Your weekly briefing: And a reminder to vote tomorrow!

Before we talk about the Legislature, Texas AFT wants to be the first to wish you a Happy Election Eve! We’ll be celebrating by blockwalking for our favorite school board candidates. (Those of us in Cy Fair will be walking to support our critical bond proposition.) With school districts holding elections across the state tomorrow (Saturday, May 4), Texas AFT asks you to elect trustees who will protect our public schools.

As you vote this Saturday, we’ll be gearing up for a pivotal week in the closing days of 86th Legislative Session. Senators will debate their version of the school finance bill Monday.  HB 3 rocketed out of committee Wednesday after the chair, Sen. Larry Taylor, made an emotional plea for senators to advance the bill. Senators expressed concern that they had little time to read the latest 116-page single-spaced draft, and the legislation still contains numerous missing elements. The property tax relief in the bill is dependent on an unnamed revenue source, which we expect to be a sales tax increase (more on that in a minute).

While the school finance bill covers many areas of education from formula weights to funding for pre-K, Texas AFT is very concerned about a pay-for-performance provision that would tie teacher pay to test scores and student surveys. We need you to click here to ask your senator to extend the $5,000 salary provision to all public school employees and to reject teacher pay tied to test scores or student surveys. Please act now, before school finance reform heads to the floor this Monday.

The Senate is racing to beat House deadlines, which begin hitting this week. The Senate must show action on the school finance bill before the House would consider a sales tax vote. House bills must be passed by Thursday, May 9, and a sales tax bill must originate from the House.

Today, the Big Three (the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House) had an afternoon press conference to talk about their plan to tie Texas with California for the highest sales tax rate in the nation in return for a promised reduction in property taxes for homeowners. This is an idea that would primarily benefit the wealthiest families in Texas and would push the burden of a new, highly regressive sales tax on all Texans, hurting the poorest the most. For a look at how the sales tax would impact Texans, see the analysis from our friends at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Meanwhile, the Democrats have indicated they have the votes to block a constitutional amendment–required to put the sale tax increase before the voters next fall–that requires two-thirds majority approval in both chambers.

The headlines this week revolved around SB 2 passing the House, despite the repeated objections from local governments that services would be negatively impacted. The bill caps local property tax revenue for cities and counties at 3.5% and school districts at 2.5%. While the bill is devastating for cities and counties, the school district component generally is not expected to have much impact, as those changes must happen through the school finance bill. The House’s bill is not an exact copy of the Senate version–and contains language that would negatively impact the property tax business of Sen. Paul Bettencourt–so we expect the bill to be finalized in a conference committee.

And just before we hit the send button on this email, there was a little drama about class sizes in the Texas House. On Thursday, Rep. Jonathan Stickland quietly added language from his HB 1133 as an amendment to another bill (HB 3904–an accountability cleanup bill) allowing campuses to use an average of the entire campus for class sizes, effectively rendering class-size limits meaningless. Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer called a point of order on the entire bill in an effort to remove the provision, and the author (Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Dan Huberty) agreed to an amendment from Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Chris Turner to remove the provision.

But in the Texas Legislature, nothing is ever dead. Stickland’s bill (HB 1133), which had languished in the calendars committee for nearly a month, was set for Tuesday’s calendar. Texas AFT will continue to fight this bad policy, and we will let you know how to help make sure the Legislature doesn’t balloon class sizes.  

Texas AFT Bills on the Move

HB 1517 by Rep. Garnet Coleman passed on the House floor today. This Texas AFT priority would require schools to notify parents when there is not a full-time nurse on a campus, and it now heads to the Senate.

HB 570 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione finally passed unanimously on the House floor today. A huge step forward in charter transparency, the bill would require charter schools to hold open meetings either online or in the geographical area where the school is located.

SB 1454 by Sen. Larry Taylor passed unanimously by the Senate on Thursday and would address the disposition of property owned by charter schools as well as include new reporting requirements to increase financial transparency. Sen. Royce West worked with the author to ensure that financial transactions in excess of $5,000 are reported. (Initially, the bill would have only required charter transactions in excess of $25,000 to be reported.) This is a big improvement considering the almost daily news stories of charter-school fraud and mismanagement. The bill now heads to the House.

Retired TRS members are allowed to resume work in a district on a part-time basis without losing benefit payments, with restrictions on the number of hours they can work. If they work more than that limit because of events they can’t control, they shouldn’t be penalized. HB 2227 by Rep. Gene Wu would prevent TRS from withholding a monthly benefit payment based on a retiree’s status of employment for more than one-half time basis if the retiree is a disability retiree or if there is an exigent event that is beyond the retiree’s control, including a weather-related event. The bill passed the House today.

Other Things That Happened This Week

The following bills passed the Senate:

SB 1412 by Sen. Charles Perry would allow the commissioner of education to choose any campus, regardless of performance, to implement the Accelerated Campus Excellence (ACE) program. Texas AFT is very concerned about this bill, which started as an effort to “help” campuses direct the best teachers to campuses with chronic low-performance, but the committee substitute now allows the commissioner to have the unilateral ability to pick any campus for pay-for-performance incentive pay.

SB 722 by Sen. Donna Campbell would limit the amount of severance a district or charter school could pay to a superintendent to no more than one year’s salary. Originally, this bill was limited only to real public school districts, but charters schools were included, and we are happy to see another small step in the right direction to put charters on a level playing field.

In the House

Unfortunately, anti-labor bills continue to move in the Legislature. The House passed HB 985 by Rep. Tan Parker which would prevent union labor contracts from being enforceable on projects that include any state dollars. The bill passed along party lines with Republican support.

SB 406 by Sen. Brian Birdwell was heard in the Homeland Security Committee. Several witnesses testified against the bill, which would allow school marshals to carry guns on their person at all times. Witnesses cited dozens of careless incidents, like accidental discharges or guns being left in school bathrooms. The bill could be advanced as soon as next week.

Thank you to everyone that came out to support workers in the battle against SB 2485, 2486, 2487, 2488 in the House State Affairs Committee this week. These preemption bills would forbid cities from allowing pro-worker protections like paid sick leave. The bill that would preempt scheduling ordinances, HB 2486, was voted out of State Affairs this week.

HB 3887 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione was heard in the Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee last Thursday. This bill would add one opportunity for retirees to re-enroll in the Texas Public School Employees Group Insurance Program. We are in support of this bill as it gives retired educators another chance for health benefits.

Upcoming

Next week, the House Public Education Committee will hear a slew of Senate bills, the most important being SB 11 by Sen. Larry Taylor, which addresses mental health services in schools. The engrossed version removed appropriations for school safety measures such as more school marshals.

In the Senate Education Committee, they will hear two House bills relating to mental health. HB 18 by Rep. Four Price would implement evidence-based and trauma-informed mental health programs in schools. HB 906 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson would establish a task force on mental health services provided by public schools, including charters.

This week’s House calendars will be the last with originating House bills. So far, we see bills scheduled that would remove the cap on the number of school marshals and others ensuring statewide assessments are on grade level. More to come next week.

Great Bill of The Week

SB 426 by Eddie Lucio, Jr., would require school districts to adopt a policy requiring counselors to spend at least 80 percent of their total work time on duties that are components of the statutorily-mandated counseling program. This would exclude time spent administering assessment instruments. We thank Sen. Lucio for recognizing the critical role that counselors play on every school campus and for ensuring that counselors’ time is respected to allow them to properly address student needs. And we’re thrilled this bill passed the Senate this week.