ATPE News Magazine

Winter 2018 | Volume 39 | Issue 2

Feature

Education Outlook for the 2019 Legislative Session

As we near the opening of another legislative session in January 2019, ATPE’s lobbyists are gearing up for high-profile debates about school-related issues. Here’s a look at our 2019 legislative priorities, based on the ATPE Legislative Program adopted by our House of Delegates.
 
Improving Texas's School Finance System
 
After the Texas Supreme Court found our state’s system of funding public schools to be constitutional but “undeniably imperfect,” House-led efforts to pass school finance reforms in the 2017 legislative session fell short, thanks in large part to resistance from the Senate. As the state’s share of funding has steadily declined, school districts are forced to rely increasingly on local property taxes. It’s an unwelcome burden on many homeowners who know that the higher taxes they’re paying may not even benefit their own community’s schools. The current system forces school districts to meet rising standards with revenue that is harder to come by for a student population that continues to grow, while new challenges—like keeping schools safe—require even more money.
 
ATPE supports legislation to dramatically improve the state’s school finance system and enable the efficient operation of public schools that are safe and productive learning environments. We believe that every child deserves access to an exemplary public education rather than one that meets only minimum constitutional standards. We urge lawmakers to provide the resources necessary for Texas to fulfill the economic and moral imperative to help all students reach their full potential.
 
Funding Educators' Healthcare Needs
 
Lawmakers have been hearing from educators about the difficult burden of paying for healthcare with relatively low teacher paychecks or on the fixed income of a retired educator. Many retirees have been forced recently to endure huge jumps in their out-of-pocket costs, and lawmakers have not raised the state’s $75 per employee contribution for active educators’ health insurance since that program began in 2001. Keeping educators healthy should be a top priority for legislators because it saves taxpayer dollars and promotes educator retention and classroom stability.
 
ATPE supports measures to provide affordable healthcare options for active public school employees, retired educators, and their dependents. We urge the legislature to address the rising cost to Texas educators for benefits that have lagged behind those offered to educators in other states and those employed in other professions. Assuring educators that they will have access to quality healthcare even after retiring is a vital tool for recruiting and retaining the best teachers in Texas public schools.
 
Preserving Educators' Pension Benefits
 
Offering a healthy and reliable pension is one of the tools we have for recruiting and retaining the best educators in our public schools. Texas educators benefit from one of the most well-run pension funds in the country, but their retirement benefits still lag behind those offered to their peers in nearby states and in other professions. Why? Over the course of many years, the legislature has not prioritized funding for the Teacher Retirement System (TRS), resulting in the country’s lowest state contribution rate and making it harder to ensure the long-term solvency of the fund and practically impossible to give retirees any hope for a cost-of-living adjustment. With inflation and the recent lowering of the assumed rate of return on TRS’s investments, legislators will face pressure to bolster the TRS pension fund in order to help retired educators maintain steady income levels and purchasing power. But at the same time, there are other forces at work against us, hoping to convert TRS to a defined contribution plan where retirees’ future benefits would not be guaranteed.
 
ATPE supports measures to shore up funding for educators’ pension benefits through TRS. We urge the state to ensure the actuarial soundness of the TRS pension fund while maintaining its defined benefit structure for current and future retirees. Lawmakers should also allocate sufficient funds to protect retirees’ pension benefits against the erosion of their value due to inflation.
 
Protecting the Right to Payroll Deduction
 
In 2017, ATPE fended off an attack on the education profession branded with the misguided label of “union dues” legislation, aimed at silencing teachers’ voices by making it harder for educators to join groups like ATPE that advocate for public schools. Some lawmakers and outside special interests remain focused on preventing educators and certain other public employees from paying their association dues through payroll deduction. It’s a convenience many employees enjoy that doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Will the 86th Legislature treat educators as professionals and allow them to make their own decisions about how they spend their paychecks, or will lawmakers again engage in politically motivated efforts to decide which public employees they consider to be “honorable” enough to retain access to payroll deduction?
 
ATPE opposes politically motivated efforts to take away school employees’ right to use payroll deduction for safe, reliable, and convenient payment of voluntary association dues. Texas is a right-to-work state in which employees are free to choose whether to join a professional association at their own cost. Payroll deduction requires no taxpayer expense, and efforts to prohibit this practice serve only to hurt professional associations and demoralize the educators and other public servants who choose to join them.
 
Increasing Educator Compensation
 
Teacher pay was a popular talking point on the campaign trail during the 2018 elections, but will it translate into meaningful legislation? Debates have ensued for years over teacher salaries, which are below the national average in Texas, and whether teachers should be paid based on seniority, performance, or other factors. Expect compensation to be part of larger school funding discussions throughout the 86th legislative session.
 
ATPE supports educator compensation plans that are designed to foster a robust workforce at every Texas public school. We believe plans should be funded, sustainable, and built upon an adequate base with meaningful step increases to support the retention of strong educators. ATPE also supports using differentiated pay to reward educators who undertake advanced training or assume professional duties beyond their normal instructional activities. We oppose the use of student standardized test scores as the determining factor in educator compensation and employment decisions. Any state-driven compensation plan should allow for local development and flexibility, while encouraging input and buy in from local educators. ATPE also believes that compensation plans should be aligned with aspects of the entire teaching pipeline, including rigorous educator preparation and certification standards, state-funded mentoring programs, evaluation systems that are fair and supportive, and stable, predictable retirement benefits.

Opposing Vouchers and Other Privatization Plans

Pro-public education lawmakers sent a strong message in 2017 by rejecting vouchers and other forms of privatization in multiple votes that were taken. Nevertheless, privatization remains a pet project of many high-profile officeholders at the state and federal level who will continue to advocate for voucher-like funding that would send public dollars to unregulated private schools.
 
ATPE opposes the privatization of public schools. We urge the legislature to reject any voucher, scholarship, tax credit, education savings account, or similar program that directs funding away from the public school system and toward unaccountable, often inferior educational settings.
 
We also oppose using public tax dollars to pay private entities to operate Texas public schools and take over the authority and accountability that have been vested in locally elected school boards.
 
Advocacy Central is the hub for ATPE members to track bills being considered and easily share their feedback with legislators. Visit atpe.org/advocacy for more info. Also, read our advocacy blog at TeachtheVote.org/news and follow @TeachtheVote on Twitter for the latest updates on legislative developments.
 
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