House committee hears testimony on vouchers, performance pay, classroom supply reimbursement; AND TRS benefit news

TRS Benefit Bills Get Final House Okay:  Wednesday morning the House gave final approval to two good bills on TRS benefits. The measures now face an uncertain fate in the Texas Senate, which has been less than welcoming of House initiatives for the benefit of school employees. HB 20 by Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), passed 135 to 13, would provide immediate relief from sharply rising health-care expenses. HB 80 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), passed 147 to 1, would empower the TRS board of trustees to provide a potential cost-of-living increase of 3 percent for retirees who were left out of the 2013 cost-of-living increase. The COLA, covering those who retired from September 1, 2004, through August 31, 2015, would be triggered only once TRS investment gains or increased contributions reach a benchmark of pension-fund soundness.

House Committee Hears Testimony on Vouchers, Performance Pay, Classroom Supply Reimbursement, and More:  At Tuesday’s 12-hour hearing on 23 bills in the House Public Education Committee, Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro spoke out against an elaborate “performance pay” plan endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott’s idea, hatched by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and embodied in HB 198 by Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), would do little to lift up lagging salaries for the vast majority of teachers and would let the commissioner decide what metrics would define effective teaching and trigger extra pay. Malfaro noted the lack of real state funding to back up the bill’s promise to raise average teacher pay, leaving it to school districts to “reprioritize” money to hit state-set pay targets using local funds already stretched thin. The optimal way to fund pay increases, he said, would be to increase the basic allotment for school districts to address this and other rising needs. As for pay-for-performance, Malfaro did find one praiseworthy provision in the bill, authorizing $4,000 in extra pay for teachers who attain highly regarded National Board Certification–with state grants available to help educators pursue that rigorous standard of teaching mastery.

Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi testified against HB 253, the special-education voucher bill by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) that also includes first-ever facilities funding for charter schools. Quinzi spoke against both aspects of the bill. Vouchers, she said, would be an especially bad bargain for students with disabilities, who would forfeit their rights to due process and appropriate, least restrictive placement if they attend a private school. Voucher-recipient schools would not have to meet state academic standards, Quinzi pointed out, and would drain public funds from the public schools that would still be responsible for educating all but a small percentage of students with disabilities. Regarding the unprecedented funding in HB 253 for charter schools’ facilities, she laid out data showing that the state share of funding for school districts’ facilities has shrunk dramatically over the past two decades and asserted that restoring that funding is the first priority if new state funds are going to be spent on facilities.

Several Texas  AFT members came to the hearing Tuesday to speak up for HB 54 by Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Houston), which would tap the state’s bulging reserves in the Economic Stabilization Fund (a/k/a the Rainy Day Fund) to provide up to $600 a year in reimbursements for teachers in grades six and below who purchase classroom supplies from personal funds. San Antonio Alliance teachers David Garza and Zach Wright testified that the reimbursement would be much appreciated as a thank-you to dedicated teachers. Education Austin teacher Adam Hettler pointed out that the reimbursements would serve equity goals by helping teachers afford to purchase crucial instructional materials that are beyond the means of many serving in lower-wealth communities.

Other worthwhile bills backed by Texas AFT at Tuesday’s hearing included:  HB 130 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), requiring an inventory of the local costs of standardized testing required by the state; HB 231 by Rep. Tomas Uresti (D-San Antonio), requiring districts to report teacher turnover as a performance criterion; HB 232 by Rep. Helen Giddings (D-Dallas), applying class-size limits in pre-K; and HB 264 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), barring charter schools from discriminating against students in their admissions policies based on disciplinary history–putting charter schools on the same footing with traditional neighborhood campuses.

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