The 83rd Texas Legislature:
How TCTA fought to protect the interests of Texas teachers

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2013

Every session has a personality of some sort. The 82nd Legislature in 2011 was marked by partisan discord, the angst of major budget cuts, and efforts by school districts to obtain more “flexibility” through exemptions from major teacher rights and protections in the Education Code.

The 83rd Legislature seemed to be all over the place. The remarkable number of rookie legislators and new leaders initially raised concerns about the Legislature’s ability to get things done, but in the end, the House in particular was generally considered to be acting (more or less) competently and efficiently.

A core group of moderate Republicans reached out to Democrats and to conservative/Tea Party Republicans, depending on the issue, and was generally able to keep the trains on track. Passing major legislation is never easy, but the key bills passed with high vote margins; the final version of the testing bill (House Bill 5) even skated through without a single “no” vote in either the House or Senate.

Still, even with more money ($3.4 billion returned to public education on top of funding for enrollment growth), with better political relationships, and with general agreement that the issue of testing would be addressed in a way that would help students, teachers and parents, it seemed that TCTA was fighting more battles than ever.

TERrible reform proposals

Though we might have thought the movement to deregulate schools had run its course last session, when the excuse of dwindling resources allowed school administrators to pursue relaxation of state laws that provide protection and benefits for teachers, it became a major area of conflict in the 2013 session.

A new group known as TER — Texans for Education Reform — appeared on the scene. This was essentially the same group as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which had influenced legislation and elections since the 1990s in the area of tort reform, spending millions of dollars in the process. After the 2011 legislative session, this coalition of business and political interests turned its attention and resources to public education.

TER hired some of the most well-known contract lobbyists in Texas, and supported “reform” bills such as the expansion of charter schools and home-rule school districts, parent-trigger proposals, and a new creation — the “achievement district” — a statewide district encompassing low-performing campuses. The common threads? A great expansion of takeovers of public education by private entities, and accompanying losses of rights and protections not only for teachers, but for students and parents as well.

Fighting the myriad bills that would implement these various reforms was complicated for a couple of reasons.

Connection to HB 5 – Apparently arrangements were made early on between the House and the Senate that the House would be the genesis of the testing/accountability legislation (via HB 5) and the Senate would produce the big charter expansion bill (Senate Bill 2, which included the dangerous “district charters” that would allow easy conversion of existing campuses to charter schools). Additionally, the arrangement reportedly included a condition that passage of one bill was contingent on the other.

This created major problems for TCTA and others who supported testing changes but were extremely opposed to the district charter provisions of SB 2. Legislators were unwilling to kill SB 2 because of this delicate balance, although the House “fixed” the bill by removing the district charter provisions temporarily.

The final results suggested that the House got concessions on HB 5 while the Senate reinserted its district charters into SB 2, and the two bills passed on the same day at the end of the session.

Fighting traditional allies – The other major complicating factor was the necessity of battling legislators who have traditionally been allies. The Senate sponsor of the “achievement district” bill, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), is a former TCTA Friend of Education, and the House sponsor, Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), is a longtime ardent supporter of public education.

Both insisted that the proposal to create a new statewide district for low-performing schools, which would allow private takeovers of such campuses, was an appropriate resolution to the problem of struggling schools, but avoided addressing the fact that it was based on a not-particularly-successful post-Katrina model of public education in Louisiana.

Teacher groups’ concerns about private management companies and the loss of educator, student and parents rights and protections were waved away. When the bill, SB 1718, failed to pass in the regular session, it was rumored that Sen. West was working hard to get the bill considered in the subsequent special session, but the special session was never expanded to include education issues.

SB 2 passed – In the end, SB 2 was the only major harmful reform bill promoted by TER that passed, but we fully anticipate that more attempts to privatize and deregulate education will resurface in the next legislative session.

As it passed and was signed into law, SB 2 creates district charters authorized by a majority vote of a school board to convert an existing campus to a charter school subject to the same provisions as an open-enrollment charter school.

By this simple majority vote of the school board, a district would not have to offer contracts to teachers at a district charter campus, teachers at these campuses would not have due process protections, there would be no class-size caps, the state minimum salary schedule would not apply, there would be no requirement for duty-free lunch or planning periods … and the list goes on.

A district charter can be granted to a campus receiving the lowest performance rating, or to a campus/campuses serving no more than 15 percent of the district’s enrollment, or to an entire feeder pattern of campuses.

TCTA local affiliates and members will need to be very alert to local school board activities, and should notify TCTA if it appears that there will be an effort to convert one or more campuses to district charter schools.

Teacher quality

Another major area of conflict was teacher quality legislation. A number of bills passed that will have lasting effects on teachers and the profession, but TCTA was successful in convincing key legislators to eliminate some of the damaging proposals that were included in bills at the beginning of the process.

Many of these proposals had arisen from the Texas Teaching Commission project of 2012, in which TCTA had actively participated. When it became clear that these harmful recommendations — proposals that would repeal the state minimum salary schedule, return to required annual appraisals for all teachers, and increase the emphasis on student test scores in teacher appraisals — would be included in the final report, TCTA withdrew from the Commission.

Throughout the session we fought — successfully — against bills that included any such provisions. Specifically, we worked closely with Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, author of the major Teaching Commission bill, to remove these three proposals from his bill before it passed the Senate. We also convinced the Senate sponsor of a bill that would have restructured the state performance pay program to eliminate a harmful provision that would have allowed for waiver of the minimum salary schedule.

In the end, a number of teacher quality bills passed that will revise educator preparation and continuing professional education requirements, as well as other aspects of the profession, including professional development and the state incentive pay program.

TRS battles

The Teacher Retirement System legislation was a different kind of battle, largely because all parties had the same end goals: improve the health of the teacher pension fund and find a way to give retirees a long overdue benefit increase. The negotiations were cordial — if sometimes intense — and the goals were reached with some damage to teachers, but not nearly as much as was originally proposed.

The first version of the TRS bill would have imposed a new minimum age of 62 on most active employees, and TCTA strongly opposed the bill from the beginning. One teacher group was “neutral” on the bill, while another only expressed “soft opposition”; these positions hurt our ability to negotiate better provisions.

A later iteration exempted more teachers from the change in retirement eligibility, but at the expense (literally) of active teacher contributions, which would have jumped in a single year from 6.4 percent of salary to 7.7 percent — roughly $50 per month on an average teacher’s salary.

This proposal was also unacceptable. Only continued pressure from TCTA and other opposing educator groups, along with strong support for our position from the Senate Democratic Caucus (which blocked the bill from Senate consideration until major changes were made), led to additional concessions, including a multi-year phase-in of the active member contribution increase, and additional funding commitments from the state and school districts.

In the House, we were able to further improve the bill by exempting most current teachers from a change in TRS-Care eligibility, but that amendment was removed in the final version. Read more about the changes made to TRS benefits.

If you followed the news of the 2013 legislative session via TCTA’s daily Capitol Updates posts on our homepage or our eUpdate newsletter, which was sent to TCTA members weekly throughout the session, you may want details on specific bills. Which ones actually passed and what changes will result from them? The following links may be helpful:

Bill summaries list (searchable by bill number or topic)

TCTA-initiated bills and accomplishments

Vetoed education bills