Action in Key Committees at State Capitol on Budget, Education

Senate Finance Subcommittee on Public Education Funding: The subcommittee focused today on the district-by-district impact of a possible budget scenario that would cost districts $4 billion in state aid over the 2012-2013 biennium. Cuts at this level would be less than half of the district cuts of $9.3 billion assumed in the base budget introduced in January. However, cuts at this lower level still would mean steep declines in revenue for many districts. The impact would most severe for those districts, including some of the major urban districts, that have maintained higher-than-average funding per pupil thanks to “hold-harmless” rules passed in 2006. The subcommittee originally was told to finish its work this week, but late in the day we learned that the subcommittee’s meetings slated for tomorrow and Friday have been canceled. The panel pretty clearly is having trouble reaching agreement on how to “share the pain” among districts.

Senate Finance Committee: Today the full Finance Committee took testimony on the TRS budget for 2012-2013. Two Texas AFT members and Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi spoke out against cuts in proposed state contributions to both the TRS-Care health plan for retirees and the TRS pension fund.

Texas AFT member Steve Jennings, a retired teacher from Comal County, urged senators to uphold the state’s “co-responsibility” for the TRS health plan and pension fund. He pointed out that the state for a dozen years between 1995 and 2007 failed to match employees’ 6.4-percent contribution to their pension fund. His own modest TRS pension has been eroded significantly by cost inflation since he retired in 2006, Jennings said, and now the proposed cut in the health plan would cost TRS retirees like him an average of $800 a year. Meanwhile, the proposed cutback in the state’s pension contribution to 6.0 percent would hurt the long-term soundness of the pension fund, making any cost-of-living increase an even more remote prospect. Jennings cited a new USA Today report on state benefits for public employees that rated Texas last in the nation. Texas school employees feel they’ve “been out there hustling,” he said, “while somebody else has not been hustling enough.”

Texas AFT member Karen Barnes, an Austin ISD transportation employee and leader in our Education Austin local, pointed out that school employees already have absorbed significant TRS benefit cuts in previous sessions. As a result, employees like her will be working years longer to qualify for full retirement benefits, she said. The proposed new cuts in health and pension benefits for retirees cannot be justified, Barnes said.

These pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Committee members from both parties—Republicans Robert Duncan of Lubbock and Kevin Eltife of Tyler, along with Democrats Royce West of Dallas, Eddie Lucio, Jr., of Brownsville, and Juan Hinojosa of McAllen—all made comments critical of the proposed cuts in state contributions for TRS-Care and TRS pensions.

Senate Education Committee: Yesterday this committee considered bills on grading policy,  mentoring, and non-renewal of teacher contracts, among other topics.

Sen. Jane Nelson, Republican of Flower Mound, offered SB 79 to clarify a law she passed last session that barred districts from forcing teachers to give minimum grades regardless of students’ academic work. Her new bill reaffirms that the prohibition applies to cumulative grades, not just grades on individual assignments. In a lawsuit last year in which Texas AFT successfully defended the 2009 legislation, a state district court said the law clearly applied to cumulative grades. But Nelson is offering SB 79 this session to make the prohibition even more crystal-clear. With Texas AFT’s support, the committee passed the bill by a vote of seven to zero.

Also backed by Texas AFT yesterday was SB 570, by Sen. Florence Shapiro, Republican of Plano, a measure to encourage districts to adopt best practices for teacher induction and mentoring. The bill requires some funding in a session when money is scarce, so it was held in committee pending revisions that would reduce its price tag.

Another notable bill passed by the Education Committee yesterday was SB 912, a temporary measure intended to slow momentum toward large-scale layoffs of teachers and other personnel in anticipation of state budget cuts. The bill would apply to the current school year only. It would give teachers extra time to request a hearing if they are notified of proposed contract non-renewal due to a reduction in force. It would give school boards the option of delegating the task of holding hearings on such non-renewals to an independent, impartial hearing officer. The aim of the bill is to slow down the non-renewal process and give the legislature time to restore education funding and render mass layoffs unnecessary. Texas AFT and all other major statewide educator organizations, as well as the associations of school boards and superintendents, supported the bill in committee, and it passed seven to zero.

Make no mistake—with a budget train wreck causing mass layoffs looming ahead, SB 912 is simply an attempt to slow down the train while budget repairs are in progress. Our goal is to help make this bill a mere footnote to a larger story of how the legislature averted that train wreck. For the record, the joint authors of this bill are Sen. Shapiro, Sen. Duncan, Sen. West, and Sen. Wendy Davis, Democrat of Fort Worth.

Senate Higher Education Committee: Texas AFT supported a bill heard this morning to provide assault leave for community-college employees and others in higher education. The bill is SB 67 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the Democrat from Laredo who chairs the committee.

House Higher Education Committee: Texas AFT testified this evening against HB 9, by Rep. Dan Branch, Republican of Dallas. The bill would make higher-education funding for community colleges and universities partly dependent on various measures of “student success” rather than enrollment. Texas AFT opposed the bill on the ground that such “performance-based” funding would make sense only if it were offered on top of adequate base funding. The reality is that base funding already is inadequate—and would be even further reduced by sharp budget cuts under current legislative proposals.

House Public Education Committee: The next Hotline or two will recap action in this committee Tuesday on several noteworthy bills, including HB 233 by Democratic Rep. Scott Hochberg of Houston, a bill to reduce the excessive emphasis on standardized testing.