Tag Archives: vouchers

Are “microgrants” a new name for Devos’ same old voucher proposal?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at a White House briefing, March 27, 2020

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is asking Congress to fund “microgrants” to provide money for online learning during the coronavirus outbreak. Appearing with President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, during a White House briefing by the national coronavirus task force, DeVos said, “I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident.” Microgrants, as envisioned by Devos, would provide funding directly to students in a manner akin to numerous voucher proposals in the past.

Here on our Teach the Vote blog, ATPE has written about efforts by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with high-profile support from DeVos, to pass legislation that would fund a federal voucher program. Thus far, the federal voucher proposal has gained little traction in Congress. But the recent changes to learning environments compelled by the COVID-19 crisis appear to have given Secretary DeVos a new angle to pursue funding streams for private individuals and families as an alternative to providing federal dollars directly to public schools. As reported by Education Week, DeVos announced her desires for the microgrant program last week using the same talking points she has used to argue in favor of a tax credit scholarship voucher program. The microgrant program would purportedly focus on students eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and those with an individualized education program (IEP). According to a Department of Education spokesperson cited by the article:

“The grants could be used to fund materials needed for home-based learning, like computers or software, internet access, or instructional materials. They could also support educational services like therapies for students with disabilities, tuition and fees for a public or private online learning course or program, and educational services provided by a private or public school, or tutoring, spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email.”

The federal government is asking schools to continue to educate students while they are at home as a result of school closures or stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has made relief funding for school districts contingent upon their promise to continue instruction and provide distance learning.

Many voucher programs have attempted to provide funding for online learning as an alternative to  classroom settings with the intent of diverting students and funding away from the traditional public education system. The $5 billion voucher program DeVos has been promoting in Congress since long before the coronavirus outbreak overlaps with parts of her new microgrant proposal. According to Chalkbeat:

“The idea — especially the grants for students that could pay tuition — is a glimpse at how DeVos will use the upheaval to advance her ideas about education. A proponent of private-school vouchers and school choice, DeVos has long downplayed the role of the federal government and scoffed at those who see school buildings or school districts as education’s key organizing principle.”

So far, the Democratically controlled U.S. House of Representatives has served as a firewall against DeVos’s and the Trump administration’s voucher proposals. The microgrant program would need funding with the approval of Congress to move forward. With assistance from our Washington-based lobby team, ATPE has been and will continue to be communicating with the Texas congressional delegation about the need to maximize funding for public schools during this crisis without diluting those funds through an opportunistic voucher program with a catchy new name.

As a founding member of the Coalition for Public Schools, ATPE has long opposed vouchers and the privatization of public education. Due to the current crisis, many Americans across the nation are experiencing a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, the importance of public schools and public school educators. Now is the time to bolster the nation’s system of public schools and the teachers who work in them, rather than finding ways to divert funding and dismantle our community schools.

Texas election roundup: Last chance to vote early!

Friday, Feb. 28, is the last chance to vote early in the 2020 Texas primary elections, so make plans to vote before 7 pm Friday if you’d like to avoid the long lines we’re expecting to see on Election Day, March 3.

Our partners in the Texas Educators Vote coalition would like to remind you that by voting, you pick the people who decide how much to fund public schools; how much the state will rely on standardized testing; whether to use A-F ratings and how grades are determined; how much to fund teacher pay, healthcare, and retirement; and whether to invest in our schools or privatize them. You can be a voice at the polls for the over 5.4 million kids in Texas public schools, most of whom are not old enough to vote, model good citizenship for students, move Texas up from being last (or almost last) in voter turnout, strengthen democracy by being an engaged citizen, exert your power at the polls, and practice what you preach — if first grade students are learning the importance of voting, you should, too!

According to data from the Texas Secretary of State’s website, as of the fifth day of early voting, 322,541 Texans had voted in Texas’ top 10 counties for voter registrations. News outlets report that figure as an increase of 30.7% from the number who had voted by the fifth day of early voting in the 2016 primaries.

Statewide 1,394,488 Texans had cast a ballot by Feb 26, the eighth day of early voting, including 762,290 Republicans primary voters and 632,198 Democratic primary voters.  Texas election data researcher Derek Ryan found that, 20% of those who voted in the Democratic primary through day eight of early voting had voted in a previous general election but were likely voting in a primary for the first time. The share of likely first-time primary voters is greater than Democrats saw in 2018 (18%) and in 2016 (17%). In the Republican primary, 12% of early voters this year had voted in a general election but not in a recent primary. So far, slightly more men than women have voted in the Republican primary, while more women than men have voted in the Democratic primary this time around.

On Feb. 26, the Texas Tribune updated its “hot list” of the most competitive Texas primary races. There are 20 Texas House districts on the list, including five races that earned the distinction of being listed among the “hottest” races in the state. Those five are as follows:

  • In House District (HD) 2, the Republican primary features incumbent Rep Dan Flynn (R-Van) being challenged by Bryan Slaton and Dwayne ‘Doc’ Collins. Slaton challenged Rep. Flynn in the 2018 primary and nearly defeated him.
  • In HD 59, the Republican primary is between incumbent Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville) and challengers Cody Johnson and Shelby Slawson. Rep. Sheffield, a physician, has been endorsed by pro-public education groups like Texas Parent PAC and received campaign contributions from a number of medical associations. Johnson has loaned his own campaign over $1 million as of his last ethics filing.
  • The crowded race to replace infamous Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), who is not running for re-election in HD 92, has contested primaries on both sides of the aisle. In what has become a closely watched swing district, both parties hope to put forth the candidate who will ultimately prevail in November. The Republican primary candidates are Jeff Cason, who also ran for the seat in 2018 and is one of relatively few candidates to be endorsed this year by Empower Texans; Taylor Gillig, and Jim Griffin, who received endorsements from Texas Parent PAC and Gov. Greg Abbott. The Democratic primary is a contest between Steve Riddell, who came close to toppling Stickland in 2018, and Jeff Whitfield, whom the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram endorsed. There are also two third-party candidates who will be on the ballot in November.
  • In the Republican primary in HD 132, former Rep. Mike Schofield faces Angelica Garcia. Each candidate is vying to unseat freshman Rep. Gina Calanni (D-Houston) in November. Rep. Calanni defeated then-incumbent Schofield in 2018, flipping the seat from Republican to Democrat that year.
  • Finally, in the Democratic primary in HD 148, newly elected Rep. Anna Eastman (D-Houston) is defending the seat she won just last month in a special election. Her primary challengers include Adrian Garcia, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla, Emily Wolf, and Penny Morales Shaw. While Eastman is now the incumbent, former Rep. Jessica Farrar, who resigned from the seat after last session, is backing Morales Shaw. A Republican challenger who also ran in the special election will be on the ballot in November, too.

Also of note is the sole Texas Senate race to make the Texas Tribune‘s hot list. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a 30-year incumbent, is facing two challengers in the Democratic primary in Senate District 27. One is State Board of Education (SBOE) Member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville)., who also received an endorsement from Texas Parent PAC, and the other is Brownsville lawyer Sara Stapleton Barrera.

A new presidential poll released this week by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by Progress Texas shows Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden tied at 24% as the top choice of Texas Democrats. Michael Bloomberg follows at 17%, with Elizabeth Warren at 14%, and Pete Buttigieg at 10%.

With early voting coming to close, ATPE encourages everyone to take a moment to research the races in their local districts and go vote!

Primary Colors: Why March 3 Matters (Part II)

In 2020, being a primary election voter is critical. ATPE explains why in Part II of our “Primary Colors” blog feature.

After what many folks have hailed as one of the most productive legislative sessions for public education in recent memory, it may be easy for educators to think, “Great! We fixed it!” After all, legislators increased state spending on public education and ordered districts to use some of that money to increase educator compensation. All good things, right?

But a new fight is imminent.

In statistics, there is a phenomenon called “reversion to the mean.” In broad terms, it states that an extreme event in a sequence will generally be followed by a less extreme event. If we look in the context of the past several legislative sessions in which legislators attacked teachers and tried to defund public schools by passing school vouchers, then the 2019 session was an an extreme outlier. Statistically, we should expect that the 2021 legislative session will revert back to the mean — which until recently has often ranged from indifference to open hostility towards public education. That’s especially relevant regarding politicians who actively fought against public schools and educators before the 2019 session.

If you’re still skeptical, just look at the last couple of weeks. In last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump renewed the push to pass private school vouchers that would defund public schools. The federal voucher legislation the president promoted was filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas. Consider that and the fact that the chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Texas is none other than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who also attempted to push a voucher bill through the Texas Legislature many times, as recently as 2017. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, the prospect of a renewed fight over vouchers in 2021 appears all but certain.

There’s also new evidence that legislators fully intend next session to attack educators’ right to use payroll deduction to voluntarily support associations that advocate for public schools at the Texas Capitol. This type of legislation, such as the bills pushed by lawmakers in 2017, threatens educators’ ability to have a voice in crafting public education policy in state as large as Texas. This fight will likely be compounded by a major push to restrict the ability of local communities — through their school districts, towns, counties, and first responders — to advocate for local issues at the Texas Capitol. Many capitol watchers point to these moves as part of a plot by certain special interests to ensure their own exclusive access to lawmakers by closing the doors of state government to the viewpoints of working people and communities.

And then there’s House Bill (HB) 3. The school finance bill passed last year added just enough money to the public education system to get the overall level of state funding close to where it was back before the legislature’s drastic budget cuts of 2011. Much more is needed in order to drag Texas out of the bottom of the barrel of U.S. states in terms of per-pupil spending. But before that happens, legislators have to make sure the funding they added through HB 3 in 2019 doesn’t go away. For all its merits, the school finance bill did not include a long-term funding source to ensure that HB 3 funding would be available into the future, and legislators in 2021 will have to decide whether to find permanent funding or cut back school spending, jeopardizing any increases to educator compensation in the process.

Speaking of compensation, did you see a raise in your paycheck this year? School districts were required to pass on some of that additional HB 3 funding to certain educators in the form of increased compensation. However, the rules guiding how that additional money was to be doled out were vague enough to result in educators in different districts experiencing very different results. Cleaning up compensation questions and other unanticipated complications from HB 3 will be an important part of the next legislature’s job.

The successes of the 2019 legislative session came only as a result of the resounding message educators sent by showing up to vote in record numbers in 2018. Because of our state’s extensive political gerrymandering, the majority of the races in 2018 were decided in the March primaries. That means educators who voted in the March 2018 primaries made a pro-public education legislative session possible in 2019.

The only way we will prevent the 2021 legislative session from reverting to the mean is if educators return to the polls this year in the same massive numbers as in 2018, and that begins with making sure everyone is a 2018 primary voter. There are plenty of resources out there to find out how and where to vote, including those provided by ATPE and our other partners in the nonpartisan Texas Educators Vote coalition. You can begin by researching candidates right here at TeachtheVote.org and then sharing the information you find with your friends and family. We made history in 2018, but we will lose all the progress we made if we take our foot off the gas in 2020. This is especially true in races where a single political party dominates the district, as ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell pointed out in Part I of this blog series for Teach the Vote.

It is more important than ever to be a Texas primary voter in 2020. Texas public school students depend on it!

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 14, 2020

While you’re enjoying conversation hearts and sweet notes on this Valentine’s Day, enjoy this week’s Texas education news.

XOXO, from your ATPE Governmental Relations team!


ELECTION UPDATE: Voting in the Texas primary begins in just FOUR days!

Early voting starts February 18, 2020, which is also Educator Voting Day, and ends February 28. Our state’s primary elections on “Super Tuesday” will be March 3, 2020.

Races all over the state are heating up and drawing endorsements. Texas Parent PAC this week released a list of 10 endorsements of pro-public education candidates in contested primaries. Read the entire list and other election news in this week’s election roundup blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins.

Educators face an incredibly important decision in this primary election cycle. The additional funding for schools and educator compensation provided by last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 could easily be taken away in 2021 if educators don’t show up to the polls and vote for pro-public education candidates like they did in 2018. We’re already seeing a renewal of attacks on public schools and educators. It’s important to know your rights when it comes to being an educator and a voter, and this blog post by ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell offers helpful reminders about rules educators should follow during elections.

Read up on the people running for the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education this year by viewing their candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote, which include responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey, legislators’ voting records, campaign contact information, and more. Watch this instructional video to learn the different ways you can search for candidate information using Teach the Vote. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey project and share information for their profiles that appear on Teach the Vote. If your favorite candidate has not answered our survey, please let them know that it’s not too late! Contact ATPE’s GR team for additional details.

There are still some upcoming “For the Future” candidate forums being hosted by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. Click here to find out if there’s an event in your area where you can meet the candidates and hear more about their views on public education. For other resources to help you prepare for early voting, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com.

Finally, be sure to check out the latest issue of ATPE News, our quarterly magazine. The brand new Spring 2020 issue features additional election-related coverage to help you navigate the 2020 primaries.


FEDERAL UPDATE: Earlier this week, President Trump released his budget proposal for 2021. The education portion of the proposal includes plans to consolidate 29 federal education programs, including funding for charter schools and Title I, into a single block grant. While reducing overall funding for the U.S. Department of Education, the plan would increase funding by nearly the same amount in order to pour billions of dollars into a private school voucher program. Read more about the budget proposal in this blog post by ATPE Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier.

In other news this week, the federal government introduced SchoolSafety.gov, which is a new clearinghouse for school safety resources. This bank of resources, meant to aid in all stages of emergency situations, was a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Education, Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services. The website houses a variety of resources relating to bullying, mental health, school security personnel, school climate, action planning, and recovery, among others.


On Thursday, Governor Greg Abbott charged the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative with building upon the reforms in House Bill (HB) 3 of the 86th Legislature to work towards long-term workforce development in Texas. Gov. Abbott created the initiative in 2016 to help develop links between education and the workforce, with the goal of “helping Texas grow in economic prosperity.” The commissioners of the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Texas Workforce Commission who make up the tri-agency initiative submitted a February 2020 report on their progress, which you can read here. According to the governor’s press release issued February 13, 2020, the three agencies will collaborate on a report showcasing strategies to achieve multiple educational and workforce goals. The report will be due to the governor by September 1, 2020. Check out a short summary of the initiative here.


Gary Gates, Lorraine Birabil, and Anna Eastman were sworn in Tuesday as new state representatives for Texas House Districts 28, 100, and 148, respectively. The swearing-in ceremony for Gates and Birabil took place at the Texas State Capitol, while Eastman was sworn in at Waltrip High School in Houston. Elected to replace state representatives who resigned in late 2019, these newly minted legislators will serve up to the start of the 2021 legislative session. All three are on the ballot in 2020, vying for the same House seat to begin a full term in 2021.


A recent national poll conducted by the National School Boards Action Center reflects that likely voters “love” their public schools and oppose public funding of for-profit charters and private schools. Sixty-four percent of the poll respondents said funding for public schools should be increased, with eight in 10 supporting an increase even if it meant an increase in taxes. Seventy-three percent do not want to send public dollars to private, religious, and home schools. Sixty-five percent agree that charter schools need oversight by local school boards and 80% are favorable to teachers in their community. Find the full poll results and a press release here.


President releases education budget proposal for 2021

On February 10, 2020, President Donald Trump released his budget proposal, which is a statement of  his administration’s spending priorities across all sectors of government. Because the president’s budget is merely a proposal, any of these funding amounts would still need to be approved by Congress in order to be enacted. Historically, Congress has largely ignored President Trump’s funding proposals for education.

The education portion of the president’s 2021 budget recommendation is focused on “education freedom.” While cutting funding for the U.S. Department of Education by $5.6 billion, the proposal requests funds to provide up to $5 billion annually in “Education Freedom Scholarships.”  Using these funds, states would be free to design their own scholarship programs, which could be used to send public dollars to private schools. This requested increase in voucher funding reflects the president’s statements during his State of the Union address last week, which my fellow ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reported on here and here for Teach the Vote.

Trump’s proposal also consolidates 29 federal education programs into one block grant totaled at $19.4 billion, which is $4.7 billion less than Congress approved for these programs in 2020. A list of the programs can be found here (see p. 9), which includes 21st Century Learning Centers, charter schools, school safety national activities, and the $16 billion Title I Grants. This change purportedly would cut the role of the Department of Education significantly by reducing staffing and administrative costs. Though this is labeled a “block grant,” funds would still be allocated using the Title I formulas. The proposal indicates that states and school districts could use the funds on any of the consolidated programs and would still have to follow key accountability and reporting requirements.

Consistent with the president’s affinity for career and technical education (CTE), the proposal also includes $2 billion for CTE state grants and $90 million for CTE national programs. Part of this $763 million increase would be funded by a proposal to double the fee for H1-B visas.

The president’s 2021 budget recommendation includes an increase of $100 million in funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B grant funding, for a total of $12.8 billion. This increase is relatively small considering the overall funding needs for students with disabilities. (Texas appropriated over $2 billion for this purpose during the 86th legislative session.)

As was the case in previous presidential budget requests from the Trump administration, the proposal eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, citing that it “unfairly favors some career choices over others.”

Review past reporting on President Trump’s budget requests for the 2018, 2019, and 2020 fiscal years here on ATPE’s Teach the Vote blog.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Feb. 7, 2020

Check out what happened this week in education news from Texas and the nation’s capital, courtesy of the ATPE Governmental Relations team:


ELECTION UPDATE: Voting in the Texas primary elections will begin in less than two weeks. Early voting starts February 18, 2020, which is also Educator Voting Day, and ends February 28. Our state’s primary elections on “Super Tuesday” will be March 3, 2020.

This week on our blog, ATPE Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter shared information about education-related recommendations in the ballot propositions being put to voters by the Texas Republican and Democratic Parties in this primary election. The ballot propositions help each political party fine-tune its platform based on views expressed by voters in the primary election on various issues. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins looked at some of the latest campaign fundraising news, takeaways from the Iowa caucuses earlier this week, and more in his election roundup blog post from yesterday.

With the primary elections inching closer, ATPE is focusing on helping educators find resources that will help them learn more about the candidates vying for their votes. Read up on the people running for the Texas Legislature or State Board of Education in 2020 by viewing their candidate profiles here on Teach the Vote. The profiles include candidates’ responses to the ATPE Candidate Survey, legislators’ voting records, campaign contact information, and additional information. ATPE does not endorse candidates and invites all candidates to participate in our survey project and share information for their profiles that appear on Teach the Vote. Watch this new instructional video to learn the different ways you can search for candidate information using Teach the Vote.

For additional resources to help you prepare for early voting, visit TexasEducatorsVote.com, or attend one of the “For the Future” education-themed candidate forums being hosted by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. Click here for details on the events.


FEDERAL UPDATE: President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday, the third of his presidency. In the speech, as ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reports for Teach the Vote, the president expressed his opposition to public schools and called on Congress to pass a school voucher bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The bill in question, S. 634, proposes to divert taxpayer dollars that may otherwise go to public education away from local schools and use those tax dollars to subsidize private and for-profit programs. The president cast public schools disparagingly as “failing government schools.” It’s worth noting the Texas Constitution guarantees a right to a free public education as being key to a healthy democratic society, and our state has a long history of independent school districts run by the communities they serve. ATPE’s Wiggins spoke to the Houston Chronicle and previewed the president’s remarks on Tuesday in this blog post.


Last year’s House Bill (HB) 3 included a Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) intended to provide additional funding to school districts that create an incentive pay system for teachers. ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins reports that districts interested in creating a TIA program were asked to submit letters of intent to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) by January 24 of this year. Anecdotal reports indicate that more than 700 of the state’s over 1,000 school districts have responded to date. TEA is implementing this initiative with a series of presentations to stakeholders around the state, and the agency is expected to publish rules in March 2020.

ATPE successfully lobbied the 86th Legislature to ensure that districts would not be required to use the STAAR test to measure teacher performance as part of a TIA program, but questions remain over the degree to which these programs may rely on student test scores. We will be paying close attention during the rulemaking process to see how these programs are allowed to be structured in order to qualify for the additional state funding. You can read more about TIA programs from TEA here.


Members of the ATPE Governmental Relations team gave a presentation on advocacy at this week’s Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Convention and Exposition in Austin. Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Mitchell, Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter, Lobbyist Mark Wiggins, and Lobbyist Andrea Chevalier spoke to attendees about the implementation of major bills passed in 2019, what’s at stake in the 2020 elections, and ways educators can get involved in advocacy efforts.

ATPE lobbyists Wiggins, Mitchell, Exter, and Chevalier at the TCEA Convention, Feb. 4, 2020

Pres. Trump to pitch vouchers in SOTU speech

President Donald Trump is expected to voice his support for a federal voucher bill filed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in tonight’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, according to the Houston Chronicle.

U.S. Secretary of Education and Trump appointee Betsy DeVos, whose past privatization efforts wrought havoc on public schools in Michigan, has backed Cruz’s voucher legislation. The proposal would allow individuals and businesses to divert public tax dollars that could otherwise go toward public schools, using them to subsidize private and for-profit academies instead. President Trump touted the bill himself during his 2019 SOTU address, and he is expected to delve deeper into the subject during this year’s speech.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is also an important backer of Cruz’s voucher bill. Some privatization supporters hope Trump’s remarks tonight will renew the voucher debate in Texas, where a majority of voters oppose spending public money on private schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers and can refuse to serve many Texas children. Opposing private school vouchers has long been an ATPE priority and a component of the ATPE Legislative Program which is approved annually by our members. In most cases, a voucher would not adequately cover a child’s tuition or transportation for private schooling. Such a program would divert money away from local public schools to provide a tax break to parents, many of whom likely plan to send their children to a private school already, with or without a voucher.

Democratic and Republican voters alike issued a scalding rebuke of voucher legislation in the 2018 Texas elections, when several pro-voucher legislators were swept out of office and replaced with a bipartisan class of pro-public education lawmakers.

“I think most legislators in Texas have gotten the message that parents don’t want a dollar-off coupon to a private school across town. They want their neighborhood schools to be the best they can be, and that means giving resources to schools so they can be the best they can be,” ATPE Lobbyist Mark Wiggins told the Houston Chronicle.

Cruz’s bill is unlikely to go far in the Democratically-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, but the Houston Chronicle reports that 10 Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation have signed on, including Reps. Brian Babin, Michael Burgess, Michael Cloud, Dan Crenshaw, Bill Flores, Kenny Marchant, Pete Olson, Randy Weber, Roger Williams, and Ron Wright.

The State of the Union address is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. tonight, Feb. 4, 2020, on all major networks.

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Exploring legislators’ 2019 voting records on education: Part I

Last week on TeachtheVote.org, ATPE published a series of voting records for all Texas state lawmakers, analyzing their actions taken on significant education-related legislation. This blog post is Part I of a two-part feature on the record votes. Here, we’re taking a closer look at how the ATPE lobby team analyzed and chose the record votes that are featured on the legislators’ profiles.

Which bills are featured in the 2019 legislative voting records on Teach the Vote, and why were they chosen?

Without question, the most significant bill debated and ultimately passed by the 86th Texas Legislature this year was House Bill (HB) 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood). This major school finance and public education reform bill, deemed the top priority of the session, resulted in $6.5 billion in increased funding for public education and $5 billion for property tax relief. ATPE’s lobbyists have written extensively about the omnibus bill here on our Teach the Vote blog, and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has also dedicated a set of online resources to helping Texans understand the many components of the bill. With its high profile, HB 3 figures prominently in the 2019 record votes compiled by ATPE. We’ve selected both the House’s and Senate’s votes on HB 3 on “third reading” as the first record vote featured in this year’s list for Teach the Vote.

There are also a few votes on floor amendments to HB 3 that made our list this year. On the House side, we’ve provided representatives’ votes on House Floor Amendment #15 to HB 3, which dealt with charter school transparency and efficiency. The amendment by Rep. Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), which passed and was incorporated into the House’s version of HB 3 but later stripped out by the Senate, requires charter schools to undergo an audit of their fiscal management. The Bailes amendment would have required such an audit to be conducted before a charter could expand or open new campuses, and it also called for charter schools to share the results of those audits publicly on their websites.

For senators, we similarly tracked their votes on three amendments to HB 3:

  • Senate Floor Amendment #8 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) attempted to remove from the Senate’s version of HB 3 a controversial merit pay program that ATPE and most of the education community opposed.
  • Senate Floor Amendment #30 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) also failed to pass but aimed to provide a guaranteed pay raise for all professional public school employees. While teacher pay was another high-profile issue debated throughout the 2019 legislative session, most discussions about pay raises at that point in the session had been limited to classroom teachers and librarians.
  • Also, Senate Floor Amendment #66 by Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) was an unsuccessful attempt to add language to the Senate’s version of HB 3 to ensure that state standardized tests were written at the appropriate grade level. Testing was also a subject of great importance to the education community during the legislative session, particularly after studies found that certain test questions on the STAAR test had been written at reading levels well above the grade level being tested. Although the Menendez floor amendment did not get approved by the Senate, another bill passed during the 2019 legislative session (HB 3906) requires a study of STAAR readability, and results of that study should be released beginning in December.

HB 3 ultimately included some additional funding for increasing educator compensation, but it was not the only bill pertaining to teacher pay that lawmakers debated in 2019. Early in the session, the Senate rallied behind Senate Bill (SB) 3 by Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) pledged would be one of the first bills passed by the full Senate in 2019. Although SB 3 was later rejected in favor of the alternative compensation-related language in HB 3, we’ve included the Senate’s third reading vote on SB 3 in our list of record votes due to its early significance.

ATPE also supported a stand-alone bill in 2019 that was designed to fund and strengthen mentoring programs for teachers. The House’s third reading vote on HB 102 by Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) made our list of record votes this year. HB 102 did not get heard in the Senate, but its language was later incorporated into HB 3.

Another piece of legislation related to educator quality produced one of the record votes published on Teach the Vote this year. The House voted to approve HB 1276 by Rep. Jon Rosenthal (D-Houston) on third reading. HB 1276 was designed to prevent elementary grade students from being assigned for two consecutive school years to teachers who had less than one year of teaching experience or teachers who were not certified in the subject being taught as part of the foundation curriculum. Exceptions would have been provided under HB 1276 for new transfer students and for students whose parent or guardian consents to the non-compliant placement. Also, the bill would not have applied to school districts serving fewer than 5,000 students, those exempted under the District of Innovation (DOI) law, or those districts that received a hardship waiver from the commissioner of education. Unfortunately, this ATPE-supported bill did not get heard in the Senate.

School safety was another high priority issue debated during the 2019 legislative session. The key piece of legislation on keeping schools safe was SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), aimed at driving funding to implement school safety improvements and provide mental health resources. We’ve featured on our website the third reading vote taken on this bill in both the House and Senate chambers. Also on our list is the House’s treatment of House Floor Amendment #8 by Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) to SB 11, aimed at improving mental health support by requiring the state to identify regional resources that schools could use to address their students’ mental health needs. Legislators were considering a number of different measures pertaining to mental health resources in the context of the debate about school safety. Particularly in the House, some lawmakers were openly skeptical of efforts to link students with outside mental health professionals, worried about privacy concerns, and generally opposed to perceived government overreach. The controversy surrounding those issues had seemingly killed another high-priority bill aimed at addressing mental health earlier on the same evening that SB 11 was being debated. House leaders used Rep. Allison’s floor amendment as a vehicle for resurrecting the lost bill. Thus, Allison’s original amendment to SB 11 passed, was reconsidered, got amended to include language from the other mental health bill that had already been voted down, and then Floor Amendment #8 passed again. We provided data on both votes approving Floor Amendment #8 since there were some representatives who opted to change their position on the Allison amendment after it was expanded.

The Teacher Retirement System (TRS) also garnered attention during the 2019 session and was an ATPE legislative priority. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which increased the contribution rates for the TRS pension fund. ATPE included the third reading votes on this bill taken by both the House and Senate among our record votes compilation. The legislature’s passage of SB 12 resulted in immediate actuarial solvency for the fund, which made it possible for TRS to issue a one-time 13th check to retirees in Sept. 2019. Read more about the TRS bill here.

Another ATPE legislative priority for 2019 was opposing vouchers and stopping the privatization of public schools in any form. Few voucher bills were considered this session, but the full Senate did take a vote on Sen. Taylor’s SB 1455, which we included on our list of record votes. The bill would have expanded full-time virtual schools and created a “virtual voucher.” Despite passing the Senate, SB 1455 did not make it out of a committee on the House side.

The House also took a record vote on HB 1133 by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), which is included on our list. That bill produced one of the most dramatic debates but did not garner enough votes to pass the House. HB 1133 would have weakened the existing 22:1 cap on elementary school class sizes by moving to a campus-wide, grade-level average. Many ATPE members reached out to their legislators in opposition to this bill, which would have allowed class sizes in the lower grades to dramatically expand.

Finally, there are a few record votes on our list this year that pertain to efforts to restrict legislative advocacy by school districts or dissuade educators from being politically active. One such bill was SB 1569 by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), which the Senate voted to approve on third reading but the House left pending in committee. ATPE staunchly opposed SB 1569, which would have restricted educators’ First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, limited their ability to teach students about elections, and unreasonably subjected educators to criminal penalties. Another troubling bill was SB 29 by Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), which tried to prohibit school districts and other local governmental entities from funding legislative advocacy efforts or paying membership dues to organizations that engage in legislative advocacy. SB 29 made our record votes list in two places. First, the Senate voted to approve the bill on third reading. Later, the House voted the bill down. Interestingly, the vote to defeat SB 29 on the House floor became even more significant after the legislative session ended, when certain Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill were seemingly targeted for retribution by their own party leadership in a taped discussion between House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the head of the controversial dark money group, Empower Texans. The scandal resulted in Bonnen’s announcing that he would not seek re-election, opening the door for election of a new speaker when the 2021 legislative session convenes.

In any legislative session, there are limited votes taken on the record, offering relatively few options for us to showcase how individual legislators voted on education-related bills. However, we believe the votes listed above offer an informative glimpse into the treatment of public education by the 86th Texas Legislature, and we invite you to check out how your legislators voted by looking them up on our search page here on Teach the Vote. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for Part II of this blog feature where the ATPE lobbyists will explain more about the usefulness and limitations of record votes in general.

ATPE goes to Washington

Most education policy happens at the state level, but there are a few issues that are important to educators and  students that are decided by officials in Washington. That is why ATPE maintains a federal lobby presence. While the main ATPE lobby team works year-round here in Texas, lobbyist David Pore also represents our organization in Washington, DC to ensure that ATPE members have the best representation at all levels of government.

ATPE’s Tonja Gray, Monty Exter, and Byron Hildebrand at the U.S. Capitol

In addition to David’s work year-round on behalf of ATPE members, the association also sends a delegation up to Washington at least once a year to promote our federal priorities. This year ATPE State President Byron Hildebrand, Vice President Tonja Gray, Executive Director Shannon Holmes, and Senior Lobbyist Monty Exter made the journey during the week of June 10, 2019.

While in DC, the ATPE group met with key members of the Texas congressional delegation, as well as committee staff and officials with the US Department of Education. We discussed a handful of topics important to ATPE members including our support for the repeal of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) that reduce many educators’ Social Security benefits; the need for increased Title I and Title II funding; and our opposition to federal voucher programs.

ATPE meeting with Rep. Kevin Brady’s staff in Washington, DC

ATPE has been working with Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), former chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, on legislation to repeal and replace the WEP. Now the ranking member of the committee, Brady is working with the current committee chairman, Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), to reintroduce the bipartisan bill during the current congress.

In addition to meeting with Rep. Brady and his staff, ATPE met with Chairman Neal’s committee staff and with Rep. Jodey Arrington (R–Texas) who represents the Lubbock area and sits on the Social Security Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. ATPE State Vice President Tonja Gray is a constituent of Arrington, who has become a real champion for WEP reform in Congress. We rounded out our meetings with members of the Texas delegation on the Ways and Means Committee with Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas), who represents the greater Austin area.

Rep. Jodey Arrington with ATPE’s Tonja Gray in Washington, DC

Texas also has three new members of Congress now serving on the Education Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor. They are Reps. Joaquin Castro (D–Texas) from the San Antonio area, Ron Wright (R-Texas) from Arlington, and Van Taylor (R-Texas) out of Plano. We spoke to each of these members about the importance of maintaining educator preparation funding in Title II as a part of the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, as well as increasing or at least maintaining formula funding for Title I. As a Title I funded interventionist, Tonja Gray was able to put a personal touch on ATPE’s message.

ATPE’s Byron Hildebrand and Tonja Gray with Rep. Henry Cuellar in Washington, DC

Along with expressing support for funding, we also spoke to each of these members of the Texas delegation about ATPE’s staunch opposition to federal voucher legislation. If the House were to take up any of the Senate’s voucher bills, such a measure would likely be heard in the Education Subcommittee.

ATPE meetings with U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz were also productive. Sen. Cornyn’s staff ensured ATPE not only that Title I and II funding are likely to be maintained or increased, but also that there would be no attempts in the current budget cycle to block grant Title I funding. ATPE opposes block granting Title I funding because it would likely result in the dilution of Title I dollars currently delivered through a formula to the campuses with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students (those eligible for free and reduced lunch).

Our conversation with Sen. Cruz focused largely on the WEP legislation. Sen. Cruz carried the Senate companion to the Brady bill during the last congress and is planning to pick up the Brady/Neal bill again as soon as it is refiled in the House. The senator is currently seeking a Democratic co-sponsor to ensure that the bill has bipartisan authorship in both chambers.

Altogether, ATPE’s 2019 trip to the nation’s capital was very productive and yielded excellent news. As developments continue on ATPE’s federal priorities, we will report those updates here on Teach the Vote.

86th Legislative Session Highlights from ATPE

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

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

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

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


School Finance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Educator Pay: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teacher Retirement System (TRS):

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

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

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

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School Safety and Student Health: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Student Testing:

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

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

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

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Special Education:

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

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

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

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

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Payroll Deduction:

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

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

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Class Sizes:

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

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Private School Vouchers:

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

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

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

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Charter Schools:

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

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

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

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

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

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Student Discipline:

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

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

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School Turnaround:

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

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

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

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

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Political Speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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