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EduLege Tracker 5-30-19

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EduLege Update Volume VII, Number 37
May 30, 2019
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Picking up where we left off…

Fourth and 7th grade students will no longer take Writing tests under the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, if Governor Greg Abbott signs House Bill 3906 into law.  

HB 3906 will incorporate writing questions on the Reading test in Grades 3 through 8 without dramatically expanding the testing time, according to House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Humble, who authored the bill.

Governor Abbott has until Sunday, June 16, to sign or veto HB 3906, or allow it to become law without his signature. It would go into effect Sept. 1, 2021.

“We’re trading eight hours of stand-alone testing for a few writing questions,” Chairman Huberty said.

The bill also requires that the Texas Education Agency appoint an advisory committee to determine if the STAAR tests are “valid and reliable assessment instruments.” This comes after three studies since 2012 have asserted that some tests are too difficult for students to read and understand.

HB 3906 also attempt to streamline the administration of STAAR—limiting the time length of the tests, for example, and barring any exams on Mondays.

A huge win…

The bill that provides retired teachers an additional one-time payment of up to $2,000, and which shores up their pension benefits at the Teacher Retirement System, is also awaiting Governor Abbott’s signature.

Senate Bill 12 will cost the state $1.1 billion over the next two years.

To stabilize the TRS, the bill would increase over the next six years the contributions the state, school districts and current school employees make to the pension system.

The compromise version of SB 12 that awaits Governor’s Abbott’s signature increases the state’s contribution from 6.6 percent to 8.25 percent of employee pay by 2024, increases current employees’ contribution from 7.7 percent to 8.25 percent by 2024, and school districts’ contribution from 1.5 percent to two percent.

“This is a huge win for all Texas school employees, a significant change in direction for our pensions,” said Cheryl Anderson, chair of the Texas Federation of Teachers Retiree Committee. “Most retirees have not seen a real pension increase for 14 years, so it’s exciting and gratifying to see this progress.”

The bill leaves it up to the TRS Board to determine the timing of when the one-time payment of up to $2,000 would be issued to retirees. Only employees who retired on or before December 31, 2018, will qualify for the extra payment.

According to TRS, there were about 420,000 retirees receiving on-average $2,078 every month in 2018.

Better than never…

One of the last major bills to which the Texas House and Senate agreed, before adjourning earlier this week, was Senate Bill 11, which would increase state funding to better secure schools, better identify students who are at risk of hurting themselves and others and would require more emergency response and suicide prevention training for school employees.

“The most important thing we can do in this bill is try to prevent. That’s why a whole lot of the focus of this bill is toward mental health,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, author of SB 11.

The final version of the bill passed the House 137-8, and the Senate 30-1.

SB 11 was filed in the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting last year, which left eight students and two teachers dead.

The bill would spend $110 million over the next two years, about $400 million less than what the House had called for in its version of SB 11.

School districts would receive about $10 more per student that they could spend toward improving the infrastructure of their campuses to make them safer; employing School Resource Officers or training School Marshals; and active shooter training.

It also would require that school districts create multihazard emergency plans, use trauma-informed practices, include substitute teachers in training sessions required for district employees and require that each classroom have access to a telephone or communication device.

SB 11 also establishes the Texas Mental Health Care Consortium to provide access to psychiatric professionals associated with the state’s medical schools to improve the mental health needs of children.

A controversial .000004 percent…

Legislators in gun-loving Texas have quietly gone around the National Rifle Association by slipping language into the $250 billion State Appropriations Bill that funds a $1 million public safety campaign on gun storage.

The last-minute move sets up a political test rarely seen in Texas for Governor Abbott, a Republican, who must decide whether to veto the item in the massive state spending bill or to ignore NRA opposition and approve the program.

The safe home gun storage program was first proposed in the governor’s report on school and gun safety, following the shooting at Santa Fe High School. But the idea was fiercely opposed by the NRA and gun-rights activists, and the proposal appeared all but dead weeks ago.

But then budget negotiators—the majority of whom are Republicans—slipped the funding into the State Budget before it was approved by the House and Senate and sent to the governor.  

“I have full confidence that the governor will look at it hard and will realize it’s all about saving lives. I hope there is no one discouraging him,” said Gyl Switzer, Executive Director of Texas Gun Sense.

Governor Abbott has said he supports promoting gun safety. But he has also bowed to pressure from the NRA and gun rights advocates on issues such as stiffer penalties for negligent gun storage, as well as “red flag” laws to keep guns away from people who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

Among the disappointed…

Advocates for the nearly 532,000 public school students in Texas who have physical, learning and emotional disabilities say it largely was a disappointing legislative session.

These advocates were hoping for more from the Texas Legislature, especially after the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the state had denied thousands of special education students with the classroom services to which they were entitled for decades. 

The feds agreed with findings that were first reported by the Houston Chronicle three years ago, that the Texas Education Agency had imposed an 8.5 percent enrollment cap on special education enrollment by local school districts.

State Representative Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, whose sister has Down syndrome, says Texas still has a long way to go before it is adequately addressing the learning challenges of special needs students.

This session’s high-profile initiatives to increase school funding and improve school security “sucked all the air out of the Legislature when it comes to public schools,” said Steven Aleman with Disability Rights Texas.

“We haven’t heard a lot about school testing; we haven’t heard a lot about school accountability; you haven’t heard a lot about special education. So, it’s not just students with disabilities who kind of got pushed to the side. A lot of other issues did as well.”

The one exception, however, is state funding for dyslexic students.

The session's major education legislation—House Bill 3—does increase state funding for students with dyslexia, a learning condition that both House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Humble, say they struggled with as children.

“It wasn’t easy being a dyslexic student growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s—and it still isn’t easy for Texas kids today,” Speaker Bonnen acknowledged. “But I want every child struggling with dyslexia to know that they can and will succeed with the proper learning tools in place.”

Mr. Aleman with Disability Rights Texas acknowledged, “To have some new state money devoted to at least a sub-population under that category of learning disability is a win.”

He lost his job…

Shortly before the Senate’s closing gavel ended his six-month term as Texas Secretary of State, David Whitley delivered his letter of resignation, “effective immediately,” to Governor Abbott.

Mr. Whitley needed Senate confirmation by the end of the legislative session to remain on the job, but fell short of the required 21 votes, despite solid support from all 19 Republican senators.

All 12 Democrats, however, held firm in their opposition to Mr. Whitley over his handling of an error-filled investigation into the citizenship status of registered Texas voters.

First appointed in mid-December, Mr. Whitley oversaw the botched review that pulled the state into three federal lawsuits, prompted a congressional investigation over concerns of federal voting rights violations and frayed relationships between the state’s elections office and the local officials that it depends upon to run elections.  

In the end, the review caused more problems for the state than it solved, fueling doubts about the unsupported claims of rampant voter fraud it sought to address. And it stoked deep partisan scars in a Legislature with a long history of suppressing the rights of voters of color.

Minutes before the Senate gaveled out—and minutes after news broke that Mr. Whitley had resigned as Secretary of State—Governor Abbott publicly doled out what Senate Democrats saw as punishment for holding firm throughout the session in their opposition to his appointment.

A Senate clerk read the news: Governor Abbott had vetoed four seemingly uncontroversial bills authored by several of the Democrats whose opposition had doomed his nominee for Secretary of State.

Parting words from the Lite Gov…

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says that he has no plans to leave Texas, calling the just-concluded 86th Legislature the “most successful session in modern history.”

Addressing the persistent rumors that he might take a job in the Trump administration, Lieutenant Governor Patrick says that he would turn down the President if offered a job.

"I would say ‘no.’ ... I can serve him in many ways as Lieutenant Governor," said Mr. Patrick, who skipped the Legislature’s opening day back in January because he was consulting with the President at the White House on immigration and border security.

“I have spent a lot of time with the President. I have been in the limousine with him.  I have been on Air Force One with him. We have never, ever talked about me taking a position with the administration,” Lieutenant Governor Patrick said.

He added, “I love being Lieutenant Governor. This is the coolest job in politics in the country, and it's a very powerful job. ... This rumor has absolutely been the craziest thing I've ever seen.”

Parting words from the House Speaker…

With the legislative session adjourned, state legislators will soon turn their attention to the 2020 elections. Each of the 150 House members is up for re-election.

Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, has threatened retribution against members—Republican or Democrat—who campaign against each other ahead of the 2020 elections, as happened in the 2018 midterm elections. That year, for example, State Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, sent members of his staff to Houston to campaign against Republican representative Sarah Davis. 

If that sort of thing happens in 2020, Speaker Bonnen says that he will penalize them in the next legislative session, should he be reelected speaker. The speaker makes committee assignments and assigns bills to committees.

Speaker Bonnen also dismissed an influential conservative group that has funded primary challenges against incumbent Texas legislators in an effort to push the Legislature further to the right.

The group, Empower Texans, trashed Speaker Bonnen throughout the legislative session, alleging that he was blocking legislation that would have furthered anti-abortion efforts and strengthened certain gun laws.  

Other groups, like Texas Right to Life and Texas Gun Rights also criticized Speaker Bonnen’s leadership.

“They aren’t worth responding to,” Speaker Bonnen said as the Legislature adjourned. “If we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state, they would say we had not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

A victory for transgender students…

The U.S. Supreme Court has left intact a Pennsylvania school district policy of allowing transgender high school students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

The justices, without comment, turned away an appeal by other students, who said the policy violated their privacy rights because they might encounter transgender students while not fully clothed.

The rebuff leaves intact a policy put in place by the Boyertown Area School District in 2016, after President Obama’s administration told public schools to allow transgender students to use the facilities of their choice.

Boyertown kept the policy even after President Trump’s Education Department rescinded the Obama directive.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented a student at Boyertown Area Senior High who is transgender, and the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a coalition of LGBTQ youth leaders and youth organizations.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision, the ACLU tweeted: “Our client … was accepted as the boy he is—this should be every student’s experience. This is a victory for trans students and educators nationwide.” 

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.