The Classroom Teacher, summer 2015

All the education groups in Texas knew it was going to be a tough session when a change in Senate rules eliminated the ability of Senate Democrats to block legislation – a crucial weapon in previous sessions. The change meant that just about every bill that created a private school voucher, privatized more public schools or took away school employee rights had a very good chance of passing the Senate, and many of them did. 

TCTA and other public education advocates had to fight hard to fend off these harmful proposals, most of which were successfully defeated thanks in large part to House leaders. And with the help of some of our friends, TCTA was able to successfully pass legislation that will help educators and the students they teach. 

Virtually all candidates for office position themselves as friends of public education while campaigning. The following list of Legislative Stars highlights the efforts of a select number of legislators who followed through on their promises.

Sen. José Menéndez

Sen. Menéndez is not only a Star, he was selected as TCTA’s Public Official Friend of Education for 2015 due to his efforts on behalf of teachers. He filed a bill calling for a $4,000 pay increase for teachers and even managed to get a hearing for the bill, quite an accomplishment for a “newbie” Democrat in the extremely fiscally-conservative Senate. 

Even though he was a freshman senator, he used his years of experience in the Texas House to hit the ground running and tried to amend one of the worst bills of the session by removing the provisions that would have eliminated the state minimum salary schedule. He was also one of the few senators to vote against the bill when his amendment failed. (Fortunately, the bill died in the House.) 

He filed legislation to reduced standardized testing in grades three through eight, and served as the Senate sponsor for a successful TCTA-initiated bill filed in the House by fellow Star, Rep. Joe Moody, to ensure that school employees can file police reports. He was a strong supporter of retired school employees, and spoke up in opposition to the bill that would have eliminated the ability of teachers to have their teacher association dues deducted from their paychecks. Sen. Menéndez has long been a champion for public education in the House, and he now brings that perspective to the Texas Senate.

Sen. John Whitmire

A former TCTA Friend of Education winner, Sen. Whitmire is also a perennial Legislative Star. Sen. Whitmire agreed to take language suggested by TCTA to replace his SB 107. As filed, the bill would have made any student discipline action discretionary, eliminating required removals for serious offenses. We went to him with our concerns and suggested alternative language that would accomplish his objective without jeopardizing the right of teachers to remove disruptive students. The bill makes very clear that school districts must take into account a student’s intent and any mitigating factors or defenses when placing a student in a disciplinary alternative education placement or expelling a student. Even more importantly, he agreed to incorporate TCTA’s suggestion of having a campus behavior coordinator (CBC) for every campus. For more on SB 107, click here.

The new law should ensure that teachers get help with seriously disruptive students while also achieving Sen. Whitmire’s goal of reducing the number of long-term removals to disciplinary settings. We call that a win-win, and believe that no one other than Sen. Whitmire could have gotten this bill through the legislative process.

Sen. José Rodríguez

Sen. Rodríguez was a true asset to the Senate Education Committee, upon which he served for the first time this session. Well-armed with facts and reasoned questions, Sen. Rodríguez rarely missed an opportunity to point out the fallacies of the reform proposals that were before the committee or on the Senate floor. He was also skilled at working within the political system, frequently getting his suggested language added to harmful bills in an attempt to mitigate the damage. He made a practice of regularly consulting with educator groups regarding bills coming before the committee and responded accordingly to concerns raised by TCTA and others.  

One example involved a bill that the senator filed on behalf of the Texas Education Agency regarding TEA monitoring and investigation of school districts. At TCTA’s request, Sen. Rodríguez added language to the bill to require that in the course of monitoring reviews of school districts, TEA must get information from teachers and other school employees in a manner that prevents a school district from screening that information, as well as providing for TEA to conduct random, on-site visits.  

He also filed several bills brought to him by TCTA, including one eliminating the ability of charter schools to refuse to enroll students with disciplinary histories. Another, SB 1259, that passed and was signed by the governor, strengthened the role of regular education teachers of special education students (click here for more details). In short, Senator Rodríguez was a “renaissance” legislator of sorts, able to skillfully engage in multiple facets of the legislative process with a high degree of success, and public education truly benefited from his efforts.

Rep. Joe Moody

Rep. Moody is one of the few legislators who consistently voted with public school educators, even on issues such as “innovation zones” that could harm employee rights but were supported by administrator and school district groups. The same cannot be said of all public education supporters. In fact, on those issues where administrator and teacher groups differ, the number of legislators who consistently sided with the teachers is very small. 

Due to his consistent support of educators and his background as a prosecutor, TCTA asked Rep. Moody to file a bill to make it very clear that school employees are able to file criminal charges with any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction at the school. We had found that some administrators directed teachers not to report alleged crimes such as assaults or terroristic threats by students. The bill Rep. Moody filed adds a statute to the Penal Code to make clear that a school employee (including a charter school employee) can file criminal charges with any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction (read more). This bill should make schools safer for both students and teachers.

Rep. Alma Allen

Rep. Allen, a former teacher, principal and member of the State Board of Education, knows a thing or two about public education, so when proposals are made to evaluate teachers based on student test scores or eliminate the state minimum salary schedule, she is able to give her expert opinion on the matter to the other members of the House Public Education Committee, on which she serves. While many of the harmful proposals during the session did not make it out of the House committee, many of them did get a hearing, so it was most refreshing to public education advocates to hear Representative Allen’s ardent and consistent support of public education and her pronounced skepticism for many of the “reform” proposals being pushed. She was the House sponsor of the bill filed by Sen. Rodríguez at TCTA’s request that will improve input by teachers for students with special needs.

Rep. Armando Walle

Rep. Walle is one of the more consistent friends that teachers have in the Texas House. Not only is he a completely reliable vote on teacher and public education issues, but he often goes above and beyond, always willing to stand at the back mic on the House floor to argue against a potentially harmful proposal. And when logic doesn’t work, he’s handy with a point of order. 

In 2013, Walle (described as a “true friend” in our legislative writeup that year) filed a bill that would ensure the right of all public employees to pump breastmilk at the workplace. TCTA had gotten legislation filed in 2011 to accomplish something similar, though our version was limited to public school employees. We contacted Walle’s office early in that 2013 session to let him know of our support, and he continued to work with us throughout that session, shepherding the bill through the House before it stalled in the Senate.

Walle consulted with TCTA again in 2015 when he re-filed his bill. TCTA worked a multi-pronged approach this time, strategizing frequently with Walle’s office on HB 786 while also pursuing our SB 1479, which was limited to public school employees. Walle’s success in passing his more comprehensive bill through a legislature that resists regulation was quite a feat, and breastfeeding moms and their babies will be better off for his efforts.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Rep. Rodriguez is a long-time teacher supporter who is not a member of the House Public Education Committee – but we sure hope he will be someday. His position on the powerful Calendars Committee was invaluable, though, as he was able to help stall some of the bad bills that came over from the Senate. He worked closely with TCTA on HB 1842, helping us distribute information on the House floor and talking to the bill sponsor, the House parliamentarian, and others to try to keep the harmful “innovation district” concept out of the bill. And of course he was a reliable pro-teacher vote throughout the session. We could use a few more just like him!

Honorable Mention

House Speaker Joe Straus must be commended for presiding over the often-contentious lower chamber with a fair hand. Under his leadership, the House rejected the majority of bad education bills that had passed so easily in the Senate.

House Appropriations Chair John Otto led the budget committee that proposed $3 billion in new state funding for schools. Though the amount was whittled down considerably in the final negotiations, that opening salvo reflected the House’s support for public education.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia sponsored TCTA’s bill to ensure educators’ right to break time and a private area for pumping breast milk. As a member of the Senate Education Committee she never hesitated to challenge her colleagues and witnesses when harmful reform bills were discussed.

Rep. Mary González, a new addition to the House Public Education Committee, filed more than two dozen pro-education bills, far more than the norm even for the most active public education supporters, and served as a great advocate for teachers and students on the committee. 

Rep. Jim Keffer, a key Straus lieutenant, may have been the individual most responsible for the defeat of HB 1798. His vocal opposition to the bill, noting that it could put far too much power in the hands of people “who may not even like public education,” was spot on and helped garner the bipartisan opposition that killed the bill.  

Rep. Larry Phillips, a former TCTA Friend of Education, spoke on behalf of public schools on the bill that would impose A-F accountability ratings on campuses. During his rousing speech in support of an amendment that would have removed the A-F provision from the bill, he asked his colleagues to bring sanity and common sense back into the system, ending with a fervent “Support public schools!”

Great staff work

Special thanks go out to the staff of the legislators mentioned in this article. TCTA also appreciates the following legislative offices, staffed with individuals who were extremely helpful and responsive to TCTA throughout the session.

  • Rep. Dan Huberty 
  • Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock 
  • Sen. Kirk Watson 
  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
  • Rep. Gary VanDeaver 
  • Rep. Marsha Farney 
  • Sen. Van Taylor

Special thanks to TCTA’s bill sponsors

In addition to others listed in this article, the following legislators agreed to file bills on TCTA’s behalf:

  • Sen. Judith Zaffirini was Senate sponsor for HB 786, the bill authored by Rep. Walle and signed into law that assures all public employees the right to express breast milk in the workplace.
  • Rep. Dan Huberty filed HB 929, which would have made clear that informal short-term removals of a student from the classroom for disciplinary reasons do not count as removals for purposes of state accountability or required reporting.
  • Rep. Dwayne Bohac filed HB 1604, which would have made any assault against a school employee a mandatory removal under Chapter 37. 
  • Rep. César Blanco filed HB 2482, which would have provided that state tests must be validated specifically for the purpose for which they are being used.
  • Rep. Dan Flynn, chair of the House Pensions Committee, passed a comprehensive TRS bill that included TCTA’s “fix” to a problematic benefits issue.
  • Sen. Joan Huffman, chair of the Senate State Affairs committee, was the Senate sponsor of the TRS bill that included the TCTA fix.
  • Rep. Joe Deshotel filed HB 3466 to help enforce the limits on benchmark testing.
  • Rep. Ken King included TCTA’s language that prohibits charter schools from rejecting students with a disciplinary history in his HB 3487.