Senate, House Education Committees Begin Hearings

The House Public Education Committee met for its first official hearing of the session Tuesday. The committee, under the new leadership of Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Salado), heard invited testimony from the Texas Education Agency and the Texas School Safety Center. 

Commissioner Mike Morath gave a broad overview of the agency’s objectives and priorities, as well as current statistics regarding public education in Texas. For the seven new members on the committee, this was largely an informational hearing to get them acquainted with the mammoth tasks and challenges that face our Texas public schools.   

Morath pointed out some disparities among teacher salaries in the state and also touted the results of the Teacher Vacancy Task Force. He acknowledged the unsustainable work-life balance that teachers are having to navigate, but his solution of providing (presumably state-developed and -approved) instructional materials may not be the silver bullet he promotes it to be. Some committee members took exception to the commissioner’s plan to revamp the A-F accountability system beginning with next school year. 

The commissioner gave a nearly identical presentation to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. One notable difference was the committee’s interest in the hugely problematic HB 4545, regarding accelerated instruction for students who fail a STAAR assessment. Both the members and Morath recognized the problems in the implementation of this bill and seem invested in taking measures to correct this new, massive imposition on teachers’ workload. 

The Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education also met briefly to hear from Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller. Keller’s testimony primarily focused on the state’s workforce needs. 

Keller emphasized his goal to increase educational attainment across Texas’ working age population. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), only about 48% of working-age Texans have post-high school degrees or certificates. Keller testified that these levels are not sufficient to meet the state’s workforce demands. To achieve Texas’ higher education goals, Keller emphasized the need to fully fund student financial aid programs so all eligible students can take advantage of them. Keller also stated the need to increase community college funding in accordance with the recommendations from the Commission on Community College Finance

House Appropriations, Pensions Committees Discuss Funding for Educator Salaries & Pensions

Texas AFT Retiree Plus Members Rita Runnels, Pamela Davis-Duck, and Phyllis Ruffin.

On Monday, the House Appropriations Committee on Article III (the education portion of the state budget) heard testimony from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS), as well as from Texas AFT.

Texas AFT Retiree Plus members Pamela Davis-Duck, Phyllis Ruffin, and Rita Carden Runnels provided testimony on the need for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their TRS annuity. No TRS retiree who has retired since 2004 has ever received a COLA, despite the fact that a dollar today is worth only two-thirds of what it was worth in 2004. Education Austin member Rebekah Ozuna, meanwhile, testified on the need to provide educators with raises and additional support in the classroom.

Texas AFT Director of Public Affairs and Legislative Counsel Patty Quinzi provided testimony urging the Legislature to increase education funding by substantially increasing the basic allotment. The basic allotment is the foundational per-student funding provided by the state. For any increase in the basic allotment, districts are statutorily required to spend 30% of the allotment on compensation, either for hiring or raises. Texas AFT’s Respect Agenda calls for a minimum $10,000 across-the-board raise for certified educators and a minimum 15% across-the-board raise for classified educators.

Testimony from TEA Commissioner Mike Morath contrasted significantly with that given by Texas AFT. While Morath said it would be “wise” to increase the basic allotment, he failed to give a straightforward answer when asked directly by Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) what an adequate increase to the allotment would be. Morath also said he was “not a fan” of across-the-board pay raises like Texas AFT has proposed and instead prefers “performance-based” raises based on student performance on standardized tests.  

When asked by Rep. John Bryant (D-Dallas) whether current education funding levels are adequate for achieving the state’s education goals, Morath refused to answer directly. Bryant referred to TEA’s own data on how inflation has eroded the spending power of the basic allotment since it was last raised in 2019, but Morath refused to say schools needed additional funding and only agreed that funding was “important.” On the issue of funding, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) pointed out that there is no TEA data on how much it actually costs to educate a student in Texas. State law used to require TEA to perform biennial studies on how much it costs to adequately educate a child in Texas, but that requirement was removed by the Legislature in the early 2000s.

At both the appropriations hearing Monday and the Pensions, Investments, and Financials Services (PIFS) Committee on Wednesday, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie provided the Legislature with information on how they could fund a TRS COLA. In the proposed state budget, the Legislature included language to provide TRS members with a benefit enhancement of some sort, but did not provide specific information about how that enhancement would be structured or financed. 

Guthrie stated that if the Legislature provided him with an amount that they intended to appropriate to TRS, then he could provide legislators with different structured plans for how that money could be allocated: in an across-the-board COLA, a tiered COLA based on inflation’s impact to your pension, or in a one-time 13th check. Guthrie reiterated that the actuarial best practice would be to fund a COLA upfront.

Guthrie also reiterated the need for the Legislature to address the predicted increase to  TRS ActiveCare premiums. TRS predicts that if the Legislature does not take action, premiums could increase by 22-28% next year. Federal stimulus funding has been used since the start of the pandemic to reduce health care costs for ActiveCare participants, but now that those dollars are no longer available, the Legislature would need to make a special appropriation to TRS ActiveCare to offset the premium increase. The TRS ActiveCare fund, the TRS-Care fund, and the TRS pension fund are totally independent of each other, so increased health care costs do not have an effect on the possibility of a TRS pension COLA.

Good Bills of the Week:

HB 1119 by Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) would require cultural inclusion curriculum to be a part of the enrichment curriculum for public schools. Cultural inclusion curriculum would include exploration of differences and advocacy for oneself in the face of bias. 

HB 1474 by Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City) would establish protections for pregnant and parenting students enrolled in higher education institutions. Protections include not requiring a student to take a leave of absence, excusing the student’s absences, and allowing time for the student to make up missed assignments.

HB 1165 by Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Houston) would require medical schools to offer coursework on the topic of cultural competence and implicit bias. The coursework is intended to address medical decisions and treatment relating to a person’s race, ethnicity, nationality, language, sex, gender, physical and mental ability, and socioeconomic status.
HB 2871 by Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) would establish a computer science education promotion program in conjunction with The University of Texas to focus on public school campuses that lack computer science education, recruit new computer science educators, and serve underrepresented communities by providing computer science resources.