the action this legislative session. Be sure to follow @TeachtheVote and our individual lobbyists on Twitter for the latest updates from the Capitol.
ATPE members are also encouraged to sign up for free to attend our upcoming lobby day and political involvement training event known as ATPE at the Capitol on Feb. 24-25, 2019. Find complete details here.
While the legislative session officially began on Tuesday, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar made news the day before with his release of the state’s Biennial Revenue Estimate (BRE). The BRE details how much money the state plans to receive and how much of it can be spent in any given legislative session.
Monday’s BRE announcement predicted revenue of $119.12 billion for the 2020-21 biennium. This biennium’s BRE comes with tempered expectations, which Hegar attributed to a drop in oil prices, market volatility, and rising interest rates. “Looking ahead to the 2020-21 biennium, we remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we are unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we have seen in recent months.” Hegar said in the report.
Once the comptroller has released the BRE for each legislature, the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) meets to set the session’s constitutionally-required spending limit. ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter reports that the LBB met today and set a limit of $100.2 billion for spending this session. The constitutional spending limit is set by applying the percentage of growth, which is determined by many factors, to the previous biennium’s spending limit. The constitutional limit applies only to expenditures of general revenue that is not constitutionally-dedicated. By comparison, the non-dedicated-revenue spending limit for the 85th session in 2017 was roughly $91 billion, whereas the total general revenue appropriated by the legislature that year was $106.6 Billion. As Exter explains, neither withdrawals from the Economic Stabilization Fund (the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund”) nor supplemental appropriations for the current biennium will count toward the constitutional limit that was announced today.
The Legislature must now decide what to do with its available revenue. Rest assured, they haven’t been given a blank check to do as they please. According to reporting by the Center For Public Policy Priorities the legislature must immediately spend $563 million as back pay for Medicaid funding that was deferred until this session. The legislature will also have to determine where $2.7 billion for Hurricane Harvey recovery costs will come from.
For more detailed reporting on the BRE as well as link to the full report, check out this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.
Late last week, the House Committee on Public Education released its interim report covering the committee’s work over the past year on interim charges assigned to it by the House Speaker. The report, which spans 88 pages, includes recommendations on how to approach a variety of education-related issues this session, such as Hurricane Harvey relief, teacher compensation, and school safety.
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) chairs the committee that produced its interim report. Among the suggestions were recommendations to consider possible legislation to help schools quickly replace instructional materials due to Harvey; creating paths to career growth for educators that would allow them to stay in the classroom, such as a “Master Teacher” certification; and making Individual Graduation Committees (IGCs) permanently available for students who have difficulty with STAAR testing.
You can read more about the committee’s interim charge recommendations in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins. Read the interim report here.
In a statement released to the press on Monday, Governor Greg Abbott announced his appointment of Edward Hill, Jr., Ed.D., John P. Kelly, Ph.D., Courtney Boswell MacDonald, and Jose M. Rodriguez to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). The new appointees are replacing retiring SBEC members Suzanne McCall of Lubbock; Dr. Susan Hull of Grand Prairie; and Leon Leal of Grapevine.
ATPE thanks the members rolling off the SBEC board for their years of service and welcomes the new members. We look forward to working together with them to continue to improve the education profession for the betterment of Texas students.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is sworn in as House speaker by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Looking on is Bonnen’s wife Kimberly. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
A gray fog descended on Austin Tuesday morning, but the scene inside the Texas Capitol was one of colorful festivities to mark the first day of the 86th biennial legislative session.
And perhaps the heartiest celebration took place in the Texas House, where lawmakers whooped and hollered after the unanimous election of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen as House speaker.
Bonnen’s election marks a new era of leadership in the lower chamber for the first time in a decade. The Angleton Republican replaced former House Speaker Joe Straus, who announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election. Straus, a San Antonio Republican who was elected in 2009, held a record-tying five terms in the House’s top seat.
Whereas Straus was known as a mild-mannered leader, Bonnen has developed more of a combatant’s reputation in the House. He seemed to lean into that perception in his remarks. “I’ve never seen the use in sugarcoating things,” Bonnen said. “I am direct and I am a problem solver.”
Lawmakers praised his leadership ability in a series of speeches preceding the vote. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat with 45 years of experience in the House, drew a standing ovation for her remarks, in which she said Bonnen “has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served.”
The new speaker pledged to keep the Texas Legislature from getting “caught up in things that don’t lead to real results.” He named public school funding as his top priority, in addition to school safety, combating human trafficking and reforming property tax collection. He even went so far as to replace the drinking cups in the House members’ lounge with new ones reading, “School finance reform: The time is now.”
“You will be reminded every day,” Bonnen said.
Bonnen’s election was hardly a surprise; he first announced he had the votes to become the next leader of the lower chamber in November, working behind the scenes to assemble a transition team and hire a staff to assume the speaker’s office. In his closing remarks, after asking for unity among House members, he gave a tearful tribute to his father, recalling some advice from the elder Bonnen, who passed away in 2017.
“Let’s be sure when we adjourn sine die we leave this House and this state better than we found it,” he said. “There’s a saying we have in Texas: As Texas goes, so goes the nation.”
Gov. Greg Abbott praised Bonnen’s “tenacity” and echoed some of his legislative priorities in a speech to the lower chamber. “You have the ability — and we will achieve it — that we are going to reform school finance in the state of Texas this session,” Abbott said. “And we are going to reform property taxes in Texas this session.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was conspicuously absent on opening day. “He was called by the White House to discuss some issues that are critical to Texas,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who presided over the chamber in Patrick’s stead. Patrick’s office later said the meeting was about border security.
Before a crowd of doting spouses and toddling grandchildren, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath of office to a slate of new and returning state senators. Among them were state Sen. Charles Schwertner, who gave up his powerful committee chairmanship last week after an inconclusive sexual harassment investigation, and incoming state Sen. Angela Paxton, who was accompanied by her husband, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Nelson, performing a duty traditionally left to the lieutenant governor, joked that she was certainly the first grandmother of 11 to gavel in a session of the Texas Legislature. Soon after, state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and the former mayor of the capital city, was elected president pro tempore, a ceremonial role that puts him third in line for the governorship after Patrick.
Other visitors and guests of all stripes had gathered at the Capitol hours earlier, with palpable enthusiasm for another 140-day marathon of state government.
This massive pink granite structure is the site where, over the next five months, the two legislative bodies will make decisions that shape the daily lives of nearly 30 million people for the next two years. How crowded will student classrooms be? Where will new highways be built? Who deserves publicly funded health care?
But those debates will come later. On Tuesday, the mood was a mix of anticipation and nostalgia; for some the scene played out like the first day of school, for others a class reunion. Giddy celebration punctuated the pomp and circumstance.
The festivities reached all corners of the building.
Huddled in the Capitol’s rotunda, a group dubbed the “resistance choir” gathered for a finger-snapping rendition of Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband.” The group’s left-leaning membership has steeled itself for another difficult session in the Republican-led Legislature, but today, a kind of truce held.
“We’re just excited to be here. Today, we’re not here to protest,” said Anne Withrow, one of group’s members.
Elsewhere, children clutched their parents’ hands and seemed eager to have their photos taken inside the historic building. Hustling around them, lobbyists sporting sharp business suits, phones pressed to their ears, shuffled upstairs to convene outside the House and Senate chambers. A few state lawmakers, too, shook hands with constituents and visitors.
A hoard of people outside dressed in Rastafarian green, gold and red held flags with pro-marijuana messages plastered to them. Across the street, in front of the Governor’s Mansion, climate scientists and activists assembled at a podium to call on Abbott to address global warming. By early afternoon, when the swearing-in ceremonies were finished and lawmakers adjourned for the day, the fog had dissipated.
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
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.
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 past Tuesday was Election Day. All across the country registered voters lined up at polling places (some with hours-long waits) to cast their ballots and make their voices heard. There were a number of impressive wins and historical elections across the country and Texas was no exception. Turnout for this midterm election was nearly double what it was in 2014.
While Texas’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz were all able to secure reelection, the margins by which they won were closer than usual. Democrats in the Texas House were able to flip 12 seats, a gain that has implications for the impending race for a new House Speaker, while the minority party in the Senate also gained two seats. Senate Democrats will most likely still face a vacancy for at least the first part of the 2019 legislative session; Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) announced her resignation today following her election to a U.S. Congressional seat on Tuesday. Gov. Greg Abbott must now call a special election to fill the state senate seat within the next couple of months. Additionally, the seat flipping in the state legislature might not be complete at this point as a number of candidates who seemingly lost their elections Tuesday by narrow margins are waiting for provisional and mail-in absentee ballots to be counted. Margins that remain slim following the completion of the vote counting could trigger recounts in a few races.
What we know for sure at this point is that Texans made a statement with this election by electing a myriad of pro-public education candidates to office. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins breaks down the math of this week’s election results in this blog post.
A 2012 decision by the state of Texas to spend less money on students with disabilities is coming back to haunt it. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled to uphold a penalty levied by the U.S. Department of Education that withholds $33.3 million dollars in federal funding from Texas’s special education grants. The penalty was imposed after Texas was found to have withheld the same amount of money in funding for special education programs. While the state argued that its special education programs had helped students overcome their disabilities and hence fewer special education services were needed following the 2012 funding decrease, the federal education ageny contended that states can not reduce funding levels from year to year.
Texas’ decision to spend $33.3 million less on students with disabilities in 2012 will likely cost it millions in future federal funding after a Wednesday afternoon 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
According to the New Orleans-based court, the U.S. Department of Education was within its rights to try to withhold the same amount from Texas’ special education grants, since a 1997 federal statute prohibits states from reducing their funding for kids with disabilities from year to year. Texas had appealed the department’s decision, arguing that statute was vague and unenforceable.
A little more than a month after hearing both sides, and the day after a momentous midterm election, the three-judge panel effectively upheld the education department’s decision to financially penalize Texas in an opinion that called the state’s argument “unpersuasive.” The 13-page opinion questions Texas’ current system for funding special education, saying it could give the state reason to minimize the needs of kids with disabilities in order to save money.
The court also ruled that Texas must pay the federal government’s appeal costs. Texas has not publicly indicated whether it will try to appeal the ruling.
Since 1995, Texas has weighted funding for kids with disabilities, paying schools more to educate kids who have more severe disabilities or need more personalized attention in order to learn. It argued it spent $33.3 million less in 2012 because its special education programs successfully got students to “overcome their disabilities,” decreasing their need. School districts reported students in need of less expensive services that year and so the state allocated less money, lawyers argued.
The federal government’s argument is simple: States cannot decrease their funding from year to year, a provision that ensures they use the additional federal money to enhance services, instead of cutting their budgets.
Texas’ weighted funding system “poses the potential for future abuse” of that statute, the panel said in an opinion written by Judge Jerry Smith, who had expressed skepticism towards the state’s argument in October.
“Though Texas law requires the state to allocate funding based on the needs of disabled children, it is the state itself that assesses what those needs are,” Smith wrote. “Hence, the weighted-student model creates a perverse incentive for a state to escape its financial obligations merely by minimizing the special education needs of it students.”
At a Texas House Appropriations Committee hearing last month, state education officials prepared lawmakers for a potential loss at the 5th Circuit, saying the penalty — which amounts to 3 percent of Texas’ annual federal special education grant — would have minimal impact on their special education programs.
Texas is separately working to overhaul its special education programs after a U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded earlier this year that the state had effectively denied services to thousands of students with disabilities who needed them. Officials estimate spending $3 billion more on kids with disabilities over the next three years, since more students are likely to be eligible for services.