Tuning in to Teachers

Today’s Hotline shares with you a recap from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten of key moments at the biennial AFT convention held in Los Angeles last week. (Upcoming Hotlines will add to our report on the convention as it was experienced by your Texas AFT delegates representing all branches of our union, including school nurses, paraprofessionals, and school-related support staffers.)

Why would 3,500 people go to sun- and fun-filled Los Angeles and opt to spend the bulk of their time inside a cavernous convention hall? To be heard. This was the case last week at the American Federation of Teachers biennial convention, where educators spoke up forcefully and passionately about economic and social justice, education and professional issues on which they are often denied a voice.

These days, the wisdom and experience of educators are often ignored and, worse, dismissed by policymakers who favor approaches emanating far from the classroom. Yet no one is better able to weigh in on what will help children succeed academically than educators, who have incomparable firsthand knowledge. That’s exactly what AFT delegates did–setting union policies for how to reclaim the promise of public education–for our kids, families and communities.

AFT’s new policy revamping accountability is perhaps the most important because it confronts the destructive obsession with standardized testing.

Educators didn’t simply rail against the harmful effects of “test-and-punish” accountability systems driven by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top; they gave near-unanimous approval to a new approach aimed at ensuring kids have meaningful learning outcomes–based on a systemic support-and-improve model that holds to account all who have responsibility for education.

The most intense debate concerned the Common Core State Standards. Teachers have been told that these are an essential building block to help all students be ready for college and career, yet stories of inadequate resources and preparation for teachers and students were as legion as they were heartbreaking. The anger over the emphasis on testing and the profit-seeking developers of tests and textbooks as well as other “edupreneurs” was evident and justified.

That’s why some who object to the standards believe that they are being used to set up public education, kids and teachers for failure. Even with all of this, supporters said the standards–when properly resourced and supported–develop deeper learning, and help disrupt educational inequities by making essential skills and knowledge available to all children.

The passionate debate ended with two-thirds of the delegates in support of the standards’ potential, but calling for teachers and parents to have real input in their implementation; for officials to be held accountable for proper implementation; and reaffirming the call the AFT started in April 2013 for a moratorium on the high-stakes consequences of Common Core-aligned assessments until the new accountability system envisioned here is in place. Officials who say they believe in the Common Core should heed these commonsense actions.

These debates about accountability and standards show why the California judge who recently stripped teachers’ due-process rights was so wrong. Educators not only should be heard on the floor of a convention, they also need their voices to be respected in their schools and by policymakers.

AFT delegates strongly stated that due process is not a shield to cloak incompetence, nor an excuse for managers not to manage. When I addressed the convention and said that no teacher wants to work alongside someone not cut out for this demanding profession, it was met with applause.

Due process gives teachers professional latitude, such as to use scenes from the movie “Mean Girls” to help teach the power dynamics of “Julius Caesar,” as one teacher has. It enables educators to fight for their students’ needs. It protects people such as the former Teacher of the Year who was told to remain silent about her sexual orientation until she had tenure, and the teacher parents sought to remove from the classroom for teaching the California state curriculum on Islam. It’s necessary to prevent reverting to a patronage system so that teachers’ jobs do not depend on whom they know, but what they know.

Finally, it was no surprise to me that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was criticized for “misguided and ineffective policies on deprofessionalization, privatization and test obsession.” Those policies have created a toxic climate for schools, kids, educators, parents and communities; but because we value both the potential to improve and due process, delegates called for Duncan to be placed on a “secretary improvement plan.” If he does not improve, they resolved, “he must resign.”

Too often education edicts come down from on high with a directive to “just do it,” without question and without complaint. Educators’ voices should be as welcome in the halls of power as they were in the halls of our convention. That is the lesson Secretary Duncan and others must learn if the goal truly is to strengthen America’s public schools.

Posted in Accountability System, AFT, Randi Weingarten, U.S. Department of Education | Leave a comment

Hearings at State Capitol Set Parameters for TRS Health-Care Debates in 2015 Legislature; Next Hotline will be July 21 recap of AFT Convention

At hearings this week in the state capitol, key legislators played down the potential for significant change in state health-insurance programs, even as they also acknowledged that significant new funding would be needed to help cover a shortfall in the TRS-Care program for retirees.

Texas AFT legislative spokesman Ted Melina Raab, on your behalf, offered the legislators some advice–urging them to set higher expectations of accomplishment for themselves when it comes to improving your health-insurance coverage and cost situation. Here is what he shared with the lawmakers:

The more than 65,000 members of Texas AFT are active and retired public school and higher education employees. We are entry-level hourly classified workers and teachers at the top of a salary schedule. We are new to our jobs, mid-career, near retirement and long retired. We work in teaching, cleaning, counseling, food service, nursing, transportation and dozens of other jobs. Despite our personal and  professional diversity we share many common concerns and goals. Prominent among those is a need for affordable good-quality health care.

The evidence is undeniable that active and retired school employees need relief from the high and rising costs of health care. Current state funding structures for vital health-care benefits are not fit to sustain them over the long term. The state has been limiting its own contributions while shifting more of the costs of care onto the shoulders of active employees and retirees, to the point where decent health-insurance coverage is increasingly unaffordable. Here are the facts:

• For the retiree health-care program, a shortfall of almost $875 million is projected in the 2016-17 biennium. Meanwhile, active employees face ever- growing premiums and are being pushed rapidly toward lower-benefit plans.

• TRS-Care, the health program operated by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas for retired school employees, was established in 1985 with a “temporary” funding mechanism that practically ensures the program will never be adequately funded. Almost 30 years later, that “temporary” mechanism is still in place.

• Required TRS-Care contributions from the state, active employees, and school districts are based on payroll, not on actual health-care costs. As a result, the survival of TRS-Care has depended on intermittent infusions of additional cash from the state, occasional premium and benefit restructuring, and higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs for retirees.

• Premiums for retirees would almost have to triple to cover the full projected 2016-2017 shortfall for TRS-Care. For retirees, who have seen the real value of their pensions eroded by more than 20 percent due to inflation over the past dozen years, that is a frightening prospect.

• For active school employees, too, state funding for health care bears no relationship to actual costs. State contributions and the minimum school-district contribution for premium-sharing assistance were set in 2001 at $225 per month—$75 from the state and $150 from the district. Those fixed amounts have not been increased, despite years of rising health-care costs.

• The state instead has shifted an ever-larger share of costs onto active employees. In 2004, $225 of premium assistance covered 68 percent of the employee-only premium for ActiveCare-2—a plan with modest benefits. Ten years later the guaranteed state and district premium assistance only covers 43 percent of the premium. TRS-ActiveCare health plans are offered in districts employing about one-half of all Texas active school employees but the situation in ActiveCare plans is illustrative of that in districts with self-insured or commercial health-care coverage plans.

• As premiums have gone up, the employee’s premium share since 2004 has risen to 57 percent from 32 percent, and at the same time the benefits of the ActiveCare-2 plan have eroded, causing employee out-of-pocket costs to rise as well. Last year, premiums for ActiveCare-2 increased 15 percent over the previous year. Not surprisingly, participation in ActiveCare-2 dropped by 12 percent last year.

Health-care coverage for active and retired school employees is a critical benefit yet is simply becoming unaffordable, yet these health-care programs are only sustainable to the extent they provide decent, affordable coverage. Our experience with the dissolution of ActiveCare-3 and the trend toward lower participation in ActiveCare-2 makes that clear.

To Texas AFT members, in fact to almost all public school employees, the answer to the current situation is obvious—we must have a significant and sustained increase in state funding for school employee health care. That will be a primary focus for us in the upcoming legislature and we will not shy away from identifying existing and new sources of revenue to fund this vital purpose. While funding is clearly available to fund school employee health care adequately in the short term, Texas AFT recognizes that a long-term solution requires reform of our state’s revenue structure. We are committed to active support for legislators willing to take on the work of closing outdated loopholes and modernizing our tax system. Texas AFT members ask that the members of these committees lead state lawmakers in ensuring for our health-care programs long-term sustainability, including affordability for a reasonable level of benefits.

Posted in Health Care, Pensions, Retirees, TRS | Leave a comment

Attorney General Abbott’s Hazardous Opinion: Keep Parents, Educators in the Dark About Chemical Dangers

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott reportedly has already bought $10 million worth of television ad time for his gubernatorial campaign. But no amount of advertising will be enough to help him sell his latest bad idea—which is to keep communities in the dark about hazardous chemicals stored near their schools, homes, and businesses.

The attorney general stoked a media storm by issuing an official opinion interpreting state law as a license to keep such information secret in the face of public inquiries. Then he compounded his blunder by saying anyone concerned about hazardous-chemical storage could just “drive around” to ask business owners if they have dangerous chemicals on their premises. Unfortunately for Abbott, some enterprising reporters put that idea to the test and found that asking was one thing, but getting an answer was another.

The AG thereupon tried to distance himself from his own official, signed opinion, claiming he had not even been aware that his office issued such an opinion allowing information on hazardous chemicals to be withheld.

The upshot has been even more shellacking for Abbott from the Texas press corps, exemplified by this commentary from Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News:

Attorney General Greg Abbott is scrambling to deal with the uproar over his ruling that state records on the locations of dangerous chemicals around the state are confidential.

Abbott stumbled this week in defending the ruling, saying state records are closed to the public but homeowners could ask local companies what they have. The response brought a rebuke from Democratic gubernatorial challenger Wendy Davis, who said families with children playing near facilities with dangerous chemicals shouldn’t have to go door to door to find out. Abbott faces Davis in the November general election for governor.

On Wednesday, the attorney general tried to distance himself from the decision. Abbott said he didn’t even know his office made the ruling until it made headlines. But he defended it. He said state law passed after Sept. 11, 2001, keeps the records from public view in order to deter terrorists. In an interview with Associated Press, he said he was just interpreting what the Legislature did.

“This is not a law or conclusion that I created,” Abbott told the AP.

Last year’s ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West has focused public attention on the storage of potentially dangerous chemicals across Texas and regulatory gaps in prevention, data-gathering, enforcement and disclosure to prevent explosions in the future. For years, the locations were available from the Department of State Health Services. But Abbott’s ruling shut that down. On Wednesday, Abbott suggested that fire stations might be a place the public could go to find out what’s in their neighborhoods.

Abbott is a big recipient of campaign contributions from the chemical industry, whose lobbyists are on record advocating fewer regulations and less disclosure.

Posted in Elections | Leave a comment

Education Commissioner Okays Charter Expansion Despite State Board’s Veto

Last November the State Board of Education vetoed a decision by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to give the out-of-state Great Hearts charter-school chain a license to set up shop in the Dallas area. A nine-member majority of the State Board found the Great Hearts charter application deficient on multiple grounds. They cited the sketchy overall academic record of Great Hearts’ existing out-of-state schools, significant community opposition to Great Hearts’ Metroplex expansion plans, and limited services proposed for economically disadvantaged students.

But the commissioner now has found a way to bypass the State Board and give the charter chain what it wanted anyway—by treating the Dallas expansion as merely an extension of the chain’s previously approved charter to open a school in San Antonio.

Commissioner Williams bypassed not only the State Board but also state law requiring charter entities to demonstrate high performance before they can expand. Williams contends that he has been granted discretion to waive such bothersome requirements, as reported in a July 2 article from the online Texas Tribune:

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has used his waiver authority to effectively overrule a vote by the State Board of Education to deny an Arizona-based charter school’s expansion into the Dallas area, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.

In December, the 15-member elected board voted 9 to 6 to veto Great Hearts Academies’ application to open a new school in Dallas, citing concerns about the school’s commitment to serving low-income students and to teaching Texas curriculum standards. The organization had already received approval for a campus in San Antonio, which is set to open this fall.

“I have no confidence, really, in the Great Hearts organization,” board member Mavis Knight, D-Dallas, said at the time. She has led opposition to the charter school.

Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, has issued no official statement on his decision. Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, confirmed that the commissioner had approved additional campuses in Dallas and Irving. Because the state had previously approved a charter contract for a San Antonio campus, Ratcliffe said, Great Hearts was able to apply for an expansion even after the SBOE vetoed its application for a new Dallas campus. In approving the new campuses, Williams waived a Texas Education Code requirement that charter schools must have been operating for at least four years, or hold “acceptable” or higher ratings under the state’s accountability system before they are granted an expansion.

Before the 2013 legislature convened, Texas AFT testified at the state Sunset Advisory Commission that lawmakers had delegated far too much authority to the commissioner over the years, increasingly turning this gubernatorial appointee into an unelected czar of state education policy, exercising broad discretion over state accountability measures, making judgments about the adequacy of state aid for struggling students without ever articulating a methodology to support his conclusions, and more. The sunset-review process for the Texas Education Agency was not completed in last year’s legislative sessions, so the 2015 legislature will have a new opportunity to rethink ill-advised transfers of authority like the one the commissioner claims to be acting under now to expand the Great Hearts charter chain into Dallas.

Texas AFT will continue to urge specifically that the legislature curb the commissioner’s discretion over charter expansion and set higher standards for approval of such expansion. Eligibility for expansion should be reserved for charter holders whose campuses—all of them—truly meet the highest standards.  Charter expansion also should be within limits based on recognition of TEA’s severely limited oversight staffing and capacity.

Posted in Charter Schools, Michael Williams, SBOE, TEA | Leave a comment

Texas Democratic Platform on Education—Stopping the Corporate Takeover of Neighborhood Schools

The Texas Democratic Party’s 2014 platform, approved at the party’s state convention in Dallas on June 28, offers strong support for Texas public education and those who work in public education at all levels. The Democrats’ platform is strong on equitable and adequate school funding of public schools, strongly opposed to private-school vouchers, and it calls for an end to the misuse of standardized testing in a punitive system of accountability.  It’s worth your time to read the whole platform plank covering pre-K through higher education, which you’ll find here, right after the platform’s preamble.

In the next few Hotline messages we will excerpt key provisions of this platform, which stands in such sharp contrast to the platform statement approved early in June by Texas Republicans. For today, we commend to your attention the following provision of the Democrats’ education plank declaring support for community schools and opposition to the private, corporate takeover of neighborhood schools—including the “home rule” ploy currently receiving its first test in Dallas ISD:

Community Schools: Stopping the Hostile Private and Corporate Takeover of Neighborhood Schools

Parental and community involvement in neighborhood schools has long been the hallmark of successful public schools. That model offers a blueprint for restoring excellence in public education and provides real local control and accountability that detached, corporate-run schools simply cannot match. The forces of privatization see public education as a profit-making venture and have a three-step plan to take over our schools: cut funding, declare failure, and privatize. Texas Democrats see public education as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, where the community educates our children to keep our communities and our country strong. Texas should:

  • require every school to meet high standards and repeal so-called “home rule” statutes that would allow standards to be reduced and serve as a pathway to privatization;
  • oppose creation of a statewide so-called achievement or recovery school district that would grant control of a neighborhood school to Austin-based bureaucrats who could contract with private operators to run neighborhood schools without any local accountability;
  • utilize existing statutes and encourage expansion of neighborhood charter schools that are literally run by parents and teachers who establish elements of curriculum and policy within state standards;
  • strengthen state oversight and academic and financial standards for charter schools to provide the same level of accountability required of neighborhood schools that receive tax dollars;
  • strengthen state oversight of home schooling;
  • reject efforts to provide state funds for and shift students into privately operated, for-profit, low-quality unaccountable “virtual schools” at taxpayers’ expense;
  • oppose private school vouchers in all forms, including tax breaks for people or corporations.

Posted in Accountability System, Charter Schools, Elections, Funding, Legislature, Privatization, Virtual Schools, Vouchers | Leave a comment

Texas Republican Platform on Education is One to Run From, Not On

The Republican Party of Texas took a couple of weeks to publish the party platform approved at its state convention in Fort Worth early in June, and reading some of the parts relating to education you can see why party operatives hesitated to disclose its contents. For example:

–The platform statement on education spending (as noted in a previous Hotline) bluntly states that Texas Republicans “support reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education institutions.” This call for education cuts may be the first ever of its kind in any state party platform in Texas.

–The platform calls for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw the use of the state’s Rainy Day Fund reserve to maintain education funding when state revenues shrink temporarily in an economic downturn—thus nullifying the whole purpose of the Rainy Day Fund, which is to avoid needless cuts.

–While the state Republican platform would choke off funding for public education, it simultaneously calls for the state to take on the burden of funding private and parochial education. Yet it would also prohibit any public regulation to ensure the accountability of private schools for their use of taxpayer funds.

–The party’s platform also says “we oppose medical clinics on school property”—despite the successful use of in-school clinics in a number of districts to improve student, employee, and community health.

–Texas Republicans declare in this platform their support for “frequent post-tenure review” of “teaching staff,” ignoring the fact that frequent evaluation of faculty, subject to a modicum of due process, already occurs in Texas public education.

–The G.O.P. platform also contradicts itself by calling for “maximizing local independent school district control” on the one hand, while calling on the other hand for the State Board of Education to have “sole authority over all curricula content.“

–Back on the theme of education funding, the platform urges adoption of a constitutional amendment strictly limiting increases in state spending regardless of rapidly rising student enrollment, rising percentages of high-need students, and the higher costs of meeting higher state standards.

An upcoming Hotline will report on the education platform to be crafted by Texas Democrats at their state party convention on June 28 in Dallas.

Posted in Budget, Elections, Funding | Leave a comment

Drafting of Next State Budget Already Has Begun, and the Stakes Are High

With the start of the 2015 legislative session looming just over six months from now, the process of drafting the state budget for the next (2016-2017) biennium already is under way. On June 23, the directors of the Legislative Budget Board and the Governor’s Office of Budget Planning and Policy issued joint instructions to state agencies, including the Texas Education Agency and the Teacher Retirement System, regarding the starting point for the preparation of their budget requests.

The letter of instruction includes a brief, understated acknowledgment of the obvious—namely, that “the state’s revenue landscape is certainly positive and a projected balance is accruing in the treasury.” However, the letter goes on to require nonetheless that each agency prepare for three scenarios:  a baseline budget that “may not exceed the amounts expended in fiscal year 2014 and budgeted in fiscal year 2015”; a budget cut of 5 percent below that baseline; and a budget cut of 10 percent below the baseline.

Agencies are advised as a general rule to put any amounts they want to request above baseline into what is called an “exceptional items” category. But the letter of budget instructions says that this “baseline request limitation” does not apply to several kinds of spending. These include two of particular interest to education employees:

–“amounts necessary to maintain entitlement funding [formula aid for school districts] for the Foundation School Program under current law”; and

–“amounts necessary to cover the impact of payroll growth for state pension systems and employee group benefits…though group benefit modifications may be considered.”

Later this summer, state agencies will submit their legislative appropriation requests under these guidelines. Behind the scenes, agency officials already are discussing the possible items on their request lists with stakeholder groups. In the fall, joint budget hearings on the requests will provide an early opportunity for public testimony. Rest assured Texas AFT, along with allies in the Texas Forward revenue coalition, is hard at work behind the scenes now and will continue to speak out at those hearings for the public funding needed to meet the state’s obligations to provide public services for a fast-growing population.

The state’s former official demographer, Steve Murdock, has explained clearly what awaits Texans in the near future if the state fails to make needed investments now in public services, particularly in public education. Murdock recently wrote:  “In the absence of change, the Texas labor force as a whole will be less well-educated, work in lower-status occupations, and have lower incomes in 2050 than 2010.”

Posted in Budget, Legislature | Leave a comment

State Capitol Hearings Coming Up on Key Issues of Interest to Education Employees

A series of hearings over the next couple of months will shed light on legislative initiatives we may see in the next regular session of the legislature, which will start on January 13, 2015. For instance:

–On July 1 the House Select Committee on Child Protection, chaired by Rep. Dawnna Dukes, Democrat of Austin, will hold a hearing on its assigned topic, which is one of great concern to the education employees who bear front-line responsibility for protecting children in their charge.

–On July 2, the House Select Committee on Transportation Funding, chaired by Rep. Joe Pickett, Democrat of El Paso, will consider possible new revenue sources for transportation projects. The discussion could have implications for sources of revenue currently or potentially devoted to public education.

–On July 9 and 10, the House Pensions Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Callegari, Republican of Katy, will take testimony on both pension and health-care issues affecting both retired and current education employees and other public employees.

–On August 26, the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston, will delve deeper into the implementation of the STAAR testing program as well as the state’s programs promoting virtual schools.

Posted in Legislature | Leave a comment

AG Abbott Loses Bid to Delay School-Finance Decision Holding State Accountable

Attorney General Greg Abbott has lost his last-ditch bid to stave off a ruling by state district judge John Dietz that is expected to hold the state’s system of school funding inadequate and inequitable under the Texas constitution. Abbott’s attempt to have Dietz removed from the case was rejected by another judge Monday. That means the day of reckoning for Abbott as the defender of an indefensible school-finance system may be arriving soon. We will keep you posted. Evidence presented at the hearing on Abbott’s failed attempt to remove Dietz suggests that the judge is developing a draft of his decision that will document the failings of the school-funding scheme in exhaustive detail.

A final decision in the matter will inevitably lie within the jurisdiction of the Texas Supreme Court and may not come until well into next year.  Whether that timeline will spur or slow action by the Texas legislature remains to be seen, perhaps depending on the electoral fortunes this fall of critics of the status quo on school finance, led by candidate for governor Wendy Davis and lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte.

Posted in Elections, Legislature, School Finance | Leave a comment

House Speaker Joe Straus Names a New Education Committee on Workforce Issues

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on June 20 appointed members to a new Joint Interim Committee to Study Education Policy for a Skilled Workforce. The committee will study career and technology education programs—in particular how CTE programs can better align with those offered in Texas colleges and with the needs of Texas employers. Committee members will include:  co-chair Jim Murphy, Republican of Houston; Nicole Collier, Democrat of Fort Worth; Joe Farias, Democrat of San Antonio; Marsha Farney, Republican of Georgetown; Sergio Munoz, Democrat of Palmview; Kyle Kacal, Republican of College Station; and Ken King, Republican of Canadian. 

Posted in Higher Education, Legislature | Leave a comment