This article appeared in the Winter 2018-19 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

The 86th session of the Texas Legislature begins on Tuesday, Jan. 8. This session will be heavy on education issues, and it will be very important for teachers to stay informed and be involved. The overriding issue, as always, is money, but there may be more of it available than in recent sessions. Determining how it should be spent is sure to provoke intense debates in Capitol meeting rooms and behind the scenes.

Political backdrop

The state’s two top leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, remain in power, but have not yet announced their priorities and strategies for 2019. Relations between the “Big Three” (governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker), which were strained in 2017 after major disagreements between Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, could be much better or much worse due to the unpredictability of new leadership in the House.

Abbott won re-election handily, and, as one of the state’s most popular officials, he may not feel much pressure to change how he operates or what issues he will set as priorities for the legislature to consider. Abbott at times has appeared to allow Patrick to take the lead on setting the session’s agenda, prioritizing controversial topics such as tighter abortion restrictions or the bathroom bill, but that dynamic could change.

Patrick is facing new challenges this session. Voting results in his own re-election effort made clear that he does not share Abbott’s level of popularity. Patrick had his hands full with a challenge from Democrat Mike Collier who based his campaign almost solely on public education matters, and his much closer election numbers in November are at least in part attributed to the greater involvement of teachers and other public education supporters in this year’s elections.

The makeup of the Senate Patrick leads has shifted marginally but significantly, and he will face challenges in pushing through hot-topic items such as vouchers, a bathroom bill, and payroll deduction prohibition in the early weeks of the session as he did in 2017. With a 19-12 Republican-Democrat split, Senate rules requiring 19 votes to bring up legislation, and some senators not toeing the party line on issues such as vouchers, Patrick may find it harder to ensure that his priority bills are considered on the Senate floor.

The retirement of Straus has led to a necessary change in House leadership. In November, an abrupt series of events appeared to provide resolution to the situation. The vote among House members to select the speaker does not happen until the first day of the legislative session, but on Nov. 10, longtime House member Dennis Bonnen (R-Arlington), who had not previously been in the running for the position, announced that he had enough support to gain the speakership. His initial list of supporters included 78 Republicans and 31 Democrats.

Bonnen is known for being very strategic and willing to take a hard stance. He is considered to be somewhat more politically conservative than Straus, but seems committed to fostering bipartisanship, and is expected to be a fierce defender of the House.

State budget

Estimates for how much money legislators will have to work with will be released at the beginning of the session. Early projections were for a small surplus, which typically would be offset by overall growth in government expenses such as the addition of tens of thousands of new students in Texas schools each year. But some lawmakers, including Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), predict that more money will be available because of the strong economy and specifically because of significant growth in severance (oil and gas) taxes.

A supplemental bill (legislation appropriating money for current-year expenses, separate from the main budget for the upcoming two-year period) is expected to include funding for Hurricane Harvey expenses and two months’ worth of Medicaid payments that were not included in the budget adopted in 2017.

The Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF, also referred to as the Rainy Day Fund) continues to grow and could hold as much as $16 billion within the next few years. The projection for the upcoming session is a balance of around $12 billion. State leaders have asserted any expenditures from the fund should be for one-time, not ongoing, costs. Some have proposed using ESF funds to help shore up TRS, but there are many competing demands, including additional Harvey expenses. In November, lawmakers set a floor of $7.25 billion for the ESF fund balance, so total ESF expenditures approved this session cannot take the fund below that level.

School finance

State leaders all agree that school finance will be a focus, if not THE focus, of the 2019 session. Public education supporters have protested the increasingly lower share the state pays toward public education funding, from what used to be approximately an equal share to around 38 percent now. This happens because of a feature of the current school finance system — as local property values rise, state funding falls. The money that the state saves is not reinvested into education, but becomes general revenue. Local property owners feel the pinch of ever-rising taxes, but since any gain to the school district is offset by lowered state funding, districts do not reap the benefits of increased tax collections.

The governor is focused on addressing the property tax aspect of the problem. As the Commission on Public School Finance was finalizing its report to the legislature in December, Abbott released a proposal that would provide three times more property tax relief than additional money for education. But others agree that public education funding needs an overall boost, and some lawmakers, notably Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) who has filed legislation to this effect, argue that the state needs to commit to a 50 percent share. It is estimated that increasing the state’s share to 50 percent would cost around $6 billion each year.

The school finance commission met throughout 2018 but spent much of its time on education outcomes and how education dollars should be spent, surprising those who expected more attention to resolving problems with the “Robin Hood” system and bringing in increased revenue. There was at least general agreement that the state needs to boost its funding of public education, but many of the commission’s recommendations would revise how and where dollars are allocated (for example, proposing teacher performance pay — see more below). Click here to read the commission’s final report.

Teacher salaries

For the first time in many legislative sessions, lawmakers are having serious discussions about teacher compensation. Research demonstrates the value of experience, in support of the current step-based salary schedule, and TCTA will advocate for an across-the-board salary increase. But education policy-makers are intrigued by a model proposed by Commissioner Mike Morath, who points to success in Dallas ISD schools as an argument in favor of test-based performance pay for teachers.

Dallas ISD implemented a multi-faceted program that includes financial incentives for the “best” teachers (determined in part through student test performance and student surveys) to teach at high-need schools. The district also requires other supports, including additional professional support staff, smaller class sizes, specialized professional development, changes in the academic program, increased choice for students within the district’s public schools, and increased parent engagement.

Two major issues seem to be overlooked by legislators: first, that many other factors of the Dallas ISD program aside from the teacher incentive pay are likely to be responsible for increased student success, and second, that the program is financially unsustainable. Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa testified to the school finance commission that the district would have to come up with tens of millions of additional dollars to continue incentive stipends for teachers under the current provisions of the model. Teachers who were around in the old career ladder days will remember the disaster that follows when promises for higher pay based on specific criteria are not kept.

Special education funding

Special education funding will receive renewed attention this session. Texas schools have underserved students with special needs for years, failing to provide assistance to thousands of students because of a state-imposed 8.5 percent benchmark on the number of students receiving special education services. State officials have estimated that it would cost more than $3 billion through fiscal year 2021 to evaluate and provide services to students not previously served.

In addition, the federal government is penalizing Texas $33 million for spending less on students with disabilities in 2012, violating federal law that prohibits states from reducing spending on children with disabilities from year to year. Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group for Texans with disabilities, asserts that the same law was violated again in 2016-17 with a $41.6 million funding reduction.

Retirement system

The Teacher Retirement System pension fund remains stable, but a policy change made by the TRS Board of Trustees in July (adopting a rate of return assumption for TRS investments of 7.25 percent, down from the previous 8 percent assumption) drove down several important financial figures. The plan’s unfunded liability grew to $46 billion, from last year’s $35 billion, and the time it would take to pay off current obligations jumped from 33 years to 87 years. Under state law, that period would have to be well under 30 years in order for TRS to provide a benefit increase to retirees.

This lowered financial status of the pension fund will be important to legislative deliberations. On one hand, a fund that appears unhealthy could lend ammunition to those who would like to restructure TRS as a 401(k)-style retirement plan. But lawmakers may instead take the fund’s status as a warning that the state needs to enhance contributions and shore up the basic funding for the plan, so there will likely be proposals to increase the state’s contribution.

Fully funding the plan through state contributions would require an increase in the state’s rate from 6.8 percent to more than 8.5 percent, at a cost of well over $800 million per year. Some of the state’s budget writers, including 2017 House Appropriations Chair John Zerwas (R-Houston) have noted that the underfunding of TRS has the potential to hurt the state’s bond ratings, lending urgency to a situation that lawmakers could otherwise punt to another session. It is possible that increased contributions by districts and/or active employees could be on the table as well, although no such proposals are currently being discussed.

Health insurance

While TRS-Care/retiree health insurance received much attention in 2017, retirees not happy with the outcome will press for restoration of benefits lost in last session’s restructuring of the plan. TRS did not increase retiree premiums for the 2019 plan year, and state leaders including Patrick strongly implied that the state would increase funding for TRS-Care to keep it solvent, at a projected cost of around $250 million. However, any plan design enhancement such as lower deductibles would cost additional state dollars (or retiree premium increases).

Active employees continue to see increasing health insurance premiums and decreasing benefits with no additional assistance from the state, and TCTA and others will be seeking higher state contributions toward active employee health insurance. Meaningful increases will be very costly for the state, and it is possible that if a proposal for higher contributions is on the table, a phased-in approach would be considered.

School safety

The tragic shootings at schools and other venues in 2017 and 2018 accelerated demand for policymakers to take action. After the shooting at Santa Fe High School in May, Abbott called in individuals representing public education (TCTA Executive Director Jeri Stone was the only teacher group representative invited), mental health professionals, gun control advocates and opponents and several state leaders for three days of discussions. The resulting report, along with reports from the Senate Education Committee and the House Public Education Committee, focuses on the need for more mental health experts and services in public schools. Other recommendations relate to “hardening” school campuses by increasing security measures, and the reports include suggestions such as expanding the school marshal program and increasing the presence of law enforcement on campuses.

On a related note, student discipline issues remain a topic of legislative consideration. Tension continues between those who are concerned about disproportionate disciplinary actions on minority and special education students and those who worry that any restrictions will have a chilling effect on teachers’ and administrators’ ability to effectively deal with disruptive or dangerous students. Practices such as restorative discipline have gained favor over the years and have been proposed as a means of improving student behavior in the classroom. TCTA will continue our longstanding efforts to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to maintain a safe and productive learning environment.

The period for legislators to file legislation began shortly after Election Day and runs through March 8. Hundreds of education-related bills have already been proposed, and TCTA monitors these closely to advocate in our members’ interests. Our top-ranked lobby team will be in action throughout the session, proposing and supporting helpful legislation and opposing harmful bills. We encourage our members and all teachers to stay informed and involved throughout the session — elected officials pay the most attention to the people who can vote for or against them!

Keep up with action at the Capitol

Don’t miss our daily Capitol updates and weekly eUpdate newsletter. Also watch for news on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Resources such as The Texas Tribune can provide in-depth information on current events. Check out your lawmakers’ social media profiles and interact (respectfully and knowledgeably) to provide teacher input.