I have always had an interest in what the ATPE lobby team does, especially during legislative sessions. However, in 2009, what was going on in the Texas legislature became personal for me. Why? Because my stepdaughter and nephew were likely going to be directly impacted by legislation surrounding the STAAR and end-of-course exams (EOCs) for high school students. My stepdaughter is a senior this year—class of 2015, the first graduating Texas class to transition from TAKS to STAAR. As a parent, I couldn't believe what our legislators were doing to our kids, and as an ATPE staff member, I was frustrated by the expectations and pressures being placed on our schools and our educators. Paying attention to public school legislation became a necessity.
For the past three legislative se¬ssions, I have followed all legislation related to testing for high school students. Luckily, I work in a place with experts on the subject matter. I asked questions of our lobby team often, I wrote my legislators when ATPE made calls for action, I attended weekly legislative updates during the session, and I talked to my daughter’s school principal about how the legislation would be rolled out. Like many parents, I was unhappy with the requirements being placed on our children. It was mind-boggling to me that outside interests could have so great an influence on our students’ futures. Why don't our legislators listen to educators and parents when they are the ones who know what is truly best for our kids?
So, here we are in 2015, in the midst of another legislative session. This year I knew that I wanted to see first-hand how our lobby team impacts decision making so that I could understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. I spoke with the lobby team and my boss and got approval to spend an afternoon with them.
On Tuesday, April 21, I met up with Josh Sanderson, Monty Exter, Kate Kuhlmann, and former Senator Bill Haley. First up was a lunch meeting and discussion about SB 149 with House Representative Giovanni Capriglione. SB 149 allows seniors who have not passed one of their EOCs but have passing grades in all their courses to go to a graduation committee, where they will have to meet a number of criteria to be allowed to graduate. ATPE supported this bill and, as a parent, I did, too. Some kids just aren’t good test takers, and if they have done well throughout high school, why shouldn’t we allow them to graduate? ATPE was instrumental in adding to the bill an amendment that would allow for seniors who hadn't passed two exams to go to a graduation committee. This amendment meant at least another 5,000 kids would benefit from the bill. Based on the support of this bill so far in both chambers, I anticipate it will pass and become law. This is a small step in the right direction for our kids!
After this meeting, I followed Monty over to the House Public Education Committee Hearing. I spent the rest of afternoon—about five hours—here. The complexity of some of the issues being discussed was astounding. One of the bills that got a lot of discussion was HB 3347, which had to do with what happens to the assets of a charter school once the commissioner of education steps in to revoke their charter. The discussion on this bill, with legal rights and the capital gains market at the forefront, made me realize just how complex our education system is, especially when it comes to funding our schools. Our legislators are often asked to make decisions about things they do not have a solid foundation in. It is the committee’s job to question and vet every single angle of any bill brought before them for a hearing. They must rely on their staff, advisors, attorneys, lobbyists, and the public to aid them in their decision making.
Finally, around 6 p.m., the committee heard HB 1842, introduced by the House Public Ed chairman, Jimmie Don Aycock. This bill, dealing with what happens to a public school when it doesn’t meet standards, brought about lots of questions from the committee. I was impressed with the dialogue among the committee members. They were respectful and honest and weren’t afraid to speak against or question parts of the bill. There were also several testifiers, one of which was ATPE’s own Monty Exter. Although ATPE was for the bill, we did offer suggestions that would help make it even better. Governmental Relations Director Brock Gregg will tell you that the mark of good testimony is to get questions from the committee. And by that standard, I could tell how well respected Monty—and ATPE—was in the eyes of this committee. I felt proud of Monty, and of ATPE. You don’t just get respect, you earn it. It was evident that the hard work our lobby team has put into building relationships over the years has paid off.
My afternoon at the Capitol was time well spent. No, it wasn’t full of excitement, but not every day is full of excitement for our lobby team, either. During the session they work long hours, walk up and down the halls of the Capitol, and sit through hours of hearings just to testify on one bill. They do this for our members and for students across Texas. Some may think it’s a glamorous job, but it’s certainly not easy.
I want so say thank you to our lobby team. They made me feel welcomed and kept me informed about what was going on at every moment. ATPE members can rest assured that our lobby team is looking out for their best interests. And parents can rest assured that ATPE is looking out for your kids, too! I encourage everyone to get involved with the legislative process. Now is the time to speak up and let your voice be heard. It really does make a difference.
Andrea Elizondo is ATPE’s Meetings and Conferences Director.