Recap: This Week at the Legislature

The Texas Legislature was in full swing this week. Both the House and the Senate moved forward with legislation that, if passed, would have significant implications for public school educators, higher education employees, and retirees.

Public Education: House Committee Hears Voucher Testimony, Senate Votes for Book Bans

This week, the House Public Education Committee took up several bills that would defund public education by diverting funds to private voucher schemes. Each of these proposals is unique, but all would divert public funds to unaccountable private entities. Make no mistake about it, each of these proposals would defund public education in Texas.

The hearing lasted over 15 hours, with an overwhelming majority of testimony against the bill. Hundreds of parents, educators, religious groups, and other stakeholders testified against the proposals to expand the privatization of education. Some witnesses from other states that have tried the voucher experiment described the disastrous consequences we could have in Texas. 

Among those testifying against the bill were several Texas AFT members from across the state. These members used their (very limited) time away from the classroom to voice their concerns about diverting state dollars away from public school classrooms. While each educator had a unique perspective and experience, the one unifying factor was that public school classrooms have been chronically underfunded, and sending public dollars to private schools would exacerbate this problem.

Yolanda Merritt, the chair of the Spring AFT organizing committee, traveled more than 150 miles to testify in Austin. She explained that Spring ISD was already underfunded, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, teacher vacancies, and insufficient pay for educators. She also detailed how privatization via charter schools already hurts her district, and testified that privatization via vouchers would make the situation worse. 

Spring AFT Chair Yolanda Merritt testifies against vouchers to the House Public Education Committee.

Despite signing up at 7:30 a.m., Yolanda didn’t get to testify until the evening. Many other educators who came from Cy-Fair AFT, the Houston Federation of Teachers, and other districts hundreds of miles away, had to wait until after 9 p.m. to make their voices heard, despite registering to testify well before 9 a.m. 

Each voucher bill was left pending in committee. No votes were taken, and no bill moved through the process. In the meantime, we need to make sure every legislator remembers the promises they made while running for office that teachers and support staff would get the raises they deserve. The Legislature shouldn’t be discussing a third school system when it has yet to properly fund the first one. We can either have meaningful investments in public schools or private school coupons for wealthy families, but we cannot have both. 

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate pushed through SB 13 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), which would ban certain materials from public school libraries. The bill would create “school library advisory councils” consisting of board-appointed parents  tasked with censoring school library materials. Books including LGBTQIA+ experiences and perspectives have already been a frequent target of book bans in local school districts across the state. Librarians worry that this proposal would further limit their ability to educate. The vague terminology about what is considered “harmful” materials in the bill  would likely have a chilling effect on teachers. 

A similar bill, HB 900 by Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), is moving through the legislative process in the House. The bill was recently voted out of the House Public Education Committee.

Higher Education: Senate Continues to Attack Academic Freedom, House Approves Historic Community College Funding Proposal

This week, SB 16, dubbed by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick a “ban on CRT in higher education,” passed on a party-line vote, despite widespread opposition by professors, students, and the general community. The bill would limit discussions of gender, race, and ethnicity in higher education. Professors would be prohibited from “compelling” students to adopt certain beliefs, but the bill’s author, Sen. Hughes (R-Mineola), offered neither examples nor any clear definition of what it means to “compel” a belief. 

When this bill was laid out in committee earlier this month, professors and students testified that the  broad and vague language in the bill would severely limit classroom discussions, interrupting the learning process. The witnesses explained that regardless of the exact wording or intention of the bill, the bill would have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas at higher ed institutions.

The bill includes a system of registering complaints against professors with the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Any student can register a complaint with the board. If professors are found to have violated the law, they will be dismissed.

The Senate also took up Senate Bill 17, which would ban offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion and silence professors’ voices on curriculum and governance decisions at public universities. The hearing went past midnight with many higher education students and faculty waiting throughout the day to testify against the bill.

Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) which is affiliated with AFT, flew all the way from Connecticut to testify against SB 17. Mulvey explained that the attacks against diversity and shared governance included in SB 17 would dissuade top-tier faculty from working in Texas. She explained that this would result in Texas universities becoming a less appealing destination for students, which would have disastrous effects on Texas’ economy down the road. The committee also heard about how Texas universities could lose out on significant grant opportunities if the bill were to pass. 

AAUP President Irene Mulvey testifies against SB 17 to the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education.

No DEI officers attended the hearing last Thursday. This lack of expertise in the room prompted legislators to reconvene this past Wednesday to hear limited testimony from two resource witnesses– officers of DEI at the University of Texas at Austin. These witnesses explained to the committee that institutions of higher education in Texas could lose out on billions of dollars in funding if they did not have a DEI plan. Many research grants require institutions to have a DEI plan. Without DEI plans in place, universities cannot receive those funds. 

On the House side of the building, the House passed HB 8, the comprehensive community college finance bill based on the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Community College Finance (CCCF). This proposal would increase community college funding by $650 million. Of that additional funding, $428 million would go directly to the state’s community colleges via formula funding, and the rest would go to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to distribute to community colleges via competitive grants. 

SB 2539, the Senate companion to HB 8, has been left pending in the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee for over three weeks.

Retirement: COLA Bill Moves through the Legislature

This Thursday, the House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services Committee voted out SB 10, the Senate proposal for a TRS cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). However, when voting out SB 10, they submitted a committee substitute, which incorporates many features of HB 600, the House proposal for a TRS COLA. 

Educators in Texas who have retired over the past two decades have never received a TRS COLA. Over those past two decades, inflation has increased consumer prices by almost 60%. Even just since December 2021, the last month covered by the COLA plans, prices have increased by 8%. Yet, under the currently proposed COLA plan, retirees would only receive a 2% to 6% COLA, depending on their retirement year. 

Texas AFT Retiree Plus members have been pushing to increase the percentages this COLA would provide. Take action today by sending a letter to your representative and senator encouraging them to increase funding for a TRS COLA.