This week, committees of the Texas Legislature considered bills that had dramatic implications for public education, higher education, and retired educators.
Public Education: House Committees Consider Charter School Expansion & LGBTQIA+ Pride Bans, Senate Committee Debates Instructional Materials & Book Bans
This past week the Texas House considered two bills that would pave the way for rapid charter school expansion in Texas.
HB 2890, which was considered in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday, would make it more difficult for the elected State Board of Education (SBOE) to veto a charter school application. Currently, a simple majority of SBOE votes, 8 of the 15, are required to veto a charter application, but this bill would raise the threshold to veto to two-thirds, or 10 of the 15 SBOE votes. Even with the simple majority vote threshold for veto, SBOE has approved 71% of all new charter applications over the past 10 years.
Texas AFT Government Affairs Specialist Alejandro Peña testified before the House Public Education committee. Peña explained that once charter schools are approved by the SBOE, they require only the approval of the governor’s appointed commissioner of education to expand, not SBOE approval. For example, IDEA charter schools first began in Texas with a single SBOE vote, but now the chain has more than 120 campuses across Texas. Peña also provided each member of the House committee with data on how much revenue the ISDs they respectively represent are losing to charter schools due to rampant charter school expansion.
HB 1707, which was considered in the House Land and Resource Management Committee, would exempt charter schools from all city zoning laws. Under HB 1707, charter schools could put campuses or other facilities in busy residential neighborhoods without any local government oversight.
Texas AFT Director of Public Affairs and Legislative Counsel Patty Quinzi testified before the House Land and Resource Management Committee. Quinzi explained that for public schools to open new campuses, they must pass a bond with approval of voters. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) can unilaterally provide charter schools with bonds needed to open up new facilities. Quinzi pointed out that the bonds for several charter school operators have devolved into “junk bond” status due to financial mismanagement. Quinzi also provided each member of the House committee with data on how much revenue their respective ISDs are losing to charter schools already, a total of $2.1 billion in the previous three years alone just for the nine House districts represented by committee members.
Both HB 2890 and HB 1707 were left pending in committee.
In addition to HB 2890, the House Public Education Committee also considered HB 1507, which would prohibit any instruction on sexual preference and prohibit any celebrations of LGBTQIA+ Pride. If implemented, the bill would effectively ban any Pride activities or celebrations and would punish educators alleged to violate the prohibition with hefty fines and license suspension or even removal. Several Education Austin members, including Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, testified against HB 1507.
On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee considered several bills, including SB 2565, the senate companion to HB 1605, which was considered by the House Public Education Committee last week. HB 1605 and SB 2565 are the omnibus curriculum bills that would incentivize TEA-developed curriculum materials for foundation area teachers. They would also change laws concerning a parent’s access to curriculum materials and would make it easier for parents to challenge curriculum. If these measures were enacted, TEA could directly purchase instructional materials for use by the state (presumably this means more open-resource options) and would incentivize districts to adopt and use these materials.
While there are some measures in this bill worth supporting, such as some paperwork reduction measures, Texas AFT opposes both SB 2565 and HB 1605 because they would take critical curriculum decisions out of the hands of educators and place increased authority in the hands of TEA.
Higher Education: Senate Subcommittee Debates Abolishing Tenure
This Thursday, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education considered SB 18, which would prevent Texas public institutions of higher education from offering tenure. Currently tenured faculty would not lose their tenure, but no employee would receive tenure going forward.
The purpose of tenure is to provide professors with academic freedom. Professors who fear they might lose their position based on their speech, research findings, or publications would be limited in their ability to research and educate. Tenure also provides professors with economic security, which makes a career in higher education a more attractive option.
Several professors from Texas AFT and Texas American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the nationwide university professors’ association affiliated with AFT, provided oral and written testimony to the subcommittee.
SB 18 is one of several pieces of legislation attacking higher education in Texas. SB 16, which would directly attack academic freedom in higher education, was voted out of the Senate Education Committee this Wednesday. It will now go to the full Senate for consideration.
Retirement: Senate Passes COLA & House PIFS Committee Debates TRS Contribution Increases
This Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed SB 10, which would provide retirees with a one-time cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their TRS monthly annuity. It will now go to the House for that body’s consideration. SB 10 would provide a 2% COLA to those who retired after September 2013 and before January 2022. It would provide a 4% COLA to those who retired before September 2013. It would also provide retirees 75 years and older with a one-time $7,500 check.
This week, the House Pensions, Investments, and Financial Services (PIFS) Committee voted the House’s TRS COLA bill, HB 600, out of committee. HB 600 is different from SB 10 in several critical ways. A positive difference from SB 10 is that HB 600 would provide automatic “gain sharing” COLAs, allowingTRS retirees to receive automatic COLAs when TRS overperforms its investment goals, starting in 2028.
A significant negative difference from SB 10 is that HB 600 would increase the contribution rates active TRS employees pay into the system. Educators currently pay 8% of their salaries to the TRS pension fund. If no action is taken by the Legislature, the contribution rate will increase to 8.25% next year. HB 600, instead, would increase that contribution rate all the way up to 9%, beginning in 2024. At a time when educators are struggling to make ends meet, increasing the employee contribution rate without a substantial raise would place an additional financial burden on educators.
PIFS Committee member Rep. John Bryant (D-Dallas) addressed this provision before HB 600 was voted out of committee by offering an amendment to the bill. Bryant’s amendment would have eliminated the employee contribution increase and would have provided additional state funding for the plan to pay for the COLA. Bryant’s amendment was rejected by the committee, and the bill will now go to the House floor, where it can be amended and improved.