This article appeared in the Winter 2017-18 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

It was harder than usual this session to come up with a list of legislative friends. There are dozens of lawmakers who are always good votes, and these stalwarts have our everlasting appreciation. But it was hard to make a list of legislators who truly went to bat for educators. It would have been easier to list “enemies,” or at least “supporters of bad bills,” and it was tempting to do just that. But when your allies have your back they should be acknowledged, so we have a few things to say about the following men and women who stood up for public education and teachers in 2017.

Speaker Joe Straus

One of the functions of a bicameral legislature is to facilitate a deliberative process that will slow down and cull the proposals that will ultimately become law. Traditionally this function has been the purview of the Texas Senate, but with major changes in Senate rules promoted by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, controversial bills that would have been held up or compromised on in the past now tend to sail through the Senate along partisan lines. 

Under Speaker Joe Straus, the 150-member Texas House of Representatives has become the more thoughtful, deliberative body. This session, it focused on policy and solutions rather than hot-button issues designed to appeal to primary voters. (The small number of voters who participate in primary elections tend to be more extreme, and failure to vote in a certain way can make the legislator vulnerable to a challenger in the primary.)

While the Senate was passing vouchers, devoting time and resources on governing the use of bathrooms, and eliminating the ability of public employees to pay for their association membership through payroll deduction, the House was trying to increase funding for schools and fix the school finance system. This is not to say Straus personally kept those Senate priorities from being considered, but he did assemble a leadership team of House committee chairs who promoted a balanced agenda that mirrored the conservative values of the Texas House while avoiding the extreme measures that make for bad legislation. He made his own positions clear and encouraged House members to represent their districts when voting. 

Unfortunately, the term “moderate” has become a bad word in Texas politics, and Straus and his leadership team have come under intense fire by the proponents of the bad bills. While Straus has announced that he will not seek re-election to the House in 2018, we can only hope that his legacy will last and that the Texas House will remain the rational body it became under his leadership.

Chairman Dan Huberty

As the new chair of the House Public Education Committee, Huberty has been a staunch supporter of public education for many years, first as a school board member and later as a member of the committee. During the regular session, Huberty faced up to the challenge of the Texas Supreme Court to begin the process of repairing the state’s ailing school finance system. He filed a bill that would have made some structural changes to the system while increasing funding by $1.6 billion. The bill would not have fixed all the outdated components of the system, but it would have begun the process of simplifying and updating, while increasing the basic allotment that drives funding for schools. 

Unfortunately, the Senate would not match the funding and insisted that any school finance reform include some sort of school voucher scheme, which is a priority of Lt. Gov. Patrick. Huberty opposes vouchers, and he stubbornly and publicly took the heat for stopping any such proposals that were made during the regular and special sessions. 

Huberty also took steps to simplify and improve the accountability system for Texas public schools by, among other changes, reducing the reliance on student test scores. He ran efficient meetings and ensured that the committee remained focused on major issues and efforts to help students, particularly those with special needs. In the August special session, he was able to pass legislation that included $350 million for public schools in the form of hardship grants for certain districts losing funds, facilities funding for traditional and charter schools, an increase for small districts, and grants for autism and dyslexia programs.

While there was some speculation that Huberty might choose not to return in 2019, he has filed for re-election, so it appears likely that public education will have this fierce champion in its corner for at least another session, though the new speaker will determine committee chairmanships.

Rep. Lance Gooden

Gooden was first elected to the House in 2012 with a pro-public education campaign. He lost his seat to a challenger in 2014, but regained it in the next election with TCTA’s support, and attributes his win in large part to the teachers in his community. He spent the 2017 legislative session devoting his efforts to supporting public education and teachers in particular, and was an extremely valuable member of the House Public Education Committee. 

His perseverance on a TCTA issue was a classic example of how to get a law passed. He filed a bill incorporating our simple idea to require Districts of Innovation to timely post their current plan online and require TEA to post the plans promptly on the TEA website. What seemed like a slam-dunk issue…well, wasn’t. Though HB 3318 moved easily through the House Public Education Committee, it was delayed by a procedural maneuver in May, likely in retaliation for other legislation that Gooden opposed. In the waning days of the session, he continued to push for the measure, getting it included on a House calendar that was subsequently torched for political reasons. He was eventually successful in adding the provision as an amendment to a Senate bill after it became clear that his own would not make it through the process, and that bill passed and was signed into law.

Gooden stayed in constant contact with the TCTA lobby team and was a consistent voice for teachers throughout the session. We couldn’t have asked for a better friend in the House. Gooden filed to run for Texas’ 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Rep. Cindy Burkett

House Bill 2610, passed by the Legislature in 2015, converted the number of days of required instruction to minutes. Unfortunately, the bill did not make a corresponding change to the number of required days of teacher service of teachers on an annual contract. With the refusal of TEA to grant waivers of instructional time that had previously been granted to be used for staff development, teachers in many districts have found themselves working longer days without a corresponding reduction in the number of days. The original author of the “days to minutes” bill filed legislation this session to clean up some of the other unintended consequences, but he inexplicably declined to address the problem created for teachers. Burkett filed bills during both the regular and special sessions that would have given districts clear flexibility to reduce the number of required teacher days without reducing teacher salaries. She did this at the request of superintendents in her districts and with the support of TCTA, and took every opportunity to try to get the proposal passed, but ultimately could not sway the author of the 2015 bill who, as a member of the Calendars Committee, had the power to keep the bill off the House floor. 

Burkett has announced her candidacy to run for the Texas Senate. If she wins this seat, she will be in a position to continue her support for Texas teachers in the Senate in 2019.

Rep. Donna Howard

Howard is something of an unsung hero in education circles, but deserves our praise and appreciation as one of the most supportive members of the House throughout her decade-long (so far) legislative career. She has never served on the Public Education Committee, but has been a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, serving on the subcommittee dealing with education budget issues in recent years. It is in that capacity that she shines, consistently pushing for more funding for public education and finding practical ways to come up with the money. She is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike for her years of experience, her extensive knowledge and her skill in House floor debate.

Among her legislative proposals this year were a bill to move funds that would normally go into the Rainy Day Fund but that were beyond the amount projected at the beginning of the session into TRS-Care, and a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least 50 percent of the cost of public education (neither of which passed, unfortunately).

Rep. Trent Ashby

Chairing the Article III subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee gives Ashby authority over the budgets of the Texas Education Agency and the Teacher Retirement System. Both were hot items this session, with the House working overtime to address school finance and pump additional money into state education funding, and with the TRS-Care health insurance fund on the brink of collapse. 

In addition to his work with Chairman Huberty and others on school finance, Ashby was the point person in the House for TRS-Care. He was dissatisfied with the TRS-Care bill for under-65 retirees that was under consideration in the Senate, with a $4,000 deductible and a $250 premium. He found additional funding that reduced the deductible to $3,000 and the premium to $200. Ashby continued to advocate for retirees and was instrumental in further reducing costs during the summer special session.

Rep. Byron Cook

As chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee, Cook is not often in a position to affect public education policy, though he is typically supportive (regularly voting with other education advocates on voucher issues, for example). But he has been one of Texas teachers’ most important allies during the last two legislative sessions, using his committee to block consideration of bills that would prohibit teachers and other public employees from having association dues deducted from their paychecks.

Cook has taken more heat than most legislators over this position, as well as his refusal to consider the “bathroom bill” sent over from the Senate. He was a top target in the 2016 Republican primary, with a well-funded opponent, winning by less than a single percentage point. Despite the scare, he continued to stand firm on controversial issues with the blessing of Speaker Straus, and once again ensured that teachers would retain a strong voice through their professional associations. Unfortunately, Cook is not running for re-election in 2018, and we will miss his integrity and his support for teachers.

Special thanks

Several lawmakers worked with TCTA to support teachers, filing bills for us or listening and responding to our input on their legislation. Some of them are longtime education supporters, some are nearly always on the wrong side of key education issues. But regardless of their approach to public education matters, we greatly appreciate their accessibility and responsiveness. 

Sen. Larry Taylor — Taylor, chair of the Senate Education Committee, authored a TCTA-initiated bill that would have allowed school districts providing shortened instructional years to reduce teacher contract days proportionately without reducing teacher salaries.  

Rep. John Zerwas — Zerwas is a first-time chair of one of the most powerful committees in the House — the House Appropriations Committee, which develops and passes the state budget. Zerwas pushed for increases in funding for public education and retiree health insurance throughout the regular and special sessions.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa — Freshman legislator Hinojosa reached out to TCTA and filed a bill at our request to prohibit charter schools from excluding students who have a disciplinary history.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez — Rodriguez filed legislation similar to Hinojosa’s to address TCTA’s concerns about charter schools’ ability to deny admission to students with discipline problems. He is also one of the few consistent pro-education voices in the Senate.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt — Bettencourt worked closely with TCTA to make improvements to his bill regarding teacher misconduct, including insuring confidentiality of teacher appraisals and giving teacher the authority to refuse to disclose to students their personal phone numbers and email addresses.

Sen. Van Taylor — Like Bettencourt, Taylor filed a bill to address inappropriate relationships between educators and students. He included TCTA in the process of drafting his bill, and made key revisions based on our input.

Rep. Duane Bohac — Bohac filed two TCTA bills, one to prohibit a certificate sanction against a teacher who is found to have used reasonable force as allowed under current law; and one to provide for mandatory removal from the classroom for students who threaten bodily harm against a teacher.

Sen. Carlos Uresti — Uresti and his staff worked extra hard on a TCTA-initiated bill he filed that would have restricted how early teachers could be required to report to school at the beginning of the year. Though ultimately blocked in the Senate, Uresti’s consistent attempts to get the bill passed, and his ongoing support for education and teachers in the generally unfriendly Senate, were much appreciated.

Standout staff

It’s nearly impossible to be a great legislator without a great staff, and TCTA is fortunate to work with many outstanding staffers. The good ones listen to our concerns and suggestions about their bosses’ bills and convince their legislators to make changes. The best ones consistently check with TCTA to get our input on various legislation and concepts. And we really, really like the ones who let us come in and sit down for a few minutes during a long, busy day to eat a snack and charge our phones! A big thank you from the TCTA lobby team to the following offices:

  • Sen. Carlos Uresti
  • Senate Education Committee
  • House Public Education Committee
  • Chairman Dan Huberty
  • Rep. Trent Ashby
  • Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.
  • Sen. Sylvia Garcia
  • Sen. José Menéndez