This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Every legislative session has a personality. Several of your TCTA lobbyists have lived through more than 13 regular sessions each (some have survived many more), and will confirm that no two are alike.

This session may have been the least exciting one in our memory. We didn’t have to battle vouchers or payroll deduction. There was money on the table. The three top state leaders got along, at least publicly, and agreed on the state’s priority issues. There weren’t any fistfights.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Working together to get things accomplished is good public policy. It’s just not all that much fun to watch.

Unexciting also doesn’t mean “slow” or “inactive.” The session got off to an early start and held a steady pace throughout. There was not a single meeting of the education committees that went past midnight (very unusual), but the days were filled with multiple committee hearings, floor sessions, and individual meetings with legislators, staff and other groups. Lunch at the Capitol cafeteria was always a working lunch.

There also were few clear heroes or villains. Legislators who voted with us on some issues voted against us on others. The Senate, which often has been a thorn in our side, started off the session with a serious $5,000 pay raise proposal. The House, which has saved teachers from some very bad proposals in recent sessions, made merit pay a priority and refused to consider an across-the-board increase. Both chambers agreed to put billions of dollars into public education, but at the same time curbed districts’ ability to raise revenue in the future.

In the end, the verdict for this session could be “not bad.” Or maybe “not good,” if you’re a glass half-empty kind of person. Certainly we would have preferred a better end result with regard to teacher pay — it was disappointing that districts were not required to provide a pass-through increase to all educators, but we hope that most districts will do the best they can for their employees. 

Around 120 bills from our list of more than 800 bills of interest made it all the way through the process and landed on the governor’s desk. TCTA has summarized them all and that information is on our website. Click here for detailed summaries of the bills below and the other education legislation that passed this session. (We will publish our list of legislative stars in the summer issue of The Classroom Teacher in August.)

School finance reform 

HB 3 by Rep. Dan Huberty/Sen. Larry Taylor

In addition to the state budget and property tax reform bills, HB 3 was the priority bill of state leadership this session. It ended up as the only vehicle for actually lowering taxes (the other major property tax bill, SB 2, focused on slowing growth in tax increases), addressed how the infusion of $6 billion in new funding was to be distributed to districts, and included the teacher compensation provisions. 

The bill’s advocates repeatedly described the legislation as “transformational,” citing increases in funding for prekindergarten and special programs. However, some school officials are concerned they will be hamstrung financially as the bill’s provisions will make it more difficult for districts to raise revenue in future years. The teacher compensation provisions have earned mixed reviews, with some employees pleased at the suggested emphasis on pay for veteran teachers and the inclusion of all non-administrative employees, and others concerned that local discretion over the funds allocated for raises does not assure any individual employee of an increase. 

School finance/taxes

  • Increases the basic allotment by 20%, from $5,140 per student to $6,160. This represents a significant increase in state funding to districts throughout the state and improves the equity of the overall system.
  • Reduces recapture (“Robin Hood” redistribution of funds from property-wealthy districts) by $3.5 billion from what would have been paid during the 2020-21 biennium. 
  • Increases the state’s share of school funding from 38% to 45%.
  • Repeals the cost of education index, the high school allotment, and the gifted/talented weight. Adds a dyslexia weight of .10.
  • Compresses school district tax rates, lowering them an average of 8 cents in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. A 2.5% cap would be placed on appraised values in 2021 to slow growth. If a district proposes to hold a tax rollback election to increase rates beyond the cap, it must first conduct an efficiency audit of district spending.

Teacher compensation

  • The bill does not require a specific pay raise for employees.
  • Only teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians paid at or near the state minimum salary schedule are identified as targeted personnel for an increase. Due to the increase in the basic allotment, each step of the state minimum salary schedule will increase by nearly 20%. TCTA has an unofficial estimation of the new salary schedule on our website here. (TEA's official salary schedule can be found here.)
  • Districts are required to use at least 30% of the increase in their funding to increase compensation and/or benefits for non-administrative employees. This is an ongoing provision, so increases in funding in future years also will require the 30% dedication to compensation increases.
  • In increasing compensation, districts should prioritize differentiated compensation for classroom teachers with more than five years of experience. The legislation does not either mandate or define this provision.
  • Of the percentage dedicated to compensation, 75% must be used on increases for teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians; the remainder can go to any non-administrative employees.
  • “Compensation” can include assistance with health insurance premiums.

Merit pay

  • Funding is available for districts to use for an optional merit pay program.
  • Districts can designate certified teachers as a master, exemplary or recognized teacher for a five-year period under a locally developed model. 
  • Standards established by the commissioner for local designation systems must provide a mathematical possibility that all eligible teachers could earn a designation, and the commissioner must ensure that local systems prioritize high needs campuses.
  • The standards cannot require a district to use statewide standardized accountability tests to evaluate teacher performance for this purpose, but the bill does not prohibit a district from using such tests as part of the merit pay model.
  • Participating districts will receive a base amount of $12,000 for master teachers, $6,000 for exemplary teachers, and $3,000 for recognized teachers, but those amounts would be increased by factors in certain areas, such as rural districts and high-needs campuses.
  • The bill does not require (or prohibit) that funding goes to the teachers earning such designations; rather, it provides that 90 percent of the allotment must be spent on compensation for teachers working at the designated teacher’s campus.

Other pay

$8 million is included for a teacher mentoring program targeting teachers with less than two years of experience. The funding includes stipends for mentor teachers, release time for mentors and the mentored teachers, and mentor training. HB 3 also funds an additional 30 half-days of school in the summer, so teachers in districts taking advantage of that option could receive extra pay for that time.

Programs and other provisions

  • HB 3 funds full-day prekindergarten for low-income students.
  • It funds an optional extra 30 days in the school year for grades pre-K through 5.
  • Career/tech funding is extended to include seventh grade.
  • Districts will receive an annual allotment for each student with dyslexia or a related disorder.
  • An early education allotment is provided for economically disadvantaged or limited English proficient students in bilingual or special education programs in pre-K-3 for improved performance in math and reading. Districts must adopt an early childhood literacy and math proficiency plan to include targeted professional development for K-3 teachers at campuses identified by the school board as not meeting district goals.
  • Each district must use a phonics curriculum that uses systematic direct instruction in K-3, ensure that all K-3 teachers and principals have attended a teacher literacy achievement academy no later than the 2021-22 school year, prioritize placement of highly effective teachers in grades K-2, and integrate reading instruments for diagnosing reading development and comprehension for K-3 students.
  • Outcomes-based funding for third grade was dropped, but the bill includes funding increases for reaching goals in career, college and military readiness. 
  • Beginning with certificates issued after Jan. 1, 2021, a person must demonstrate proficiency in the science of teaching reading on a certification exam in order to teach any grade level from pre-K through grade 6.

SB 12 by Sen. Joan Huffman/Rep. Greg Bonnen increases funding for TRS with a goal of making the system actuarially sound and provides a modified “13th check” for retirees of up to $2,000.

  • Contributions from the state will gradually rise from the current 6.8% to 8.25%.
  • Contributions from school districts will increase from 1.5% to 2.0%. (Districts participating in Social Security, which previously did not have to pay the 1.5% to TRS, are now included and will pay the same rate as other districts.)
  • Active member contributions will increase from the current 7.7% to 8.25%, but the first increase, to 8.0%, will be delayed until September 2021.
  • Retirees who retired by Dec. 31, 2018, will receive a “13th check” in the amount of their normal monthly annuity check, but capped at $2,000. The payment must be made no later than September 2020, but could come sooner.

HB 3906 by Rep. Dan Huberty/Sen. Larry Taylor addresses several testing issues, chief among which is the removal of standalone writing assessments. It also:

  • Deletes current laws specifying when technology can and cannot be used in math testing, and instead allows the SBOE to designate sections of math assessments that may or may not be completed with the aid of technology.
  • Revises current law regarding the length of tests to allow an assessment to have up to three parts and specifies the allowable length of a part of a test. A part must be designed so that for students in grades 3-4, 85% can complete the part within 60 minutes, and in grades 5-8, 85% can complete the part in 75 minutes. The parts can be administered over more than one day. 
  • Removes current language requiring that the English I and English II end-of-course exams assess TEKS in both reading and writing in the same assessment instrument.
  • Provides that an EOC can be administered in multiple parts over more than one day. 
  • Provides that, except for a writing portfolio assessment, SBOE must ensure that tests are not administered on the first instructional day of a week and removes current law requirements regarding the specific weeks in which the tests must be scheduled. 
  • Provides that beginning with 2022-23, an assessment may not present more than 75% of the questions in a multiple-choice format. It appears that in combination with other provisions of the bill, the intent is that STAAR tests will include short-answer responses as a new way of assessing writing performance.
  • Requires TEA to develop a transition plan to administer all assessments electronically no later than 2022-23. The transition to electronic assessments must be implemented beginning Sept. 1, 2021. 
  • TEA will create a pilot program for integrated formative assessment instruments for currently tested grades or subjects and will report to the legislature regarding whether the pilot improved instructional support and whether it would be feasible to replace current assessments with integrated formative assessments.
  • Requires districts to allow students who are in courses that require a graphing calculator to use a calculator app (e.g., on a phone or tablet), unless the district makes available a graphing calculator at no cost to the student.

TCTA bills

TCTA had a very successful session pursuing initiatives to help teachers, many of which were inspired by suggestions from our members or legal situations we worked on. 

SB 1451 by Sen. Larry Taylor/Rep. Trent Ashby helps ensure that teachers are not discouraged from exercising their option to remove a student from the classroom to maintain classroom discipline. It protects teachers from being assigned an area of deficiency on their appraisal solely on the basis of disciplinary referrals or documentation regarding student conduct. A teacher is entitled to document any violation of the student code of conduct, and a district cannot discipline a teacher on the basis of that documentation. A student sent to the campus behavior coordinator’s or other administrator’s office under teacher removal provisions is not considered to have been removed for the purposes of reporting data regarding student removals.  

SB 2073 by Sen. Larry Taylor/Rep. Ken King addresses a situation caused when the state moved from required instructional days to required minutes in 2015. Required teacher days were not changed, so in districts where the number of instructional days was reduced, teachers still had to work at least 187 contract days. Under SB 2073, districts providing fewer than 180 days of instruction can now reduce the number of required teacher days proportionately, without reducing salary.

SB 1306 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst/Rep. DeWayne Burns ensures that parents and teachers have access to campus discipline personnel by requiring districts to post on their website the contact information for each campus behavior coordinator or other campus administrator responsible for student discipline.

SB 2432 by Sen. Larry Taylor/Rep. Scott Sanford addresses concerns TCTA members have brought to us regarding students who are threatening and harassing teachers, including threatening harm to a teacher or the teacher’s family. The bill adds conduct containing the elements of harassment against a school employee to the list of behaviors for which a student must be removed to an alternative education program, subject to a campus administrator’s consideration of mitigating factors. 

Discipline 

It is common knowledge that discipline issues and a lack of support from administration are among the top reasons that teachers leave the classroom, and many legislators are very supportive of strengthening discipline laws — particularly with the renewed focus on school safety issues. At the same time, there are ongoing and growing concerns about disparities in the administration of discipline that result in higher concentrations of minority and special education students being sent to alternative education placements, with potentially long-term affects on the quality of their education. 

HB 65 by Rep. Eric Johnson/Sen. Royce West expands current law regarding reporting of disciplinary placements so that for each out-of-school suspension, the district must report student demographics to enable TEA to compare placement data, the basis of the suspension, the number of full or partial days of the suspension and the number of OOS suspensions inconsistent with the guidelines included in the student code of conduct. 
 
HB 692 by Rep. James White/Sen. Kirk Watson prohibits a district or charter school from placing a homeless student in out-of-school suspension except for certain serious crimes. The campus behavior coordinator can coordinate with the district’s homeless education liaison to identify appropriate alternatives.  

HB 811 by Rep. James White/Sen. Royce West provides that a district’s student code of conduct must specify that consideration will be given in disciplinary actions to a student’s status as a foster child or as “homeless.”

HB 2184 by Rep. Alma Allen/Sen. Joan Huffman specifies how a district should handle the transition of a student from an AEP back to the traditional campus. The student’s personal transition plan must include recommendations for the best educational placement of the student from various individuals, including classroom teachers who may be responsible for implementing the plan (TCTA provision). The plan may include recommendations for counseling, behavioral management or academic assistance; recommendations for help in obtaining access to mental health services; provision of information to the parent about how to request a special education evaluation; and a regular review of progress toward the student’s academic or career goals. 

HB 3630 and SB 712 by Rep. Morgan Meyer and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. are nearly identical bills that prohibit the use of “aversive techniques” — techniques or interventions intended to address behavior by intentionally inflicting significant physical or emotional discomfort or pain — on students and the bills include a long list of prohibited techniques.

School safety & mental health

After the Santa Fe ISD shooting in May 2018, Gov. Greg Abbott reacted quickly, coordinating several roundtable discussions between state officials and other interested parties ranging from school administrators to gun control advocates and opponents. TCTA Executive Director Jeri Stone was the only teacher group representative invited to attend, and her contributions to the discussion helped ensure a focus on improving mental health services in a way that did not require teachers to serve as mental health professionals. Many bills to address both security issues and mental health concerns were filed and passed this session. 

SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor/Rep. Greg Bonnen is the omnibus school safety bill. It addresses issues ranging from school facilities to safety procedures to mental health services for students. 

  • Adds mental health and suicide prevention to the health curriculum and requires that districts incorporate digital citizenship into the curriculum.
  • Requires that building standards for facilities provide a secure and safe environment.
  • Requires a school district that receives a bomb threat or terroristic threat to notify parents as soon as possible. 
  • Requires the Texas School Safety Center to develop a list of best practices for ensuring the safety of students in portable buildings.
  • Creates an annual school safety allotment to improve school safety and security, specifically including active shooter and emergency response training; prevention and treatment programs for childhood trauma; management of emergencies and threats through mental health support and threat reporting systems; and programs for suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. 
  • Specifies that emergency response training must include substitute teachers.
  • Requires that employees have classroom access to a phone or other communication device allowing for immediate contact with emergency responders.
  • Requires districts to establish a threat assessment and safe and supportive school team to serve at each district campus. Each team must conduct a threat assessment that includes assessing and reporting individuals who make threats of violence or exhibit harmful, threatening, or violent behavior. The team can refer a student for mental health assessment or implement an escalation procedure. 
  • Requires each district to adopt and implement a policy requiring the integration of trauma-informed practices in each school environment. Educators must be trained at intervals necessary to keep them informed of developments in the field. Requires teacher continuing education to include instruction on how grief and trauma affect student learning and behavior.
  • Requires statewide and regional inventories of mental health resources available to districts. 

HB 18 by Rep. Four Price and Sen. Kirk Watson is extensive legislation regarding mental health services. 

  • It requires teacher, counselor and principal training on educating diverse populations, including how mental health conditions affect learning and behavior. 
  • Staff development provided by districts must include suicide prevention, recognizing mental health and substance abuse issues, grief and trauma education, and preventing/responding to bullying.
  • Districts must provide a statement to parents regarding whether each campus has a full-time nurse or full-time school counselor. 
  • TEA must develop guidelines for districts regarding partnering with a local mental health authority or with private mental health services to increase student access to mental health services.
  • Suicide prevention programs must assist students in returning to school following treatment of a mental health concern or suicide attempt.

HB 2195 by Rep. Morgan Meyer/Sen. Judith Zaffirini requires districts to develop a policy for responding to an active shooter emergency. 

SB 1707 by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr./Rep. Alma Allen allows districts to enter into a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement for the provision of school resource officers. Peace officers, resource officers or security personnel cannot be assigned routine student discipline, school administrative tasks, or contact with students unrelated to their law enforcement duties, but this prohibition does not prohibit informal contact with a student that is unrelated to the assigned duties of the officer or an incident involving student behavior or law enforcement. 

SB 2135 by Sen. Beverly Powell/Rep. Philip Cortez requires law enforcement, in providing the currently required notifications to districts regarding students who have been arrested, to note whether the district should conduct a threat assessment or prepare a safety plan. 

HB 496 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins/Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. requires districts/charter schools to make available bleeding control stations to include tourniquets, chest seals, compression bandages, and other such items for use in the event of a traumatic injury involving blood loss. 

School peace officers and security personnel, and any other personnel who might be reasonably expected to use a bleeding control station, must take TEA-approved training on the use of the station, and students in grades 7-12 must receive training on the use of a bleeding control station.

Other bills 

SB 1264 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, Rep. Tom Oliverson strengthens the laws regarding surprise medical billing for state-regulated health insurance plans, including TRS-ActiveCare and TRS-Care. It revises how billing disputes over unexpected out-of-network costs will be handled, keeping the process between insurers and medical care providers and no longer requiring patient-initiated mediation. TRS estimates the revised process will cost its health insurance plans millions of dollars, potentially requiring premium increases.

HB 455 by Rep. Alma Allen/Sen. Kirk Watson requires school boards to adopt a recess policy that specifies the required number of minutes of weekly unstructured playtime, and whether recess can be withheld as punishment.

HB 1026 by Rep. Dwayne Bohac/Sen. Bryan Hughes requires SBOE to integrate positive character traits into the K-12 TEKS and requires each district and charter school to adopt a character education program. 

HB 1244 by Rep. Trent Ashby/Sen. Donna Campbell requires that the U.S. History end-of-course exam include 10 questions randomly selected by TEA from the civics test administered as part of the naturalization process. The questions must be aligned with the TEKS for the course.
 
HB 2424 by Rep. Trent Ashby/Sen. Pat Fallon
requires SBEC to create a program under which an educator can receive microcredentials in fields related to the educator’s certification class.
  
HB 4205 by Rep. Tom Craddick/Sen. Charles Perry creates an “ACE” (accelerated campus excellence) turnaround plan as an option for campuses that have been rated unacceptable for two consecutive school years. Under the ACE plan, the principal assigned to the campus must have demonstrated a history of improvement in student academic growth at his/her previous campus(es), and at least 60% of the teachers assigned to the campus must be teachers who have demonstrated instructional effectiveness during the previous year as determined by measures including student assessment performance and classroom observations. The plan must include significant incentives for high-performing personnel to remain at the campus.
 
HB 4310 by Rep. Harold Dutton/Sen. Bryan Hughes
prohibits a district from penalizing a teacher who does not follow the district’s recommended scope and sequence based on the teacher’s determination that the students need more or less time in a specific area to demonstrate proficiency. 

SB 213 by Sen. Kel Seliger/Rep. Dan Huberty extends the expiration date for individual graduation committees (which determine whether a student who failed certain required tests can still graduate) from 2019 to 2023.