The Classroom Teacher, spring 2015

At the midway point of the session, the 84th Legislature had yet to develop a defining personality (though we’ve heard the term “elections have consequences” more than once, from both friend and foe). After a few rough votes in the Senate, “steamroller” comes to mind, with teachers losing a number of important battles in that chamber. But even as negative education proposals were gaining momentum, the Senate and House seemed to be functioning reasonably well, with only minor hiccups to date. As the session progresses we anticipate more significant bumps in the road – and can only hope that those bumps will hinder the progress of bad legislation.

For the most part, the education issues that are moving are ones TCTA had expected, but there are always a few surprises.

Due to the turnaround involved in printing and mailing a magazine, and the dynamic nature of a legislative session, it is very likely that some bills described here have evolved (for better or worse) and progressed since this article was written. Be sure to check the TCTA homepage and sign up for the emailed eUpdate for frequent and detailed information on the important bills and events of this session.
 

Funding and finance

The state budget is expected to include funding for public education adequate to pay for increased student enrollment, at a cost of around $2.3 billion. The House and Senate do not agree on further enhancements for schools.

The House initially proposed an additional $2.2 billion to school districts to be paid through the school finance formulas, then added $800 million more before the bill reached the House floor. For the first time, the gains to the state from increasing local property values would not be credited to general revenue, but would be plugged back into funding for public schools.

The Senate, however, is committed to providing tax breaks, including $3 billion in property tax reduction estimated to save the average taxpayer around $230 per year in property taxes, but leaders have also stated their intent to add $1.8 billion in new money to public schools. It must be noted, though, that $500 miIlion of that is projected to be used to hold districts harmless from property tax revenue reduction. 

Both chambers appear to agree on the need for $768 million to completely cover the projected shortfall in TRS-Care, the school retiree health insurance program. Lawmakers have also proposed some program changes for TRS-Care, but it remains to be seen whether such changes will have any traction. (See salary/benefits section below for more details.)

Although it was widely assumed that school finance reform would not be attempted until the Texas Supreme Court had ruled on the current lawsuit (leading to a possible special session in 2016, or a delay until the 2017 regular session), House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock surprised observers in late March by announcing that he intended to address school finance in the current session. Surrounded by other key House leaders, Aycock did not present details of the plan, but committed to the additional $800 million noted earlier. Addressing school finance is notable, not only for general reasons of equity and adequacy of school funding, but also as an opportunity to consider major expenditures such as teacher salaries and health insurance. Lawmakers undoubtedly hope that passing school finance reform now could bring an end to the litigation.

Salaries/retirement/health insurance

Prior to the beginning of the session we did not anticipate that teacher salaries would be a hot topic. Early warning came in the form of a discussion with House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock at our Capitol Visit in February, when he informed our volunteer lobbyists that there was substantial interest in eliminating the teacher minimum salary schedule. Subsequently, bills were filed to do that, and much more. (See discussion of SB 893 in “Reform” section.)

There have been very occasional mentions of a teacher pay raise, but no viable proposals so far. The late start to the school finance discussion in the House has meant that details are scarce, but it’s possible that salaries will become part of that discussion; TCTA will be working hard to ensure that this is the case. At this point, simply holding on to the existing minimum salary is a priority. 

Another area that requires attention, but that is barely being discussed by legislators, is the need for active employees to receive help with their health insurance premiums. Lawmakers understand that premiums are becoming increasingly unaffordable, but the large number of school employees creates a very high cost to providing any kind of meaningful relief. This topic, though, could also become part of the school finance debate.

There was better news for school retirees, who entered the session with their health insurance plan facing total insolvency within a year. A TRS study had proposed a variety of non-monetary fixes designed to control costs, some limiting access to the richer levels of coverage to retirees under age 65 (who are the most expensive to insure because they are not eligible for Medicare). But the House declared early in the session that its version of the budget would tackle the problem by paying for the shortfall, to the tune of $768 million. The Senate later agreed, but in addition to simply funding the shortfall, Senate State Affairs Chair Joan Huffman also hopes to address cost control measures. A proposal by Huffman would attempt to reduce rising costs by: (1) requiring eligible retirees to participate in a Medicare Advantage plan and Medicare Part D; (2) directing retirees under age 65 who wish to enroll in a level of coverage beyond the basic catastrophic plan into an Accountable Care Organization (a more limited provider network in urban areas with no out-of-network benefits); and (3) switching return-to-work retirees out of TRS-Care and back to active employee health insurance.

Reform

The Senate took the lead on the harmful reform bills that TCTA has been battling since 2013. These include proposals to implement a form of private school vouchers, expand the current parent trigger law, create opportunity school districts and innovation zones that are exempt from most state laws, eliminate the state minimum salary schedule for teachers, and give the commissioner of education unprecedented authority over teacher appraisals and compensation. The bills listed below all originated in the Senate, but most have a companion in the House, some of which have also begun moving through the process.​

Restructure of teacher salaries and appraisals 

SB 893 eliminates the state minimum salary schedule for teachers (leaving it in place for nurses, counselors and librarians) and replaces it with a single minimum salary of $27,540 that would apply to all teachers. Districts could consider guidelines from the commissioner, which must include a student standardized test score component, in determining salary levels above the minimum. Most of the bill’s original draconian provisions that would have given the commissioner of education unprecedented authority over local decisions about teacher salaries and appraisals were eliminated, directly due to TCTA’s opposition and involvement. However, a provision eliminating the current law that allows less-than-annual appraisals for proficient teachers remained in the bill as it passed the Senate, as did the repeal of the teacher salary schedule.

Vouchers 

Lawmakers took the tax credit approach to vouchers this session, and the Senate was quick to advance its proposal. SB 4 would provide corporations with a credit against their franchise tax for funding scholarships to private schools. The bill would allow up to a $100 million per year total statewide reduction in franchise taxes for the program. Eligible students would be entering kindergarten or first grade, or be in foster or institutional care, or have a household income no more than 150 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch benchmark.

Expanded opportunities to exempt campuses from key education laws

Parent triggerSB 14 reduces the length of time that a district must be rated unacceptable before the parents at a campus can petition for the commissioner to take action from the current five years to three years. The commissioner must order the option chosen by the parents, which may be reconstitution or repurposing of the campus, alternative management or closure. As with many of the onerous reform bills, it expands opportunities for campuses to operate free of current laws that protect teachers, students and parents.

Opportunity school districtSB 669 creates the Texas Opportunity School District (or OSD - modeled after Louisiana’s post-Katrina school system), a statewide district comprising individual low-performing campuses placed under the authority of an OSD superintendent selected by the commissioner. The OSD can contract with charter providers to manage schools, and only the laws that apply to charter schools would apply to the OSD campuses. This eliminates teacher rights and benefits (except for TRS participation) and other key protections of the Education Code.

Innovation zones (this may eventually be blended with the OSD concept above) – SB 1241 provides additional flexibility (freedom from teacher rights and benefits and other protections of the Education Code) to schools or groups of schools upon a vote by the school board, subject to the approval of the commissioner.

Testing/accountability changes

Several bills were filed that would decrease the number of state standardized tests. After last session’s focus on high school tests, the emphasis in 2015 is on grades three through eight. A common approach is to eliminate the tests that Texas requires that are beyond those mandated by the federal government: the 4th and 7th grade writing and 8th grade social studies STAAR exams, and the high school history end-of-course exam. To go any farther would require a successful request for a waiver from the federal government, which is considered unlikely.

Other bills would leave the current tests intact but address how they are used. For example, under SB 149, an individual graduation committee could allow a student to graduate upon a review of the student’s record even if the student did not pass all of the required end-of-course exams. (SB 149 has already passed the Senate and was the first Senate bill to be heard in the House Public Education Committee.) Another bill would allow successful completion of a dual credit course to substitute for an end-of-course exam.

Another change to the accountability system would be implementation of A through F accountability ratings at the district level. HB 5 in 2013 imposed A-F ratings for districts beginning next year, and under SB 6, campuses would use the system beginning with the 2017-18 school year. This concept, pushed by Texans for Education Reform and other education reform groups, has been adopted in other states with poor outcomes and TCTA has strongly opposed the bill. The concern about this method of rating both districts and campuses is the lack of nuance in a single letter grade (though an amendment requiring a grade for each one of four criteria helps mitigate this concern), and the punitive nature of even an average (“C”) performance rating.

Pre-kindergarten expansion

Gov. Greg Abbott made early childhood/pre-K a priority, declaring it an emergency item in his February State of the State address. He said, “To begin the process of building a better education system in Texas, we must improve early education….Our children and their future have no time for delay.” The House – with several members having studied the subject in the months leading up to the session -  got off to quick start with an early hearing  devoted to pre-kindergarten legislation, and passage of HB 4 out of the full chamber on April 9.

HB 4 allows districts to opt in to a “high-quality” pre-kindergarten program to receive additional funding. Criteria include meeting pre-K standards established by the Texas Education Agency, and ensuring that pre-K teachers are certified and have or obtain a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential. The district must also implement a parent engagement plan. At least $130 million has been committed, but in April, lawmakers began talking about a more significant infusion of funds. Many supporters of early childhood legislation would like to see the program expanded to full-day kindergarten, and/or expanded to include more children.

There have been rumors that the Senate – at Lt. Governor Patrick’s direction – will not pass a pre-K bill until the House passes some form of a voucher bill.

TCTA bills and proposals

TCTA has a long history of not only supporting and opposing bills, but proactively suggesting teacher-friendly legislation. Below are the TCTA-initiated bills filed this session:

HOUSE BILLS

HB 929 by Rep. Dan Huberty provides that a teacher’s discretionary disciplinary removal of a student is not considered a removal for purposes of any required state or federal reporting or data submissions. The intent of this change is to avoid any pressure on teachers to not refer disruptive students out of the classroom.

HB 1604  by Rep. Dwayne Bohac adds any assault (including a threat) on a school employee as a basis for mandatory removal.

HB 1783 by Rep. Joe Moody prohibits any school administrator from directing an employee not to report a crime at a school or school-sponsored event, clarifies that a teacher has an absolute right to report a crime to any peace officer with jurisdiction, and ensures that these provisions apply to charter school educators.

HB 2482 by Rep. Cesar Blanco requires that statewide assessment instruments only be used for purposes for which they have been validated.

HB 3466 by Rep. Joe Deshotel revises the limitation on benchmark assessment to provide that the definition of benchmark assessment instrument includes a test to prepare students for “any part of” a corresponding state test. This is intended to prevent current practices by which some districts are getting around the limitations.

HB 3487 by Rep. Ken King revises current charter school laws; it includes a TCTA provision to delete current law that allows charter schools to exclude students with a documented criminal history, juvenile court adjudication or certain discipline problems.

HB 3991 by Rep. Alma Allen and SB 1259 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez require that the regular education teacher who serves on an ARD committee be a regular education teacher who is responsible for implementing a portion of the student’s IEP. The bills also require that all members of the ARD committee (not just parents) can note their disagreement with ARD committee decisions in the ARD committee written report, and ensure that a teacher who instructs a special education student has an opportunity to provide input into the student’s IEP.  

SB 692 by Sen. Rodriguez is a stand-alone bill that would eliminate the ability of charter schools to refuse to enroll students with a disciplinary history.

SB 1479 by Sen. Sylvia Garcia requires school districts to provide reasonable break time, and a room (other than a restroom) close to the educator’s work area, to an employee to express breast milk for a child under age one. TCTA is also working very closely with Rep. Armando Walle on his HB 786, which is similar legislation that applies to all public employees; that bill passed out of the House Business and Industry Committee in March.

TCTA is also working with Sen. John Whitmire on major student discipline legislation that has been incorporated into one of his bills, SB 107.

See also:

Updates From the Capitol