This article appeared in the Winter 2020-21 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

What you need to know to be an informed observer of the 87th Texas Legislature

There’s no point in trying to predict what might happen during the upcoming legislative session, which begins on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Who could have predicted 2020? Any of it! The best we can do is tell you what we know, what we’ve heard, and what we don’t know, so that you can at least be an informed observer of the 87th Texas Legislature in action.

The players

Many key elements of the Austin leadership remain the same. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Education Commissioner Mike Morath will continue in their positions. 

After the November elections, the composition of the Senate changed very little, although by the time you read this we will have a new senator (the winner of the runoff election for a Dallas-area seat between current State Rep. Drew Springer and hair salon owner and conservative activist Shelley Luther — both Republicans). One other election changed the Senate partisan makeup by one seat, as Democrat Roland Gutierrez, formerly a state representative from San Antonio, defeated incumbent Republican Pete Flores in the general election. The Senate now has 18 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

In the House, an anticipated “blue wave” never happened, and the Republican to Democrat ratio remained exactly the same at 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Two incumbents, Republican Sarah Davis of Houston and Democrat Gina Calanni of Katy, were defeated. But the most significant changes in leadership will be in the House. Though a new speaker will not be elected until the legislature convenes, House members have indicated they will select Republican Dade Phelan of Beaumont to lead them. As House Speaker, Phelan will appoint House committees and committee chairs. One unknown factor is whether current House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty will remain in that position. Huberty initially supported a different candidate for speaker and could be bumped in favor of an early Phelan supporter. 

Different kind of session

The biggest question mark for lawmakers, staff and lobbyists is how exactly the COVID-19 pandemic will affect legislative operations and the ability of stakeholders (including your TCTA lobby team) to influence the proposals considered inside the Capitol building. Rules adopted early in the session will provide a clearer picture of how legislative operations will change. It is clear that the spectacle of thousands of employees, lobbyists and tourists mingling in close quarters for hours every day will no longer occur. But legislators have insisted that it is important for Texas citizens to have access to them and to the Capitol building during the session. This may result in scheduled visits, rather than drop-ins, and we expect to see plenty of masks, sanitizer and possibly plexiglass dividers in legislative offices.

An unofficial preview of possible Senate protocols indicated that public testimony in committee hearings would have to take place at the Capitol and would not be allowed virtually (though invited testimony could be presented remotely), and that witnesses would be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed to appear. However, at the very least we would expect restrictions on the number of people allowed in committee rooms. Large group events (such as school groups, or TCTA’s Lobby Day) will likely not be permitted. Legislators will be allowed to determine for themselves how they handle office visits.

The expectation is that committee and floor action will focus on higher priority legislation, with fewer bills getting through the process. TCTA will continue to pursue our legislative priorities; we believe there is widespread support for preserving HB 3 funding for public schools, for example, and a large number of House members signed a letter asking the commissioner to eliminate STAAR testing this spring (though there may be a chillier reception in the Senate). But smaller initiatives may be more challenging to push through.

Challenging budget year

Approving a state budget will be the top priority for the session. Despite the damage to sections of the Texas economy and a predicted multi-billion dollar budget deficit, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and legislators have expressed optimism that the shortfall lawmakers will face will not be of the magnitude seen in 2011, when state education funding was significantly reduced, putting thousands of school personnel out of work. 

In late November, Hegar updated state leaders with the good news that the legislature would have more money to work with than he had predicted in the summer, when he said lawmakers would be looking at a deficit in the current budget of $4.6 billion. However, he cautioned that while state sales taxes were down only around 5%, other key revenue sources such as hotel and oil/gas taxes had dropped by 40% or more. Hegar did not provide a specific projection of the deficit in November, but will provide more detailed figures in January.

Lawmakers will have access to the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF, or the state’s “Rainy Day Fund”), which has an estimated ending balance in 2021 of $8.8 billion. However, the legislature may be reluctant to expend much of the ESF, in favor of reducing programs and budgets. Historically, the legislature has been more willing to use budget maneuvers to defer payments and transfers, apply revenue speed-ups, employ other one-time measures or draw down additional federal funds to offset shortages. These tactics will be available to budget writers in the upcoming session.

COVID-related concerns

For the upcoming biennium, lawmakers should consider how to ensure that school districts have the money they need to accommodate the changes that have been made in instruction since last March. Reinforcing the education infrastructure will involve providing adequate technology (devices and equipment, software, and reliable Internet access) and appropriate staffing (which we argue should include more teachers to provide for smaller class sizes, more nurses, and access to mental health professionals). 

The pandemic focused a spotlight on the digital divide, exposing a lack of access to the vast information resources of the internet as perhaps the greatest obstacle to providing for the equitable dissemination of knowledge required by the Texas Constitution. It has become clear that internet service should be treated like a public utility to ensure more access and better affordability. We have recommended that the state implement a statewide broadband connectivity plan as soon as possible, addressing the immediate and long-term needs of students and teachers. 

Schools are struggling to find lost students and saw sharp declines in attendance this fall. Without assistance from the state, declines in average daily attendance would cause significant budget shortfalls for public schools. Commissioner Morath established a “hold harmless” provision for the fall semester that (with some conditions) provided districts with funding based on 2019-20 enrollment regardless of actual enrollment. TCTA has joined other education stakeholder groups in requesting he extend the financial grace period through the end of the school year. If Morath does not extend the “hold harmless,” legislators may consider taking action to ensure that districts do not lose funding for the current year. 

TCTA attorneys have received many calls from members about districts not enforcing health and safety law, rules and protocols. The lack of enforcement of education statutes, not limited to COVID-related situations, has often been problematic, but we hope to see a renewed effort to ensure that employees and parents have a way to report concerns about district practices, and that the state or other authority has the means to enforce current laws and policies.  

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress last spring ensured that employees who miss work for certain COVID-related reasons would have access to full or partial paid sick and family leave. This federal law has been helpful, but it is clear that such paid leave can easily be depleted even without a COVID diagnosis, as employees quarantine while awaiting test results. In a school setting, employees may need to be tested frequently and stay home until results are available, which can take several days each time. Key provisions of the Act were set to expire Dec. 31. TCTA has been actively urging members of Congress to extend these provisions. If it does not, we will be encouraging the legislature to provide additional paid leave covering COVID-related absences at least through the end of 2021. 

House Bill 3 

Legislative leaders have committed to maintaining the increased education funding levels from House Bill 3, the major school funding bill from the 2019 legislative session. Whether they can keep this commitment will depend on the state budget deficit, but for now, those who are talking about it publicly say they believe funding can be maintained. 

The salary provisions of the bill remain intact, but unless the legislature increases funding again, additional salary enhancements are unlikely. HB 3 also included a merit pay program that so far has only been implemented in a handful of districts, but which Commissioner Morath and many legislative leaders are touting as a way to “reward the best teachers.” Under the Teacher Incentive Allotment, districts develop local teacher designation systems that identify high-performing teachers based on student growth and teacher observation. In effect, the program is an incentive pay system tied to STAAR tests, contrary to legislative intent that the system be flexible, developed at the local level, and not based on STAAR exams. With school closures in the spring of 2020, student growth for 2019-20 is almost impossible to ascertain, which undermines the entire program. We have recommended that the legislature delay implementation of the teacher incentive pay program and retain its funding for teacher compensation.

Testing and accountability

On a related note, nearly 70 House members have indicated support for eliminating STAAR testing for the 2020-21 school year. This would require a waiver of federal law, which would have been unlikely under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos but could be feasible in the Biden administration. TCTA has consistently supported canceling STAAR for this year, but we have requested that if the test is administered, the high stakes should be removed. In December, Commissioner Morath announced that A-F accountability ratings would be suspended for 2020-21, but the tests would not be canceled.

TRS and health care

The Teacher Retirement System pension fund is in reasonably good shape, and should continue to improve if the legislature honors the commitments made in 2019, which included a schedule of phased-in contribution increases. TRS-Care, the retiree health insurance program, is also financially sound, and TRS does not anticipate asking for additional funding to shore it up, as it has for most of the last few legislative sessions. We continue to ask for help with funding for active employee health insurance, but an increased state contribution is unlikely in a session with a budget deficit.

The system underwent a Sunset review — a comprehensive look at agency efficiency and effectiveness — during 2020, and a Sunset bill will be filed to implement recommended changes. The major issues identified during the Sunset staff’s review of the agency were the need to repair relationships with TRS members that were damaged when the agency’s plans to lease expensive office space in downtown Austin were publicized last year, and to improve transparency in its operations. The pandemic has changed TRS’s plans regarding office space, but the TRS Board has not made any decisions on how to accommodate its growing staff. 

Charter schools 

With public schools already facing budgetary concerns, the expansion of charter schools has become even more problematic. TCTA and other public education groups are working to try to stave off rampant expansion, and we may see some legislative activity on that issue. We have recommended that the expansion and replication of more expensive and less effective charter schools should be decelerated and ended, with the funding that has been devoted to them reinjected into the traditional public school system.    

Payroll deduction

Although it has been attempted and defeated in several past sessions, some legislators and far-right activists want to discontinue payroll deduction of dues for professional associations. We will continue to work to defeat any legislation that would remove this convenience for teachers.

Legislation

Legislators began filing bills shortly after Election Day, and TCTA is already tracking nearly 200 education-related bills. As noted earlier, we expect fewer to make it through the process due to procedural changes related to the pandemic, but that apparently has not slowed down the rate of bill filings. See our list of tracked bills, with summaries of each, at tcta.org/billsummaries.

As we prepare to face the challenges of 2021 together with our members, we promise to keep you informed and updated, and to fight for you during this session. 

Stay up to date through our social media accounts (Facebook.com/TexasCTA, Twitter: @TexasCTA), our website (which will updated daily during the session), and the weekly eUpdate newsletter (sign up at tcta.org/eUpdate if you’re not already receiving it).