Legislative Update: How public ed fared in the session ending today


Here is a helpful session update. Thanks to the AFT for its many years of advocacy.  There are a number of positive highlights, including "public education maintained the full funding from last session’s school finance bill, HB 3. Legislators also dealt some serious blows to charter-school expansion." A virtual schooling bill also died when democrats walked out yesterday evening. Helpful detail, as well, on HB 3979.

Read on.

-Angela Valenzuela

Legislative Update: How public ed fared in the session ending today

Publish Date: May 31, 2021 8:27 am
Author: Texas AFT

Walkout by Democratic reps kills voter suppression bill, but governor guarantees a revisit in special session 

Fighting an expansive voter suppression bill to the last minute, Democratic House members staged a walkout late Sunday evening, breaking the quorum needed for a vote on SB 7 before a fatal deadline. However, Gov. Greg Abbott said shortly after that he would include the bill in a special session in the fall. SB 7 would have made it easier for judges to overturn elections in Texas, in addition to creating new limitations on early voting hours, adding voting-by-mail restrictions, and banning drive-thru voting.

Texas AFT opposed this bill, which would have made Texas one of the most restrictive states for voting access in the nation. In the debate on the bill’s conference committee report Sunday, Democrats objected that the bill and its restrictions on voting had expanded with legislation never heard in committees or on the floors of each chamber. The new proposals and rushed debate by Republicans spurred the walkout—a rarity at the Texas Capitol, with the last one occurring in 2003. 

Legislators already were set to return to the Capitol in late September or early October for a special session on redistricting, which was delayed from consideration this session by late data from the 2020 census count. The redistricting will create new maps for state and congressional seats. Beyond adding the SB 7 legislation, the governor has the sole authority to include additional items for consideration in the special session. The governor also has indicated decisions about the state portion of federal pandemic relief funds would come during the special session.

In a rough session, public education funding was a bright spot

As the Legislature gavels out of session today, we report that public education maintained the full funding from last session’s school finance bill, HB 3. Legislators also dealt some serious blows to charter-school expansion. The conservative Legislature, however, did push through, permitless handgun carryadded restrictions on abortions, and passed a bill intent on fueling culture wars in our local school districts. (See HB 3979 below.) 

The state budget passed last week after both chambers approved the conference committee report. The budget does still include the provision protecting educator salary increases from HB 3 in 2019, and it maintains the increased level of public education funding from that law. Another addition is a provision detailing expenditures to the Teacher Incentive Allotment, a program Texas AFT has been critical of in the past because of its reliance on test scores to rank and compensate teachers.

Previously, the Senate passed SB 29 (Charles Perry, R-Lubbock), which would discriminate against transgender students by forcing them to “compete in sports associated with their biological sex as determined at or near birth.” The bill, which Texas AFT opposed, died last week after missing a deadline for House passage.

Texas AFT will have a complete wrap-up of bills after they receive final approval with the governor’s signature, acceptance, or rejection with a veto by the final deadline of June 20.

Problematic virtual school bill falls victim to walkout

HB 1468 (Keith Bell, R-Forney) would have allowed public school districts to create Local Remote Learning Programs (virtual schools). While poised to pass, this bill became collateral damage when the House Democrats broke quorum Sunday night. The bill was concerning because it would have expanded virtual learning to grades Kindergarten to second and opened the door wider for more virtual students overall through grade 12; virtual education has not shown efficacy for most students, particularly younger children.

State takeover bill changes dramatically before final passage

SB 1365 (Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston) originally was intended to increase the authority of the commissioner of education when imposing sanctions and to make his decisions “final and unappealable.” The final legislation as it heads to the governor, however, is quite different and includes several provisions heavily lobbied by school districts. Though Texas AFT cannot support what is being touted as a compromise bill, our members helped it become a vastly different piece of legislation.

As an initial matter, Texas AFT member activism raised the profile of this bill, versions of which had to be sent back to committee twice because of procedural errors called by Rep. Dr. Alma Allen (D-Houston). Even after a compromise among districts and the bill’s House sponsors, Texas AFT continued to fight for improvements and against the bill’s harmful provisions.

After the committee substitute of SB 1365 passed the House Public Education Committee, several school administrative groups compromised with committee members on a floor substitute, which was led by former House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, rather than current Chairman Harold Dutton. 

The compromise, which included the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards, created a due process structure, removing the final and unappealable language and limited confidentiality of witnesses. While Texas AFT was not party to the compromise, lawmakers had become aware of the language through Texas AFT’s pointed campaigns. Other issues addressed in the compromise language:

  • Only accountability system grades A through C will be given for 2021-2022, with the other campuses not rated. A provision was added that if a campus previously failing for multiple years (such as Houston ISD’s Wheatley) receives a C, the improvement would halt TEA interventions. 
  • While we strongly disagree with the addition in law of D ratings leading to state intervention, the bill amended the provisions allowing a D to trigger accountability sanctions to be less harsh than current commissioner practice. 
  • SB 1365 establishes that a D performance rating rather than just an F shall be considered among the criteria the commissioner considers with a renewal of a charter for an open-enrollment charter. So, charter schools with three D ratings in five years now face tougher oversight.

Despite this agreement from administrators and intense pressure to halt our opposition, Texas AFT continued to express grave concerns, successfully fighting for additional improvements, including removing a provision that allowed the commissioner authority to take actions not grounded in law and limiting the reduction of interlocutory appeals. 

All that being said, the bill’s fatal flaw remains: giving more weight to faulty current law that allows a TEA takeover of an entire district because of just one campus not meeting accountability standards.  While we worry about the consequences of this provision, House sponsor Huberty stated on the House floor that this bill would not interfere in the ongoing Houston ISD case. (Watch the video here.)

While Texas AFT will monitor the impacts of this legislation, had it not been for the thousands of letters, phone calls, and tweets from our members and allies, the result would have much been much worse. It’s time to build on this activism to work to dismantle our punitive accountability system in the 88th Legislative Session.

Charter schools faced obstacles for their rapid-expansion agenda

Texas AFT led the fight against legislation that would fuel charter-school expansion, including opposition to SB 487 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola). The measure was a charter-school expansion bill that claimed to simply grant the same zoning exemptions to charter schools as those received by real public schools. However, it failed to address the lack of public notice and opportunity for public input from elected officials and the public in charter school expansion. The bill was killed on the House floor last week by a point of order, and our members speaking out against its companion (SB 1348) also helped stop that bill from moving forward. 

Limits on STAAR tests required for graduation passes

HB  999 (Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio) acknowledges the challenges of assessing high school students during the pandemic. The bill allows an Individual Graduation Committee to determine that a student is qualified to graduate without considering performance on any end-of-course STAAR exams for the 2020-2021 school year and allows the commissioner of education to extend the exemption by rule until 2022. This bill has been sent to the governor.

School finance ‘clean-up’ bill includes raise protection language, delay on reading academies

HB 1525 (Dan Huberty, R-Houston) was intended to clean up language in last session’s school finance bill, HB 3, but because it addressed so many issues in public education, it became a vehicle to add provisions from several other bills that didn’t advance in the session. 

Of the provisions that affect teachers the most, we appreciate language requiring districts to maintain any teacher salary increases resulting from HB 3 so long as their funding didn’t decrease. Another good provision in the final bill was delaying the required completion of reading academies professional development until the 2022-2023 school year. We’ve heard from teachers that this 60-hour course is confusing, often consumes much more time than is stated in instructional hours, and that teachers are being required to take coursework with no pay or low compensation. The conference committee report was approved on a vote of 31-0 in the Senate and in the House by a vote of 129-3. It now heads to the governor. 

‘Controversial topics’ bill passes after contentious debate and rare procedural move

This harmful bill, HB 3979, would limit the ability of teachers to discuss controversial subjects and address race issues. It appeared that Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) had delivered a critical blow for the bill’s passage on Friday after calling a successful point of order that amendments added in the Senate were not germane. However, in a rarely used procedural move, the Senate made a motion to accept the original version of the House bill as it was sent to the Senate. The state Senate was intent on keeping this divisive and oppressive bill alive at all costs. 

HB 3979 in its original form was presented as a civics bill that required the teaching of several writings foundational to the birth of the United States. But House Democrats recognized that these requirements were just window dressing on the bill’s intent to stifle discussion of racial injustice; House members then added a slew of amendments of their own requiring instruction for writings on civil rights, slavery, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and the labor movement. With the Senate’s action to save the bill, those amendments remain. Now it will be up to the State Board of Education to figure out how these topics will fit into the state curriculum. 

The bill still prohibits schools from offering course credit for a wide range of activities for “participation in any internship, practicum, or similar activity involving social or public policy advocacy.” The broad language means students couldn’t even get extra credit for volunteering at any organization that promotes public policy, whether it be a dog shelter or their state legislator’s office.

While the bill faced contentious debate over required curriculum, the true intent of it’s author—Rep. Steve Toth, Republican of the Woodlands—was to serve up a wedge issue for future legislative and school board races around the Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, which the bill bans from being taught in schools. While the Critical Race theory mainly explores the intersection of the law and race, and the 1619 Project essays highlight little-known issues around slavery, they nonetheless have become a target for conservative activists around the country.  

We thank the thousands of Texas AFT members who voiced their opposition to this bill. It now heads to the governor. And the fight continues. 

Moves to give retirees a COLA or 13th check fall short, but legislators signal possible discussion in the fall.

Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas inquires about retiree pension benefit increases. Watch the video here.

Texas AFT supported several bills seeking a cost-of-living-increase (COLA) for TRS retiree pensions, but none made the cut. It was clear that while the TRS fund was actuarially sound and eligible for an increase, and most legislators support the concept, the prevailing mantra for the top leadership at the Capitol was: “Spend no new money.”

In an exchange between the state budget author, Rep. Greg Bonnen, and Rep. Rafael Anchía, Bonnen noted that while he would prefer to address a COLA in the 2023 session, funding for a 13th check could be a possibility in the fall special session. (See the video here.)

Broadband bill passes, signals investment in high-speed internet for areas without coverage

A top priority for state leadership and public education advocates—expanding broadband service to rural areas and neighborhoods lacking adequate access—passed both chambers and heads to the governor. The bill will provide grants and incentives to internet service providers to expand. Texas AFT supported this bill, which became even more important after seeing the impacts missing technology can have on remote work in a pandemic   

Bill changing state-employee pensions is a bad sign for all public employees

SB 321 (Joan Huffman, R-Houston) changes retirement rules for new public employees under the Employees Retirement System of Texas. This bill scraps reliable, classic, defined benefit pension plans for a riskier “cash balance” plan for new employees, a less reliable retirement benefit. While the bill does not involve Teacher Retirement System pensions, it shows that our defined-benefit pensions for public employees are still under attack. The Senate receded its proposed amendments and passed the House version of SB 321 just before the deadline. The bill now goes to the governor.

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