April 12, 2021: TRS bills address pension COLAs; STAAR = CRASH; Full legislative update

While state leadership fiddles, billions intended for schools face uncertain future

Add your voice to #StopTheSwap

Zeph Capo

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo spoke on Facebook Live this past Tuesday to lay out the case for the Legislature to get moving and send $17.9 billion in federal pandemic aid to our schools. (You can watch the YouTube version here.) “I’m angry that there is all this money sitting in a vault somewhere in the state of Texas not being used. This isn’t meant to substitute for state funding for public education — it’s meant as extra funds to help our public schools thrive amid the challenges we’ve faced throughout the past year. This funding is how we can afford pay raises. How we keep healthcare costs low, or at least the same…how we keep investing in COVID-19 testing. It’s how we pay for technology needs in the future. It’s the funding we need to make sure our schools are safe for our students, colleagues, and ourselves this coming fall.”

Texas AFT is calling for lawmakers in Austin to #StopTheSwap and not use federal aid to fill budget holes, but instead make sure school districts have access to those funds. You can join the thousands who have spoken up on the issue by sending an online letter to your lawmakers.

Legislators—who have not included the federal money in the House and Senate versions of the budget, so far—have remained fairly tight-lipped about what they intend to do with the funding. However, we did hear comments from Senate budget writers that state officials are trying to define any “strings attached” to the federal dollars before committing to spend them. That didn’t sit well with former House Speaker Joe Straus, H-E-B Chairman Charles Butt, and several county officials who told the Dallas Morning News that what may be difficult is not impossible and that legislators need to figure out the funding mechanisms now.

HB 2021, heard April 8, would establish a board to decide on allocation of federal funds, a process that must happen outside of a regular or special session of the Legislature. As filed, the board would consist of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and chairs and co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee. Texas AFT strongly opposes this bill, which would give immense power to a handful of mostly conservative lawmakers to reject or control funds like the billions from the American Rescue Plan.

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Rep. Jon Rosenthal standing in House chamber with green-lit yes votes for his billLegislative Update

Pictured at right: Rep. Jon Rosenthal celebrates
“Riley’s Rule” getting the green light from the House.

Opposition heats up against voter suppression bills
A broad coalition of businesses, labor organizations, civil rights groups, and even Republican elected officials continues to speak up against bills that would suppress voting, particularly for people of color. The Senate has passed SB 7 (Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola), which would limit the extension of early voting hours, criminalize distribution of absentee ballots in some situations, cut down on the number of voting machines in some polling places, and outlaw drive-thru voting.

The House Elections Committee passed a similar bill, HB 6 (Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park), which criminalizes innocent election mistakes, allows unchecked harassment by poll watchers, and makes voting more difficult for Texans with disabilities and people of color.

Community schools bill would solidify effective framework for struggling schools
HB 81 (Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin) allows campuses to operate as a community school as part of a turn-around plan, recognizing that community schools use proven school-improvement strategies. This bill would create a standard for community school elements and processes, based on best practices both locally and nationally, while delaying accountability sanctions. Texas AFT has been a pioneer in implementing the model in Texas, and currently we have community schools’ initiatives in Austin, El Paso, Houston, Corpus Christi, and Dallas, with many other districts exploring the model. The bill was left pending in the House Public Education Committee after a hearing this past Tuesday.

Legislation to pave way for TEA takeovers of districts barely passes house committee, 7-6
Texas AFT is disappointed that the House Committee on Public Education passed HB 3270 by a vote of 7-6. The bill by Chairman Harold Hutton (D-Houston) seeks to circumvent the district court, the Third District Court of Appeals, and the Texas Supreme Court rulings that Commissioner of Education Mike Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s elected school board.

The bill also provides “super authority” to the unelected commissioner to circumvent courts, which found he lacked legal authority to appoint a board of managers or impose any sanctions or interventions against the district. Texas educators appreciate the bipartisan coalition that opposed this bad bill in committee: Rep. Alma Allen, Rep. Steve Allison, Rep. Diego Bernal, Rep. Mary Gonzalez, Rep. Terry Meza, and Rep. James Talarico. Texas AFT will continue to fight any assaults on democratically elected school boards.

House committee hears bills on TRS pension cost-of-living increases; other bills would alter back-to-work rules for retirees and votes out several priority bills
The House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services (PIFS) Committee discussed several bills impacting the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) and retirees during its Wednesday hearing. Texas AFT is grateful that so many of our lawmakers decided to put forth bills that would improve the livelihoods of our retirees. Included in these bills were:

  • Cost-of-living pension increases, including proposals to make annual adjustments based on inflation, as long as the pension fund is actuarially sound;
  • Provisions for a supplemental payment—often known as a “13th check”—with various amounts proposed from a maximum of $2,000 to $2,400;
  • A bill that would allow Medicare-eligible retirees that left TRS-Care between 2017 and 2019 to return to the program;
  • Bills that change return-to-work provisions for TRS retirees, including reducing penalties and also providing allowances for returning to work during a declared disaster. (TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie noted previously that the TRS Board of Trustees this week will be looking at adopting an emergency rule to allow any retiree to come back to work this summer without penalty.)

Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) said the state needs to step up and make it easier for retirees to return to work with districts facing staffing shortages due to the pandemic. And he summed up why it’s important to keep pushing for maintaining the value of pension benefits for educators. “These are people who spent their entire lives working to educate our state,” he said. “They deserve more justice.”

Charter-school bills supported by Texas AFT get hearings; we opposed several other bills
The House Public Education Committee this past Tuesday heard several bills to put charters on a level playing field with public schools:

  • HB 97 (Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin) would restrict the use of a student’s discipline history in the admission policy of an open-enrollment charter school.
  • HB 189 (Terry Canales, D-Edinburg) would apply the same law regarding severance payments to public school superintendents to similar individuals in charter schools, such as the charter school executive director or superintendent.
  • HB 450 (Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso) would require at least 18-months’ notice before a charter can open a new open-enrollment charter school or expand their campuses.
  • HB 1249 (Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson) would require public accessibility of the most recent open-enrollment charter school annual financial statements, something traditional public schools already do.

The Committee also heard several bad bills, left pending, that Texas AFT opposes:

  • HB 3528 (Scott Sanford, R-McKinney) expands the grade levels served by the Texas Virtual School Network down to kindergarten. The research on virtual education has shown that it is not as effective as in-person school for most students, particularly for younger students who are also developing important social and emotional skills while in a classroom setting.
  • HB 2554 (Gary Gates, Richmond) would establish “joint vocational school districts” to provide eligible high school students with vocational and educational training under a plan for the issuance of a high school diploma. Texas AFT is concerned this new district structure could divert money from public schools and allow them to more easily waive workers’ rights and discriminate against students through their discipline and enrollment practices.
  • HB 4465 (Harold Dutton, D-Houston) relates to grants available to school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to provide services to students after a disaster. Our concern with this bill is that it would give the TEA Commissioner the authority to determine how to distribute federal funds coming to the state based on the grant designations in the bill, without preventing the supplanting of federal funds. A single, unelected commissioner should not have total control over the decision on how federal funding is used—which is the role of the Legislature.
  • HB 4545 (Harold Dutton, D-Houston) would create an outcomes-based funding scheme to fund districts based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Texas AFT opposes outcomes-based funding, especially when it relies on standardized tests.

Education committees are not the only place bad charter bills can pop up. The House Ways and Means Committee passed HB 3610 (Rep. Barabara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio) last week. The bill would provide a property tax exemption for charter leasing facilities only, an advantage not available to traditional public schools.

We are grateful to the lawmakers who opposed privileging charter schools over real public schools—Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Rep. Bobby Guerra, and Rep. Shawn Thierry.

From the Senate
The Senate Education Committee this past Thursday heard two Texas AFT-supported bills:

  • The Senate passed SB 5, which intends to offer grants and other funding to expand broadband access, particularly for underserved rural areas. The bill now heads to the House State Affairs Committee for consideration. The House passed its version—HB 5—on Friday.
  • SB 462 (Lucio, D-Brownsville) would allow state reimbursement for school bus mileage used to bring meals and academic materials to students.
  • SB 1267 (West, D-Dallas) would streamline educator training requirements and reduce redundant training and professional development required of educators. The bill results from of a workgroup of educators and other advocacy groups that met over the course of nine months to establish more relevant training that teachers can select for themselves.

Other highlights from the week
HB 699 (Jon Rosenthal, D-Cy-Fair) passed the full House last week. The bill—named “Riley’s Rule” after the student who inspired it—would require school districts to excuse absences and grant promotion to students with serious or life-threatening illnesses.

Bills passed by the House Public Education Committee: Mixed news on virtual schools, but anti-bullying bill moves forward:

  • The news is mixed on virtual schools. With only Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) opposing, the committee voted to approve HB 1468 by Rep. Keith Bell (R-Forney). The bill would effectively codify the ability for districts or charters to offer virtual education to students, as was the case during the pandemic. Along with the three other statewide teacher organizations, Texas AFT opposed this expansion of untested virtual education without necessary safeguards. Texas AFT will continue to work on the bill to clarify student eligibility requirements, ensure educator protections, offer program quality protections, and sunset the provision to allow more time for review.
  • In better news, the committee approved HB 3643 (12-1) by Ken King (R-Canadian), which would create a commission to study the issue and make recommendations, rather than rushing into a model known to have significant flaws.
  • Texas AFT is also thrilled to report the committee approved HB 256 by Rep. Phillip Cortez that would require school districts to implement anti-bullying measures.

The following good bills were left pending after hearings in the House Public Education Committee this past Tuesday.

  • HB 1504 (Christina Morales, D-Houston) adds ethnic studies, including Mexican American and African American studies, to the foundation curriculum that is required to be offered in each K-12 school district.
  • HB 2975 (Lacey Hull, R-Houston) Forbids peace officers from restraining students younger than ten years old at school unless they pose a serious risk of harm to the student or another person.
  • HB 3804 (J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville) seeks to streamline, reduce, and consolidate professional development requirements for teachers. Texas AFT has played a critical role in crafting this legislation. The Senate companion was heard on Thursday in the Senate Education Committee.
  • HB 2256 (Bobby Guerra, D-Mission) would create a bilingual special education certification.

Good Bill of the Week:

Rep. Jay Dean HB 2802 by Rep. Jay Dean (R-Longview) allows schools to apply for a testing waiver from the U.S Dept of Education if a natural disaster significantly disrupts education. If the waiver isn’t granted, the results of the assessments cannot be used to evaluate school performance or assigning ratings as well as imposing intervention. This piece of legislation ensures that students, teachers, and public schools are protected from performance ratings during periods of disaster. The bill would help provide peace of mind for schools continuing to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and help alleviate some of the concerns about future disasters that may impact student’s learning. The bill was left pending after a hearing this past Tuesday.

Coming up this week

The House will consider two bills important to Texas AFT this week. HB 1603 by Dan Huberty (R-Humble) will be considered today, making Individual Graduation Committees permanent. On Tuesday, the House will consider the TRS sunset bill, HB 1585.


The House Public Education Committee will have another full agenda tomorrow, hearing over 30 bills on a wide range of topics, including student assessments, accountability, and discipline.Texas AFT will also be monitoring the Ways and Means Committee, which is scheduled to hear HB 59. That bill would eliminate the M&O taxes and have the committee study potentially replacing them with a regressive sales tax. Texas AFT is concerned the bill could cost the state $58 billion in critical revenue to fund schools over a biennium.

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Rough start for online STAAR tests as glitches disconnect thousands

TV news screen grab listing previous years STAAR test problemsOur call this spring to #StopSTAAR has been echoed by lawmakers and parents across the state—and now, apparently, by the test itself. Technical problems last week stopped thousands of students from completing their STAAR tests administered online.

The affected tests were Grade 4 Writing, Grade 7 Writing, and the English I end-of-course exam. The Texas Education Agency said the glitches were a result of connectivity issues from the online provider, ETS. “We understand the frustration this has caused students, parents, teachers, and administrators. What happened today is completely unacceptable,” the statement said. TEA is phasing out paper STAAR tests and hopes to have all tests administered online within the next couple of years. Last week’s problems followed similar tech incidents that shut down STAAR in 2015 and 2018.

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo reacted to the technical problems on Twitter: “We told y’all that damn test was a waste of time and money.”

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Spread of COVID-19 variant reinforces need to remain vigilant with safety measures

AFT members polled respond positively to vaccinations

Syringes with vaccine and a vial on top of paperworkRising infections and hospitalizations hitting the upper Midwest with a COVID-19 variant are a warning sign that safety requirements still needed to fight the pandemic have been lifted prematurely. Officials are seeing increasing numbers of infections in the K-12 population with a higher transmission susceptibility from the B.1.1.7 variant.

“The last thing Texas needs is a spike in COVID-19 variant cases heading into the end of an already devastating year for schools,” said Zeph Capo, Texas AFT president. “We urge all school districts to keep their safety guidelines in place, increase their vigilance against stopping outbreaks, and ensure that they give district employees the accommodations they need to stay safe.”

An AFT professional poll of members released last week showed an overwhelming majority of members stepping up for vaccinations. The poll also showed most AFT members nationwide are back on campuses now. “There is still a race between the vaccine and the variants,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “But this polling shows AFT members know the importance of in-school learning. They want to return, the road map to reopening is robust, and if we instill trust and meet fear with facts, we can finally end this national nightmare.”

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Leader Spotlight:

Nancy Vera, Corpus Christi AFT president

Nancy Vera in front of CCAFT banner holding "Want a Raise?" SignChartered in 1975, Corpus Christi AFT was the first Texas AFT local union to get a 30-minute duty-free lunch, before it became state law, as well as a 45-minute conference period for teachers. CCAFT is active in its school district through elected consultation, and the union is active in the broader Corpus Christi area thanks to a strong history of unionism.

“I’m proud of the history of the CCAFT. I’m proud of the work we’ve done together,” said Dr. Nancy Vera, president of Corpus Christi AFT. “We all work to make our community better and that’s what it’s all about—making all our lives better.”

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PSRP Conference banner with tree growing into heart

PSRP Conference: From Surviving to Thriving
Sign up today for AFT’s PSRP Virtual Conference to share best practices, tactics, and strategies for organizing, as well as the camaraderie and “can do” PSRP spirit that make support professionals the heart and soul of our workplaces. This year’s conference will begin the evening of Friday, April 23, and continue through Saturday, April 24.

The virtual conference will help equip members with the tools they need to strengthen their union for the challenges it faces now with COVID-19 and reopening, as well as our ongoing fight for dignity, respect, and living wages. Without the traditional costs of travel and lodging, the 2021 conference is accessible to even more members and locals than in previous years. You can find more information and registration AFT’s website.

Culturally Responsive Teaching
The Bridges Institute for Professional Development is hosting a webinar on Wednesday, April 28 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. to provide educators with the following skills:

  • Operationalize the connection between culture and cognition.
  • Demonstrate how a “caring educator” with high expectations functions in the classroom.
  • Design strength-focused lessons and activities.
  • Implement research-based pedagogy in classrooms with ethnically diverse students.

CPE credit will be issued to all participants. Register for free here.

Improve your professional development plans and goals
Have you been given control over your professional development plan and goals? Professional growth goals drive changes in practice that result in increased student performance. The Bridges Institute for Professional Development will present a “Goals Setting and Professional Development Webinar” on Wednesday, April 21, from 6–8 p.m. You can learn how to take ownership of your professional goals during your end-of-year conference. Registration is free.

Social Secrets: What Parents and Educators Should Know
Online conflict via social media is impacting the way young people communicate and relate to one another. Additionally, many are unaware of the dangers they face as a result of their digital exploration. “Social Secrets,” a free webinar on Apr 14 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., gives an overview of how tweens and teens are using social media and how parents/educators can help them avoid social media pitfalls and ultimately: be safe, be smart, and be kind online. Register for free here.

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