February 25, 2021: #TxLege committees discuss education funding, TRS finances; Fed decision on STAAR; Unions step up in storm relief

 

Legislative committees explore public education funding, hear financial health of pension and healthcare funds

Mike Morath testifies at Senate Finance with empty chairs around himEducation Commissioner Mike Morath testifies before the Senate Finance Committee.

Two key committees for the Texas state budget—the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee—met this week, and while lawmakers continued to express support for investment in public education and the gains made last session, many questions still remain unanswered for how far that support will go in meeting the needs of our students weathering the storm of the pandemic.

Texas AFT submitted a letter in coalition with other teacher organizations to both committees to explain the immediate and long-term investments needed. We asked for:

  • Supplemental appropriations be used immediately to reimburse districts 100% for COVID-19 expenses.
  • A “hold-harmless” so that districts will not lose funding due to unforeseen drops in enrollment because of the pandemic.
  • An increase in the state contribution toward active employee health insurance to address the affordability crisis for school employees.
  • Enhanced formula funding to improve special education services.
  • Fair compensation for all educators.

On the Senate side, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) brought up the need for increased compensation for educators and referred attention to the letter. “If we don’t have those teachers” West explained, “our whole infrastructure is going to crumble.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath testified to the House Committee that he is working on an answer on hold harmless in the coming weeks and knows districts are under pressure to plan their budgets. Lawmakers in the Senate pressed Morath about what districts were doing to ensure they find students. When questioned by lawmakers on the need for STAAR this year, Morath continued to insist that the data generated for even a small sample of students will be of benefit to warrant moving forward with testing this year.

The House committee also heard from the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) Executive Director Brian Guthrie, who outlined how funding appropriated during the last session set TRS up to be actuarially sound and ahead of schedule on its path to full funding. And for the first time in a decade, retiree healthcare does not need a supplemental appropriation to stay solvent. Guthrie confirmed that the pension fund now meets the state’s constitutional requirement of giving a cost-of-living increase to retirees, but noted that it would be up to the Legislature to decide if enough revenue is being generated for the increase.

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Lt. Gov. releases priority bill list with what appear to be more efforts to privatize our schools

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick this week announced his list of 31 priority bills, with only a few directly related to public education and three with dubious intentions. They include:

• Senate Bill 5 – Statewide Broadband Access

• Senate Bill 27 – Expanding Virtual Learning Options

• Senate Bill 28 – Charter School Equity Act

• Senate Bill 29 – Fair Sports for Women & Girls

While we certainly agree on expanding broadband access to improve opportunities for low-income and rural students, the other items appear to focus on more privatization of our schools with charter and virtual schools, along with a likely contentious topic of transgender students participating in girls’ sports. We’ll offer more detailed information on his priorities after the actual bills are filed.

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What you need to know about the latest CDC guidelines for schools

CDC sign outside of HQ
When the CDC released new COVID-19 guidelines on February 12, headlines around the nation focused on guidance that teacher vaccinations don’t need to be a prerequisite for reopenings–which echoed comments made previously by the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky. The caveat that much of the media ignored was that this guidance was dependent on schools successfully implementing other safety measures. The fact is that almost two-thirds of the nation’s schoolchildren are already participating in some kind of in-person learning, and almost all Texas campuses are open for kids whose parents choose on-campus instruction.

Unfortunately, Texas also did not place school employees in the 1B tier for vaccinations–which was recommended by the CDC with vaccine rollouts and pushed by Texas AFT, a significant majority of lawmakers, the State Board of Education, and the state’s top health official. (A poll this week also showed overwhelming public support for vaccinating teachers before holding on-campus instruction.) So the new CDC guidelines, while supported by our union, have little impact on Texas. As AFT President Randi Weingarten told NBC News

, “Of course, this set of safeguards should have been done ten months ago,” adding that the AFT released its similar recommendations in April of 2020.

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Local unions reach out to members, offer aid to communities after winter storm

Group of union members, masked, with raised fists stand in front of truck with waterInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other union members help out with water distribution.

Many of our local unions reached out by phone and text messaging to members throughout the state for wellness checks after the devastating winter storm hit on February 13. Union volunteers also pitched in to distribute food and water, including an Austin effort coordinated by the Central Labor Council.

Hundreds of school districts across the state closed after the winter storm that hit on February 13, and many districts opted to stay shuttered for the entire week. Districts then had to assess possible damage, which kept many campuses closed. In response, the Texas Education Agency is accepting requests for Missed School Day Waivers.

Governor promises answers, fixes to devastating winter storm that closes schools statewide
Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday pledged to provide answers to how the state’s power systems failed with the winter storm that hit on February 13, and he vowed to keep the Texas Legislature in session until it can provide fixes for the power grid to protect it against future storms. The governor also said he would prohibit utility companies from disconnecting customers if they can’t pay their bills, some of which are exorbitantly high for customers of providers without fixed pricing. Not mentioned by the governor in his speech, however, was that for nearly a decade many in state leadership positions ignored the warnings and recommendations that would have prevented the outages.

On Thursday, hearings began in the Texas House and Senate to hear from dozens of energy officials on the causes of the power failures.

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‘Frustrating’ decision by feds leaves Texans facing the ‘drudgery’ of STAAR

Front page of STAAR test bookletThe U.S. Department of Education’s released guidance on administering required assessments this year (the STAAR test for Texas) that angered many educators and parents after officials said they would not waive federal testing requirements. “The decision is frustrating,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “We’re being told to march to the beat of a drum no matter what, even if it’s a time-consuming, expensive, and worthless drudgery that will have no value for students, parents, and teachers.”

The USDOE did provide a process for delaying testing, doing more remote testing, and having longer windows for test administration. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has refused to support stopping STAAR this year, although he stated that parents of remote learners could simply choose not tohave their kid show up on campuses for the test.

“Waiving the STAAR tests and substituting locally-developed and authentic assessments would provide a true baseline for educators and parents heading into the next school year,” Capo said. “The federal determination is a missed opportunity, particularly for Texans who are emerging from a catastrophic storm that in many instances left teachers and students in the cold without electricity and water, and now in many cases, with damaged schools.”

 

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‘Pay for performance’ program offers little clarity in decisions over extra pay for ‘best’ teachers

Last week, we submitted comments on the ill-conceived Local Optional Teacher Designation System, also known as “pay-for-performance,” which is a program pushed by TEA to allegedly reward the “best” teachers. However, because the program is so heavily reliant on standardized test scores, there are some very peculiar payouts for teachers who are recipients of additional funds with little clarity on how such decisions are reached locally.

 

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Good bills of the week:

 

Rhetta Bowers HB 392 Rhetta Bowers (D- Dallas) filed legislation calling for the elimination of discriminatory student dress code and grooming policies as they relate to racial discrimination.

This legislation is referred to as the CROWN Act—Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. Similar legislation has been passed in states like California, Washington, Colorado, New York, and Virginia

Historically, African American boys and girls have been discriminated against in their schools and workplaces for their cultural hairstyles. In Texas, this legislation was inspired by Deandre Arnolds, a teenage boy attending Barbers Hill High School in Mont Belvieu who gained national media attention after administrators on his campus said that his hairstyle violated the dress code.

Ron ReynoldsIt is imperative that Texas AFT members support cross-cultural awareness in classrooms and in school; in honor of Black History Month, we stand with Deandre and other black students who have faced discrimination.
HB 38 Ron Reynolds (D- Missouri City), Rep. Reynolds filed similar CROWN Act legislation that is identical to SB 77 by Sen. Borris Miles. Both call for an end to discrimination based on hair texture and “protective” hairstyles on African American students.

 


 

Day of Action replaces Lobby Day this year

Across the state on March 15, educators and school employees will take part in a Day of Action, drawing attention to school funding and the Texas Legislature.

Normally, public school employees from across the state would gather at the Texas Capitol to advocate for our schools, ourselves, and our students. Given our pandemic reality, that’s not an option this year.

Instead, we’re asking you to join events in your area to raise your voice and make sure lawmakers hear from educators and school staff on the need for prioritized, fully funded public education. Stay tuned for a full listing of events coming your way in the Hotlines to follow.


 

Socorro AFT memorializes inspirational member who died of COVID-19

Socorro members standing in front of memorial benchSocorro AFT honors Socorro ISD Teacher Zelene Blancas—who died in late December from COVID-19—with a memorial bench and plaque monument at her campus at Dr. Sue Shook Elementary.

Blancas, 35, was a Socorro AFT union member and First Grade teacher who was the subject of a viral video two years ago that showed her offering her students a pick of a hug, handshake, high five, or fist bump for their goodbye each day. She also was known for her saying: “Kindness comes first.”

Socorro members stand around a memorial plaque


 

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