This Week At the Legislature: Committees Consider Vouchers, Book Bans, TRS COLA, and more

This week, committees of the Texas Legislature considered bills that had dramatic implications for public education, higher education, and retired educators.

Public Education: Senate Considers Vouchers & Teacher Working Conditions, House Considers Book Bans, Curriculum Regulation, and School Funding

Texas AFT President Zeph Capo provides testimony opposing vouchers to the Senate Education Committee.

This week, the Senate Education Committee took up several bills that would defund public education by diverting funds to private voucher schemes. Each of these bills is unique (and Texas AFT provided brief summaries of each bill in last week’s hotline), but all of the proposals would defund public education in Texas.

The committee received testimony past midnight, with the vast majority of witnesses – a ratio of 4 to 1 – registering to testify against vouchers. 

Among the many witnesses testifying against vouchers was Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. In his testimony, Capo expressed the worry felt by public educators across Texas: that private school voucher programs will defund Texas’ public schools. Zeph’s testimony focused on the importance of protecting career and technical education (CTE) programs in public schools. Those programs are critical to meet our state’s workforce needs, and those programs do not exist in private schools.

Zeph laid out his position simply: “We can either have fully funded public schools or vouchers, but not both.”

Also among the witnesses testifying against vouchers was Texas AFT member Rebekah Ozuna. Ozuna is an Education Austin member working as a grant specialist, but taught over eight years in San Antonio ISD as a member of the San Antonio Alliance. Ozuna’s testimony focused on the staffing issues which could occur if the state diverts funds from public education to private education.

Texas AFT member Rebekah Ozuna provides testimony opposing vouchers to the Senate Education Committee.

In addition to the voucher bills, the committee also considered SB 9 by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), the omnibus teacher bill. This bill includes several provisions that we went over in last week’s hotline. The bill would also remove the State Board of Education’s (SBOE) authority over State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC). This would mean that a board appointed by the Governor, not democratically elected, would have total direct authority over rules related to teacher preparation, teacher certification, teacher assignment rules, and sanctions. 

This week, the House Public Education Committee also considered highly consequential bills. HB 900 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), would ban certain materials from public school libraries. A state commission would adopt standards for rating “sexually explicit material,” but third-party book vendors would actually rate the individual library materials. These types of bans are often used to target books that uplift LGBTQIA+ experiences, and for that reason, Texas AFT opposes the bill. This bill garnered significant public opposition at the committee, with testimony going late into the night.

The House Public Education Committee also considered the omnibus curriculum bill, HB 1605 by Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen). Texas AFT provided testimony opposing the bill. While the bill does include some positive provisions, the bill subverts the authority of the democratically elected State Board of Education (SBOE), and places that authority instead in the hands of the appointed Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath.
Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee convened to vote on HB 1, the House version of the state budget. The current version of the bill would increase funding to public education by an estimated $5 billion, but given current inflation trends, this funding increase is not significant enough to fully fund our public schools. Representatives John Bryant (D-Dallas), Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston), and Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) voted against this version of the budget as a conscientious objection to the insufficient investment in public education.

Higher Education: Legislature Considers Academic Freedom and Community College Funding

This Thursday, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education took up SB 16 – which targets academic freedom. SB 16 is one of the many bills that the Texas American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have been organizing against. AAUP is a nationwide association of higher education employees affiliated with AFT. Texas AAUP and Texas AFT have been fighting against these attacks on higher education with our letter campaign, encouraging legislators to defend higher education in Texas from these attacks.

On its surface, the language of SB 16 seems innocuous, prohibiting faculty from “compelling” certain beliefs. The true intention is to target educator freedom. Bills similar to SB 16 have been promoted by groups targeting academic freedom. Vague terms such as “compelling” are intended to create a chilling effect on university campuses, silencing educators from speaking about controversial or uncomfortable topics. Educators do not intend to “compel” beliefs, they simply wish to educate their students and expose them to diverse viewpoints.

As Texas AAUP member Dr. Karma Chávez stated in her oral testimony opposing the bill, “SB 16 is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” 

Despite the testimony from Dr. Chávez and many others against the bill, the subcommittee reported SB 16 favorably.

This week, the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education and the House Higher Education Committee considered legislation, SB 2539 and HB 8 respectively, that would comprehensively reform the Texas’ community college funding system. Both bills were drafted based on the recommendation by the Commission on Community College Finance (CCCF), which was created last legislative session and tasked with reforming the system. 

The bills would dramatically increase funding to community colleges. The new funding would be primarily “outcomes-based.” Community colleges would gain funding for positive outcomes, such as graduations and transfers to four-year universities. Currently, neither version of the bill guarantees any percentage of this new funding go to faculty compensation.

Retirement: Legislature Considers COLA and WEP/GPO Repeal

Texas AFT Retiree Plus Board President Rita Runnels provides the Senate Finance Committee with her testimony.
Texas AFT Retiree Plus Board member Phyllis Ruffin provides the Senate Finance Committee with her testimony.

This Wednesday, both the House Pensions, Investment, and Financial Services (PIFS) Committee and Senate Finance Committee considered proposals that would provide TRS educators with a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Both chambers’ COLA bills, SB 10 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), and HB 600 by Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-Friendswood), are considered “priority” pieces of legislation, meaning they have the support of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan. 

Both bills would provide a tiered COLA, with varying percentages depending on one’s retirement date, and a one-time supplemental check, similar to previous 13th checks, that would be provided to retirees of a certain age or older. Check out our previous hotline for brief summaries of each proposal. 

While the House proposal does contain several positive provisions that are not present in the Senate proposal, the House proposal also includes an increase in employee contributions to TRS. School employees currently contribute 8% of their salary to the TRS pension fund, which was scheduled to increase to 8.25% next year. HB 600 would increase that contribution all the way to 9%, if the bill was passed as currently written. Dramatically increasing the contribution rate would put undue stress on Texas educators, at a time in which educators are already struggling to make ends meet. Texas AFT provided testimony to the PIFS Committee highlighting this concern.

The Senate bill does not include a contribution increase, but it fails to define circumstances for a future COLA, the way the House bill does. The House proposal includes a key provision which would provide TRS retirees with a COLA automatically if the fund hits investment targets, but the Senate proposal does not include a similar provision. Texas AFT provided testimony to both committees encouraging legislators to make greater investments in TRS, which would allow a more robust COLA for retirees.

Texas AFT Retiree Plus Board members Rita Runnels and Phyllis Ruffin also provided testimony, traveling all the way from the Houston area to do so. Both Runnels and Ruffin testified that they appreciate the COLA, but they encouraged legislators to increase the COLAs from the percentages currently laid out in the bills. 

Apart from the COLA, two other bills were considered that would benefit TRS retirees. The House PIFS Committee received testimony on HB 1758 by Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston), which would allow TRS to temporarily waive surcharges paid by school districts who rehire retired educators. The temporary removal of this surcharge would allow retired educators to more easily return to the classroom if they so choose.
The Senate Finance Committee received testimony on SCR 28 by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which would urge the U.S. Congress to repeal the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) which arbitrarily and unfairly reduce Social Security benefits for TRS retirees. The Legislature has previously passed resolutions calling for the repeal of these provisions, and an identical resolution, HCR 20 by Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown), was reported favorably by the House PIFS Committee this week. Repealing these provisions requires action by the federal government.

Bills to Watch

Next Tuesday at 8 a.m., the House Public Education Committee will convene to consider several bills. Texas AFT encourages members of the public to testify on these proposals at the State Capitol. The hearing will take place in room E2.036.

Good bill: 

HB 2647 by Rep. Carl Sherman (D-DeSoto) would create a nonvoting student trustee position within the board of trustees of a school district and allow the student to have the same powers and duties as a member of the board of trustees, including the right to attend and participate in board meetings.

Bad bills:

HB 2890 by Rep. Charles Cunningham (R-Humble) would make it more difficult for SBOE to reject a charter school. Currently a majority vote from SBOE members is needed to reject new charter applicants, but this bill would increase that threshold to two-thirds of the board, which would make it more difficult for these elected officials to hold charter applicants accountable. This is the only elected oversight in the charter approval process and making it more difficult for the SBOE to reject poor quality charters will result in the proliferation of more bad charter operators, and likely even more charter school financial scandals. 

HB 1507 by Rep. Ken King (R-Canadian) 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.