This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

We called it. Our pre-session article (in the winter 2017 edition of The Classroom Teacher) focused on the deep divide between the House and the Senate on a number of issues going into this session. And while not all issues have been affected by this schism, throughout the first half of the 85th Legislature nothing has been a bigger factor in the dynamics of this session.

Budget

Both the House and Senate have passed their versions of Senate Bill 1, the state budget. The next step is the negotiation of a final budget through a conference committee comprising five House and five Senate members.

Several key points of contention must be worked out between the House and Senate, some of which directly relate
to public education:

  • The Senate budget relies on a fiscal maneuver that delays a $2.5 billion payment into the following biennium. The House budget withdraws $2.5 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund (also known as the Rainy Day Fund). Some observers believe this difference in approaches could be unresolvable within the regular session, and could lead to a special session to adopt a budget.
  • The House budget for public schools funds enrollment growth ($2.6 billion), includes more money to comply with current funding formulas ($1 billion), and includes an additional $1.5 billion, contingent on passage of school finance reform legislation. The Senate funds enrollment growth and the additional $1 billion in required funding, but does not add the $1.5 billion proposed in the House bill. 
  • Both the House and Senate have eliminated Gov. Greg Abbott’s high quality prekindergarten grant program, which was passed by the Legislature last session. Instead, the House proposes to distribute the funding as “supplemental” pre-K funding which would go to all districts that offer pre-K. The Senate would eliminate supplemental pre-K funding (while still funding half-day pre-K based on current law) and create a $40 million “Public-Private Partnerships Program.”
  • The House includes an additional $500 million to help address the TRS-Care shortfall, and requires an increase in district contributions that totals another $134 million. The Senate budget adds $290 million for TRS-Care. Both the House and Senate are considering legislation designed to bring down the costs of retiree health insurance by limiting the benefits available to — and increasing costs on — retirees under age 65. (See more details here.)

Vouchers

SB 3 by Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that includes components of both education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships as a means of providing public dollars to allow students to attend nonpublic schools, passed the Senate on March 30, and at print time had not been referred to a House committee. The bill is not expected to move in the House — Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty has said the bill is “dead, dead, dead” in the House, citing the lack of accountability for private schools receiving public funds as his chief concern. In early April, during consideration of the budget, the House adopted an amendment prohibiting state expenditures on voucher programs on a 103-44 vote.

Payroll deduction

After moving quickly through the Senate State Affairs Committee, SB 13 (another Patrick priority) by Sen. Joan Huffman, chair of the Senate State Affairs Committee, may have stalled, at least temporarily. SB 13 would prohibit public employers (including school districts) from providing payroll deduction as a means of paying dues to a professional association (such as TCTA) or union. An exception is made for fire, police and emergency services employees. The bill passed the Senate on a partisan 20-11 vote on March 30, but it has not been referred to a House committee. Its fate in the House is uncertain, as conservative groups lambasted several House leaders after a similar bill died in that chamber last session.

School finance

HB 21 is a school finance reform bill filed by Huberty, and while it does not make transformative changes in the current system, it is an important bill because the $1.5 billion that the House proposes to pass is dependent on its passage (or that of similar legislation). Among the major issues in the bill is transition language to help poorer districts that are slated to lose a key source of funding (Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction, or ASATR) left over from the last school finance revamp. Some districts have said they would be forced to close if the ASATR funding goes away. 

Health insurance

Retiree health insurance / TRS-Care

TRS-Care is projected to be insolvent within months after the session ends unless some action is taken by this legislature. SB 788 by Huffman would put into law the recommendation of an interim legislative committee formed to consider solutions. Under the bill, retirees of at least age 65 would be enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan, with Medicare Part D for prescription drugs (the current levels 1-3 of TRS-Care would be eliminated). Retirees under age 65 would face the more severe consequences. That group is targeted because pre-65 retirees are not yet eligible for Medicare, and are thus much more expensive to the system. These retirees would also have access to only one level of coverage, which would be a high deductible plan with a high premium (under the Senate funding plan, the deductible would be $4,000 with an estimated $430/month premium). 

TCTA opposed the bill in the Senate because of the harmful consequences both for pre-65 individuals already retired and for those preparing to do so. We are working with the House on a more favorable resolution with better funding, since it is crucial that a bill pass to ensure the continuation of TRS-Care. HB 3976 by Trent Ashby includes the same basic structure as SB 788, but the House level of funding improves the bill’s numbers.

(For more details on TRS-Care reform, click here.)

Active member health insurance / ActiveCare

Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate proposed additional funding to help active teachers with their health insurance costs. SB 789, also by Huffman, has been filed with the intention of bringing down plan costs in ActiveCare, but it relies on a similar structure as SB 788 (the TRS-Care bill mentioned above) and limits the plan to only a single, high-deductible plan. SB 789 has not been scheduled for a hearing. 

Rep. Lance Gooden and Sen. José Menéndez have filed legislation (HB 3291/SB 1795) that would phase in increased state contributions toward active employee health and require that TRS offer a plan at least as comprehensive as the current ActiveCare 2 plan. Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, and the legislation will not pass unless budget writers agree to funding and include it in the appropriations bill.

Educator misconduct

SB 7 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt passed the Senate on March 8 and passed out of the House Public Education Committee in April in a substantially similar form. As it passed the Senate, the bill targets administrators who do not report teachers involved in inappropriate relationships. The House version removed a provision that would have revoked pensions for employees convicted of misconduct involving a student. SB 7 also expands current prohibitions to include relationships with any student, not only a student in the same district as the teacher.

It includes provisions suggested by TCTA that help preserve teacher rights while still protecting students, including a requirement that districts adopt an electronic communication policy that allows teachers to opt out of disclosing their personal phone number or email address to students.

Teacher retirement

TCTA is not expecting major changes in teacher retirement benefits this session, but many educators are concerned about legislation filed by Bettencourt that could lead toward revamping TRS and eliminating the current defined benefit structure. SB 1750 would require the State Pension Review Board to conduct a study addressing the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of switching to a hybrid — part traditional pension, part 401(k) — retirement plan for newly-hired state employees and teachers. SB 1751 would give TRS the authority to create an alternate retirement plan (defined contribution/401(k)-style or a hybrid) for newly hired employees. At this time, neither bill has been scheduled for a committee hearing. While we do not believe there is sufficient support in the Legislature to pass a bill that could restructure TRS in this way, it is possible that lawmakers will require a study on the issue.

Accountability

The House Public Education Committee has passed a bill, HB 22 by Huberty, that includes significant changes to the current accountability system, primarily by delaying full
implementation of the controversial A-F ratings to the 2019-20 school year. The bill also includes a school climate survey and other non-test-based factors in the accountability measures, a concept that TCTA has advocated for many years.

Special education

Special education issues have received extra attention, in part due to some media reports arising prior to the session (such as the excellent series by TCTA Silver Apple winner
Brian M. Rosenthal). Among the bills that have begun moving:

  • SB 160 by Sen. José Rodríguez would prohibit TEA from evaluating districts based on their special education enrollment figures — a response to the 8.5 percent benchmark previously established by TEA.
  • SB 1398 by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. addresses unintended consequences of last session’s bill that allows parents and others to request video surveillance of self-contained
  • special education classrooms. The bill clarifies that a request only covers the specifically designated classroom (the new law had been interpreted to mean that all self-contained special education classrooms in the district must be included when a request was made) and specifies that a request is applicable for a school year and must be renewed in order to continue into the following year.
  • HB 2209 by Rep. Mary González is designed to improve training for teachers and teacher candidates regarding instruction for students with disabilities.
  • SB 1153 by Ménéndez addresses assertions by many teachers and parents that districts have used Response to Intervention procedures to delay providing special education evaluations and services to students. It enhances parent rights and notifications regarding intervention strategies being used with students.

Bathrooms

Though probably not a pressing issue for most teachers, SB 6, the so-called bathroom bill by Sen. Lois Kohlkorst, was a major part of the first half of the legislative session, taking up many hours of committee and Senate floor time in testimony and debate. As passed by the Senate on March 15, the bill would prohibit school districts from providing accommodations that allow a person to use a multiple-occupancy bathroom or changing room for students that is designated for the sex opposite to the person’s biological sex. (It applies to other public facilities as well.) Nearly a month after the bill was received in the House, it had yet to be referred to a committee, though the House was considering a revised version of the bill. While this is a top priority for the lieutenant governor, House Speaker Joe Straus has indicated repeatedly that he does not believe this is a priority issue for the Legislature.

TCTA bills

TCTA has initiated or promoted a number of pro-teacher bills this session, several of which are moving steadily through the legislative process (status noted is as of mid-April). Our wrap-up in the summer issue will highlight all of our legislative successes from this session, including not only passed bills but successful amendments and defensive strategies.

  • SB 1634 by Senate Education Chair Larry Taylor / HB 1114 by Rep. Cindy Burkett allow districts that reduce the number of instructional days in a school year to also reduce required teacher days without a reduction of salary. SB 1634 has passed the Senate and HB 1114 has passed out of the House Public Education Committee.
  • SB 1317 by Rep. Carlos Uresti limits the number of days before the first instructional day that teachers can be required to report for duty to no more than seven business days. (A revised version allows districts to require new-to-the-district teachers to report 10 business days prior to the first day of classes.) The bill was voted out of the Senate Education Committee.
  • HB 3318 by Rep. Lance Gooden requires a District of Innovation to post its current plan on the district website for the duration of the plan, and requires the district to forward the plan to TEA within 15 days; TEA must promptly post the plan on the agency website. The bill was voted out of the House Public Education Committee.
  • HB 3319 by Gooden ensures that a report against a school employee must be made available to the employee if it is used as the basis for an evaluation or disciplinary action.
  • HB 1261 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa prohibits charter schools from excluding students on the basis of their disciplinary history. SB 422 by Sen. José Rodríguez is similar, but allows exclusions for more serious actions such as referral to a JJAEP. 
  • HB 726 by Rep. Dwayne Bohac requires mandatory removal of a student from the classroom and placement in a DAEP for assault against a school employee. The bill received a hearing in the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee.
  • HB 2016 by Bohac clarifies that an educator who uses reasonable force to maintain discipline or safety is immune from disciplinary proceedings brought by SBEC.

NOTE: Because of the delay between the time an article is written and the time it arrives in mailboxes, we encourage our members to stay updated by checking out TCTA’s daily and weekly online and emailed publications; and to check into specific bills online by entering the bill number at legis.gov.