This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

The early days of a legislative session are much like the beginning of a new school year. It’s great to walk through the doors, see everyone you’ve missed and meet the new players. A positive energy prevails, arising from the hope that this could be a great year. 

At some point during the session, inevitably, the mood breaks. Plans fall apart. No one is getting what they want. Legislators and lobbyists alike get cranky. Most of the players still enjoy pursuing the mission, but the experienced ones are reminded that it never quite works out the way they had hoped.

The breaking point came early this session, due in large part to the difficulties of communicating and collaborating during a time of shutdowns and distancing. Just getting into the Capitol building is a hassle. Senate rules require a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination before entering certain areas of the Capitol, so there are testing tents at the north entrance to the building. Military personnel outfitted in camo direct visitors to the testing areas and check vaccination cards. Those who pass muster are given the paper wristband that assures access to committee rooms and legislative offices. 

Literal & figurative roadblocks

Advocacy usually involves going from office to office, initially making connections, then checking in frequently. Your TCTA lobby teams spends much of the session working with staffers on bill progress, resolving problems, answering questions, drafting amendments, providing background and research, and sometimes just exchanging information. Casual conversations about goings-on at the Capitol can provide insight into why things are happening the way they are. 

While some legislators and staff remain accessible, many office doors throughout the Capitol are closed, some even locked, and probably not only to protect against COVID-19. Why deal with people who want something from you, or who disagree with you, if you don’t have to?

Deliberations are harder to participate in, or even to monitor. Some of the work is being done by phone or Zoom, which makes it easier for decision-makers to exclude those who have differing views. Even when at the Capitol, there are fewer colleagues in the committee hearing rooms because of distancing requirements. Information is exchanged in overflow rooms and hallways — to the extent you can find people who will talk. We’re working harder than ever to maintain the relationships we’ve built up over the years, but there is little of the easy camaraderie or casual gossip that has always helped smooth the path for the real work.

There is a sense this year that, even more than in a normal legislative session, negotiations are taking place behind closed doors. However and wherever these discussions are happening, they are not accessible to stakeholders and even some legislators appear to be left out of the loop. This perception is most apparent in the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 federal relief funds that Texas schools are expecting.

Where are the federal funds?

Lawmakers were relieved to learn early on that the Texas economy was not as hard-hit as expected and massive budget cuts would not be necessary to fully fund the commitments in HB 3, last session’s school finance reform bill. 

Budget and education leaders promised at the beginning of the session that school funding was a top priority, and both the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill maintain HB 3 funding. 

But even more money has come into play. The first COVID relief package passed by Congress in March 2020 included $1.2 billion in federal funds (the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, or ESSER I) for Texas, but rather than using it to benefit schools, state leaders backfilled holes in the budget. ESSER II, passed in December 2020, included $5.5 billion more for Texas schools, and it was followed by ESSER III in March 2021 and $12 billion more. Now, $17.5-plus billion dollars is designated for public education in Texas. The Congressional relief packages also included large sums of money for other sectors of government, including health services.

Tens of billions of additional federal COVID relief funds directed to education and other areas of the budget should have been cause for celebration. But instead, state leaders sat on those funds, keeping plans under wraps, and the few legislators who spoke up with questions and concerns weren’t getting good answers. Reportedly, many lawmakers not in leadership positions were hardly even aware of the issue.

TCTA and other groups have been stymied in our efforts just to see some of the state’s communications with the federal government. Texas has requested a waiver of some provisions of ESSER III, but apparently the request was made through the governor’s office, not TEA, and attempts to find out exactly what the state asked for have been thwarted.

Districts are in the middle of their budget planning process, trying to figure out how to address the learning and social disruptions from the previous year, without any information about how much money they will receive from the federal government, when it will arrive, and what they can spend it on. Meanwhile, legislators are hammering the public schools over missing and disengaged kids and the “COVID slide.” 

At print time in late April, there was still no clarification on the distribution of funds, but it is our hope that by the time you’re reading this magazine we will have more information. (Update: Texas schools will get $11.2 billion of federal funds soon. Click here to read more.)

Other issues

In the absence of a major school reform effort like last session’s HB 3, it seems that the education-related bills moving through the process are random. Their subject matter ranges from school bus signal lights to pre-K eligibility for foster students. Unsurprisingly, though, some of the session’s education issues are united by a COVID theme.

COVID-19 bills

One bill we’re watching closely is directly related to the federal funds issue. HB 2021 by House Appropriation Committee Chair Greg Bonnen would give a small group of legislators the authority to make decisions over how those tens of billions of COVID relief dollars should be used. There are concerns that too many strings could be attached to how school districts could access or spend their money, without regard to local circumstances. The board would even have the ability to reject the federal funds entirely. It would be preferable for funds to be distributed to districts as soon as possible, with any decisions that might need to be made at the state level involving the full legislature.

A handful of bills moving through the legislative process address retirees returning to work as a means of supplementing the regular teacher workforce, as districts gear up supplemental programs to help students falling behind due to the pandemic. A tutoring program set up by a retired teacher organization has received legislative attention and approval. Related legislation (SB 1356 by Sen. Bryan Hughes) is designed to facilitate the program, which helps coordinate retirees working with school districts to tutor students online who need additional instructional help. 

Another bill (HB 3207 by Rep. Abel Herrero) would remove the return-to-work limitations for retirees who are employed in an area declared as a disaster. And though this did not involve a bill, several lawmakers asked TRS to allow retirees to work full-time this summer so they can help with projected high enrollment numbers in summer school; TRS adopted an emergency rule at its April meeting to accomplish this.

Many superintendents are asking for an expansion of state laws that allow virtual education so that it can remain an option — and qualify for state funding — even after schools are fully opened for in-person instruction. HB 1468 by Rep. Keith Bell would allow districts to offer a “remote learning program” of synchronous virtual courses. TCTA has asked that any such bill include provisions to prohibit districts from requiring teachers to provide both virtual and in-person instruction during the same period, and at the time of publication, the Bell legislation does include such language.

One bill addresses some concerns about the provision of special education services during the pandemic. SB 89 by Sen. Jose Menendez would require districts to prepare a supplement to a student’s IEP that notes whether the child’s full evaluation or initial IEP was completed during the 2019-20 or 2020-21 school year, and if so whether it was completed by the required date; and whether the child’s special education services were interrupted, reduced, delayed, suspended or discontinued during those school years.

TRS 

In addition to the TRS bills noted above that relate to COVID-19 issues, a few other TRS bills are on the move. 

HB 1575 by Rep. Stan Lambert and SB 706 by Sen. Eddie Lucio are similar Sunset bills for the Teacher Retirement System. The bills include proposals designed to improve TRS communications with retired and active school employees, including the creation of an ombudsman position within the agency and a requirement that TRS develop an outreach program to help members more effectively plan for retirement. 

The bills would revise the penalties against retirees who violate return-to-work limitations — currently retirees are penalized in the amount of their full TRS check for any month in which they exceed the limitations, but the Sunset-recommended language would make the penalty the lesser of the TRS check or the retiree’s salary for the month. 

Other bills also address the penalties for exceeding the TRS return-to-work limits. HB 3787 by Rep. Jay Dean would allow anyone retiring before Jan. 1, 2021, to return to work full time (after sitting out at least a full calendar month) without jeopardizing their TRS annuity. HB 2109 by Rep. Gene Wu and SB 288 by Sen. Kel Seliger revise the penalty for working more than the allotted time by creating a “three strikes” system that begins with a warning, then a lesser penalty, before finally penalizing the retiree’s full TRS check or the salary earned in the relevant month. 

Retirees are asking legislators for an increase in their benefits. Since the legislature approved increases in the contributions from the state, districts and active employees last session, the system has become actuarially sound and a small benefit increase is feasible. However, some lawmakers may not want to push the system close to unsoundness again by passing a benefit increase and would prefer to wait until the retirement fund has been stable for another couple of years. HB 3214 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, would provide a 6% cost-of-living increase (capped at $100/month) for retirees who retired between Aug. 31, 2004, and Aug. 31, 2021. HB 3507 by Rep. Glenn Rogers would provide a “13th check” in the amount of the regular monthly annuity, but no more than $2,000, for retirees who retired as of Dec. 31, 2020. 

Teacher training

TCTA has pushed for years to streamline teacher training and professional development requirements. Lawmakers tend to address important student issues such as mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention through additional teacher training, without regard to teachers’ individual professional growth needs. TCTA participated as a subgroup lead in the Teacher Workforce Workgroup convened by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office prior to the session with the goal of eliminating duplicative requirements and reviewing the frequency of the required training. 

The group made several recommendations, culminating in legislation filed by Sen. Royce West (SB 1267) and Rep. J.M. Lozano (HB 3804). The bills are designed to establish fewer but more meaningful teacher requirements, enabling teachers to more freely select training opportunities that are relevant to them. There has been some pushback from advocacy groups concerned that the proposal will reduce the emphasis on their particular area of concern, but TCTA has repeatedly testified that the bill simply removes duplicative training, and those areas will still be included in required teacher training. 

Standardized testing

Leading up to the session there was some hope that either the Biden administration, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, or the Texas Legislature would suspend STAAR testing, understanding that test results in such an unusual year would not be valid and would cause further anxiety to already stressed students and teachers. Commissioner Morath made clear early on that he would not suspend testing (though he did suspend school district rankings for the year and removed the fifth and eighth grade STAAR promotion requirements), and Biden’s Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced that while the federal government would allow some flexibility in how and when tests could be administered, there would be no suspension.

Realistically, it would have been very difficult to pass a bill early enough in the session to affect this year’s tests, even if there was support to do so. There have been some efforts to curb testing for future years. Several bills have been filed that would reduce STAAR testing to only the subjects required by federal law, eliminating writing and social studies exams and, in at least one of the bills, replacing end-of-course exams with a nationally recognized assessment such as the SAT or ACT.

HB 1603 by Rep. Dan Huberty would continue indefinitely the use of individual graduation committees for students who fail to pass the end-of-course exams required for graduation. The IGC law has up to now had a two-year expiration date, which lawmakers have extended each session. HB 999 by Rep. Diego Bernal also concerns IGCs but is limited to high school students affected by the “COVID years” — this year’s sophomores, juniors and seniors. It would allow formation of an IGC for a student without first requiring the student to fail end-of-course exams multiple times. 

Charter schools

Despite ongoing concerns about charter school expenditures, and evidence that as a group they underperform traditional public schools, efforts continue this session to expand and relax the laws that govern them. A priority bill in the Senate, SB 28 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would limit the ability of the State Board of Education to veto the commissioner’s approval of a charter school, which has always been an important check on the creation of new charter schools. It would also create an appeal process for certain charters whose applications were denied and exempt many charters from zoning laws. HB 3610 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins would exempt charters from state property taxes, thereby reducing taxable property values and property tax revenue for local governments.

Counselor time

Sen. Eddie Lucio files legislation each session to ensure that counselors are given the time to actually be counselors, and we hope that this is the year he is successful. His SB 179, which has passed the Senate, would require school boards to adopt policies that ensure counselors spend at least 80% of their time on counseling duties. Assistance with test administration would not count as counseling duties. 

Coming full circle

The end of the session will come around the same time as the end of the school year. Just as our members do for their students each year, TCTA will continue fighting the good fight for teachers, and hope we will have good news to report when it’s all over after Memorial Day. Be sure to check our website and emailed eUpdates for regular reporting on the legislative session, and keep an eye out for our end-of-session wrap-up this summer.