Legislative Update (Week of March 22)

Charter school expansion
Last week the Senate Education Committee heard another harmful charter-school bill, SB 28 (Paul Bettencourt, D-Houston), which would eliminate the authority of our elected State Board of Education to veto bad charter applications—thus leaving approval up to the sole discretion of the education commissioner.  The bill also would take away public input on adding new charter campuses—meaning they could end up across the street from your public school without any public say. Finally, the bill would exempt charter schools from any municipal zoning laws in many towns and cities. SB 28 was left pending in the committee.

A similar bill—HB 1348 (Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur), which would strictly limit the powers of cities and counties to apply land use and development rules to charter-schools—passed out of the House Public Education Committee on March 16. Act now to send an online letter opposing HB 1348.

These bills intend to open the floodgates to charter-school expansion, allow charters to locate wherever they want, and incentivize taking public school students out of districts. The end goal is to privatize schools and cash in on kids. Texas AFT President Zeph Capo wrote an open letter to members and public education advocates to read the latest Network for Public Education Report: “Chartered for Profit: The Hidden World of Charter Schools Operated for Financial Gain.”

Capo writes: “Friends, this, quite frankly, is an assault on democracy and an insult to taxpayers who want transparency and accountability for their hard-earned dollars. It’s time to stop charters from cashing in on our kids. If the public is taken completely out of the charter approval process, are charters really public schools after all?”

State takeovers of school districts
On Thursday the Senate Education Committee heard SB 1365 (Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston), which would give the commissioner of education more power in removing local school boards—due to accountability sanctions or questions over financial management—and replacing them with state-appointed boards of managers. This bill, intended to clear the way for the state’s legal arguments in the attempted takeover of Houston ISD, would have significant consequences for districts across the state. The bill was left pending in committee. The House Public Education Committee will hear the House’s version of the bill, HB 3270 (Harold Dutton, D-Houston) this week.

Discriminating against trans kids
On Friday the Senate State Affairs Committee 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.”

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo summarized our opposition to the bill:  “As if the bathroom bill wasn’t cruel enough, some of our state senators feel they need to launch an unneeded crusade against a select group of kids, putting schools in the unthinkable spot of implementing state-sanctioned discrimination. I say let them play, and keep out of it.”

Good bills moving forward
HB 699 (Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston), which would require school districts to excuse absences and all promotion of students with serious illnesses, passed the House Public Education Committee last Tuesday. The bill is known as “Riley’s Rule,” after the student whose experiences inspired the legislation.

HB 1603 (Dan Huberty, R-Houston), which would make individual graduation committees permanent, also passed in the committee meeting.

HB 999 (Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio) adds additional flexibility to the Individual Graduation Committees (IGC) law to help certain students who might be affected by the pandemic. The bill would enable students who were in 12th grade during the 2020-21, 2021-22, or 2022-23 school years to graduate without considering their performance on required end-of-course exams.

Suppressing the vote
Two bills attempting to limit voting—SB 7 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola) and HB 6 (Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park)—were heard in committee last week, and SB 7 passed in committee. Proposals in the bills include enhanced felony charges for distribution of absentee ballots in some situations, making disabled voters prove their disability before receiving a mail-in ballot, limits on voting locations, banning drive-through voting locations, and an assortment of other requirements that make it harder to vote. Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee scheduled to hear the bill,  took some invited testimony before being forced to cancel the hearing due to a procedural error on his part. More than 100 people made the trip to Austin for the hearing, only to be turned away with a promise from Cain to hold another hearing.

A budget, bullying and threat to education funding

  • We anticipated seeing the Senate budget introduced in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. The budget will be a first glance at how the state will address public education funding. However, we don’t expect information about how the state will spend the massive infusion of federal funding until later in the Session.
  • Also scheduled for Tuesday in the House Public Education Committee is a hearing on HB 256 (Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio), a bill we support that would require districts to include a policy for “anti-bullying measures to address bullying in the workplace, including provisions to address the bullying of a teacher by a parent.”
  • Bills also will be heard this week that would extend the expiration date for a provision of the state tax code that allows school districts to give incentives (property tax breaks) to companies moving to Texas. These breaks to large corporations will cost our state $1.9 billion in the next budget cycle alone. Texas AFT and our allies oppose these giveaways to corporations.
  • The House Administration Committee will consider rescinding the requirement to wear masks on the House floor.

More news from the Senate
On Tuesday, in Senate Transportation, Texas AFT supported SB 445 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola), which would expand school bus traffic laws to also apply during times when school buses deliver food.

More news from the House
The House Public Education Committee passed the following bills out of committee for consideration on the House general calendar.

  • HB 159 (Mary González, D-El Paso) makes changes to the requirements, expected competencies, and certifications of educators working with students with disabilities, who are defined in the bill as those eligible to participate in a school’s special education program. (Texas AFT supported)
  • HB 725 (Jared Patterson, R-Friso) would allow a child who has been in foster care in another state or territory to qualify for free public school pre-K programs, so long as the child currently lives in Texas, beginning with the 2021-22 school year. (Texas AFT supported)
  • HB 785 (Alma Allen, D-Houston) would require annual review of student behavioral intervention plans and reviews to measure progress of BIPs. The bill would also set up a process to inform parents of the use of restraints on students.
  • HB 1114 (Shawn Thierry, D-Houston) would allow a district to expand a school-based health center to include delivery of mental health services, including mental health education. The bill would also expand the membership of a local health education and health care advisory council to include at least one person who is a mental health care professional licensed to practice in Texas.

These bills of note were heard by the House Public Education Committee:

  • HB 2120 (Keith Bell, R-Forney) would require that school boards adopt a grievance policy for employees, parents and students, and the public, including a requirement that the resolution of a complaint occur within 120 days after it is filed. (Texas AFT supported)
  • HB 2954 (Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston) would require TEA to establish a suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention program for optional implementation in elementary schools. (Texas AFT supported)
  • HB 2519 (Drew Darby, R-San Angelo) would include a requirement for rural educators on the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) and make several favorable changes to laws regarding educator contracts. The bill would: shorten the “no-penalty” deadline for educators to resign from their contract from 45 days down to 30 days before the first day of instruction; mandate other changes to increase educators’ awareness of disciplinary actions being taken against them; and enable SBEC to consider other factors in contract abandonment cases. (Texas AFT supported)
  • HB 2557 (Glenn Rogers, R-Graford) would create a school security volunteer program that would enable retired law enforcement and military veterans to provide security services to schools and carry a handgun at school. (Texas AFT opposed)

Good bills of the week:
HB 4382 by Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D- Dallas) would allow school district employees leave for COVID-19 quarantines without having to use their personal days or days granted under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993. The provision would alleviate a huge source of stress for many employees who have worried about lost pay and not having the leave time to cover quarantines. 

Ramos also filed HB 2234, which is often affectionately referred to as the “Grow Your Own Teacher Bill.” It calls for students enrolled in high-school dual credit courses and educational aides serving at schools to receive tuition and fee exemptions at colleges and universities to pursue a teaching degree. This bill would help lessen the financial burden on those seeking a teaching degree and incentivize to more people entering the profession.