Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

The Classroom Teacher, summer 2013

Following each legislative session, TCTA traditionally selects several Texas representatives and senators as “Legislative Stars.” Our goal has been twofold: to keep TCTA members informed of the legislators who actively supported teachers and public education, and to thank those legislators for doing so. However, we will not designate any “stars” for 2013.

At a time when the teaching profession is under attack by so-called education reformers who are pushing deregulation and privatization, the list of legislators who are reliable friends of education and teachers is becoming alarmingly short. And, unfortunately, even genuine champions of public education voted for extremely bad legislation (Senate Bill 2) this session.

SB 2 is harmful enough that we wanted TCTA members to be aware of legislators who voted for it, but we also want to point out that the legislators highlighted below who voted for that bill also took significant positive actions on behalf of Texas educators.

Read on to learn about both the positive and negative actions — on SB 2 and otherwise — taken by legislators who played key roles in some of the legislative issues of critical interest to TCTA members.

Jimmie Don Aycock, Chairman of the House Public Education Committee

Chairman Aycock was the main legislative proponent for reducing the number of end-of-course exams and revising high school curriculum standards and accountability. While a grassroots reform group consisting largely of mothers who were fed up with the over-testing of their children supported his efforts, Chairman Aycock had several large hurdles to overcome.

The Texas Association of Business attacked Aycock’s House Bill 5 as a weakening of standards. Groups representing minority students wanted to ensure those students were not tracked to a substandard education. And Gov. Rick Perry, who has long been a proponent of the Texas educational accountability system, would have vetoed the legislation if it were not carefully crafted to avoid even the appearance of lowering educational standards.

Chairman Aycock steered this complex bill through difficult political waters and produced a piece of legislation that gives students options without sacrificing academic rigor. As a chairman, he had an excellent staff who kept a busy committee on track and who were good at letting TCTA and other education advocates know which issues would be considered. He is a thoughtful, friendly and inclusive legislator who does his best to balance stakeholders’ interests.

Unfortunately, Chairman Aycock was pressured to be the House sponsor for one of the session’s worst bills, Senate Bill 2, in order to build the political capital he needed to pass his testing bill, HB 5. While he stripped (temporarily) SB 2 of the provision that most concerned TCTA (the one that allows districts to create “district charters” exempt from most protections of the Education Code), he failed to successfully defend that action when the bill went to conference committee.

Even worse, he made incorrect statements about the conference committee report when the full House was considering the bill, telling House members that district charters can be issued only to low-performing campuses. The bill’s language indicates that a much broader group of campuses could be subject to district charter conversion. While Chairman Aycock’s error may have been inadvertent, the inaccurate information gave the impression that only a small number of campuses (and teachers, students and parents) would be affected by this harmful provision.

Sen. Robert Duncan

Sen. Duncan is probably one of the best legislators because of the way he approaches a problem and includes all stakeholders in discussions relating to the many important issues he tackles.

He is clearly a champion of the Teacher Retirement System and a proponent of keeping the pension system as a defined benefit plan as opposed to a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b). Under his guidance, the TRS system is projected to be actuarially sound for the first time since 2007. As a result, the system will be able to give a 2013 cost-of-living adjustment to nearly 200,000 current retirees.

Defined benefit pensions are clearly under attack by some fiscal conservatives and by private money managers who would like a piece of this hundred billion dollar action, so it is critical to have the support of conservative leaders such as Sen. Duncan to fight for the continuation and health of TRS.

Sen. Duncan also successfully authored a successful bill (SB 1474) for TCTA that will require input from educators and a public hearing before school districts adopt major curriculum initiatives.

While Sen. Duncan is good at including stakeholders in the development of a bill, the inclusion often takes the form of presenting his proposal and asking for support. He did work with TCTA and others to improve the TRS bill from the original proposal, but it is worth noting that he needed the support of the Senate Democratic Caucus to overcome the two-thirds majority necessary to move his bill out of the Senate.

TCTA believes that it wasn’t necessary for the bill to make changes to the benefits of current active TRS members. On the pension side, the bill will not affect anyone with five years of experience in the system (as of Aug. 31, 2014), but changes were made to TRS-Care eligibility for many current members. We believe this change could have been postponed until next session, when legislators might have been able to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing the fiscal problems facing TRS-Care.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Davis faced a tough political race for a seat that was heavily targeted for takeover by Republicans. For some reason, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst removed her from the Senate Education Committee at the same time he made conservative talk show host and Tea Party favorite Dan Patrick the chair of the committee. Clearly passionate about education, Sen. Davis still showed up at virtually all of the committee’s meetings and engaged in discussion on issues such as a thinly disguised school voucher bill promoted by Patrick and others.

When the TRS bill would have increased member contributions to 7.7 percent over a one-year period, Sen. Davis listened to TCTA’s and others’ suggestions for a phased-in approach that would allow the Legislature to deal with school finance before member contributions reached the 7.7 percent level. She was successful in doing so by finding another $100 million in state contributions to make the phase-in possible while keeping with the goal of making TRS fiscally sound right away, so that retirees could receive a raise this year.

Her efforts were critical in goading the Senate into restoring as much funding to public education as politically possible. She was also the Senate sponsor of a successful bill (HB 2607) proposed by TCTA that gives school employees the right to be represented by an attorney via telephone in grievances.

Unfortunately, Sen. Davis was too quick to compromise on SB 2, the charter school bill. The provision that allows districts to convert existing campuses into district charters had little to do with charter school proponents’ goal to increase the number of charter schools and more to do with school reformers’ (and some administrators’) goal of deregulating schools and taking away important educator rights and benefits.

A Harvard-trained lawyer, Davis was one of the few legislators who had the skills and potential political moxie to help us with this issue, but she never fully engaged, and she supported the bill even with this extremely bad provision included.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Sen. Watson was the Senate Democratic Caucus chair, an important position given the Senate’s adoption of a “two-thirds rule,” which allowed 11 senators to block any legislation. As this rule is provided only by the rules and traditions of the Senate, the Caucus must be careful to use its power judiciously, as it could easily be taken away by a majority of the Senate.

Under Watson’s guidance, the Senate never considered the TEA Sunset bill. It was a bad bill as it came out of committee, with its elimination of the State Board for Educator Certification, and it had the potential to be a much worse vehicle for every harmful provision under serious consideration by the Legislature, such as home-rule school districts, parent trigger proposals, achievement school districts, elimination of the salary schedule, and evaluating teachers on student test scores, to name a few. He was also instrumental, along with Sen. Davis, in negotiating the TRS bill.

Sen. Watson also supported the charter bill with the harmful district charter provision intact, despite the pleas of TCTA and others who made clear to him that this was a critical issue.

Rep. Sylvester Turner

There is no doubt that Rep. Turner is a great champion for public education. As vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, he never missed a chance to pester fellow committee members and other representatives about the need to restore funding for public education.

His eloquence and zeal, as well as the respect afforded him by fellow legislators, made it possible for him to drive home this issue without creating a backlash from legislators who would have not put up with this level of persistence from any other legislator. His efforts were critical in goading the Legislature to restore as much funding for public education as it did.

There is not much negative to say about Rep. Turner, except to note that he co-sponsored a bill that would have created so-called “families first” schools that would have eliminated statutory employee rights and benefits in a manner similar to home-rule school districts.

When TCTA talked to him about the bill, he indicated that the bill was not going anywhere, but his endorsement of such a bad proposal led other traditionally pro-teacher educators to sign off on this particularly bad bill. Fortunately, he and the other teacher advocates eventually took their names off as co-sponsors, and the bill did not pass.

True friends

These legislators listened to TCTA and others and opposed SB 2:

  • Rep. Alma Allen was the House sponsor for the TCTA bill providing for educator and public input for major curriculum initiatives (SB 1474), and she was an active advocate for teachers on the House Public Education Committee.
  • Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, as chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, marshaled efforts to restore education funding and headed up the research arm of MALC in order to kill bad legislation.
  • Reps. Abel Herrero and Armando Walle raised points of order researched by MALC, successfully stopping harmful achievement school district legislation. Walle also authored an amendment to the TRS bill that would have protected nearly all current active members from the changes to TRS pension and retiree health benefits.
  • Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon authored a TCTA-initiated bill that would have restored teacher work days, and consistently sought out TCTA’s perspective on education issues.

Sometimes allies

These legislators assisted us by sponsoring legislation TCTA proposed, but they supported SB 2:

  • Sen. Eddie Lucio and Rep. Bennett Ratliff authored a TCTA-initiated bill that requires all teachers to receive copies of students’ behavioral intervention plans.
  • Rep. Dan Huberty authored two bills on behalf of TCTA. One gives school employees the right to be represented by teleconference in grievances. The other ensures that school employees’ Social Security numbers are kept confidential. The Senate sponsor for the Social Security bill was Sen. Bob Deuell.
  • Rep. Bill Callegari, chair of the House Pensions Committee, worked closely with TCTA on the TRS legislation, and authored a comprehensive bill reducing standardized testing with significant TCTA input.
  • Other TCTA bill sponsors in this category include Rep. Lance Gooden and Rep. Richard Raymond.

Election season is ahead

The 2013-14 school year will be prime campaign season for the 2014 elections. Candidates must file for office by December 2013, and the primary elections are scheduled for March 2014. (Note that, as in 2012, legal actions on redistricting issues could result in rescheduling of the filing deadline and/or primary elections.)

The 2014 elections will include the race for governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide offices, half of the Texas Senate, and the entire Texas House.

TCTA will again produce a printed voter guide and update our TexasTeachersVote.org website to give our members a comprehensive picture of how legislators voted on education issues in the 2013 session, as well as responses to a candidate survey and other useful voter information.

See also:

Conflicts of the 2013 legislative session

What changes to TRS retirement and health insurance resulted from the 2013 Legislature?

House Bill 5 changes testing, accountability and graduation requirements