Your Weekly Briefing: Education bills moving that would regulate charters; harmful tax caps also in the works

Sen. Royce West

Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) gets the Great Bill of the Week for his legislation stopping charter school encroachment (below).

The Texas Senate passed its version of “property tax reform,” which would not provide any meaningful relief to taxpayers and actually would just take away the ability of local districts and elected officials to make the best decisions for their communities. As substituted on the floor, SB 2 would force school districts to receive voter approval before raising 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year (unless the entities get voter approval). Weirdly, the Senate raised the trigger for cities, counties, and other taxing entities to 3.5 percent. Texas AFT will continue to fight SB 2, which would prevent districts from being able to account for student growth, inflation, or economic downturns. Next Wednesday, we expect the House to hear their version (HB 2) of property tax caps and pray they bring sanity to the process.

The House had delayed votes on HB 2, as well as a measure we support–to shore up the TRS system and provide a 13th check to retirees. Meanwhile, the Senate postponed hearing HB 3 (the House’s school finance measure) as well, potentially setting up next week as a busy week for major bills.

Also this week:

We now have a full conference committee for the budget to hash out differences between the House and Senate bills, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick decided to appoint zero Senate Democrats (a partisan move that hasn’t been done since 1987). The Senate conferees are Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), and Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville). The House had selected a more bipartisan panel with Rep. John Zerwas, (R-Richmond), Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston), Rep. Oscar Longoria (D-Mission), and Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston).

The Senate also appointed their conference committee for SB 500, the supplemental spending bill, including Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), and Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen). The House appointed Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), Rep. Giovanni Caprigilone (R-Southlake), Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint), Rep. Rick Miller (R-Sugarland), and Rep. Toni Rose (D-Dallas).   

Two priority bills by Rep Four Price (R-Amarillo), HB 18 and 19, were passed with overwhelming support to provide schools, teachers, and parents with research-based programs and training for mental health services for students–along with professionals at regional service centers to coordinate training in the practices. Several other bills also were passed to support these sweeping changes, creating reporting requirements and support for the trainings.

SB 9 was passed by the Senate on Monday. This bill creates new barriers to voting and is a result of hyper-partisan rhetoric moving into the policymaking. SB 9 notably raises penalties for violations and makes it much more difficult to assist disabled, elderly, or other voters who regularly need assistance casting a ballot. The bill is vague, vindictive and does not address the real challenges many Texans face in casting a ballot.

Texas AFT bills on the move

While the Texas Senate focused on harmful cuts, Texas educators did get some good news this week, as numerous Texas AFT bills are gaining traction:

  • HB 455 by Rep. Alma Allen was passed by the House, requiring TEA to create a recess policy that gives every child an opportunity to exercise and gain the benefits of physical activity during the school day. We are very excited to see such a beneficial bill make it through the House.
  • HB 953 by Rep. Ken King passed 115 to 26 in the House to require an open-enrollment charter to pay the state’s TRS contribution to the same extent as real public schools for the amount of the employee’s salary that exceeds the statutory minimum salary schedule. The bill represents $41,420,509 in savings to the state this biennium alone.
  • Both chambers passed bills this week which would prohibit student loan debt default from affecting a person’s professional license. HB 218 and its companion SB 37 would enact a common-sense solution that Texas AFT has supported throughout this year’s session, and it would benefit many public school employees across the state.
  • Also heard this week in Committee,  SB 1454 by Sen Taylor seeks to overhaul how charter school property is managed and reported. Currently, the financial transparency of charter schools is murky at best. If passed, SB 1454 would be a good step in the right direction to reveal the financial inner workings of for-profit operated charters, which are often riddled with self-dealing and other financial scandals.
  • Students who have had trouble with STAAR got a boost this week after bills moved in both chambers to help expand and standardize the use of Independent Graduation Committees which have helped many deserving students complete their high school graduation despite issues with STAAR results. SB 213 by Sen. Kel Seliger was passed out of the Senate and immediately voted out of the House Public Education Committee, which had previously moved its own House version. It is likely SB 213 will be voted on in short order as the House delayed action on its own version earlier this week.
  • The House Public Education Committee passed out numerous Texas AFT priorities, and we hope to see them on a House calendar soon:
    • HB 3403 by Rep. Philip Cortez to prevent workplace bullying. (Northside AFT President Wanda Longoria and Texas AFT member Jennifer Overpeck provided compelling testimony about this critical issue.);
    • HB 43 by Rep. Gina Hinojosa would prevent charters from denying admission to students based on their discipline history;
    • HB 2776 by Rep. Steve Allison would require charter schools to provide critical information regarding everything from the programs they offer to their results, providing critical transparency.
    • HB 4096 by Rep. Michelle Beckley would require the Texas Education Agency to complete a study on standards for school district maintenance of facilities and custodial services, including custodial workloads. It’s a critical first step to ensuring our hardworking custodians are treated with the respect they deserve.

The Week Ahead

We expect to hear the HB 3 school finance bill in the Senate Education Committee later in the week, though as of this point it is not on a published agenda.

The House Public Education Committee is meeting Tuesday morning with another marathon of bills across the issue spectrum to get bills moving before the House starts hitting its deadlines.

The Senate Education Committee will also be meeting Tuesday to discuss several bills studying or tweaking policies, including how the state approaches and implements professional development for teachers.

Great Bill of the Week

Heard in the Senate Education Committee this week was SB 2266 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas)–an effective approach to protecting neighborhood public schools from charter school encroachment. The bill would allow the Commissioner of Education to consider location when receiving an application for a new charter. If a new charter school is proposed near a successful district campus, the TEA commissioner would have the ability to deny the charter, ensuring that the charter school does not just “cherry-pick” high-performing students from local districts or exacerbate existing charter school density in the area. Even a common-sense measure like this to prevent charter density from hurting real public schools was vehemently opposed by the Texas Charter School Association. We thank Sen. West for making this issue a priority.