It was a dark and stormy session. Occasionally a light would shine through the murk in the form of a friendly bill or a supportive legislator struggling to be heard. Though the 2011 regular and special sessions were among the worst for education in recent history, there were still “Stars,” those heroes who stepped up to try to make things better for Texas teachers, students and public schools. TCTA dedicates “Legislative Stars” or grants “Honorable mention” status to the following legislators.

Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman)

Rep. Phillips, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, proved himself a champion for public school students and educators with his efforts to inject some balance and reason into the deregulation efforts spearheaded in the House by Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House Public Education Committee. Phillips is a conservative Republican and, by virtue of his high profile chairmanship, a key member of the House leadership team. Thanks to his close working relationship with TCTA local associations in his House district and his understanding of school law, he recognized that the deregulation efforts being pushed nationally to weaken teacher unions and eliminate teacher tenure really had no place in Texas.

TCTA had worried that recent publi-city, such as the quasi-documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which casts teacher unions as the villains in a system of failed public schools, would lead to efforts to attack educator rights and benefits in Texas. Unfortunately, our worries proved to be well founded when Eissler, who had previously been a voice of moderation, filed a bill that not only watered down teacher contractual protections, but also allowed increases in elementary class-size caps. In a completely unexpected twist, HB 400 also included provisions to eliminate the state minimum salary schedule, a protection that has been in place in one form or another since the modern school finance system was created in 1949.

HB 400 was fast-tracked and scheduled for a hearing only a few days after it was filed. The bill quickly passed through the committee despite the concerns of a couple of Republican committee members who were ultimately persuaded to vote the bill out of committee. With this kind of momentum and the apparent support of the Speaker’s office, the prospect of blocking the bill seemed particularly bleak.

Fortunately, Phillips offered to help. With his impeccable conservative credentials and his prominent position as chair of a major committee, he was a perfect sponsor to lead the effort to moderate the provisions of HB 400. Phillips agreed to carry an amendment that would give districts the temporary ability to reduce salaries in response to the budget crisis and would give the commissioner of education temporarily expanded authority to grant waivers for elementary class-size caps. His amendment would have deleted any permanent provisions relating to the state minimum salary schedule and would have balanced a slightly shorter notice of nonrenewal with a commensurate increase in the time by which a teacher could resign from a district without penalty. When he announced his intention to file the amendment, he was immediately subjected to great pressure to back off, but he pressed ahead with his amendment.

With little help from other House members, Phillips offered and defended his amendment. In doing so, he educated the House about the provisions of the original bill that would have gutted class-size caps and completely eliminated the state minimum salary schedule. The amendment failed (a relatively large number of members presumed to be supportive of the amendment were conspicuously absent for the vote), and HB 400 later died on a point of order. Thanks to the efforts of Chairman Phillips, when the deregulation effort was revived in the special session, several statutory provisions including 22:1 class-size caps and the state minimum salary schedule had been shown to have bipartisan support and were ultimately left intact.

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas)

Sen. West was a key player on the Senate Education Committee and on the subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee tasked with creating a school finance bill. Unlike previous school finance bills considered by the Texas Legislature, this proposal had to distribute unprecedented cuts in education due to the budget shortfall and the unwillingness of state leadership to consider revenue enhancement and full use of the Rainy Day Fund to address that shortfall. West was forced to work within these constraints while continuing to be an advocate for additional funding for schools and equitable distribution of decreased school revenues.

At the same time the subcommittee was going about this Herculean task, the Senate Education Committee was considering the issues of “flexibility” and “deregulation” in Texas public schools. The first meeting of the committee was held while virtually every superintendent in the state was in town for a conference. The topic of the committee hearing was “Flexibility and Mandate Relief.” Superintendents complained about class-size caps and asked for more management authority over personnel matters.

While the momentum clearly favored deregulation, West always considered the needs of educators. He agreed with our position that any mandate reduction should be temporary and narrowly focused. He labored for several weeks with a working group of senators and representatives from teacher, administrator and school groups in an attempt to come up with a compromise. Although a final agreement among the groups was never reached, language favorable to teachers that resulted from the process was eventually incorporated into the final bill, including the provision that requires administrators to be included in furloughs or general salary reductions, and the process that ensures teacher and community input in the development of a furlough program or general salary reduction.

Sen. West managed to be a staunch advocate for public school funding and educator rights and benefits while working within the political and financial realities that characterized the most difficult legislative session in decades. Walking such a tightrope and managing to improve the final legislation as he did was a major accomplishment and a boon to schoolchildren and educators. TCTA thanks him for all his help.

Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock)

Sen. Duncan is a stubborn man. He has very deep convictions about the financial well-being of the Teacher Retirement System, which has been one of his responsibilities as chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee for the past few legislative sessions. Duncan has shown that he will do whatever it takes to protect the system, which in previous sessions has included unpopular bills that cut system benefits. For this he has taken heat from active and retired members of TRS and the organizations that represent them, including TCTA. However unpopular his past actions have been, they have to be assessed in the context of a growing criticism of defined benefit plans such as TRS. These types of pension systems have come under increasing attack as inadequately funded or poorly managed public plans have created massive potential liabilities for taxpayers in other jurisdictions, and private employers have moved away from these plans.

TRS is a well-funded plan that cannot really be compared to those in other states and localities, but that fact has not silenced calls to replace it with a defined contribution plan (similar to a 403b or 401k). Duncan understands that TRS can continue to be a sustainable system, and he has been a staunch defender of TRS as a defined benefit plan. His conviction is so strong and his political influence so great that he managed to get the Legislature this session to contribute more to TRS than the 6% constitutional minimum. With a $25 billion shortfall, most observers assumed there was no way legislators would agree to contribute one penny more than the level called for by the state constitution, but Duncan successfully fought for a contribution of 6.4%, with only a temporary dip to 6.0% in the current school year. He also managed to minimize funding cuts to TRS-Care (retiree health insurance), persuading budget writers to drop the TRS-Care contribution for only one year.

Duncan was also instrumental in mitigating cuts to public education and other components of the state budget. The Senate as a whole wanted smaller budget cuts than had been approved by the House. In public education spending alone, the Senate wanted to put in about $5 billion more than had been allocated by the House spending bill. However, in order to minimize cuts, the Senate had to come up with additional revenue, so Duncan was put in charge of a committee to come up with the money. He fought for funding for public schools as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he fought for equalization in school funding as a member of the Senate Education Committee, and he spent countless hours meeting with school employee and management groups in an attempt to find common ground on the deregulation issue. Sen. Duncan’s support for additional revenues and his defense of TRS as a defined benefit plan may draw political opposition from various camps, but his stubborn adherence to his convictions over political considerations make him the kind of statesman that is needed in these challenging times.

Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), Borris Miles (D-Houston), Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas) and Jessica Farrar (D-Houston)

Fighting harmful legislation in the 82nd regular and special sessions was definitely a group effort. Several House members - with much credit due also to key staffers - earned “Star” status for their efforts to defeat HB 400 and similar legislation: specifically including (but not limited to) Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer, Borris Miles, Yvonne Davis and Jessica Farrar. This session’s deregulation bills were compared at various times to zombies, vampires and other monstrous beings that are nearly impossible to kill. Buffy and Van Helsing have nothing on these intrepid lawmakers.

By the time HB 400 – which would have reduced teacher salaries and legal protections – hit the House floor for the first time in April, it had gained dozens of co-sponsors. The bill had been portrayed as favorable to teachers, under the theory that allowing districts to cut salaries would lead to fewer layoffs, and bill sponsor Rob Eissler had convinced close to a majority of House members to sign on in favor of the legislation. This level of support appeared to assure the bill’s passage, but Martinez Fischer, Miles and Davis, armed only with the House rule book, were able to vanquish the bill using points of order on several different occasions during the session. Farrar made a valiant effort on the similar (but ultimately successful) SB 8 during the special session.

TCTA and our members did everything possible to inform lawmakers about the potential harm of HB 400 and other attacks on teacher rights and benefits, but what happens on the floor is what counts. It’s gratifying when a majority of legislators support your position, so that victory is won through education rather than through parliamentary maneuvers, but educators owe thanks to those who took up the second line of defense and succeeded, even if the success was, in the end, short-lived.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio)

A long-standing and knowledgeable member of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Van de Putte is a key player in the education arena, and her office serves as a crucial source of information regarding “insider baseball” in the Senate. She not only sponsored and helped pass TCTA’s special education bill, but also worked to negotiate a more palatable version of a teacher appraisal bill that otherwise would have placed undue emphasis on student test performance in teacher evaluations (the appraisal bill eventually died).

As chair of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, Van de Putte led the “resistance movement” in the Senate, holding together the 12 Senate Democrats needed to ensure a voting bloc against harmful legislation and forcing Senate leaders to try to negotiate acceptable compromises. The politically savvy senator also played a valuable role in trying to avert an ill-advised Senate filibuster that unfortunately resulted in a special session detrimental to teachers.

Honorable Mention

Sen. Florence Shapiro (R- Plano)

Although at odds with TCTA on this session’s deregulation efforts, Senate Education Chairwoman Shapiro and her capable staff worked closely with us this session on a major induction/mentoring bill for beginning teachers, for which she successfully secured funding while serving on the Senate Finance Committee (though ultimately the bill did not pass). She is a strong advocate for sufficient funding for public schools and held firm in negotiations with the House for a higher level of education funding. She also worked hard (and successfully) to ensure funding for instructional materials despite an overwhelming budget deficit and competing demands from equally sympathetic causes such as Medicare funding. She spent countless hours in charge of a subcommittee that developed the Senate version of the school finance plan, which included TCTA-proposed language that will reinstate the driver for the salary schedule when school finance formulas increase (hopefully) in the future. Her version of the deregulation bill did not touch elementary class-size caps or the state minimum salary schedule, and thankfully, these two proposals were not included in the final bill.

Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin)

Rep. Howard has been a supporter of public schools and teachers throughout her five years in office, but she went out of her way to try to bring more state dollars to Texas schoolchildren during the June special session – and nearly succeeded. The budget that passed in May was several billion dollars short of the amount needed to continue funding the current level of public education services, but Howard successfully amended a subsequent finance bill to direct any new Rainy Day Fund money to education – a move that could have added nearly $2 billion over the biennium. Her success was astonishing given the House’s strong sentiment against using more Rainy Day monies during the regular session. Unfortunately, in a heartbreaking reversal, the House later voted to instruct negotiators to remove the provision from the bill.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston)

Rep. Turner is no stranger to the microphones on the House floor. While dozens of legislators consistently vote to support teachers, sometimes “talking the talk” matters even more. Once honored as “the conscience of the Legislature,” Turner never shies from the truth, and his words on public education throughout the session undoubtedly caused discomfort to some of his colleagues: “This [HB 400] has nothing to do about quality of education, it has nothing to do about excellence, it has everything to do with us not wanting to spend one additional dollar from the Rainy Day Fund…We are dealing with 400 because we are unwilling to pay the tab for public education in order for our kids to receive a quality education. That is the reality.”

Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston)

Rep. Dutton’s considerable experience in the House can be invaluable when he decides to take on an issue. His SB 8 amendment requiring the commissioner to determine guidelines for a district’s declaration of “financial exigency” was extremely important in light of the new flexibility - some of which relates to teacher rights - that districts will now have in the event of a financial exigency. Providing guidelines for when a district can declare a financial exigency may well result in more judicious use of that mechanism at the local level. Dutton was able to negotiate with the bill sponsor and other House leaders to work out initial objections, and the commissioner will now have the opportunity to draft guidelines that reflect true financial emergencies, rather than just poor local planning.

Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan)

On the first day of the session in January 2011, Sen. Ogden was elected President Pro Tempore of the Senate, a largely ceremonial position that is passed around to veteran state senators. Ogden took advantage of the position to make an impassioned speech about the budget (knowing that, as the returning chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he would have the unenviable task of writing the Senate version of the budget in the face of an enormous shortfall). In his speech, he said that much of the problem with school finance is the fact that the business tax adopted to replace the property tax cuts approved in 2006 has underperformed and must be fixed. He asked his fellow senators to check their political ambition at the door and to get to work. While the budget ultimately passed by the Legislature was bad, most observers agree that it would have been much worse if not for the efforts of Sen. Ogden, who is in large part responsible for the Senate’s approval of several billion dollars more in education funding than the House plan would have provided.

Rep. Alma A. Allen (D-Houston)

A consistent bill sponsor for TCTA, Rep. Allen filed two TCTA-initiated bills this year and passed them both: one requiring that school districts establish a process by which regular education teachers with special education students can request a review of the student’s individualized education program, with a timely response to the request and notice to the parents by the district also required; and one providing for contract protections for educators suffering a bureaucratic delay in certificate renewal. Rep. Allen is a valuable ally to TCTA and Texas public schools and, as a former educator herself, provides a reality check as policy is made.

TCTA BILL SPONSORS

We would like to thank the following lawmakers who carried teacher-friendly legislation at TCTA’s request:

Rep. Alma A. Allen and Sen. Wendy Davis for sponsoring and passing HB 1334, which ensures that an SBOE delay in renewing a certificate will not penalize the employee.

Rep. Allen and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for sponsoring and passing HB 1335, which will help provide assistance to teachers of mainstreamed students.

Rep. Randy Weber and Sen. Mike Jackson for sponsoring and passing HB 1682, which prohibits districts from coercing employees to make charitable contributions.

Rep. Jerry Madden and Sen. John Whitmire for sponsoring and passing HB 1907, which strengthens the laws regarding prompt notice to educators of violent students.

Rep. Mark Shelton for sponsoring HB 1296, which would have ensured at least three teacher workdays, and HB 3135, which would have required districts to provide teachers appropriate time and facilities to pump breast milk. (Did not pass)

Sen. Florence Shapiro and Rep. Shelton for sponsoring SB 570, which would have created a valuable induction and mentoring program for beginning teachers. (Did not pass)

Editor’s Note: In a session that seemed to be less friendly than usual to both public education and educators, there were still numerous legislators who consistently voted with us, in addition to those who are singled out for recognition in this issue. Since the 2011 legislative session was a once-every-decade redistricting session due to new census data, all legislators will be up for election in 2012. On March 6, 2012, the primary elections will be held, which often matter more than the general election in November since most legislative districts favor either a Republican or Democratic candidate and the person who emerges from the primary election for that party usually takes the seat.
Prior to the primaries, TCTA will provide our members information about how your legislators voted on bills and amendments that we considered significant in attracting and retaining high quality educators and providing for the needs of Texas students. In that manner, we can recognize those legislators who voted right on tough votes and alert you to those whose campaign rhetoric doesn’t seem to carry through to their votes.