Tag Archives: virtual schools

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 6, 2018

Here’s a wrap-up of your education news from ATPE:

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) made several announcements this week regarding the draft plan to address special education in Texas. In addition to accepting public comments on the latest version of the draft plan, TEA has scheduled two hearings where members of the public are invited to express their input. Information on the two meetings is as follows:

  • Thursday, April 12, at ESC Region 1 – 1900 West Schunior, Edinburg, Tx.
  • Monday, April 16, at ESC Region 10 – 400 East Spring Valley Road, Richardson, TX.

Both meetings will begin at 1 pm, and those wishing to share feedback are asked to register onsite beginning at 12:30 pm (registration will end when the meeting begins). Registered participants will be called in the order they are registered and will be limited to three minutes. The hearing will end when all have testified or at 3 pm, whichever comes first. Those unable to attend either hearing can submit their written comments by email at TexasSPED@TEA.texas.gov by April 18 at noon.

To learn more about the two public hearings and the chance to submit written testimony, view TEA’s full press release, visit TEA’s special education webpage, and read ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins’s post from earlier this week.


Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath sent a letter to school administrators today regarding three recent changes to how the spring 2018 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams will be administered. The three changes involve offering medical exemptions for qualifying students, allowing for the transcribing of student responses that are recorded in the test booklet onto a blank answer document, and relaxing the rules around classroom displays. His letter indicates these moves are being made in response to district feedback and in an effort to “do all I can to help make this a positive experience and reduce stress for students and school district and charter school personnel.” Read Commissioner Morath’s full letter to learn more.


It was a busy Wednesday at the Capitol this week, and your ATPE Governmental Relations team was there to cover all the action. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter covered the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting, where pension and healthcare issues were the topic of discussion. That meeting included conversations about the factors affecting the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. For more information on how the hearing unfolded, read Exter’s recap of the meeting or watch an archived webcast. You can find ATPE’s testimony, and other public testimony, at the end of the recording.


The Texas Commission on Public School Finance met this week in Austin for a discussion on property taxes and their role in the school finance system. A smaller working group of commission members met Wednesday to discuss outcomes. The highlight of Wednesday’s meeting was former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Tom Luce, who suggested it’s time to do “more with more, not more with less” when it comes to funding public schools in Texas. This was particularly compelling advice from Luce, considering he was a key player in the state’s last major school finance reform – all the way back in 1984.

All 13 members of the commission met Thursday to hear several panels discuss property taxes. While there was general agreement on the burden imposed by property taxes, the debate between some members over how to calculate the state’s share of public education spending continued anew. Importantly, state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) requested the state prepare a list of school revenue sources that have been cut over the last 10 years. You can read a full recap of Wednesday’s working group meeting by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins here, and a rundown of Thursday’s full commission meeting here.


The Senate Education Committee rounded out a busy Wednesday in Austin with a hearing to discuss interim charges related to virtual schools, “high quality education opportunities,” and the federal E-rate program. ATPE offered written testimony to the committee concerning the virtual education charge, cautioning against moves to further expand the Texas Virtual School Network without carefully considering the status of virtual schools’ performance. Recent research highlights concerns regarding these schools nationwide and a look at Texas accountability measures fail to paint a drastically different picture in Texas. ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was at the hearing and offers more on the discussion here.



Senate Education holds interim hearing on virtual education

The Senate Education Committee met today in an interim hearing covering “high quality education opportunities,” virtual education, and Texas’s matching of the federal E-rate program.

The day kicked off with a conversation aimed at understanding the roll out of the federal E-rate program, which Texas pursued through state matching funds in order to support high-speed broadband access across Texas public schools. The committee ended the day with a discussion on expanding access to “high quality education opportunities.” While a broad interim charge, the focus seemed to be on choice models within public schools. Invited panelists included traditional ISDs, charters, higher education, and TEA, all of which focused on sharing innovative programs within their institutions.

The middle of the day was dedicated to virtual education. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) began by offering an update to the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) and explaining the routes available to students – supplemental classes through school districts and the full time program. Several members of the Senate Education Committee have sought, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to expand the scope of the program in recent sessions. At the same time, the TxVSN saw a significant hit to funding last session, dropping from $4 million to $400,000. As was noted during the committee hearing, expansion models proposed in the past have come with very high price tags to the state.

ATPE shared written testimony expressing support for both “offering virtual and distance learning opportunities as a supplement to campus-based courses for Texas students” and ensuring “strong quality controls exist for Texas virtual schools.” We also noted studies that challenge the success of virtual education and cautioned against expanding the scope of the network in light of these issues, which are consistent with Texas where full-time virtual programs have been plagued with low accountability scores. “It is irresponsible to expand access to the virtual school network without very careful consideration of whether we can ensure current students utilizing the network are receiving the quality education they deserve,” ATPE summarized.

The committee is not currently scheduled to meet again on interim charges, but there are a few left to cover before the legislature reconvenes in January. Of the interim charges assigned to the committee by Lt. Gov. Patrick, the committee still needs to study dual credit and mandate relief. Under the charge aimed at monitoring recent legislation, the committee must still review SB7 on educator misconduct related to inappropriate relationships, SB 22 concerning workforce pathways, and SB 1882 related to district and charter partnerships (although San Antonio ISD, which pushed to pass this bill, discussed it significantly today under the “high quality education opportunity” charge, along with several other panelists).

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Oct. 27, 2017

Here’s this week’s round-up of education news from the ATPE lobby team:

ATPE state officers met with Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017.

ATPE state officers with Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017

Texas political circles were shaken up this week by a pair of election announcements from top leaders in the Texas House of Representatives.

First came a surprise announcement on Wednesday that House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) will not seek reelection in 2018. The news of the departure of the popular house speaker was a disappointment to many in the public education community who appreciated his rational approach to leading the Texas House and willingness to prioritize school needs over divisive ideological battles.

ATPE state officers met with Rep. Byron Cook in Feb. 2017.

ATPE state officers with Rep. Byron Cook in Feb. 2017

Straus’s announcement was followed by a similar one from Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) on the same day. Cook, who has chaired the powerful House State Affairs Committee and the newly created House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, similarly announced that he will step down at the end of his current term.

For more on Wednesday’s big announcements, check out this blog post from ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.


ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann was in Dallas yesterday for a stakeholder meeting regarding data collection for educator preparation in Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnered with Educate Texas and other entities to solicit input and recommendations on data the agency collects to assess and improve educator preparation programs (EPPS) across Texas. A bill passed earlier this year during the 85th regular legislative session, Senate Bill (SB) 1839, added new requirements to data collection for EPPs. The work to solicit input will help guide the agency and the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) as they work to implement the new law.

As Kuhlmann reports, teachers, school districts, EPP representatives, and other engaged stakeholders convened in Dallas this week to consider and identify data that would would offer transparency for candidates considering future programs, provide diagnostic value to programs, and improve upon current data used to hold programs accountable. All agreed that a focus should be placed on presenting the data in a more easily accessible manner, such as a user-friendly online dashboard. Participants also agreed that the presentation of such data should include differentiated interfacing specific to consumers (future EPP candidates and the general public), school districts, and EPPs.

Yesterday’s meeting was the second of four scheduled stakeholder meetings. Two more will be held next week in Lubbock and Austin. The TEA, under the direction of the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), will also convene a formal stakeholder committee to make recommendations on the matter and is reaching out to various standing committees for input. The agency expects to begin discussion on next steps for implementing recommendations at SBEC’s March 2018 meeting, once the initial stakeholder input has been collected. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.


TRS logoToday, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Board of Trustees is meeting in Austin, where ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter is attending and has contributed the following report on the meeting:

The TRS Board of Directors convened today for a short meeting. After taking brief public testimony, they received an update from TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie, which focused primarily on administrative housekeeping with regard to the agendas of future meetings. Guthrie did drop one bomb during his update, informing the board that there has been some discussion in Washington of reclassifying the contributions to retirement systems like TRS such that they would no longer be tax-deferred. Such a move would be a monumental policy shift dramatically impacting both educators and the pension fund itself.

After Guthrie’s comments, the board received its first update on the TRS Enterprise Application Modernization or (TEAM) program since the go live date on which we’ve previously reported. The transition has not been without the “hiccups” that accompany any such major technology transition, but the new system is stable and operational and the transition has been mostly smooth.

Next, the board worked its way through a series of administrative items before taking up proposed rules on 403(b) vendor rates. There has been significant back and forth between the board and a large segment of the 403(b) vendor community with regard to these rule changes. Many vendors acknowledge that the rules have been significantly improved, from their perspective, throughout the process. That said, most vendors still do not favor the new rules. Despite the board’s adoption of the rules, many expect this issue to remain a topic of discussion for the 86th legislature in 2019.

Finally, the board received its first overview presentation on the TRS experience study the board will undertake early next year. The experience study will help the board set many of the assumptions that are used to determine the actuarial health of the pension fund. The actuarial picture of a fund can help lawmakers makers determine contribution rates and is often used by anti-pension advocates to push for abandonment of defined-benefit pension plans based on their unfunded liabilities. Additionally, in the case of TRS, the actuarial soundness as defined by a funding horizon of less than 31 years is what allows TRS to give a COLA to retirees.

The last TRS board meeting of 2017 will be in December, and the first board meeting of 2018 will be a board retreat scheduled to commence on Valentine’s Day, February 14th.


Interim charges have now been released for both House and Senate committees to study in preparation for the 2019 legislative session. The charges issued by House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick direct standing committees in the House and Senate, respectively, to convene hearings and gather feedback from stakeholders on hot topics expected to be debated by the 86th legislature.

Rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Harvey are among the numerous charges for multiple committees, but there are also several directives that focus specifically on public education. The Senate Education Committee, for instance, will study such issues as teacher compensation, virtual learning, student discipline, dual credit, and school choice. The House Public Education  Committee is tasked with studying teacher retention, educating students with disabilities, charter school laws, and ways to assess student performance other than using standardized test scores. Other committees will examine public pension systems and the TRS healthcare programs for educators.

Read more about the House interim charges here and Senate interim charges here. ATPE’s lobbyists will be covering all of the education-related interim hearings and providing updates here on our Teach the Vote blog and on Twitter.


DNA_4w2U8AARK-pOne week of early voting remains for the Nov. 7 constitutional amendment election. As part of our work with the Texas Educators Vote coalition to create a culture of voting in the education community, ATPE urges our members and all other registered voters to participate in this and all elections. Early voting runs through Friday, Nov. 3. The Texas Secretary of State also declared today, Oct. 27, as #StudentVotingDay, encouraging eligible high school students who registered to vote to get out and cast their ballots today. Learn more about what’s on the Nov. 7 ballot and how to be an engaged voter in this ATPE Blog post.



Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: April 14, 2017

The ATPE state office is closed today in observance of Good Friday. We’ll be back Monday with full coverage of the 85th Legislature and other advocacy news. Here are highlights from this week:


Retirement planning written on a notepad.

On Thursday, April 13, the Texas House Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility heard testimony about Social Security offsets in federal law that negatively affect many educators. The hearing was on HCR 101 by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) urging Congress to repeal the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) of the Social Security Act. Learn more about the offsets in current law and how they affect educators here. Although the Texas Legislature does not have the authority to change federal laws, such as those governing Social Security, the measure would be a statement of support from Texas lawmakers for changing the GPO and WEP, which both have the effect of reducing many educators’ benefits. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter was among the witnesses who testified for the bill, which was left pending.


Last legislative session, ATPE supported a bill by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) to create alternative pathways for eligible students to graduate without necessarily having passed all required STAAR tests. The law allowing for individual graduation committees to evaluate students’ post-secondary readiness is set to expire on Sept. 1 of this year unless extended. A number of bills have been filed this session to remove the expiration date on the law, including Sen. Seliger’s Senate Bill (SB) 463, which the Senate Education Committee heard this week. Learn more about the legislation, which ATPE supports, in this week’s blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann.


Both the House Public Education Committee and Senate Education Committee held meetings this week to discuss numerous education-related bills. Hot topics included educator preparation and certification requirements, reporting teacher misconduct, virtual schools, and special education services. For a complete wrap-up of this week’s hearings, check out these blog posts by ATPE’s lobbyists:


Girl showing bank notesNext week in the Texas Legislature, the House of Representatives has scheduled a floor debate for Wednesday, April 19, on House Bill (HB) 21. That’s the high-profile school finance reform bill by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) that we’ve written about here on our blog. The Senate Education Committee is also hearing a number of bills dealing with school finance during its next hearing on Tuesday, April 18.

Over in the House Public Education Committee, next Tuesday’s meeting will cover proposed legislation on broad topics ranging from curriculum standards to UIL. The House committee will also consider HB 306 by Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio), a companion bill to SB 179 that would create “David’s Law” aimed at curbing cyberbullying and harassment that leads to suicide. ATPE offered support for the Senate version of the bill during a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing last week.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) is also meeting next week. Its four-day meeting begins Tuesday and will feature testimony and discussions of proposed changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for science and English language arts and reading. View the complete SBOE agenda here and stay tuned to our Teach the Vote blog and @TeachtheVote on Twitter next week for updates.



House Public Education reviews grab bag of school bills

The House Public Education Committee met Tuesday to consider a score of bills touching a variety of subjects. Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) began the hearing by referring the following bills to the Subcommittee on Educator Quality, chaired by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian): HB 49, HB 218, HB 331, HB 333, HB 460, HB 816, HB 972, HB 1255, HB 1403, HB 1469 and HB 1485.

The day’s testimony began with HB 1291 by state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), which would add “American principles” to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The TEKS would include the study of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 639 by state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco) would authorize districts to obtain health benefit plan, liability or auto insurance for partner businesses and students participating in CTE programs. Anderson suggested insurance is important in the event of accidents related to CTE instruction.

HB 1645 by state Rep. J.M. Lozano (R-Kingsville) would require school districts that offer varsity letters to adopt a policy that allows students to earn a letter for participating in a Special Olympics event. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 69 by state Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) would require each school district and open-enrollment charter school to include in the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) report the number of children with disabilities residing in a residential facility who are required to be tracked by the Residential Facility Monitoring (RFM) System and are receiving educational services from the district or school.

HB 264 by state Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston) would require TEA to continue until 2020 providing outreach materials to districts required under Section 28.015, Education Code, regarding public school curriculum changes under House Bill 5, which passed in 2013. The section includes explanations of the basic career and college readiness components of each endorsement, requirements to gain automatic college admission, and financial aid requirements for the TEXAS grant and the Texas Educational Opportunity Grant Program. The section is currently set to expire September 1, 2018.

HB 452 by state Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) would require report cards to include the number of students in each class. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 728 by state Rep. Bobby Guerra (D-Mission) would create an advanced computer science program that would satisfy the curriculum requirements for a third math or science credit.

HB 1270 by state Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo) would allow schools to excuse student absences for the purpose of visiting a military recruitment center. A similar provision currently allows for excused absences to visit a college or university campus.

HB 136 by state Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) would include a CTE objective under the public education objectives enumerated in Section 4.001(b), Education Code. The text would read, “Objective 11: The State Board of Education, the agency, and the commissioner shall assist school districts and charter schools in providing career and technology education and effective workforce training opportunities to students.”

HB 1389 by state Rep. Helen Giddings (D-Dallas) would include prekindergarten in the 22-student class size limit currently in effect for kindergarten through grade four. The bill would result in smaller class sizes for schools that are currently over the limit, but would not carry a significant fiscal impact to the state budget. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 710 by state Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) would extend free half-day prekindergarten to full-day for the same set of eligible students. Research has shown early childhood education improves student learning through the elementary grades, leading to improved educational outcomes overall. According to the fiscal note, the change would cost $1.6 billion over the 2018-2019 biennium. ATPE supports this bill.

HB 620 by state Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) would allow districts the option of moving the school start date to the second Monday in August, up from the fourth, and require instruction time measured in minutes, as opposed to days. This would allow districts more flexibility in scheduling, provide additional time to prepare for first semester assessments, and allow for earlier summer release. No fiscal impact to the state is anticipated. ATPE lobbyist Monty Exter testified in support of the bill, pointing out that current restrictions can be burdensome when it comes to predictably and adequately allocating instruction time.

HB 729 by state Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) would integrate character traits instruction into the TEKS, and require a center for education research to study the effects of character traits instruction on student attendance and disciplinary problems. Bohac suggested emphasizing positive character traits would improve school performance overall. ATPE lobbyist Monty Exter testified in favor of the bill, noting that statewide standards would eliminate the patchwork implementation of character traits instruction.

HB 404 by state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) would create higher education curriculum review teams charged with reviewing changes to the TEKS. Currently, the State Board of Education (SBOE) appoints TEKS review committees composed largely of K-12 teachers, as well as up to seven “experts” as defined by board rules. This bill would define a process and expert panel with at least five years of higher education teaching experience in the relevant subject or a doctorate in education. The panel would be selected the Higher Education Coordinating Board and higher education commissioner, which would insulate the experts from the appearance of political influence. The bill would also protect the panel’s recommendations by setting a two-thirds vote threshold for SBOE.

Rep. Anchia described the bill as “a work in progress.” ATPE lobbyist Mark Wiggins testified in favor of the bill, and advocated for ensuring that K-12 educators have a meaningful impact on the process as well. Recently, SBOE has taken steps to improve its TEKS review process, and ATPE supports a collaborative effort to codify improvements in statute in order to ensure the success of future reviews.

HB 539 by state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston) would allow the children of military service members to enroll full-time in the state virtual school network. According to TEA, roughly 12,000 students, about 0.3 percent of the state’s total enrollment, are currently enrolled in the virtual school network. Approximately 63,500 military dependents are enrolled in grades three through twelve. The Legislative Budget Board assumes 0.5 percent, or 318 students, would enroll in the virtual school network. Based on that, the fiscal note assumes the change would cost an additional $5.3 million – which Chairman Huberty and Rep. Morgan Meyer (R-Highland Park) disputed, suggesting the expense was overstated.

HB 367 by Vice-Chairman Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) would expressly allow schools to donate surplus unserved cafeteria food to hungry children on campus through a third-party non-profit. Some schools already do this, but this bill would guarantee that right in statute and give rulemaking authority to the commissioner of education. No significant fiscal implication to the state is anticipated.

HB 357 by Chairman Huberty would extend free prekindergarten eligibility to the children of anyone eligible for the Star of Texas Award for police, firefighters and emergency medical first responders killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. According to the fiscal note, no significant impact on the budget is expected. ATPE supports this bill.

All those bills were left pending.

The board unanimously approved HB 223 by state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), which would provide districts the option of providing childcare services or assistance with childcare expenses to students at risk of dropping out through the existing compensatory education allotment. Since the allotment provides a set amount of funding, the change would not fiscally impact the state. The bill will head to the House floor next.

The committee also resumed consideration of HB 21, House leadership’s priority school finance bill that would add $1.6 billion to public education. Huberty warned that without HB 21, the budget would effectively fund $140 less per pupil and there would be no plan for dealing with the expiration of ASATR.

Noting he has had numerous meetings with stakeholders, Huberty suggested hardship grants for districts losing ASATR could be stair-stepped. Additional transportation funding could be capped at five percent of the total spend, Chapter 41 districts at 15 percent and ASATR at 80 percent, or $100 million in 2018 and $60 million in 2019. Discussing whether lawmakers should offer more or less flexibility regarding grant fund allocation, TEA recommended erring on the side of being more prescriptive in order to provide clear direction.

For the 327 school districts whose property taxes are maxed out at $1.17, the committee entertained testimony suggesting raising the yield on “copper pennies.” It’s important to note that the more the state spends on public education in general, the less school districts will be forced to rely on local homeowners for funding. In other words, real property tax relief – not the bumper sticker kind, but meaningful relief – begins with putting more state money into public education.

Concluding the hearing, Chairman Huberty signaled his intent to vote on a committee substitute at next Tuesday’s hearing. That meeting will focus on bills dealing with public school accountability, including “A though F.”

Legislative Update: House skirts payroll deduction issue, suicide prevention bill passes, Senate resurrects bad education bills

Much attention was focused on the Texas House last night, where legislators faced a midnight deadline for most Senate bills to pass the House on second reading. On the calendar for consideration last night were pieces of high-profile legislation including an ethics reform bill declared an emergency issue by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a controversial college campus carry bill, an agency sunset bill rumored to be a vehicle for an amendment widely viewed as discriminatory, and a divisive abortion-related bill. The House activity garnered most of the attention but resulted in very little impact on educators; meanwhile, the Senate took a number of dismaying actions around the midnight hour that are of real concern to education stakeholders. One of few positive highlights to report today is the advancement of an ATPE-supported bill to try to deter teen suicides.

House activity: ethics reform, campus carry, and retribution

The ethics bill, SB 19 by Sen. Van Taylor (R) was sponsored in the House by Rep. Byron Cook (R). Educator groups watched the House floor debate closely last night after rumors surfaced that legislators might try to add a payroll deduction ban from Sen. Joan Huffman’s (R) SB 1968 onto the bill. No such amendment was proposed last night, but the lengthy and often boisterous debate centered on major differences between the two chambers’ versions of SB 19. The Senate’s version of the bill focused on conflicts of interest, imposing a two-year cooling off period before lawmakers can become employed as registered lobbyists, and incorporating a few odd provisions such as an amendment by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) to require all candidates for public office to undergo drug testing. The House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Cook, replaced SB 19 with its own version, stripping out the drug-testing mandate, aiming to protect lawmakers against secret video recordings, and requiring disclosure of so-called “dark money” contributions, which the Senate opposes. The most vocal opponents of dark money regulations have been conservative groups, typically aligned with the Tea Party, who rely on secret contributions to non-profit organizations that aren’t required to report their political spending and activities to the Texas Ethics Commission in the same manner as highly regulated political action committees. Cook and his colleagues in the House were unsympathetic to dark money groups such as Empower Texans. They voted 96 to 48 to accept the House version of SB 19 with its dark money regulations last night, infuriating the bill’s author and the Senate leadership. (An earlier vote on an amendment by Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) that would have reverted SB 19 back to its Senate incarnation with no dark money reporting requirements failed convincingly with only 33 representatives in support.) Today, the House approved the bill on third reading by a vote of 94 to 49 after adding one more amendment.

Last night’s ethics debate lasted several hours, to the dismay of conservatives in the House who were anxious to take up bills dealing with hot-button issues of gun rights and abortion. Sen. Brian Birdwell’s (R) SB 11 to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry guns on college campuses, later passed in a compromise format, and time ran out before the House had a chance to debate the abortion bill. With conservatives lamenting the demise of politically charged Senate bills in the more moderate House and Democrats fuming over last-minute attempts to pass legislation unfavorable to gay and lesbian couples, tempers are certainly flaring at the capitol. Debates have been punctuated by name-calling and shouting, with retribution appearing to be the order of the day. A manifestation of the tension today has been a handful of legislators knocking others’ seemingly innocuous bills off the House’s “local and consent” calendar.

Senate activity: ed prep, school turnaround, and supplemental funding

While many were tuned into the House last night, the Senate was quietly and quickly passing bills of major significance to public education. First, the Senate took up HB 2205 by Rep. Myra Crownover (R), an educator preparation and certification bill being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kel Seliger (R). The Senate approved a version of the bill last night that incorporates language from Sen. Seliger’s dead bill, SB 892, that lowers the statutory minimum GPA for admission to an educator preparation program from 2.75 to 2.5. The Senate initially accepted a floor amendment by Sen. Jose Menendez (D) filed at our request to restore the 2.75 GPA language that is in current law. After taking a break to confer with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate stripped off the Menendez language, based largely on the lieutenant governor’s sudden objections to keeping the GPA at 2.75. (Ironically, Patrick was the same person who, as a senator in 2013, had sponsored the bill that raised the minimum GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 and even wrote a letter to state board members encouraging them to raise the educator preparation program admission standards in rule). With Lt. Gov. Patrick’s change of heart, HB 2205 as approved by the Senate last night now represents a watering down of the criteria for entering the education profession. One positive change in the new Senate version, however, deals with training provided by alternative certification providers. HB 2205 now requires 30 hours (up from 15) of field-based experience that must be delivered in a classroom setting (not online) before a candidate may be hired as a teacher of record. A floor amendment by Sen. Seliger stripped out Rep. Ina Minjarez’s (D) House floor amendment creating a school turnaround specialist endorsement for principals and also gives the commissioner of education, rather than the State Board for Educator Certification, the ability set passing standards or cut scores for certification exams. The Senate also added two floor amendments by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R) that resurrected a pair of his dead bills. One amendment added his SB 1003 making it easier for school districts to issue teaching permits to non-certified teachers. The other amendment latches Bettencourt’s SB 1222 onto the bill, giving the commissioner of education power to issue subpoenas when investigating educators for possible misconduct.

Next, the Senate took up HB 1842 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R) right at midnight and loaded it up with floor amendments, many representing otherwise dead bills this session. Sen. Larry Taylor (R), who sponsored the school sanctions bill in the Senate, first added to it language from his own SB 1241 calling for the creation of deregulated “innovation zone” schools. Next, Sen. Royce West (R) added his “Opportunity School District” language to the bill. Opportunity School Districts are largely deregulated statewide school districts comprised of certain low-performing schools and typically managed by an appointed superintendent. They’ve been previously called “Achievement School Districts” and are now being referred to, somewhat regrettably, as “School Turnaround Districts” (STDs). Sen. Bettencourt also successfully moved to add to HB 1842 the language from Sen. Larry Taylor’s (R) SB 1897, which provides for the expansion of charter and virtual schools. ATPE has opposed all the bills that gave rise to these three amendments now incorporated into HB 1842 – all of which were also being pushed by the well-funded Texans for Education Reform this session. Chairman Taylor did accept a few favorable floor amendments to HB 1842 filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D). The House, of course, will still have an opportunity to decide whether to accept the Senate’s dramatic changes to the bill.

Earlier in the evening, the Senate unanimously passed HB 2 by Rep. John Otto (R), sponsored in the upper chamber by Sen. Jane Nelson (R). The supplemental appropriations bill includes much-needed funding in the amount of $768 million to help cover costs of TRS-Care insurance for retirees over the next two years.

For all three of these bills passed by the Senate yesterday, they will return to the House next for either motions to concur in the Senate amendments to the bills or decisions to send HB 2205, HB 1842, and HB 2 to conference committees of senators and representatives who will attempt to work out a compromise.

Update on ATPE’s suicide prevention legislation

HB 2186 by Rep. Byron Cook (R) is a step closer to becoming law after being approved by the full Senate today. It was passed unanimously on the Senate’s local and uncontested calendar this afternoon. As we’ve reported previously, the ATPE-requested bill aims to help educators become trained to spot and react to the warning signs of suicide among students. The bill honors the memory of suicide victim Jonathan Childers, who was the teenage son of ATPE member Kevin Childers. Read more about the Childers family in the latest issue of ATPE News.

Stay tuned for updates as the legislative battles continue.

Legislative Update: Senate committee tackles teacher pay and pre-K, graduation bill heads to governor’s desk, anti-suicide bill gains support

Today the Senate Education Committee is hearing House Bill (HB) 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty, a bill to increase funding to pre-kindergarten programs that implement certain quality control measures. ATPE supports HB 4, which Chairman Larry Taylor (R) says he expects the committee to vote on later today. The bill represents one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s legislative priorities but has been at the center of recent tensions among state leaders after a panel advising Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) blasted the bill and referred to public schools as “Godless.” (For related content, check out this week’s op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman by Charles Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children responding to the group’s remarks about the pre-K bill and criticizing the Senate’s passage of several “bills designed specifically to demoralize teachers.”)

The Senate committee will also hear Senate Bill (SB) 1303 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D), a bill calling for teachers to receive a $4,000 pay raise. Read ATPE’s press statement in support of SB 1303. Teacher salaries have been a hot topic for debate this session, as two high-profile bills to do away with the state minimum salary schedule for teachers are languishing over on the House side.

Other bills on today’s Senate Education Committee agenda include SB 625 by Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D) on prohibiting the use of tasers against public school students, SB 1004 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R) regarding certain dual-credit courses offered by junior colleges in the Harris County area, and SB 1058 also by Sen. Hinojosa on superintendents’ requirement to report information about educators in their districts who engage in certain misconduct. The committee may vote out other bills that are pending and have already been heard when it reconvenes later today.

Following a motorcycle accident that necessitated surgery, Sen. Kel Seliger (R) returned to the Senate this week in time to see his SB 149 sent on its way to the governor’s desk. The bill allows for the creation of individual graduation committees to determine if certain students should graduate high school despite having failed a mandatory STAAR test. The Senate voted yesterday, April 29, to concur in amendments added to the bill by the House of Representatives. The final Senate vote on the ATPE-supported bill was 29 to 2, with Sens. Kelly Hancock (R) and Charles Schwertner (R) voting against the motion. SB 149 now awaits the governor’s signature.

A bill to do away with educators’ ability to use payroll deduction to pay dues to educator associations and for other conveniences remained on the Senate’s calendar, but did not get called up for a floor debate today. The bill is SB 1968 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R). Additionally, Sen. Larry Taylor’s virtual voucher bill, SB 894, was placed on the Senate Intent Calendar earlier this week but then removed. Senators appear to be having second thoughts about the bill’s hefty fiscal note and lack of accountability measures. ATPE has opposed both measures.

The House Public Education Committee held another nine-hour meeting on Tuesday, April 28, during which numerous bills were put to a vote. The committee heard lengthy debate on SB 6 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R), the bill calling for “A through F” accountability grades to be assigned to public school campuses in lieu of existing accountability ratings. Most education groups offered testimony against the bill, including ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter who described SB 6 as worthless and emphasized the need to “dig down deeper than the indices” to make real changes to the accountability system before merely tinkering with labels. He added that “oversimplification in the name of transparency” would be “unproductive” for public school students. Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock (R) surprised some members of the committee by announcing that he was incorporating the “A through F” campus ratings into his accountability overhaul, HB 2804, which the committee then voted out favorably on a 7 to 4 vote. Aycock was later quoted as saying, “I’m personally willing to swallow ‘A through F’ if we get a better accountability system out of it.”

The committee also approved a duo of controversial bills that ATPE and similar education groups opposed based on concerns about privatizing the management of public schools and exempting them from state education laws. One bill is HB 1536 by Rep. Harold Dutton (D) calling for the establishment of a statewide Opportunity School District for low-performing schools, which passed on a vote of 9 to 2. The other bill is a substitute version of HB 1798 by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D) relating to local control school districts. Deshotel’s bill changes the existing home rule charter district law to make it easier for districts to opt out of state regulations; HB 1798 made it out of committee on a vote of 8 to 3.

Here are some of the other bills that got a nod of approval from the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday evening:

  • HB 18 by Chairman Aycock relating to college and career readiness training for certain public school counselors.
  • CSHB 1300 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R) relating to the required qualifications of persons admitted to educator preparation programs.
  • CSHB 1842 by Chairman Aycock relating to the assessment of intervention in and sanction of a public school that does not satisfy accreditation criteria.
  • CSHB 2205 by Rep. Myra Crownover (R) relating to educator preparation programs, including the appointment of a member of the State Board for Educator Certification with experience and knowledge of alternative educator preparation programs.
  • CSHB 2566 by Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R) relating to educator preparation programs.
  • CSHB 3347 by Chairman Aycock relating to revocation of a charter for an open-enrollment charter school and procedures for the disposition of property owned by a charter school after revocation or surrender of a charter.
  • CSHB 3987 by Rep. Marsha Farney (R) relating to programs in public schools designed to facilitate planning and saving for higher education and facilitate personal financial literacy instruction.

The House Public Education committee also heard but left pending HB 4047 by Rep. Alma Allen (D), a bill that ATPE requested to ensure that charter school employees retain the right to participate in political activities and join educator associations, if they choose.

Childers Senate Ed 04-28-15Also on Tuesday of this week, the Senate Education Committee heard SB 1169 by Sen. Donna Campbell (R) relating to suicide prevention training for educators. The bill is very similar to HB 2186, which ATPE urged Rep. Byron Cook to file on behalf of our member, Coach Kevin Childers, who lost his son Jonathan to suicide two years ago. The Childers family was on hand Tuesday to testify in support of SB 1169, which the committee passed on a vote of 6 to zero.

The Senate Education Committee also voted to send to the floor SB 507 by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D). The controversial bill would require schools to video-tape classrooms upon the request of a parent of a student with special needs. Video would have to be kept on file by the school district for at least a year, and the bill would cost millions to be implemented statewide. It is worth noting that school districts already have the ability to videotape classroom  interactions, and several of them already do so.

Ina_MinjarezFinally, ATPE congratulates Rep. Ina Minjarez, who was officially sworn in this afternoon as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Following a string of special elections, today’s ceremony marks the first time this session that the 84th Legislature has been full. San Antonio’s Minjarez won a special election to fill the unexpired term of former representative and now Sen. Jose Menendez, who gave up his HD 124 House seat in order to run for the Senate.

Legislative Update: Education committees meet, Senate hears controversial bills, House focuses on pre-K

The Senate Education Committee met yesterday and heard several of the Senate leadership’s high-priority bills. One of the bills was Senate Bill (SB) 894 by Sen. Larry Taylor, who chairs the committee. SB 894 would vastly expand the virtual school network in Texas. Most of the Texas education community came out unified in strong opposition to the bill and expressed concerns that it would set up a system of virtual vouchers, expand access to a low-quality education that evidence indicates is less effective in most cases, and offer little to no accountability to taxpayers on the virtual providers.

ATPE Governmental Relations Director Brock Gregg testified against SB 894. Gregg noted that ATPE has long supported virtual and distance learning opportunities but has worked to ensure quality controls and stressed the importance of containing the cost to taxpayers. A good portion of the day’s testimony on SB 894 focused on its cost, with education advocates questioning the relatively small fiscal note on the bill considering the fact that SB 894 would allow home-schooled and other children free access to virtual courses on the state’s dime. Testimony ultimately revealed that the bill’s fiscal note was largely the product of guesswork, since it is impossible to predict how many existing private or home-school students might take advantage of the bill’s funding provision. ATPE and others believe that funding virtual courses for those students not currently enrolled in public schools would cause the cost of the program to balloon and would further burden the state’s already underfunded public school system. In his testimony, Gregg also cited research showing 42 percent of the state’s virtual schools as low-performing and noting that many of the largest virtual course vendors are companies operating in multiple states that use a national curriculum based on Common Core, which has been prohibited by Texas law.

Another major bill heard yesterday in committee was SB 6, also by Chairman Taylor, which calls for assigning “A through F” letter grades to school campuses in lieu of existing accountability ratings. ATPE’s Brock Gregg testified against the bill and explained that labeling schools as failures is equivalent to calling students who attend those schools failures. The committee heard several hours of testimony, including remarks by numerous members of the education community who oppose the legislation. “A through F” legislation has been proposed in several states and is being pushed vigorously by affiliates of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is widely viewed as a strong contender for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.

ATPE’s Gregg also testified in support of SB 13 by Sen. Charles Perry, a bill relating to measures to support public school student academic achievement and career preparation, including measures to improve and support dual-credit courses. The committee also heard a handful of bills relating to health and safety.

Interestingly, the Senate Education Committee’s hearing on SB 6 occurred on the same day that the fact-checking journalism group PolitiFact Texas rated as “false” a recent claim by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush that a majority of Texas students are “trapped in schools that are underperforming.” George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush, made the statement at a pro-private school voucher rally at the State Capitol in January. PolitiFact agreed to look into the claim upon the request of Rev. Charles Johnson, a member of the anti-voucher Coalition for Public Schools who was also a guest speaker at ATPE’s recent Political Involvement Training and Lobby Day. Looking at 2014 state accountability data, PolitiFact determined that more than 90 percent of districts and 80 percent of campuses were meeting state standards, making it impossible for the majority of Texas’s students to be “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Earlier this week, the House Public Education Committee devoted an entire hearing to bills relating to pre-kindergarten. Early childhood education is one of five priorities designated by Gov. Greg Abbott as emergency items for the 84th Legislature to tackle. ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testified or registered support for all of the following bills during Tuesday’s committee hearing:

  • House Bill (HB) 4 by Rep. Dan Huberty relating to a high quality prekindergarten program provided by public school districts. According to Exter, the bill provides school districts with additional formula funding in exchange for adding quality control measures into the districts’ pre-K programs.
  • HB 173 by Rep. Carol Alvarado relating to information reported by a public school district regarding prekindergarten classes.
  • HB 296 by Rep. Gene Wu relating to certain prekindergarten programs offered by a school district.
  • HB 424 by Rep. Harold Dutton relating to providing free full-day prekindergarten for certain children.
  • HB 1100 by Rep. Eric Johnson relating to a gold standard full-day prekindergarten program provided by public school districts. Similar to HB 4, this bill provides additional formula funding to schools districts that implement certain quality control measures in their pre-K programs. Exter notes that HB 1100 requires districts that opt into the bill’s provisions to provide a full day pre-K program but offers additional funding above the amounts contemplated by HB 4.
  • HB 1188 by Rep. Joe Deshotel relating to the creation of a joint interim committee to study and make recommendations regarding early childhood education.

Exter believes, based on testimony and remarks from committee members during Tuesday’s hearing, that “the question the committee has chosen to answer is not whether to expand Pre-K and pre-K funding but rather by how much.”

Today is the last day that legislators may file bills in the 84th session with the exception of certain local and emergency bills. More than 6,000 bills or resolutions have already been filed this session. It is estimated that at least one-quarter of those will relate to public education in some manner.

Report on Senate Education Committee’s interim hearing on testing and virtual schools

The Senate Education Committee met Aug. 26 to discuss two of its interim charges:

Senate Interim Charge #1 (Portion of Charge):

Examine STAAR writing scores for elementary, middle and high school students. For grade levels tested in writing, review the types of writing required. Explore the need for targeted professional development in writing.

Senate Interim Charge #2:

Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Education, 83rd Legislature, Regular and Called Sessions, and make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance and/or complete implementation. Specifically, monitor the following: HB 5, SB 376, HB 617 and HB 1926.

The Committee heard from multiple panels as well as Commissioner of Education Michael Williams.

HB 5 and the STAAR writing test

The Committee heard testimony from a panel including Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff and educators about challenges involving the STAAR writing test as well as testimony from a separate panel and Commissioner Williams on STAAR cut scores.

Dr. Dawson Orr, the superintendent of Highland Park ISD, presented testimony that the STAAR writing test is seriously flawed, particularly in comparisons to instruments such as the ACT. He informed the committee that the writing curriculum standards (TEKS) are good, but the writing test does not capture the learning associated with those TEKS. Additionally, he pointed out that institutions of higher education are not looking for and do not care about the skills tested by the STAAR writing test. According to the witness, a 26-line formulaic writing test simply does not give us good information, and in some districts, may cause kids to learn to write poorly.

Commissioner Williams engaged in a conversation with the committee on the STAAR cut scores and the effectiveness of the testing regime generally. When pressed by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D–San Antonio) on the failures of the STAAR test, the Commissioner blamed the state’s failure to make more rapid gains on poor instruction. Many in the room equated his statements to shift blame from a poorly designed and administered test to educators. However, as one education representative noted, poor teaching would result in equally poor results across all test instruments gauging college readiness, which does not appear to be the case for students in many situations who are successful on other standardized and non-standardized measures of academic achievement.

SB 376

Senate Bill 376 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D–Brownsville) expanded the School Breakfast Program for campuses where 80 percent or more of the student population qualifies for federal free or reduced breakfast. Under the bill, campuses meeting the 80 percent threshold must provide breakfast to 100 percent of the students at the campus, as opposed to only students who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced breakfast on their own. Despite the fact that the bill was cost-neutral to the state and school districts thanks to federal dollars, districts have the ability to opt out of the program by requesting a waiver. Of the approximately 2,600 campuses to which the bill applies, only 38 have requested a waiver.

HB 617

The committee heard testimony on the implementation of House Bill 617 by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D–Austin) which expands transition services for students with disabilities entering the workforce or a higher education setting. As a result of the bill, a transitions guide will be developed.

HB 1926

House Bill 1926 by Rep. Ken King (R–Canadian) made several modifications to the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN), which regulates both full-time virtual learning providers and the individual virtual course catalog.

A major amendment added to the bill by Sen. Van de Putte calls for a statewide broadband study of ISDs to determine the state’s technology and connectivity capacity. A TEA representative testified to the committee that the study should begin mid- to late September of this year and be concluded in November with results available mid- to late spring of next year.

TEA staff also reported to the committee that rules codifying the statutory requirements for HB 1926 have been adopted by the agency. In addition to new rules, there is a new design for the online portal to the TxVSN statewide catalog and new informed choice reports called for as a component of the legislation.

Additional public testimony was taken on both sides of the often contentious issue of virtual learning. A representative from iNACOL (a national association of virtual providers) voiced a complaint about the restriction on districts being required to offer students a virtual course that is substantially similar to a traditional, non-virtual one already offered by the ISD. Another testifier with the Foundation for Educational Excellence asked to consider taking quality control out of the hands of the districts and to increase the level of funding going to for-profit course providers. A representative from the Coalition for Public Schools (CPS) testified that control and accountability of the online learning environment should remain with districts that are accountable to taxpayers as opposed to private providers that are accountable only to their shareholders. The testifier also pointed out that while the coalition does not oppose the existence or limited use of online learning, a significant body of research points to it being a far less effective method of teaching kids.

All or part of the committee hearing can be found at the Texas Senate video archive under Senate Committee on Education 8/26/14.

Interim charges for Senate Education Committee released

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst today released two interim charges for the Senate Education Committee to study this year:

Examine STAAR writing scores for elementary, middle and high school students. For grade levels tested in writing, review the types of writing required. Explore the need for targeted professional development in writing. Review the redesign of high school English EOC exams. For the entire STAAR assessment program, review accommodations available to eligible students as a result of the elimination of the STAAR Modified exam pursuant to changes in federal accountability regulations. Additionally, review the redesign of the STAAR Alternate assessment.

Monitor the implementation of legislation addressed by the Senate Committee on Education, 83rd Legislature, Regular and Called Sessions, and make recommendations for any legislation needed to improve, enhance and/or complete implementation. Specifically, monitor the following:

  • HB 5, relating to public school accountability, including assessment, and curriculum requirements; providing a criminal penalty;
  • HB 1926, relating to the operation of the state virtual school network and courses provided through other distance learning arrangements;
  • SB 376, relating to breakfast for certain public school students; and
  • HB 617, relating to transition and employment services for public school students enrolled in special education programs.