This article appeared in the Winter 2016-17 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Those of us who are involved in Texas politics can often predict the starting point of a legislative session with some accuracy, but the trajectory and the endpoint are always much trickier.

For example, we know that “school choice” (some type of private school voucher plan) is a top priority of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and that a bill will be filed to accomplish this. We can be pretty certain that this session’s version of vouchers will be the “Education Savings Account” — in which public funds are deposited into parent accounts and can be used for public education, private school tuition, home-schooling curricula, etc. — and that the bill will pass out of the Senate.

But — will a voucher/ESA bill be seriously considered in the House, which has been firm in its resolve against voucher programs in the past? Will House members reject any and all efforts to direct public education dollars to private schools (and potentially home-schoolers as well), or will there be a willingness to bring a pilot program, or a plan limited to special needs or low-income students, to the House floor? (Gov. Greg Abbott has weighed in by suggesting that school choice may be a solution to special education concerns.) Will Patrick hold the state budget hostage in return for House passage of vouchers, and will the House be swayed by that approach, or will it result in logjams and potentially a special session or two? 

Private school choice is only one of many education issues that will be a big part of the 2017 legislative session. But it is not the only issue that will highlight the differences between House and Senate goals for the next five months.

“The budget will be tight”

Most pre-session meetings and conferences have begun with this warning. Oil prices, a key factor in the state’s revenue forecast, have remained at relatively low levels compared to 2014 prices. Some recent changes in OPEC policies have created instability in the industry, and no one can be sure what the price of oil might look like by the end of the legislative session in May, when the state comptroller must certify that projected revenues are sufficient to cover the Legislature’s two-year budget.

In large part because of the decreasing oil and gas tax revenue, the comptroller lowered revenue projections after the 2015 legislative session, and will present lawmakers with a current estimate of available revenue in January. What keeps the budget picture from being worse is that Texas has diversified its economy and is no longer as reliant on that source of income. Still, the largest source of revenue — sales tax — has also underperformed in 2016. 

Make no mistake, though — money is available to cover a variety of needs, if there is the legislative will to do so: the Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund currently exceeds $10 billion. But at this time no one is proposing that these funds be used. Instead, not only are policymakers likely to stay within the restrictions of their constitutional spending limit and leave the Rainy Day Fund intact, but the Senate will be taking up proposals to actually decrease income by lowering property and business tax rates. Speaker Joe Straus (expected to be re-elected to that position by his colleagues when the session convenes) has not indicated that this will be a priority for the House. Such proposals would affect the overall budget, and would negatively impact public education funding in particular.

School finance

Though legislators have restored a healthy portion of the severe (and ultimately unnecessary) 2011 budget cuts, many districts have still not been made whole, and the complicated school finance system is in need of an overhaul. Without an accompanying influx of state funds, changes in how the money is distributed will create winners and losers, and lawmakers representing losers will be very reluctant to vote for a revised school finance system.

The Texas Supreme Court ruling last summer declined to find the Texas system unconstitutional, but called it “Byzantine” and “undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement.” Texas House leaders have demonstrated a desire and willingness to tackle school finance in the 2017 session, but there has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the Senate. 

We can expect the Legislature to at least cover the costs of increasing student enrollment, but raising per-pupil spending will be an uphill battle.

Health insurance

In addition to the necessity of general education funding increases, the active and retired employee health insurance plans are both in critical need of infusions of state money. TRS-Care, the retiree plan, will be insolvent after the current budget cycle unless the state takes action, either by increasing funding or decreasing benefits. Last session, lawmakers pumped in an additional $768 million to shore up the fund, with the knowledge that more would be needed in 2017. The current projection (which has improved since the original predictions) is that an additional $1 billion is necessary to keep TRS-Care in operation for another two years. As the size of the needed “Band-Aid” gets bigger each session, legislators have become increasingly unwilling to simply approve funding increases without also finding ways to change the structure or cut costs to lessen the need for future supplemental payments. For the first time in many years, we may well see an effort that involves increasing the premiums paid by retirees.

Health insurance for active members is less problematic for the state, because the state’s costs per employee are fixed at $75 per month. This, of course, is very problematic for employees who have been bearing the burden of cost increases since the current health insurance program began in the early 2000s. Some districts have increased their contributions toward employee premiums, but few if any have actually kept up with the rising premium rates. Many employees report that their take-home pay is decreasing from year to year because of the increases in insurance premiums. 

In an effort to control costs for those enrolled in TRS-ActiveCare (which covers most districts, though several larger ones offer a local plan instead), TRS has increased deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, and even eliminated plans entirely. The premium costs remain high, however, so that now employees are paying higher premiums for lower-benefit plans. Since the state is paying far less than other employers typically do for employee health insurance, according to a comprehensive national study, the first action taken should be an increase in the $75 monthly contribution, and TCTA has been consistently promoting that approach to legislators.

A joint House-Senate committee considered both the active and retiree plans and made recommendations for potential fixes. With a self-imposed prohibition on any options that included more state money, the recommendations were limited to benefit decreases and structural changes.

For TRS-Care, the focus was on non-Medicare eligible retirees (typically those under age 65) because these retirees are considerably more expensive to the plan. The committee proposed two options: either limiting the non-Medicare retirees to a high deductible plan (essentially catastrophic coverage similar to TRS-Care 1), or providing them with a $400 monthly stipend that they would use to purchase their own coverage on the public or private market.

The only ActiveCare solution proposed was that TRS should provide only a single, catastrophic plan similar to TRS-Care 1-HD, eliminating ActiveCare 2, ActiveCare Select, and the HMOs.

Districts  of Innovation

When the 84th Legislature passed HB 1842 in 2015, TCTA warned that this was the worst education bill to come along in years. We believed most districts would see the opportunity to exempt themselves from major portions of the Education Code in the name of “innovation” as a chance to avoid annoying or expensive state mandates, rather than create truly innovative education programs. 

Our concerns have been well-founded. The dozens of Districts of Innovation (DOIs) that have been formed to date tend to use boilerplate language to take exemptions from some of the more important education laws on the books, including teacher certification and class size requirements. And the most popular exemption lets districts start school earlier than the third Monday in August, which is hardly a path to innovative education.

Some members of the Senate Education Committee echoed that sentiment at a fall 2016 meeting, and seemed surprised to hear how the DOI option was being used. The school start date exemption was particularly problematic for some senators, particularly those who represent areas with a tourism industry that relies on the current uniform start date structure for schedules and budgeting. Many school districts like having the ability to make their own rules, though, and any changes will be met with resistance from school board and administrator associations, as well as legislators who favor school deregulation. TCTA has several ideas to help mitigate some of the potential damage from DOI exemptions and ensure that district operations remain transparent and beneficial to students, parents and teachers; and we are pursuing legislation to those ends. (See the story on page 10 for more DOI-related concerns.)

Interim issues – educator misconduct and special education

Two issues that became hot topics during the interim will definitely be part of the legislative agenda, and bills addressing these subjects were proposed early in the bill-filing period.

Reports of inappropriate teacher-student relationships continue to grow and always receive considerable media interest. This proliferation appears to be blamed in part on social media, which may be one area of focus for policymakers. At least two bills filed so far (HB 218, SB 7) require districts to develop social media policies to help curb the problem. The other major concern addressed in early legislation is the propensity of some administrators to fail to report suspected misconduct, or to allow educators accused of misbehavior to move on to another district without informing the receiving district of any allegations. And at least four bills (HB 49, HB 218, HB 333, SB 7) expand the current law to make a relationship between any teacher and any student in the state illegal (current law does not prohibit a relationship between a teacher and a student of legal age in a different district). TCTA is working closely with legislators to protect teacher rights while also being proactive in addressing the rising numbers of reported incidents.

Special education in Texas schools became a subject of great interest in the fall of 2016 when a Houston Chronicle investigative report emerged suggesting that state policies were prohibiting many Texas students from receiving needed educational services. The Texas Education Agency set a benchmark for students receiving special education services of 8.5 percent (the national average is 13 percent); higher levels triggered a monitoring visit to the district. The Chronicle report found that tens of thousands of students with special needs were not being referred, and that students with mental illness were disproportionately affected. SB 214 was filed in November, prohibiting the agency or commissioner of education from adopting a performance indicator that evaluates the number or percentage of students who receive special education services.

Student discipline

Student discipline is always a topic for discussion and action by the Legislature. In addition to the perennial attempts to ban corporal punishment, we anticipate legislation that would prohibit out-of-class suspensions for elementary school students. 

Incoming first lady Melania Trump’s planned focus on cyberbullying may bring additional weight to bear on a number of bills that have been filed for the upcoming session. Sen. Jose Menendez and Rep. Ina Minjarez have filed bills to more precisely define the terms “bullying” and “cyberbullying” and increase the consequences for students found to have engaged in such behaviors (and, in some cases, their parents as well). 

Controversy

Among the most controversial education-related issues we expect to see this session:

Transgender bathrooms. While Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made the issue one of his top priorities for this session, House Speaker Joe Straus has been less enthusiastic about taking it on. Many Texas business leaders have warned Patrick that they would oppose a state law to direct what restrooms transgender individuals should use, basing their concern on the experience of North Carolina after passage of a similar law. That state has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in canceled sports events and conferences. It was a set of guidelines from the Fort Worth ISD that drew Patrick’s wrath months ago and appeared to put this issue near the top of his priority list — and there has been talk of limiting the legislation to schools and excluding businesses. The issues may be resolved through the legal system, as the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up a related case, but that would not preclude Patrick from pursuing legislation in the meantime.

Full disclosure to parents. On a related note, the Fort Worth ISD guidelines for transgender students also prompted the filing by Sen. Konni Burton of SB 242, which requires that parents have access to “full information regarding the school activities of the parent’s child and disclosure of any general knowledge regarding the parent’s child possessed by an employee of a school district….” Some critics are concerned that this could require teachers to, for example, notify a parent of a child’s sexual orientation against the student’s will. 

Reducing vaccination exemptions. Media reports have noted increasing numbers of vaccination exemptions in Texas schools, often concentrated in certain areas, and corresponding increases in the numbers of children contracting some of the diseases targeted by those vaccinations, such as pertussis/whooping cough. Austin ISD has nearly 1,600 unvaccinated students in its schools — 2.02 percent of its enrollment, which is well over double the state average exemption rate; and some nearby districts have exemption rates of more than 3 percent. Some of the bills filed so far would require parents to complete an educational module regarding vaccinations, or undergo health care counseling, when requesting a non-medical exemption for their child(ren). We also anticipate efforts to tighten up the reasons for which exemptions can be granted. But there have been very strong lobbying efforts by groups opposed to further restrictions on vaccination exemptions, so any legislative action will be hard-fought.

Payroll deduction. Last session’s legislation to eliminate the option of payroll deduction of association dues (which would affect TCTA members and educators belonging to other teacher groups, as well as employee groups representing state, county and municipal employees), passed the Senate before stalling in the House, and legislation has already been filed this session to revive the proposal. Although bill supporters said it was designed to “get the government out of the business of collecting union dues,” opponents noted that certain groups were excluded: those representing law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency personnel. There will undoubtedly be another fierce battle over this legislation, which has been included in Patrick’s priority list.

With a list of education-related bills to monitor that will eventually exceed 800, TCTA will be working hard in the coming months to stay on top of the issues and keep our members informed. The TCTA website includes daily “Capitol Update” posts to help you stay in-the-know on bill filings, meetings, legislative action and more. These posts are compiled into our weekly eUpdates, so be sure you’re signed up to receive those via email (sign up here). And if a big bad bill — or even a really good one — that needs your attention has made it to a crucial stage in the process, we’ll send out Action Alerts so you can contact your legislators to let them know how you feel.