Tag Archives: TRS

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

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


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

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

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

 


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

 


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

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

 


 

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

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


Andrea Chevalier

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

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

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

 


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

 


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

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

 


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

 


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

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

 


 

House Appropriations hears from TEA and TRS

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

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

House Appropriations Committee meeting Feb. 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

 


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

 


House Committee on Public Education

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

 


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

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

 


 

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Dec. 14, 2018

From school finance and retirement to school accountability ratings, here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from the ATPE Governmental Relations department:


School finance commission meeting Dec. 11, 2018

The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met on Tuesday of this week to begin deliberating recommendations for the body’s final report due at the end of this month. Among the suggestions discussed Tuesday were (1) outcomes-based funding hinged upon early literacy and student preparedness for entrance into college, the military, or a career field without remediation; and (2) a high-quality teacher allotment that would require school districts to develop local, multi-measure assessments of their educators. Those assessments would need to comply with criteria outlined by the legislature.

While some members of the commission bristled this week at the idea of requesting more funding from the legislature, others, including House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Humble), stated that he would refuse to sign a report that did not request more funding. Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), chair of the commission’s working group on revenues, suggested that the full commission adopt Gov. Abbott’s plan to cap property taxes at 2.5% annually. Meanwhile, Leo Lopez, Chief Finance Officer for the Texas Education Agency, pointed out during Tuesday’s hearing that the governor’s plan is more of a property tax relief plan than a school finance reform plan.

A more detailed breakdown of Tuesday’s meeting can be found in this week’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Other recommendations in the commission’s draft report, which can be previewed here, include prioritizing the state’s “60×30” goal, which is to have 60 percent of high school graduates eligible to enter the workforce with an industry certification, successfully join the military, or enter college without the need for remediation by the year 2030. More technical recommendations include reallocating $5.34 billion in existing revenues and revising the current weights and allotments in order to boost the basic allotment, which provides a baseline of funding for all 5.4 million school children in Texas. Throughout the commission’s year of deliberations, scores of education stakeholders and experts have shared their input, including invited testimony from ATPE back in February.

The commission will meet once more on Wednesday, Dec. 19, to vote on its final recommendations before submitting its report to the legislature as required on or before Dec. 31. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on the final vote.


The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees met in Austin at the TRS headquarters on Thursday, Dec. 13, and Friday, Dec. 14, for its final meeting of 2018. Board committees met on Thursday. Each committee’s meeting materials can be found below. The full board met Friday morning to consider the following agenda. Video of the board committee meetings and the full board meeting is also available for viewing.

For additional information, view the following TRS board meeting materials:


Today the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) released an updated Pension Benefit Design Study. This recent study augments the body of knowledge generated by a 2012 study on the pension program for Texas educators. The updated study released today by TRS outlines benefits and statistics about the pension system, and includes such findings as these, which are in line with ATPE’s positions on TRS:

• A total of 96 percent of public school employees do not participate in Social Security. For many TRS members, the only source of lifetime income in retirement is their TRS benefit. A lifetime benefit helps mitigate the risk of a retiree who — due to longevity, market volatility or failure to invest adequately — outlives his or her savings.

• A majority of TRS members would end up more financially at-risk by investing on their own in a plan with a defined-contribution component.

• The TRS benefit, as currently designed, replaces roughly 69 percent of a career employee’s pre-retirement income when that person initially retires.

• Alternate plans would be 30 to 124 percent more expensive than the current defined benefit plan to provide the same benefit level upon an employee’s retirement.

More information about the study can be found in this TRS press release, along with a one-pager about the pension program. The full text of the new report can be accessed here.

Preserving the integrity and solvency of the TRS defined-benefit pension plan for educators is one of ATPE’s priorities for the 86th legislature.


The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has released its final academic accountability ratings for the 2018 year. The ratings include results for 1,200 school districts and charters and over 8,700 campuses within the state. While preliminary ratings were released in August, this final release includes the ratings of districts and charters that contested their initial ratings. More information about the accountability ratings can be found here. To search the ratings by district or campus, visit TXschools.org 

 


 

12 Days of Voting: Retirement

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at retirement.


Everyone who decides to become an educator enters into a special agreement with the State of Texas. It goes something like this: If you devote your life to preparing our children for the future, Texas promises to be there for you when you retire at the end of a long career of service.

Only that promise is constantly under attack.

Let’s start with some basics. Your retirement is administered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS), which oversees the pension trust fund. The state and individual educators each contribute to the fund, and a team of professional staff supervise a diverse investment portfolio that makes up the body of the fund. These full-time agency employees ensure the fund’s health and safety. After paying for the cost of administration and benefits, the money from those investments is plowed right back into the fund.

TRS is structured as a “defined benefit” retirement plan, which means that an individual who pays into the plan is guaranteed a set amount of money each month in retirement that will last for the rest of his or her life. The more common type of retirement plan is a “defined contribution” plan, such as a 401(k). Unlike the promise of a stable monthly pension check upon retirement offered by a defined benefit plan, a defined contribution plan promises merely a set contribution into an employee’s retirement account while the individual is actively working. Investment returns on that account are subject to the whims of the market. The level of retirement security that can be provided by those funds at the end of an educator’s career is not guaranteed. Under a defined contribution scenario, there is a real threat that a retired educator may outlive the retirement funds accumulated during his or her career, and end up with nowhere to turn for help — not even Social Security.

You may have noticed that most businesses in the private sector have gone the defined contribution route. The reason is largely because 401(k) plans are cheaper and don’t require dedicated staff to administer. Most are run for a profit by large Wall Street corporations, and advisers often have a financial stake in the investments they recommend. This leaves plenty of opportunities for others to make money, but little guarantee of stable retirement income for the retiree. The defined benefit plan administered by TRS is, by contrast, of great value to retirees, who can rest easier knowing that they will receive a guaranteed income for as long as they are alive.

As with most big pots of public money, the TRS pension fund has unfortunately become the focus of those looking to brag about shrinking government while making a few bucks for their friends.

In 2017, the Texas Senate confirmed Josh McGee as chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board (PRB), which oversees state pension systems including TRS. Prior to being appointed to that position by Gov. Greg Abbott, McGee worked as a professional advocate for converting public pensions to defined contribution plans that would reduce the money guaranteed to retirees, and his position at the helm of PRB naturally raised alarm bells.

Adding to the concern, lawmakers have filed a number of bills in 2017 and in prior legislative sessions that would likewise weaken TRS. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) – who made headlines recently with his objections to efforts to improve voter turnout among educators – filed a pair of bills last year aimed at converting TRS from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan or a hybrid of the two. Both bills died without a hearing, fortunately, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is keeping the idea alive as part of his interim charges for the Texas Senate to study before the legislature reconvenes in 2019.

Most troubling is the decision by the TRS Board of Trustees to lower the assumed rate of return for the $147 billion pension fund from 8.0 percent down to 7.25 percent. The decision was based on observations of current market forces, and while fiscally prudent, it radically changes the plan’s outlook on paper. Like all pension plans, the TRS fund must be considered solvent before the legislature or board can consider any potential increases in benefits. With the lower assumed rate of return, TRS will head into the 2019 legislative session needing an additional $1.5 billion for future solvency, and they’ll be asking for that money from lawmakers who frequently are looking to cut spending, not increase it.

Politicians like Sen. Bettencourt frame their attacks on educators’ pensions by claiming the defined benefit structure is too expensive for the state to maintain into the future. In fact, the state’s share of an educator’s pension (at 6.8 percent) is less than half the teacher retirement contribution rate set by the next lowest state that is not paying into Social Security. The truth is that a more conservative assumed rate of return, coupled with a proper contribution rate, will guarantee TRS stays healthy well into the future.

The bottom line: Like public education as a whole, Texas gets a phenomenal bargain for what it spends, but more funding is necessary to fully realize the implicit promise made to educators.

Lawmakers will face tremendous pressure in 2019 from investors and politicians who want to gamble with teachers’ retirement. Unless Texans elect more pro-public education lawmakers and statewide elected officials, the legislature may very well look to your pension as an area to further cut corners. Texas will only keep its promise to educators if lawmakers respect educators’ voices at the polls in this pivotal election year.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

From The Texas Tribune: In his long-shot bid to unseat Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Mike Collier is counting on teachers

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune
Oct. 24, 2018

In his long-shot bid to unseat Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Mike Collier is counting on teachers” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The Democrat wants to draw teachers and education-minded voters away from the Republican Party. But can he win over enough educators to unseat a powerful incumbent?

Democrat Mike Collier (left) is challenging Republican incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Photos by Bob Daemmrich: Collier/Marjorie Kamys Cotera: Patrick.

TAYLOR — It was a weekday morning, and Williamson County’s retired teachers were back in school.

Dozens of them gathered one October Friday in a large conference room off of Main Street Intermediate School, where the walls were beige concrete blocks, the sunlight was sneaking through the blinds, and the speakers — a slate of Texas candidates — were fighting to keep the room’s interest. Casting a shadow on the projector screen at the front of the room was Mike Collier, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who was preparing to hit a softball: Does Texas need its state retirement benefits system for teachers?

“Yes,” he said simply. “First of all, it’s the right thing to do. … It’s self-evident.”

He began to make a pulpit of his plastic table.

“And we’re a prosperous state! And we can afford it!” he continued, finger-wagging for emphasis. When he sat down, the room applauded.

On his longshot campaign to unseat incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Collier is hoping he’s popular in a lot of rooms that look like this one — where after hearing from him, education-focused voters in a reliably red county said in interviews that they planned to vote for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, then cross over to back Collier.

Collier, a Houston accountant and a failed 2014 candidate for Texas comptroller, is at a deep, perhaps insurmountable disadvantage in deep-red Texas, where Patrick has served in state government for more than a decade and accumulated about 35 times as much cash on hand.

Still, Collier says he can see a path to victory — and it starts here, in a crowd of retired teachers, scribbling on the bingo card-like sheets they’ve prepared for the occasion, sipping coffee out of teeny foam cups, some nodding along and a few nodding off.

But are there enough rooms like this to carry him to victory?

“The most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas”

Patrick is the heavy favorite to keep his seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years. He has the fundraising muscle, the endorsements and, more than likely, the reliable voters of a reliably dominant majority party.

As the leader of the Texas Senate, Patrick is one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, and he’s used his influence to push socially conservative policies through the upper chamber at an impressive clip — abortion restrictions, border enforcement, anti-“sanctuary cities” laws. Republican senators credit him with firm, effective leadership; liberals consider that effectiveness perhaps the state’s greatest threat to their values.

Patrick chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign efforts in Texas, and shared the stage with him at a campaign rally in Houston this week, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night. Patrick is, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said at a recent campaign event, “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.”

But his party isn’t without its disagreements. Some have pointed to a split between Patrick, who heads a Tea Party-aligned faction of the party, and retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, a more moderate figure. During the last legislative year, that split emerged in full force when Patrick pushed forward a bill that would have restricted transgender individuals’ access to certain public facilities. Straus condemned it as bad for business, and never brought it to the House floor for a vote — a move that contributed to his censure by the State Republican Executive Committee.

Tensions from the 2017 legislative sessions have bled into this fall’s campaign, if in limited fashion. One example: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who leads Texas’ most populous county, said he plans to vote for Collier.

But a family feud won’t keep a Republican incumbent from getting re-elected, strategists and elected officials predict. Patrick has the public support of Texas’ top Republicans; his campaign boasts the endorsements of both of Texas’ U.S. senators, the governor and all but one Republican state senator.

“There’s no question” that Patrick will win re-election, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, an ally of the lieutenant governor. Bettencourt represents the Houston district Patrick served until 2014 — heavily overlapping with Emmett’s turf — and said he’s confident that Patrick has the support of the region. “Dan Patrick is going to be re-elected. Dan Patrick is very popular in the Republican party.”

Still, if there are disenchanted Republican moderates to be picked off, Collier is working to endear himself to them.

In a year when even Texas Democrats are running as unabashed progressives, Collier has charted a more careful path. His party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate is a former punk rocker who went viral for skateboarding in a Whataburger parking lot while on the campaign trail. For governor, Democrats have nominated Lupe Valdez, the state’s first openly gay and Latina candidate to win the nod.

Collier does not ride a skateboard. At 57, he’s spent much of his life working as an accountant, and he only recently committed to the Democratic party — he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He seems most comfortable talking numbers — “I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare! I’m a Democrat and an auditor!” he likes to say — and seems less sure-footed discussing social issues.

On the death penalty, for example, Collier said he is still “evolving” toward a more liberal point of view. Collier justifies his support for undocumented immigrants in Texas in financial terms, not on moral grounds: They draw about $2 billion in state resources a year, but contribute about $2.7 billion back through property taxes, he says, so, “it doesn’t bother me that they’re here.” His line is similar on LGBTQ rights. In an interview last month, he couldn’t list inclusive legislation he’d push, but said he did “have in mind blocking” measures considered hostile to the gay community, like the so-called “bathroom bill.”

“Tolerance and inclusiveness is good for business,” Collier said, a line he could almost have borrowed from Straus.

“Public enemy number one for public education”

If Collier is positioning himself to draw center-right Republicans back over the line, public education may be his best issue. Patrick is not an uncontroversial figure among teachers, retired teachers and public school parents.

As a former chair of the Texas Senate’s public education committee and as the leader of the upper chamber, Patrick has championed what he calls “school choice” and critics, many of them public school educators, call “vouchers” — programs that would give Texas families subsidies to fund private school tuition for their kids. During last summer’s special session, as the Legislature debated an influx of cash for public schools, the Texas House offered up $1.8 billion — $1.5 billion more than Patrick’s Texas Senate proposed.

“When you have 700,000 school employees, they’re not all going to be on the same page. That said, I do feel like if there’s any one person out there that they’re most unified about it’s probably the lieutenant governor,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

As a senator, Exter said, Patrick “was pushing reforms that lots of educators are not necessarily in favor of. He doesn’t seem to favor class-size restrictions and they really, really do. He really does favor vouchers and they really, really don’t. And the funding issues have died in his hands or at his hands.”

Meanwhile, Patrick portrays himself as a champion for public schools. This summer, after his urging, the Teacher Retirement System of Texas opted not to raise health care premiums for retired teachers. In an ad last week, he reiterated his proposal to raise teacher salaries by an average of $10,000.

“Teachers are more valuable than expensive buildings and fancy stadiums,” Patrick says in the commercial, standing on a sunny hill in front of a truck. “It’s my priority, it’s best for our kids and it’s the right thing to do.”

But many in the public education community are skeptical about that plan in a system they say is already underfunded. Tracy Fisher, the president of Coppell ISD’s board and a Republican precinct chair in Dallas County, called the lieutenant governor’s proposal “deceptive.” He is “public enemy number one for public education,” she added.

And the effort hasn’t won Patrick favor from major teachers groups, some of whom have called his efforts disingenuous. Collier won the endorsements of the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas’ chapter of American Federation of Teachers; AFT president Louis Malfaro said Patrick has “tried to browbeat local school districts.” In its first-ever endorsements of statewide candidates, the public education group Texas Parent PAC also backed Collier, calling Patrick a bully and ideologue “who cannot be trusted to protect and strengthen our neighborhood public schools.”

Patrick’s campaign said those groups hardly speak for all Texas teachers. But the incumbent’s recent teacher raise ad shows he’s still focused on courting educators.

“While almost all the organizations that represent teachers are left-leaning and Democrat, in fact, Texas teachers tell us that most are Republicans who support border security, property tax reform and the innovative education reforms, including career tech, that have been championed by the Lt. Governor,” said Sherry Sylvester, a top Patrick aide.

Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said dissatisfied educators may narrow Patrick’s margin of victory, but they won’t threaten it.

“Do I think that feeling is widespread enough to cause concern for Dan Patrick? No,” he said.

A “sleeping giant”?

There are about 700,000 public school employees in Texas; that number doubles when you include retirees in the system, and multiplies if you add parents who consider public education their top voting issue. Collier is counting on that diverse group to back him as a block — but those voters have a wide range of backgrounds and political leanings. And they don’t always show up.

“The expectation is that teachers just don’t vote,” Exter said. “But I feel like what we’ve been seeing over the last couple of elections is that the enthusiasm and participation of educators is on the rise.”

Last year, in the wake of disappointments at the Legislature, many educators pledged to come together — including, and especially, across party lines — to support pro-public education candidates. In the months since, they’ve moved their advocacy from the Capitol steps to the internet, where nearly 27,000 have joined a Facebook group, Texans For Public Education, whose stated mission is block voting. The group, which color-codes its list of candidates, marked Collier green — “friendly,” “block vote” — and Patrick red: “unfriendly” to public education.

Collier is counting on turning them out to vote for him. But that bet has failed before.

Just ask Jim Largent, who retired as Granbury ISD superintendent this year after a failed primary challenge to state Rep. Mike Lang, a fellow North Texas Republican. Running as the pro-public education candidate, Largent won just 38 percent of the vote. In the Houston area, Fort Bend ISD board president Kristin Tassin suffered the same fate, taking just 27 percent of the vote in a challenge to state Sen. Joan Huffman that Tassin hoped teachers would swing in her favor.

A similar pattern emerged in the lieutenant governor’s race, where Patrick was one of just a few statewide officials to draw a serious primary challenger. Patrick’s opponent was Scott Milder, the founder of the advocacy group Friends of Texas Public Schools, who drew some attention for bad-mouthing Patrick — he called the incumbent a “bully,” a “jackass” and even a “fake conservative” —but remained the clear underdog in financial support and name recognition. Milder pushed the Patrick campaign to spend over $5 million on advertising, but ultimately won just under a quarter of Republican primary voters — a smaller share than either Tassin or Largent. Within days of the loss, Milder endorsed Collier.

Looking back on his attempt, Largent called Texas educators the electorate’s “sleeping giant.” The question, he said, is whether in a general election they’re more likely to wake up.

“I have always thought that Mike had a better shot than I did in the primary,” Milder said. “So few people actually turn out in the primary. … But a much broader base of Texans shows up in the general.”

Collier argues that the pro-public education voting block he envisions is more likely to swing a general election than a primary. Considering Democrats and Republicans who backed Milder, more people voted against Patrick in the primary than for him, Collier likes to point out.

There is also a Libertarian candidate in this fall’s race, Kerry McKennon.

“I do think that my race is as competitive as any,” Collier said. “There are going to be Republicans who stay home because they hate Dan Patrick. There are going to be a lot of Democrats who turn out because they hate Dan Patrick.”

The incumbent’s team isn’t so sure of that, though they did spend some $6.5 million on advertising in the last quarter to make extra sure. They have history on their side — and history suggests they have the numbers on their side, too.

At a rainy get out the vote rally in New Braunfels last week, Patrick projected confidence.

“There are folks like us who are going to keep Texas red — who are not going to let the blue wave take us out,” Patrick promised a cheering, bundled-up crowd.

While introducing Patrick, Campbell, the Republican state senator, summed it up neatly.

“I’ll tell you, they are motivated!” she said of Democrats. “But there are more of us than them.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT 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/2018/10/24/texas-dan-patrick-mike-collier-race-teachers-midterm/.

 

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. 21, 2018

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


The Board of Trustees of the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) met this week to discuss such topics as premiums for the state’s healthcare plan for retired educators. After receiving a more favorable update on the estimated shortfall for TRS-Care and hearing lawmakers indicate that the legislature will provide needed funding, the board intends to try to keep premiums and benefits stable. Read more about the board’s discussions this week in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.

 


Senator-elect Pete Flores (R-San Antonio)

Voters in Senate District 19 turned out for a special election runoff on Tuesday to decide who will represent them in the Texas Senate until the 2020 elections. Gathering 53% of the vote, Republican Pete Flores was the race’s clear winner and will be filling the seat left vacant by former Sen. Carlos Uresti who resigned this year.

Flores’s win flips the seat long held by Democrats into the Republican column heading into the 2019 legislative session. The change makes it that much easier for the upper chamber’s Republican super-majority to pass Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s agenda, especially with another Democratic vacancy generated by the anticipated race to replace Senate District 6’s Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who is running for Congress. Garcia’s seat would not be filled until a special election occurs well after next year’s legislative session begins.

ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins breaks down how this impacts the upcoming legislative session and what it means for contests in the November election in this blog post.

 


Are you already registered to vote? If so, don’t stop there…  take the next step!

Tuesday, September 25 is National Voter Registration Day, and thousands of volunteers across the U.S. will be mobilized to help others register to vote and get informed about elections. Perhaps if you’re already to vote you can go the extra mile by asking friends and family if they’ve registered and reminding them of these important dates:

  • The deadline to register to vote in November is Oct. 9, 2018.
  • Early voting runs Oct. 22-Nov. 2, 2018.
  • Election Day is Nov. 6, 2018. 

You can also encourage your friends and family to check out the Candidates section of TeachtheVote.org for more information on the candidates vying for seats in the Texas House, Texas Senate, State Board of Education, Governor, or Lieutenant Governor.

The first Friday of early voting, Oct. 26, is Student Voting Day in Texas. Encourage the students you know to get registered and participate in the upcoming election. Voting is more than just a civic duty; it’s how we work together to create positive change in our communities and its important that we get everyone involved.

 


No action is good action: TRS committee takes no action on TRS-Care premiums

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees is meeting today and tomorrow. This morning, TRS Chief Healthcare Officer Katrina Daniel updated the board’s Benefits Committee on the most recent fund balance shortfall for TRS-Care. Today’s update noted that as a result of several positive factors, that shortfall has fallen to approximately $240 million for fiscal year  2021, the second year of the upcoming biennium.

TRS-Care had already moved in a substantially positive direction by the time the agency laid out its legislative appropriations request (LAR) last week. The LAR had incorporated the shortfall, which was estimated to be $410 million as of June 30, 2018.

Since June, TRS has made significant progress in contract negotiations with Humana, the current third-party administrator of TRS-Care Medicare Advantage. The new contract will result in considerable additional savings to TRS-Care that brings the shortfall down to the approximately $240 million mark discussed today.

Based on the June 30 numbers, which have only improved, both House and Senate leaders have requested that the TRS board not raise premiums for retirees, but instead rely on their assurances that the legislature will fully fund the shortfall during the upcoming legislative session. Based on those assurances, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie recommended that the board take no action on increasing rates for TRS-Care.

in addition to leaving premiums the same for the upcoming year, the benefits side of TRS-Care will also remain the same for the upcoming plan year.

The TRS board documents related to this discussion can be found here, or you can watch an archived video of the discussion. The healthcare discussion starts at the beginning of the video.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Sept. 14, 2018

It’s been a busy week in Austin. Here are highlights from the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


SBOE meeting Sept. 14, 2018.

Today culminates the end of a jam-packed week for the State Board of Education (SBOE), and ATPE’s lobby team was there throughout the week to testify and provide updates on the board’s activities for our Teach the Vote blog. Here are some highlights:

First, on Tuesday the body began its week by convening to discuss controversial social studies TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) that have been the subject of much political debate and social media attention. The board also took time on Tuesday to discuss its Long Range Plan for Public Education (LRP), which sets objectives for education through the year 2030. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins was on hand to commend the group on its thoughtful process, but also to suggest that the board take steps to increase the rigor of Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) and insist that teacher pay not be too closely linked to evaluations and test scores. Perfecting amendments to the plan, most of which were in line with ATPE’s desired outcomes, were offered by SBOE Chairwoman Donna Bahorich.

The board kept its momentum going into Wednesday when it discussed special education and school funding. With an update from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, the board learned that quite a bit of progress had been made on the state’s corrective action plan for special education with 70% of vacant positions filled. Morath also announced that TEA would be reviewing its contracting process, which comes after the Texas State Auditor’s office lobbed criticism at the agency for questionable contracting practices. Morath briefed the board on the A-F ratings that were given to school districts earlier this year. He also noted the decline in “IR” or “Improvement Required” districts across the state. Lastly, Morath informed the board of TEA’s Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR), which included two exceptional requests for funding for compensatory services for districts (in order to help them comply with the SpEd corrective action plan) and $50 million in funding for health and safety, $20 million of which is to be earmarked to comply with the governor’s school safety plan.

Later Wednesday afternoon, the SBOE also approved the funding distribution from the Permanent School Fund (PSF) for the 2020-21 biennium. Funds will be distributed at a rate of 2.75%. SBOE members expressed concerns regarding the deposit of funds into the Available School Fund (ASF) by the General Land Office (GLO), a move that will result in districts receiving $225 million less per year than normal. Several members of the board suggested actions in response to this action, including asking the GLO to reverse its actions and requesting that the GLO provide extra funding to cover the interest of the distribution.

On Thursday, the SBOE Committee on School Initiatives met to consider a rule proposed by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) that would offer accelerated paths to certification for certain skill sets. The elected SBOE has statutory authority to review all rule actions taken by SBEC, a board whose members are appointed by the governor. SBOE members may veto SBEC rules but cannot make changes to them; SBEC rules for which the SBOE takes no action automatically become effective. For this week’s meeting, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins testified against the SBEC rule change regarding certain teaching certificates on the grounds that it exceeded the scope of the 2017 legislation upon which it was based, House Bill (HB) 3349. The rule change, as approved by SBEC earlier this summer, would have allowed certain educators to circumvent 300 hours of training in areas like pedagogy that are essential to normal pathways to certification. Members of the SBOE committee unanimously recommended rejecting the SBEC rule, and the certification rule change was ultimately rejected by a unanimous vote from the full SBOE board today, which will force SBEC to reconsider its action on implementing HB 3349.

Lastly, the full board met today to approve the first draft of language for the LRP, deciding to wait until November for final approval. SBOE members also finalized a formal letter to the GLO requesting that it cover the funding shortfall caused by its actions. Read more about the board’s actions in today’s blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


As we have reported previously on Teach the Vote, ATPE has been an advocate for programs and resources to help prevent youth suicide. In 2015, we successfully advocated for the passage of an educator training bill aimed at preventing student suicides. Still, suicide, especially among Texans age 15-34, persists as a public health problem despite laws passed to prevent it. In this news feature by CBS Austin’s Melanie Torre this week featuring ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter, Torre examines why the risk of teen suicide is still on the rise in Texas.

 


With the 2018 general election inching closer, and a major special election already underway his week in one San Antonio-area legislative district, ATPE wants to remind educators about the importance of voter turnout. Earlier this week, Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos released a statement urging voters to make sure they are registered to vote before the October 9th deadline. Pablos encourages Texans to plan their trips to the ballot box and to make sure they know what’s on their ballots.

“Prepare yourself, inform yourself, and empower yourself” – Rolando Pablos, Texas Secretary of State.

There’s a lot at stake this fall. We urge educators to view and share ATPE’s nonpartisan election resources here on Teach the Vote, including searchable profiles of every candidate vying for the Texas Legislature, State Board of Education, Governor, or Lieutenant Governor in 2018.

Meanwhile, early voting has already begun and continues through this evening in the special election runoff  to fill the vacant seat in Texas Senate District 19. Those SD 19 residents who miss early voting should play to get out and vote during their last change on Tuesday, Sept. 18th. The candidates in the runoff happening now are Democrat Pete Gallego and Republican Pete Flores. Find polling locations and additional information, courtesy of the Bexar County Elections Department, here.

Tuesday’s special election results and the outcomes of several high-profile races on the ballot in November could dramatically change the outlook for education bills moving through the Texas Legislature, and particularly, the Texas State Senate. In recent sessions, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has used the combination of a Republican super-majority in the Senate and his heavy-handed brand of managing the upper chamber to usher though a bevy of anti-public education bills, such as private school voucher proposals and legislation to take away educators’ rights to use payroll deduction for their voluntary association dues. How those same types of bills fare in 2019 will depend on the outcome of this fall’s elections. In this new post, ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins breaks down the calculus of voting this fall.


ThinkstockPhotos-465016790_moneyThis week also proved to be insightful in terms of previewing discussions we’ll hear during the 2019 legislative session about both the state’s education budget and efforts to reform our school finance system.

Both the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) laid out their Legislative Appropriations Requests (LARs) to the Legislative Budget Board this week. Details and links to video footage of TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie explaining their respective requests can be found here. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter provided additional analysis in this blog post.

Also this week, the Expenditures Subcommittee of the Texas Commission on Public School Finance convened to vote on their recommendations for the full commission. A breakdown of the committee’s goals, which include putting more funding into the basic allotment and shifting funds away from programs not directly tied to educational programming, can be found in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter.