This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of The Classroom Teacher

After reflecting on what happened during the 2019 legislative session, we are using the journey of a TCTA bill to illustrate some political lessons that aren’t well known outside of the Capitol building. In a world where politics seems to be moving more toward liberal-conservative extremes and “if you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy” tactics, TCTA’s emphasis on working with lawmakers of all stripes is the main reason that we have achieved the legislative successes that make ours the top-ranked teacher lobby team in the state.

Before the legislative session began, as TCTA lobbyists were working on our priorities for the session, one bill stood out as a must-have: protecting teachers from students who make threats against them. Our attorneys had heard far too many examples of students who threatened to harm teachers or their family or property, but current law did not trigger a mandatory removal to a disciplinary alternative education program (DAEP) in these situations.

Our fix: change the law to ensure that students making threats against their teachers would be removed to a DAEP.

It is important to know that, since a change in statutes several years ago, a “mandatory” removal does not have the same meaning that it used to. In fact, when a student commits an offense that falls under the mandatory removal law, the student is entitled to a conference with his/her parent, the teacher (if applicable), and a campus administrator, who will then determine how to address the issue. This allows administrators to consider a student’s disciplinary history and the specific circumstances of the offense before imposing consequences. In fact, an administrator may choose not to remove a student after the conference and consideration of the circumstances even if the misbehavior calls for “mandatory” removal.

Legislators are supportive of protecting teachers and students in the classroom, especially in the wake of recent school shootings. But we knew that we would face off against groups that are increasingly concerned about “exclusionary discipline” — disciplinary techniques that take students out of the usual educational setting, often disproportionately affecting ethnic minority and special education students. There are a number of effective advocacy groups who represent these populations, and we normally work well with them on education issues.

Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) shared our concerns and agreed to file the bill for us. Senate Bill 2432 sailed through the Senate relatively quickly with no formal opposition in the committee hearing (though some of the advocacy groups, as we had expected, expressed concerns in their testimony), and with no “no” votes on the Senate floor, although some Senate Democrats asked for changes to the bill as filed in order to support it. These changes did not eliminate the essential protections of the bill, so TCTA recommended that Chairman Taylor agree to them in order to have the unanimous consent of the Senate.

We anticipated a tougher fight in the House. Because it is always advantageous to have a bill sponsor on the committee that will hear a bill, we approached State Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney). Sanford was new to the House Public Education Committee and we had not worked with him much in the past. In fact, he had typically voted against our positions in previous sessions on key public education matters, but he agreed to work with us and sponsor SB 2432 when it came over from the Senate. 

The House Public Education Committee hearing was more contentious than in the Senate, with several groups opposing the bill based on the “exclusionary discipline” argument. We had worked with the groups before the hearing to try to allay concerns, and were shocked to learn that at least some of the advocacy groups were not even fully familiar with current law, not realizing that the statutes require a conference and consideration of mitigating factors prior to DAEP placement, which we felt should address many of their concerns.

In the end, the bill passed out of committee on a vote of 7-4; those voting “no” included very strong supporters of public education and teachers such as former educator (and former TCTA Friend of Education) Alma Allen (D-Houston), Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) and Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso). 

The opposing rationale boiled down to two principal concerns: the so-called mandatory removal and the definition of harassment. Some argued that simply annoying a teacher would constitute harassment and result in removal to a DAEP, but TCTA had fine-tuned the bill to ensure that only the most serious forms of harassment, such as direct threats to a teacher, were included in the bill.

The advocacy groups who opposed SB 2432 swayed a number of predominantly education-friendly lawmakers to oppose the bill when it came to the House floor. Gonzalez led the opposition debate, and two amendments were added to the bill — one of which we opposed — before it passed on a 91-51 vote. When the bill returned to the Senate, the original author, Sen. Taylor, requested a conference committee, and both House amendments were removed. 

The real fight came after the finalized conference committee version of SB 2432 came back to the House floor. The opposing groups had continued their efforts, joined by an ultra-conservative group claiming that the bill would reduce administrators’ authority in discipline matters, and the authors of the amendments that had been deleted were unhappy, so the floor debate on the bill was fierce. But TCTA’s lobby team and a handful of very supportive legislators combined to eke out a narrow one-vote margin to get the bill through the House floor and onto the governor’s desk (where it was signed on June 10).

Illustrating the fluid nature of political alliances

TCTA had little in common with Rep. Sanford prior to this bill. But he was a very effective ally, coming to the House floor fully prepared with substantive arguments to strongly defend SB 2432, even calling out misinformation spread by an organization with which he had been allied for years.

TCTA had battled Chairman Dan Huberty all session on the salary provisions in HB 3, but Huberty may have saved Sb 2432 through his forceful back mic arguments to support and protect teachers in the classroom.

Rep. Gonzalez has served two stints on the House Public Education Committee and has filed more pro-education bills in her four sessions than most legislators do in much lengthier careers (including one during this session at TCTA’s request). Despite her support of teachers, on this issue she was solidly aligned with the groups that opposed the mandatory removal of students for threatening harassment of a teacher.

Rep. Gene Wu is another long-time supporter of public education and teachers. He rose to speak passionately against the bill, well-intended, but arguing somewhat inaccurately about the types of behaviors that would result in suspension.

Children’s advocacy groups and the Texas Public Policy Foundation do not typically work together. But both groups opposed SB 2432 and generated nearly enough opposing votes to defeat the bill. 

There were several takeaways from our experiences in shepherding HB 2432 through the legislative process, but chief among them was reinforcement of a lesson we learned many years ago. Never burn bridges, because yesterday’s foe may well be today’s friend (and, unfortunately, vice versa). We continue to reach out to legislators on both sides of the aisle, finding support wherever we can to advance our goals in support of Texas teachers. 

Click here for our article thanking legislators for their support during the 2019 session.