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EduLege Tracker 5-16-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 33
May 16, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Pretty-much a blank page…

House and Senate conferees seem to be miles apart on resolving key differences to this session’s top legislative promise—revamping school funding and providing for property tax relief.

As the watermark reads on the back of an insurance policy or investment statement:

This Page Was Intentionally Left Blank.


“Nothing is off the table.  We’re starting at ground zero,” acknowledged House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Humble. The 10 legislative conferees have just 12 days to hammer out a compromise on the omnibus House Bill 3, and then secure approval by both the House and Senate, before the final legislation can be sent to Governor Greg Abbott.

The Legislature adjourns sine die on Monday, May 27.

Until then, critical questions surrounding the legislation remain unanswered.

Teachers can expect a salary increase next year. And taxpayers will likely see an impact on their property tax bills. But by how much?

For months, teachers have set their sights on a $5,000 pay boost promised by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and the State Senate.

But when the dust settles, the actual increase will be a compromise between the Senate’s $5,000 for all teachers and campus librarians, and the House’s pay raise, which will average $1,850 per educator, and would include school staff, such as counselors, nurses and cafeteria workers.

“The pay raise is in there, but I can’t tell you we can hold the line at $5,000,” admitted Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who wrote the Senate version of the school bill. “The whole bill is up for negotiations.”

Michelle Smith with Raise Your Hand Texas believes that the $5,000 pay raise will be reduced in the final version of HB 3. The problem with the Senate’s pay raise proposal, she said, is that it costs $4 billion, and consumes almost half of the $9 billion in new General Revenue that the Legislature has earmarked for public schools.

There is one school priority upon which both chambers have agreed—to fund full-day Pre-Kindergarten for low-income families at a cost of about $780 million a year.

* * *

The attempt to impose new state controls over local property tax increases emerged as a highly contentious issue for the Legislature in 2017, but this year, both chambers have proposed strikingly similar proposals.

The House and Senate have agreed to cap local cities and counties at 3.5 percent growth in property tax revenue per year, unless an election is held and voters approve a tax increase beyond that threshold.

The House proposes to cap school district increases at just two percent before forcing a rollback election. 

The House also set aside $2.7 billion in its version of HB 3 to lower school property tax rates by at least four cents per $100 of taxable value.

The Senate plan would reduce school tax rates by 10 cents, and requires an additional $2.9 billion in new state revenue to fund those tax cuts.

Corrupt’ testing…

The too-much-testing lobby—that is, education and parent groups—are also keeping a close watch on the end-of-session negotiations over House Bill 3 to see if the Legislature tinkers with the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness and its impact upon teacher salaries, campus ratings and student sanctions.

The Senate version of the HB 3 includes merit pay for teachers in the form of a $127 million program that allows local school districts to award additional salary increases to top-ranked teachers. 

The House version doesn’t include merit pay, which teacher groups generally loathe because they say it relies upon unreliable STAAR test scores to determine the best teachers.

The Senate plan also includes financial rewards for school districts with higher achieving students.  

The Reverend Charles Foster Johnson, Executive Director of the Fort Worth-based Pastors for Texas Children, is highly critical of the STAAR tests, based largely upon independent research that shows that the exams are too difficult for the grade-level for which they are intended to measure.

“The test is corrupt,” Reverend Johnson said. “It doesn’t measure grade-level learning.”

Additionally, the STAAR recently received unwanted national attention after an expletive was discovered in an image of a graffiti park in one of the exams.

The Texas Education Agency apologized that profanity slipped through the testing materials.

“After the test was administered, TEA discovered that two of the included images contained vulgar words in very small lettering,” TEA said in a statement. “This is in no way acceptable or appropriate, and we deeply regret that these images appeared on the test. We apologize to all our parents and students, and in the spirit of continuous improvement, we pledge to ensure this issue never occurs again.”

State Senator Beverly Powell, D-Burleson—a former school board member—tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the proposed STAAR score bonuses that the Senate ultimately included in its version of the school finance bill.

But Senator Powell still hopes House-Senate conferees will listen to “the numerous concerns voiced on the floor…regarding funding tied to standardized test scores.”

It always happens…

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has revised his Biennial Revenue Estimate, increasing the amount of money that the Legislature has to spend for the 2020-2021 State Budget by $518 million.

Comptroller Hegar delivered the good news as legislative budget writers are in the midst of closed-door meetings trying to finalize how much the Legislature should spend on public schools, property tax cuts and thousands of other state programs and services.

Back in January, when the Legislature convened, Comptroller Hegar projected that legislators would have about $119 billion in state General Revenue to spend in the next two budget years. Now that amount is closer to $120 billion

Comptroller Hegar also estimates that the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund will have a balance of approximately $15.6 billion—making it the largest investment fund of its type in the country.

Although House-Senate conferees are yet to agree on the new State Appropriations Bill, legislators have agreed—in principal—to spend several billion dollars from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for new school safety measures, retired teacher benefits and other programs.  

Don’t tell until asked…

The House Calendars Committee has scheduled floor debate for Friday on the controversial legislation that restricts school districts from lobbying at the State Capitol or from joining professional associations that advocate for, or against, any legislation.

Senate Bill 29, by Senator Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and sponsored in the House by Representative Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, aims to prevent school districts from directly or indirectly attempting to influence legislation regarding taxes, bond elections, tax-supported debt or public ethics and government transparency.

The bill would restrict school district officials to providing information to state legislators only when requested to do so by individual members.

Poor kids lose…

A bill that sought to prevent low-income children from losing Medicaid coverage over paperwork issues never made it to the House floor this session.

That means the measure, which had bipartisan support, likely is dead.

Each year, about 50,000 Texas children lose their Medicaid coverage at least temporarily because their families fail to send proof to the state that they are poor enough to quality for the services.

Critics say that they don’t know of another state that conducts the income-qualification checks as frequently as does Texas. Families are contacted multiple times by the state and are asked to send in pay stubs, or other information, to prove that they qualify for Medicaid. The families become confused by the constant letters, and don’t send the documents, advocates said.

One in three Texas children who were kicked off the Medicaid in 2017 re-enrolled within a year, suggesting that they lost coverage because their parents failed to do the paperwork on time.

The legislation—House Bill 342—by State Representative Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, would have eliminated the frequent state income checks.

“I am disappointed that we weren’t able to have this important discussion on reducing the number of children without access to health care,” Representative Cortez said.

His bill received a committee hearing in mid-March, and faced no public opposition.  But House Human Services Committee Chair James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, didn’t call for a vote on HB 342 until the end of April.

As a result, HB 342 was never scheduled for a floor vote, and was one of hundreds of proposals that died in the House last week—the deadline for the chamber to pass its bills over to the Senate.

Teen smokers lose…

The Texas House has passed the Senate bill that raises, from 18 to 21, the legal age to buy, use or own tobacco products or electronic cigarettes—except for military personnel.

Raising the age will help keep tobacco and vaping products out of schools and away from younger people who are highly susceptible to addictive behavior, said State Representative John Zerwas, a physician.

“If you get addicted in middle school or high school, as a 14- to 17-year-old, there is less than a five percent chance you will ever kick the habit,” Dr. Zerwas, R-Richmond, told House members. “The idea here is to...move these harmful things away from the schools so we can prevent the addiction by some of our younger citizens out there.”

Minor changes made by the House to Senate Bill 21 will require that the measure be returned to the Senate for approval before it can be sent to Governor Abbott, who can veto it, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21, and the third to include military exemptions.

State Representative Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment that broadens the bill's military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with valid military identification to purchase tobacco. 

Easy-peazy…

Three charter school organizations with deep Texas roots will receive about $218 million in federal grants to expand their operations across the state and country.

IDEA Public Schools, the KIPP charter school network and Responsive Education Solutions, which combine to educate nearly 82,000 students in Texas, were awarded five-year grants through the U.S. Department of Education.

The grants to IDEA Public Schools, based in the Rio Grande Valley, and the national KIPP Foundation, which partners with its Texas-based affiliate, are the two largest awards in the program’s history.

In all, the U.S. Department of Education awarded about $300 million in grants to expand charter operations throughout the country. The grants come as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and charter school advocates push for greater financial support from the states and federal government, while critics argue that publicly-funded, privately-operated charter operators drain money from traditional school districts and lack accountability.

IDEA Public Schools will receive about $116.8 million to expand in Texas and the southeastern United States, with an estimated $9 million dedicated to the network’s first foray into the Houston area. The KIPP Foundation won an $86.3 million grant to spread around its 29 regions across the country, with an undetermined amount landing in Texas. Responsive Education Solutions, the smallest of the three networks, was awarded about $15 million, aimed at opening three campuses in the Houston region.

The inevitable…

The DeSoto school board is eliminating about 100 employees—mostly teachers—and is considering a significant increase to the tax rate as the district wrestles to overcome its significant financial problems.

The DeSoto board has approved the elimination of 72 teachers, 16 administrators, and 10 support staff positions. But officials hope that some of those employees—as well as some who have already tendered resignations amid the financial uncertainty—will be able to find new jobs in the district as other staff decide on retirement or jobs elsewhere.

Superintendent D'Andre Weaver, who took the job just months before the financial mess became public, says that the reduction in force was the hardest decision that he and the board have had to make. Superintendent Weaver says the district delayed the cuts for as long as it could, so as to give DeSoto employees more time to make their own decisions.

Officials have been scrambling to find more than $20 million in savings to dig DeSoto out of its financial hole. They say financial mismanagement and sloppy bookkeeping by previous administrators led to the district's problems.  

Current DeSoto officials have said they are cooperating with law enforcement, which has been investigating what happened with district finances.

Other cost-saving measures include taking out short-term loans, voting to temporarily close an elementary school and restructuring debt so some that payments can be delayed.

But to get a handle on the millions still owed for major projects—such as a new campus and renovations—trustees are considering a 12-cent increase to the debt service side of the district's tax rate.

Interim Chief Financial Officer Deborah Cabrera says the district should have increased that tax rate last year to cover debt expenses—which have only grown larger.

He returned to the mountaintop—and beyond…

W.T. Johnston has died.

The longtime head football coach of the Newton Eagles passed away last Saturday—living years longer than doctors predicted that he could—and taking his team to back-to-back state championships in both 2017 and 2018.

Coach Johnston contracted a rare Graft-Versus-Host Disease, which stemmed from complications of a double lung transplant surgery that he underwent in April 2015

“There is a reason everything happens,” Coach Johnston said at the time. “The way I look at it right now, I'm in the valley, and I'm fighting to get back on top of the mountain.”

He spent the 2015 offseason undergoing treatments twice a week at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Medical and travel expenses exceeded $20,000 per week.

But the coach was back on the field, coaching for the 2016 season.

The Eagles went undefeated in 2017 and 2018, winning back-to-back state titles.

In the moments after Newton defensive back Dominique Seastrunk made the game-clinching interception in the 2018 Class 3A Division II State Championship game against Canadian at AT&T Stadium in Arlington last December, players celebrated, fans cheered and Coach Johnston bowed his head and placed his hands together from his chair along the sideline.

As his player's went to go shake hands at midfield, Coach Johnston—with his glasses raised on top of his head and the tubes from his oxygen tank still in his nose—conducted a remarkable post-game interview on Fox Sport Southwest.

Coach Johnston didn’t speak as much about his team’s victory as he did about faith and determination. And climbing to the top of the mountain.


EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.