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House passes school finance bills

I doubt they’ll meet a different fate than they did in the regular session, but kudos anyway.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House on Friday passed a package of bills that would put $1.8 billion into public schools and help out struggling small, rural school districts.

House members voted 130-12 to approve the lower chamber’s main piece of school finance legislation, House Bill 21, just as they did during the regular session. The House also voted 131-11 to pass House Bill 30, which would fund the school finance bill by putting $1.8 billion into public schools. Once the House gives the measures final approval, they will head to the Senate.

The funds cited in the legislation would come from deferring a payment to public schools from fiscal year 2019 to 2020, and would allow an increase in the base funding per student from $5,140 to $5,350 statewide.

[…]

The House Public Education Committee’s chairman, state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the author of HB 21, has pushed his bill as a preliminary step to fixing a beleaguered system for allocating money to public schools.

“You cannot have property tax reform unless you have school finance reform. That is just a fact,” he said Friday. “We have the time to get this done. We just have to have the will to get this done.”

HB 21 would increase the base per-student funding the state gives to school districts, in part by increasing funding for students who are dyslexic and bilingual. It would also gradually remove an existing financial penalty for school districts smaller than 300 square miles, which was originally intended to encourage them to consolidate.

[…]

The House voted 67-61 Friday against approving House Bill 22, a separate measure that would have continued ASATR for two years before letting it expire in September 2019. Some school districts have warned they might have to close without the program, which totaled about $400 million this year.

See here for the first go-round on HB21, and here for the ASATR story. I don’t expect anything to happen with any of this, but I suppose a surprise is possible. The House and the Senate are on such different pages that it seems unlikely in the extreme, though.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

What West Texas can do to improve their schools

Here’s an op-ed from the Statesman about one educator in West Texas who has had enough.

My hero this week is Graydon Hicks, Fort Davis superintendent of schools.

A West Texas publication published his open letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick raking them over the coals for “the lack of positive legislative action for public schools in Texas” at the most recent session, which adjourned at the end of May without passing a school finance bill.

Hicks is a West Point graduate and an experienced school administrator. He is no-nonsense guy who does not mince words. After detailing the effect of shrinking state financial support for public schools on Fort Davis schools over the past 10 years — combined with an increasing number of unfunded mandates and requirements — Hicks wrote, “How much more do you want to harm our children?

“If your intent is to dissolve public education (and your actions are more than a clear signal of such), then simply go on the record with that statement and remove the state’s authority to further overburden us without financial support. Quit pontificating about bathrooms. Quit hiding your intentions behind righteous statements about school vouchers and choice.”

Hicks accompanied his letter with a chart showing the annually declining amount of state funding available to the Fort Davis school district and the increasing burden on local taxpayers since 2008. That year, state funding amounted to $3.9 million, or 68 percent of the school district’s budget. Local property taxes provided $1.8 million, or 32 percent. In 2017, the state will contribute $378,000 — about one-tenth of its 2008 commitment, or 15 percent of the total budget. Local taxes this year will provide $2.2 million, or 85 percent.

“The Fort Davis ISD has 226 students,” Hicks wrote. “It has no cafeteria, has no bus routes, has dropped our band program, has eliminated (or not filled) 15 staff positions, has cut stipends for extra-curricular activities, has frozen (or reduced) staff pay for one year, has cut extra-curricular programs, has no debt, and has increased our local tax rate to the maximum allowed by the law.

“We have nothing left to cut.”

I agree that Superintendent Hicks sounds like a fine fellow who is speaking truth to power. That said, I feel compelled to point out how Jeff Davis County (*), which is where Fort Davis ISD, voted in the last gubernatorial election:


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             623  60.54%
Wendy R. Davis          366  35.57%
Kathie Glass             31   3.01%
Brandon Parmer            9   0.87%


Lieutenant Governor
			
Dan Patrick             560  56.62%
Leticia Van de Putte    375  37.92%
Robert D. Butler         48   4.85%
Chandrakantha Courtney    6   0.61%

Hold that thought. Now here’s a similar story about the school funding woes in West Texas:

Educators were excited to hear Gov. Greg Abbott announce he would call lawmakers back to Austin for a special legislative session to consider $1,000 teacher pay raises.

But Donna Hale, superintendent at 200-student Miami ISD in rural Roberts County, is wondering where the money is going to come from. An unfunded mandate, she said, could throw a wrench into their already difficult budgeting process.

“That’s the last thing we really need – the state saying you’ve got to do this when they’re not offering any support for us,” said Hale, who already doubles as the district’s librarian and said she was considering taking over as principal to cut payroll costs.

A wind farm and a sea of oil and natural gas wells in Roberts County has been good to Miami ISD, giving the district a flush tax base to pay for teachers and buildings. But its $1 billion dollar tax roll was cut in half this last year amid tumbling oil and gas prices. A state aid provision that it has relied on in recent years to guard against economic downturns expires in September and will take more than a third of the district’s budget with it.

Many rural schools like Miami ISD, the only school district in the county, are facing a similar dilemma and pleading with the State Legislature to act. Lawmakers return to the Capitol next month for a legislative overtime period, but school finance reform has taken a back seat to bills regulating bathroom use and creating a school choice program.

Again, I sympathize, and again, I wonder how did Roberts County vote in 2014?


Governor
			
Greg Abbott             324  93.91%
Wendy R. Davis           15   4.35%
Kathie Glass              5   1.45%
Brandon Parmer            1   0.29%


Lieutenant Governor			

Dan Patrick             320  93.29%
Leticia Van de Putte     12   3.50%
Robert D. Butler         10   2.92%
Chandrakantha Courtney    1   0.29%

I think you get where I’m going with this. Now, I will stipulate that in 2014, one might have been able to believe that Greg Abbott, who was touting an expansion of pre-K, and Dan Patrick, who had served as the Senate Education Committee chair and had passed some bipartisan bills during that time, could at least have been okay on education and school finance issues. Here in June of 2017, after a session that included the Senate refusing to consider HB21 and a special session that includes vouchers on the agenda, it’s really hard to believe that now. Further, both counties are represented in the Lege by pro-education members. Roberts County is served by Sen. Kel Seliger, who was the only Senate Republican to oppose the main voucher bill, and by Rep. Ken King, who was endorsed by Texas Parent PAC in the 2012 primary. Jeff Davis County has two Democrats, Sen. Jose Rodriguez and Rep. Cesar Blanco, in the Lege. Both were unopposed in 2016, and Blanco was unopposed in 2014, but in all three cases they drew a comparable number of votes to Republicans on the ballot. In addition, former Rep. Pete Gallego carried Jeff Davis County in 2010, even as Rick Perry and the rest of the Republicans were also winning it. The voters there do vote for pro-education candidates. Will they – and other counties like them – recognize in 2018 that “pro-education” does not describe Abbott or Patrick? I for one will have a lot more sympathy for their plight if they do.

(*) Yeah, I know.

House still opposes vouchers

Keep on keeping on, y’all.

The top House education leader said Sunday that “private school choice” is still dead in the lower chamber.

“We only voted six times against it in the House,” House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty said. “There’s nothing more offensive as a parent of a special-needs child than to tell me what I think I need. I’m prepared to have that discussion again. I don’t think [the Senate is] going to like it — because now I’m pissed off.”

Huberty, R-Houston, told a crowd of school administrators at a panel at the University of Texas at Austin that he plans to restart the conversation on school finance in the July-August special session after the Senate and House hit a stalemate on the issue late during the regular session. Huberty’s bill pumping $1.5 billion into public schools died after the Senate appended a “private school choice” measure, opposed by the House.

Huberty was joined by Education Committee Vice Chairman Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and committee member Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, on a panel hosted by the Texas Association of School Administrators, where they said they didn’t plan to give in to the Senate on the contentious bill subsidizing private school tuition for kids with special needs.

[…]

VanDeaver said educators have two options: They can give in to the Senate’s attempts to attach school finance and private school choice, or they can vote against legislators who want those issues linked.

“If you don’t stick up for yourselves in a real way … we are going to lose,” Bernal added.

Amen to that. The real question is why do so many Senators serve Dan Patrick’s interests instead of their districts’? You know what I say, nothing will change until the people who get elected change.

Beyond that, one wonders how this will play out. Does the House simply refuse to vote a voucher bill out of committee, or do they let it come to the floor and then vote it down? Would Greg Abbott call another special session to force the issue? How big a hissy fit does Dan Patrick throw when he is thwarted? (Spoiler alert: very big.) Bring on the tantrums, I say.

Even the SBOE opposes vouchers and the bathroom bill

A rare bout of sanity.

The Texas State Board of Education is known for its conservative ideals, but a majority of its Republican members said Tuesday they oppose GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s demand that lawmakers pass a school voucher program and a bathroom law in next month’s special session.

Most of the education issues Abbott wants lawmakers to consider during their 30-day special session should be left to local school districts rather than dictated by the state, six Republican members of the board told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday. The six board members all said vouchers were a bad idea. Two members said they supported the Legislature taking up the issues and two others were unavailable for comment.

“Overwhelmingly, each and every member of the board looks at public education in a light that says, ‘We’re doing everything we can to promote, protect and serve the interests to some extent of public education,'” said Marty Rowley, a Republican member from Amarillo who said he opposes school vouchers and contends school leaders can manage student bathrooms. “Everyone’s perception of what school vouchers do is it doesn’t serve public education in the best manner.”

[…]

The governor also wants the Legislature to pass a bill regulating which bathrooms transgender students should use in schools — another issue considered by Patrick as a top priority.

Board members said few, if any, of their constituents or school leaders have expressed concern over how to handle bathrooms, and said schools should continue to have the flexibility to made accommodations on their own.

“There are ways for districts to deal with that,” said David Bradley, a Republican from Beaumont who votes with the board’s conservative faction. Studies have found fewer than 1 percent of Texans are transgender, and “the 1 percent does not drive policy making for the other 99 percent,” he said.

I mean, if even David Bradley thinks the bathroom bill is a waste of time, what more do you need to know? I literally can’t think of anything to add to this.

Wisconsin case undermines even the scaled back bathroom bill

Special session or not, this could be a big deal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit likely just handed the Supreme Court a new case about a transgender student to consider. The Court’s opinion, issued Tuesday, eviscerates a Wisconsin school’s arguments for discriminating against one of its students.

Ashton Whitaker (“Ash”), now a 17-year-old senior, first filed suit against Kenosha Unified School District a little over a year ago, arguing that the school was illegally discriminating against him by prohibiting him from accessing the boys’ restrooms. He had previously used the restroom for six months without incident before the new policy was implemented. Ash was instead forced to using single-stall restrooms that were very far away from his classes and that further stigmatized him among his classmates. His bathroom usage was then policed, with the school even considering requiring him to wear bright green wristbands or stickers to easily identify him, though it never actually took that step.

Back in September, U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper granted Ash a preliminary injunction against the policy, ensuring he could use the facilities that match his gender identity throughout his senior year. The school appealed, but Tuesday’s ruling upholds the injunction, allowing Ash to finish out the school year without being segregated because he is transgender.

The decision is very unforgiving of the school’s arguments against Ash’s integration, to say the least.

For example, the district claimed that Ash’s harm was “self-inflicted” because he didn’t take advantage of the accommodations that were provided. The decision noted that this argument fails for a number of reasons. First, segregating him to a separate bathroom caused anxiety related to his transition, as well as the fact that it invited scrutiny from his peers. This anxiety prompted Ash to avoid drinking water to avoid using the restrooms, which exacerbated physical symptoms he experiences due to his vasovagal syncope, a condition that causes him to experience fainting and/or seizures when dehydrated.

This was all in addition to the fact that the bathrooms were on the opposite side of the building from his classes. “Therefore,” the Court wrote, “he was faced with the unenviable choice between using a bathroom that would further stigmatize him and cause him to miss class time, or avoid use of the bathroom altogether at the expense of his health.”

The district had in turn argued that allowing Ash to use the boys’ bathrooms would somehow infringe on “the privacy rights of all 22,160 students” in the district. The Court dismissed this argument as being “based upon sheer conjecture and abstraction.”

Ash had used the boys’ bathroom for six months without incident. It was only after a teacher — not a student — noticed him using the bathroom that the policy was implemented. The district also claimed to have received just one complaint, and it was from a parent — again, not a student. The Court further countered that this reasoning “ignores the practical reality of how Ash, as a transgender boy, uses the bathroom: by entering a stall and closing the door.”

The parallel to Texas isn’t exact because it was school district policy in Wisconsin that was at issue, not state law, but as Vox explains, it’s the remedy that really matters.

If existing federal law and the 14th Amendment shield trans people from discrimination, then it’s not just Whitaker’s rights that are protected here, but all trans students’. And if bans against sex discrimination in particular apply to trans people, then it’s not just students’ rights that are protected, but all trans people who face discrimination in other settings where sex discrimination is banned — so not just schools, but the workplace and housing as well.

[…]

The Seventh Circuit Court’s case does not have the limitation of being attached to the guidance or any other regulation that the Trump administration could rescind. Instead, it poses the straight question: Are trans people protected under federal law? If other courts agree with the Seventh Circuit Court, that could reshape the face of civil rights laws in America — and help fill a void that’s left trans people legally unprotected from discrimination across most of the US.

Under most states’ laws and federal law, trans people aren’t explicitly protected from discrimination in the workplace, housing, public accommodations, and schools. This means that a person can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, kicked out of a business, or denied the correct bathroom facility just because an employer, landlord, business owner, or school principal doesn’t approve of the person’s gender identity.

LGBTQ advocates argue, however, that federal civil rights law should already shield trans people from discrimination.

The argument: Discrimination against someone based on their gender identity is fundamentally rooted in sex-based expectations. For example, if someone discriminates against a trans woman, that’s largely based on the expectation that a person designated male at birth should identify as a man — a belief built on an idea of what a person of a certain sex assigned at birth should be like. So since federal civil rights laws, such as Title IX, ban sex discrimination in the workplace, housing, and schools, they should ban discrimination against trans people in these settings as well.

This isn’t just a wild interpretation by LGBTQ advocates; there’s legal precedent for it. Joshua Block, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who worked on Grimm’s case, cited a 1998 Supreme Court case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc., in which the Court unanimously agreed that bans on sex discrimination prohibit same-sex sexual harassment. Same-sex sexual harassment was not something the authors of federal civil rights laws considered, but it’s something, the Supreme Court said, that a plain reading of the law protects.

Oncale says that’s irrelevant whether [Congress] contemplated it,” Block previously told me. “That’s not how laws work. This is literal sex discrimination. Whether or not that’s what Congress was focused on doesn’t make it any less a type of discrimination covered by the statute.”

Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams embraced this view in her ruling on Tuesday: “A policy that requires an individual to use a bathroom that does not conform with his or her gender identity punishes that individual for his or her gender non‐conformance, which in turn violates Title IX.”

But the court went even further — arguing that the Kenosha Unified School District’s actions violated the 14th Amendment. The school district claimed that it treats all boys and girls equally — meaning it forces them all to use certain bathrooms based on the sex they were assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. But Williams ruled that this is “untrue,” adding, “Rather, the School District treats transgender students like Ash, who fail to conform to the sex‐based stereotypes associated with their assigned sex at birth, differently.”

You can see how that would apply to Texas, or any other state that doesn’t already have a non-discrimination law that includes transgender people. It’s just theoretical at this point because Texas isn’t in the Seventh Circuit, but the case is a road map for any litigation that would result from the passage of even the watered-down bathroom bill that could have passed in the regular session. That won’t stop Dan Patrick, of course, and Lord only knows what the Fifth Circuit might do once such a case crossed their threshold, but the point here is that a precedent now exists, and anything the bad guys do from here will have to take that into account. RG Ratcliffe and Buzzfeed have more.

No changes to HISD magnet programs

Not this year, anyway.

Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza this week withdrew a plan to deeply cut funding for the district’s magnet programs over the next three years, shelving a proposal that had angered parents and some school board members who consider the specialized academic programs to be jewels in an oft-troubled school system.

The proposed cuts, outlined in a presentation to the HISD board last week, would have eliminated all extra funding per student to many of the district’s 121 magnet programs by the 2019-2020 school year while cutting funding to many of the other programs by hundreds of dollars per student. Only funding for secondary-language and early-college programs were spared.

But after the plan triggered a backlash from magnet school supporters, Carranza and district officials pulled back the proposal and said they instead planned to conduct a review of the district’s magnet funding and programs.

HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said in a written statement on Wednesday that the district had no plans to cut funding or make changes to magnet schools for the coming 2017-2018 school year.

“HISD magnet programs are reviewed annually. Discussions about the equitable funding of schools – both magnet and neighborhood campuses – are part of that review process,” Hollin wrote.

She added that a comprehensive review of the magnet program would likely be completed by January.

[…]

Magnet schools and programs have been a touchy subject in Houston ISD as their prevalence and prominence has grown. While some are more diverse both in terms of race and economic status than many other district schools, critics have argued that they accept a much larger percentage of white and Asian students than those groups account for district-wide.

Only 8 percent of HISD’s students are white, according to TEA data, yet they make up about 36 percent of students at Carnegie Vanguard High. At DeBakey High, about 50 percent of the students are Asian, even though only about 4.7 percent of students district-wide belong to that ethnic group.

But the district’s demographics don’t match those of the city overall, largely because more-affluent white families have generally opted to send their children to private schools or to other districts. About 15 percent of those 18 and under in the city of Houston are white, according to Census data.

Houston ISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she’s glad the proposed cuts to magnet schools and programs appear to be off the table for next year, but she worries that any future cuts along the lines of the recent proposal would be “incredibly drastic.” She said cutting extra funding to the magnet programs is not the way to bring more diversity to those campuses.

“I think our goal should always be to create schools that draw the diversity of Houston into them and spread it across and throughout the district,” Eastman said. “I don’t think the problems in our other schools is the fault of kids in our magnet programs.”

I haven’t been paying close attention to this, but nothing that happened here surprises me. As the story notes, there have been reviews of the magnet program going on for some time, and they usually don’t get very far because the stakeholders really don’t like the proposals. The last section I quoted above captures the conflict succinctly – this program and its schools are very successful and desirable, but there’s limited space and the schools’ demographics don’t come close to mirroring the district as a whole, and they draw students away from their neighborhood schools, which can suffer as a result. It would be best to have more magnet-style programs in more schools all around the district, but that’s a hard thing to do when resources are scarce. I don’t see anything about this dynamic changing much in the near future.

School finance bill is dead

It started with this.

State Rep. Dan Huberty said Wednesday that he would not accept the Senate’s changes to his school finance bill, launching a last-ditch effort to hammer out a compromise with less than a week left in the session.

After a passionate speech railing on the Senate for gutting his bill, Huberty, a Houston Republican who is chairman of the House Public Education Committee, announced he has decided to request a conference committee with the Senate on House Bill 21.

The bill was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

“Members, some of your schools will be forced to close in the next year based on the committee substitute of House Bill 21,” as passed by the Senate, Huberty said, before moving to go to conference. “I refuse to give up. I’ll continue trying. Let’s at least attempt to rescue this bill.”

The House voted 134-15 to request a conference committee with the Senate on the bill.

See here and here for the background. The House’s request for a conference committee was denied by the Senate.

An effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered school finance system has been declared dead after the Texas Senate Education Committee’s chairman said Wednesday that he would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the House.

“That deal is dead,” Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said.

Taylor’s remarks come after his counterpart in the House, Dan Huberty, R-Houston, gave a passionate speech in which he said he would not accept the Senate’s changes to House Bill 21 and would seek a conference committee with the Senate.

HB 21 was originally intended to inject $1.5 billion into the state’s funding for the majority of public schools and to simplify some of the complex, outdated formulas for allocating money to school districts across the state. The Senate took that bill, reduced the funding to $530 million, and added what many public education advocates have called a “poison pill”: a “private school choice” program that would subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling for kids with disabilities.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pronounced the bill dead in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Although Texas House leaders have been obstinate and closed-minded on this issue throughout this session, I was hopeful when we put this package together last week that we had found an opening that would break the logjam. I simply did not believe they would vote against both disabled children and a substantial funding increase for public schools,” he said in the statement. “I was wrong. House Bill 21 is now dead.”

House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate has not prioritized school finance reform this session.

“We appointed members of a conference committee today because the House was willing to continue to work on public school finance immediately. Unfortunately, the Senate walked away and left the problems facing our schools to keep getting worse,” he said.

HB 21 was the first time in years that the Legislature has taken up major school finance reform without a court mandate.

HB21 was also the vehicle for addressing the recapture issue that is costing HISD (among other districts) millions and which is being litigated on the grounds that the TEA didn’t make its changes to the formula properly. You can kiss that good-bye as well. It’s somehow fitting that the Lege could not come to an agreement on school finance, as this proves the lie of the Supreme Court ruling that insisted they could do this on their own without the Supremes forcing them to. Not as long as we have Dan Patrick presiding over this Senate they won’t. The Chron has more.

How bad is the “Patrick Lite” bathroom bill?

For one view, there’s this, from Texas Competes:

A review of press coverage shows that the Texas “bathroom bill” debate generated $216 million in publicity for the state of Texas in the period from January 10, 2016 through May 22, 2017.

During the 85th Texas legislative session, 25,774 local, state, and national articles were written about the efforts to pass bathroom and changing room restrictions on transgender adults and children. More than 20,000 of these articles were published outside of Texas.

The media tracking service Meltwater was used to generate the data; its language-detecting algorithm deemed 73% of the coverage, or $155.5 million, “neutral;” 25%, or $56.4 million, “negative;” and 2%, or $4 million, “positive.” A review of coverage categorized as “positive” by the software revealed that these stories largely described efforts by performing artists, businesses, sports organizations and others to protest “bathroom bills.” Overall, the sentiment calculated across all news coverage was deeply negative, as seen in the chart below. (The February 2017 spike in sentiment was largely related to a “positive” story covering the NBA’s decision to move its All-Star Game from Charlotte to the LGBT-inclusive city of New Orleans.)

The topic of bathroom restrictions for transgender Texans has been shepherded into the spotlight by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and vocal anti-LGBT backers like Empower Texans, Conservative Republicans of Texas, and Texas Values.

Texas business leaders and small business owners have consistently cited the war for talent as a major concern related to the state’s anti-LGBT reputation. “HR executives and business leaders voice concern to us when stories about discrimination dominate the news about Texas,” said Jessica Shortall, Managing Director of Texas Competes, a coalition of nearly 1,300 Texas employers and chambers of commerce making the economic case for an LGBT-friendly Texas. “We cannot maintain the pipeline of talent needed to fuel this state’s economy in the face of national coverage that tells young workers that Texas is in the business of discrimination.”

In a February UT/TT 2017 poll, a majority of Texans said that it’s “not important” for the legislature to pass a bathroom law. In March, the Public Religion Research Institute released a poll showing that 53% of Americans oppose laws requiring transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond to their sex at birth. In a recent USA TODAY poll, Americans aged 18 to 35 – a group representing the current and future talent pool for many Texas employers – oppose bathroom laws by nearly a two-to-one ratio.

You know how they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity? This will be a test of that. And I’m sure North Carolina’s glad we’re getting all the attention for being transphobic and unwelcoming now. It’s taking some of the heat off of them.

As bad as the perception is, the reality may be somewhat less harsh, though that remains to be seen.

“I think it’s going to depend on how people interpret the amendment,” said Dax Gonzalez, assistant director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, which represents the state’s school districts and provides guidance to them on policies related to transgender students.

Under Paddie’s interpretation, the amendment would nix existing trans-inclusive policies at some school districts that allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice at school. (Some Texas school districts allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity through formal policies or on a case-by-case basis.)

But the school board association, which endorsed the measure on Sunday night, argues school districts could probably maintain such policies, possibly with a few tweaks, because of the measure’s “flexibility.”

“I think what it boils down to is that this amendment is pretty flexible and open to interpretation,” Gonzalez added.

[…]

After the Sunday vote, Straus suggested the Paddie amendment would not require schools to make significant modifications to how they “handle sensitive issues.”

School groups agree because providing single-stall facilities for students seeking bathroom-related accommodations is something school districts “would do anyway,” so the amendment doesn’t make a “significant change” on that front, said Jennifer Canaday, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

When it comes to the amendment’s possible effects on efforts to accommodate transgender students beyond single-occupancy bathrooms, Canaday echoed the school board association in saying there was “enough ambiguity” in the amendment to allow for different interpretations by school districts.

But she indicated that the school group — which deemed bathroom-related legislation “a solution in search of a problem” — was still sifting through any possible repercussions for trans-inclusive policies in place across the state.

“Obviously there’s some confusion,” she said. “It may take some time [to figure out] how school districts interpret this.”

I strongly suspect that more forward-thinking districts like HISD will continue to accommodate trans students as best they can, while districts with jerks for Superintendents like Pearland ISD will take a hard line. It will inevitably be up to the courts to sort it out.

One major danger zone in all this is privacy concerns.

The measure poses an excruciating dilemma for Texas schools that have quietly agreed at parents’ requests to keep secret the birth genders of some students.

To comply with state law, teachers might have to send transgender students to the bathroom of their birth gender or to a single-occupancy bathroom, shocking their peers.

The legislation “really boxes in school systems,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a spokeswoman for the national transgender rights organization Trans Equality.

[…]

Currently, each school and school district determines how to handle students whose birth genders are secret — a small portion of Texas’ thousands of transgender minors. A survey conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA indicated that 13,800 Texas teens identify as transgender, but the number of children under age 13 is not known.

Even if this law isn’t quite as bad as it could be, given its limited reach, it’s still potentially catastrophic for thousands of children. Not everyone is out, and not everyone wants to be, but what is a school to do with a trans kid who doesn’t want his or her classmates to know about that? Trans kids are already at an elevated risk for suicide. When something bad happens, don’t say we weren’t warned. The DMN, Burkablog, and Deadspin, both of which note the lack of any response so far from the NCAA, have more.

UPDATE: The Senate will reject the “Patrick Lite” amendment in SB2078. Nothing good can come of this.

MALDEF gets injunction in recapture lawsuit

From their website:

Please attribute the following statement on a Texas court ruling ordering state education officials to cease bypassing existing school funding rules to Marisa Bono, Southwest regional counsel of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund):

“MALDEF is pleased that the District Court saw through efforts by the Texas Education Agency to circumvent school funding rules. The court was abundantly clear in its finding that efforts to relieve wealthier school districts of their responsibilities to poorer districts under ‘recapture’ amounted to ‘an inadequate, improper, and invalid attempt at a rule amendment.’ As MALDEF argued, and the court found, state education officials failed to comply with the mandatory requirement that any changes in funding rules must include a fiscal impact statement – TEA’s own witness confirmed that this rule change will cost public schools $88 million a year. We call on the Texas legislature to take immediate and binding steps to bar the TEA from doing this again.”

Read the injunction order here.

Read the jurisdiction order here.

See here for the background. I started writing this before there was any reporting on it, just a bit of chatter on Facebook that led me to Google and the MALDEF statement. Now here is the Chron story.

Just weeks after voters approved a $77.5 million payment to the state in so-called “recapture” fees, the Houston school district could be stuck with another $60 million in fees after a judge’s ruling that the state improperly slashed wealthy districts’ bills.

The ruling, by state District Judge Darlene Byrne in Travis County, temporarily halts an agreement by the Texas Education Agency that allowed the Houston Independent School District and other property-rich districts to reduce the amount of “equalization” payments required to fund public education.

The ruling throws HISD’s recapture bill back into question and could affect more than a dozen other property wealthy districts across the state, though no official list has been released.

“We understand the financial situation even wealthy school districts are in, which is why we’re pushing for school finance reform in the Legislature,” said Marisa Bono, southwest regional council for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights organization that filed the suit.

“But the solution is not to give wealthy districts a tax break on the backs of property poor districts.”

[…]

The deal was cut in February, when TEA said it would give districts such as HISD credit for half of their local homestead exemptions, along with adjustments for student enrollment and property values, to cut the districts’ recapture bills.

The changes were outlined in a Feb. 1 memo penned by TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez that were later incorporated into TEA’s recapture manual.

TEA officials at the time concluded the would result in “no fiscal implications to state or local government, including local school districts.”

But attorneys for the property-poor districts argued the state would lose $88 million in funding, causing significant financial loss to local governments.

In a ruling released late Friday, Byrne concluded that the reprieve granted by TEA was “inadequate, improper and invalid,” and that the TEA manual did not contain an accurate financial note describing the fiscal impact of the changes.

She granted a temporary injunction to halt the recapture calculations until the case can go to trial Aug. 11.

Unless the state works out another way to grant HISD and the other districts a reprieve, the district could be forced to pay $137 million. The adjustments for enrollment and property values were allowed to stand, said Bono, the MALDEF lawyer.

So there you have it. It’s very frustrating, especially with the Senate undermining efforts to address the problem. I don’t know what happens next, but I hope HISD and the TEA can work something out that will be accepted by the judge and the plaintiffs.

Senate wrecks school finance bill

It’s what they do.

The Texas Senate has scrapped much of a proposal to revise how the state funds education in place of a plan to create a school voucher program for children with disabilities.

The bill passed the Senate 21-10 at 12:50 a.m. Monday, marking the second time in two months the chamber has approved legislation that would allow parents to use public school dollars to subsidize their child’s tuition at a private school.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and Education Committee chairman sponsoring the bill. “This would empower some of those parents to have some leverage.”

The new language, added on the Senate floor late Sunday night, now includes money for charter school facilities, autism grant funding and programming for special education students transitioning out of school. The changes also reduce the amount of new money into education from about $1.9 billion to about $500 million during a tight budget cycle amid lower-than-expected state revenue.

The changes come to House bill 21, the lower chamber’s flagship proposal to begin a multi-year process of rehabbing the state’s school funding formula after the Texas Supreme Court called the system constitutional but in need of improvement. The House measure deleted outdated pieces of the formula, reduced recapture and added weights to allocate more money per student with dyslexia or learning English as a second language.

The Senate hijacked the bill shortly after it arrived in the upper chamber, adding to the bill a school voucher program, which the House has opposed, throwing the fate of the school finance fix into jeopardy.

Basically, HB21 as we once knew it is dead. The AFL-CIO changed its position on it from Support to Oppose a few days ago as these changes were first being made. At this point, the House should stick to its guns on vouchers and reject the amended bill. The Trib has more.

One last look at the recapture re-vote

There’s a lot at stake here, and not a whole lot of people voting on it.

For the second time in seven months, voters within the Houston Independent School District will determine how – and if – it should pay tens of millions to help subsidize districts that collect little in property taxes.

The vote Saturday comes as some HISD trustees have reassessed a decision by voters in November not to write a $77.5 million check to the state to comply with Texas’ “recapture” policy.

While district leaders don’t think it’s fair that an urban district with many poor students and English-language learners should be slapped with such a financial penalty, they’re split over the best way to respond.

Some trustees argue that Proposition 1 will deal a blow to progress in getting state legislators to rethink Texas’ widely criticized school finance system. They believe refusing to pay will allow the district to sue the state to free HISD of its recapture obligations.

Others believe that voters should hold their nose and vote for the measure, especially with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath threatening that a “no” vote would prompt him to move some of Houston’s most valuable commercial properties out of the district’s taxable area.

That “detachment” scenario has never happened in Texas and could cost HISD $98.4 million in lost tax revenue this year, district officials estimate.

“Either scenario is bad,” acknowledged Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budget and financial planning, adding that the district could end up losing more than 15 percent of its annual budget in a few years under either option. “You get used to living at a certain level, but now you can’t deal with cost increases. You have to start selling off furniture and only eat out once a week. It causes you to change how you do business.”

[…]

While Houston will owe $77.5 million in recapture fees this year, that number will soon balloon to $376 million owed just for the 2019-2020 school year, according to Houston ISD budget estimates. That same school year, Houston could lose as much as $413.2 million under the “detachment” scenario if property values rise (it would lose less than that amount if property values remain stagnant or decline).

Trustees including board President Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Mike Lunceford said they now fear vindictive action from the Texas Education Agency and lawmakers if the district doesn’t pay the recapture fees. But other trustees, including Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr., want the district to hold steadfast in its decision not to pay the recapture fees. Jones said the district could take the state to court and argue that detachment is unconstitutional.

She contends that Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – has the power to pressure the state to change its funding formulas.

“We can’t debate detachment until there’s an actual detachment,” Jones said. “No district has voted to detach, so that hasn’t been heard at all (in the courts).”

It should be noted that TEA Commissioner Morath isn’t “threatening” to detach properties. The TEA has already identified the properties it will detach. It’s just that the process doesn’t formally take place for another month or two, which is why HISD had the opportunity for the re-vote, which could prevent detachment from going through. Either we buy the attendance credits – i.e., vote Yes on the recapture proposition – or we experience detachment. Those are the choices.

Well, except that Trustee Jolanda Jones argues that detachment is unconstitutional. Which I suppose it could be – I Am Not A Lawyer, remember – but as Jones notes since no district has ever undergone detachment, the issues has not been litigated. I take that to mean that if the No vote wins again, someone will sue the TEA to stop detachment from happening. That does not strike me as the soundest of strategies, but I can’t say that it wouldn’t work. I can say that I personally would not choose to risk it, which is why I voted Yes.

Anyway. To get back to the matter of how many people are voting in this election, the final EV turnout document indicates about 8,500 in person early votes cast in HISD (basically, take the overall total and subtract the bottom five lines, to remove Pasadena, Humble, and Lone Star College from the amount), plus maybe 3,000 mail ballots. That suggests a final overall turnout in the 18-20K range. There’s no way to do a direct comparison to other HISD elections because the Trustees are on staggered four year terms, meaning that in a given election only some of the Trustees are on the ballot. HISD elections are also concurrent with city of Houston elections (though that will be different this year barring an order throwing out the term limits referendum), so turnout numbers in HISD districts are at least somewhat affected by that as well. To give a small amount of context, in 2013 there were 41,392 total ballots cast in three contested Trustee races (the County Clerk doesn’t provide the returns on uncontested Trustee races; state law allows for uncontested races to be skipped, which may be what happens in these cases), while in 2015 there were 76,184 voters in four contested races. Turnout rates ranged from 17 to 22 percent in the three districts in 2013, and from 21 to 28 percent in the four districts in 2015. Make of all that what you will.

Business groups endorse a Yes on recapture re-vote

It’s a very different campaign this time around.

The Greater Houston Partnership and other local organizations whose members own some of the city’s priciest commercial real estate have come out in support of a ballot measure over whether the Houston Independent School District should pay its share of property taxes to the state as part of the so-called Robin Hood system of school finance.

The business coalition, which also includes Central Houston, the Houston Building Owners and Management Association, Uptown Houston, the Houston Business Realty Coalition and the “C” Club, said the school district should pay the $77.5 million it owes to the state.

If not, it faces having $8 billion of the city’s highest-valued commercial properties permanently reassigned to another school district, a process referred to as “detachment.”

The detachment process would affect more than 80 commercial properties in the Galleria, Greenway Plaza, and downtown Houston, the coalition said in a statement Monday afternoon. While the value of commercial property slated for detachment this year is $8 billion, HISD estimates it would climb to $22 billion in 2018.

“No one in our community wins under detachment,” Greater Houston Partnership president and CEO Bob Harvey said in the statement. “We are encouraging a vote in support of Proposition 1 so that Houston businesses can continue to help fund Houston’s public schools and its future leaders.”

BOMA supported recapture last November, one of not too many groups or officials to do so. (If the other groups took a position last time, I don’t know what it was.) Very simply, most of the endorsements I saw last year were against the recapture, and most of the ones I am seeing now are in favor. In fact, as I was drafting this post, I saw an ad on TV (on ESPN during the Cubs-Pirates game) in favor of the recapture referendum, paid for by a group called “Houston Taxpayers for Quality Education”. None of this is any guarantee of success for the Yes side – this whole election is too much of an oddball to feel secure in any prediction – but for what it’s worth, the most consistent message I have seen is a message of voting for recapture.

Investigation requested into voucher astroturfing

From the Quorum Report:

Rep. Gina Hinojosa

Following a criminal complaint by a GOP former lawmaker, an Austin representative has asked the Travis County District Attorney’s Office to look a letter-writing campaign that has deeply troubled rural Republicans in the Texas House who are opposed to school vouchers.

In a letter obtained by Quorum Report this evening, Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, told prosecutors that she’s heard from many of her Republican colleagues who cannot believe the way in which many of their constituents’ names were used.

As QR readers who have followed this are aware, rural Republicans from East Texas to West Texas have received about 17,000 letters orchestrated by a group called Texans for Education Opportunity. The group claimed credit for the letter campaign but has said everything was done properly.

The problem, though, is that many of those letters utilized the names of people who are opposed to school vouchers in any form and, in fact, some of them have raised concerns about whether their identities were stolen for this campaign.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has said he thinks lawmakers are being “defrauded” by these letters. One of the letters Seliger received, but the way, was sent in the name of someone who had died months before the letter was sent.

“I am writing to ask you and your office to immediately open an investigation into a massive letter writing campaign that appears to be fraudulent,” Rep. Hinojosa wrote to the Travis County DA Margaret Moore.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the letter. Rep. Hinojosa is the second person to ask a DA to investigate this, following former Rep. Rick Hardacstle, who was one of the people claimed to be a voucher supporter by this phony campaign. I Am Not A Lawyer so I have no opinion as to whether the civil code or the criminal code would be the more appropriate remedy for this, but it’s definitely fraud of some form, and if my name had been on one of those faked letters I’d want someone in power to Do Something about it, too. We’ll see what happens.

UPDATE: Scott Braddock has more.

Making vaccination information public

I support this.

While most parents in Texas vaccinate their children, the number of parents opting out of immunizations for non-medical reasons is on the rise. Since Texas changed its laws to allow parents to opt out citing a conscientious objection, the number of unvaccinated children has shot up more than 1,700 percent in 13 years, to 45,000 from 2,300. In response, parents and health advocates are backing an effort to increase public reporting on how many students who have skipped vaccines attend each school.

Currently, that data is housed at the state level and available via an open-records request. County and school district-level data also is available online.

House Bill 2249 would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to publish school-by-school data that would indicate the total number of students who forgo vaccinations, including those who opt out by choice, such as a religious objection. No names or identifying information would be listed.

Advocates for publishing the data say the information would offer parents insight into their child’s school and help them weigh whether to switch, particularly for parents of medically fragile children like Riki Graves’ daughter, Juliana. Now 3, she received a new heart at 18 days old, and doctors say she will need to attend a school where least 95 percent of the students are immunized.

“My job as a transplant mom is to protect that organ,” said Graves as she drove from her home in Sugar Land to Austin where she plans to testify before the House Public Health Committee on Tuesday. “We have the data … there’s no reason not to publish it.”

Opponents say there are plenty of reasons, including children’s medical privacy.

“If this is truly about keeping children safe, we have to have that honest conversation about keeping all people safe. It puts a target on the backs of children whose parents have chosen to opt out for various different reasons,” said Jackie Schlegel, a mother of three and executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a grass-roots parent group that has ballooned in recent years as the movement against vaccinating children has gained traction. The group is planning a rally at the Capitol on Thursday, dubbed the “freedom fight.”

“At schools where you do have a high number of opt-out, we are creating a witch hunt against families, and that’s just unacceptable,” Schlegel said.

We clearly have a different definition of “unacceptable”. I think knowing that a given school has a high rate of unvaccinated children is something any parent would want to know. HB 2249 has four co-authors, two of whom )JD Sheffield and John Zerwas) are medical doctors, which ought to tell you something. As the story notes, an identical bill passed the House in 2015 but never got a hearing in the Senate. Let’s hope this year’s version meets a better fate. The Trib has more.

One more thing about vouchers

I’m going to enjoy this just a little bit more.

The Texas House of Representatives all but killed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s prized school choice bill Thursday, dealing the powerful Republican a major loss as he struggles to push his agenda through this year’s legislative session.

House members considering the state’s budget plan for the next two years voted overwhelmingly against diverting public education funds to private schools in the next biennium, registering their resistance to a so-called school voucher program and sending a message to Patrick that the bill has no chance this year of passage.

“The House stands strongly in support of our neighborhood schools and our public school teachers and that any scheme, such as a voucher or otherwise that attempts to siphon funds away from our public schools, is not something that would be acceptable in the House,” said Rep. Abel Herrero, a Robstown Democrat. He sponsored an amendment expressly blocking any school voucher program.

Lawmakers, in the midst of a day-long marathon session debating the state’s $218 billion spending plan for the next two years, voted 103-44 in favor of the amendment. The revision declared state money “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for non-public education.”

The Republican-led House also rejected a follow-up amendment allowing the state to fund a smaller so-called school voucher program limited to children from poor families. The chamber voted that idea down 117-27, signalling that paring down Patrick’s prized Senate Bill 3 will not win it more votes.

“Good-bye SB 3,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said from his desk after the vote.

Assigned a low bill number to reflect its importance among Patrick’s priorities, SB 3 would create education savings accounts that parents can tap to pay for private school tuition, home school costs, tutoring or other expenses. The bill would also create a tax credit scholarship program that rewards businesses with a tax break for cutting checks to the state to fund scholarships that could send children to private school. The Senate passed that plan last week on a 18-13 vote.

[…]

With the bill unlikely to pass this year, advocates for vouchers and school choice will use the vote to drive their political activities in the 2018 elections by singling out lawmakers who voted against vouchers, said Randan Steinhauser, co-founder of Texans for Education Opportunity, which advocates for broader school choice.

“This isn’t surprising. The House has always been an obstacle, and there are many Republicans who are not representing their constituents and their school children,” said Steinhauser, who has already gone door-knocking in several Republican lawmakers’ districts to pressure them into voting for vouchers. “This is an opportunity for parents in the state of Texas to see who is standing in the way of educational opportunity.”

See here for the background. I’ll get back to this in a second, but in the meantime, as Depeche Mode advises, enjoy the silence.

A day after Texas House members pointedly approved an amendment to prohibit the use of public money for private schools, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of so-called “school choice,” has yet to issue a public reaction.

[…]

Repeated calls and emails to Patrick’s office for comment went unanswered Thursday and Friday, although his staff has posted videos of him on Facebook talking about child abuse prevention initiatives and tuition set-asides since the House vote Thursday morning.

Patrick, who has rallied for years to pass a school choice program, assigned the proposal a low bill number to indicate its importance among his legislative priorities. Last week, he and Taylor, the Senate education chairman, pared down the bill to appease senators on the fence about the proposal, agreeing to exempt counties of less than 285,000 unless voters there petition for a voucher program.

Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and sponsor of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment Friday about whether he had been in contact with Patrick about how they would proceed on the measure.

House lawmakers long have said they have little interest in passing SB 3 and Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he did not want to force his committee to vote on the bill. The measure, which passed the Senate 18-13, is now awaiting action in the House.

A defeat on school vouchers likely would not hurt the lieutenant governor, said Jason Sabo, a longtime political observer and education lobbyist. Instead, he said, the House vote shows how politics are evolving away from party loyalty and toward regional and issue-based factions.

“It’s not about party. It’s about place,” he said. “If the largest employer in half the counties in your giant legislative district are public schools, you hate vouchers, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You’re anti-voucher. ”

Who knew it was even possible to get Dan Patrick to shut up? And with all due respect to Jason Sabo, whose remarks may be a bit out of context here, this alignment on vouchers is nothing new. As this DMN article from January notes, people have been pushing for vouchers, thankfully without success, for going on thirty years. The Legislature came fairly close to fulfilling the wishes of people like GOP megadonor James Leininger, who was then the main force behind vouchers, during the 2005 session. Among other things, this led to the rise of the Texas Parent PAC and its shocking primary win over then-House Education Committee Chair Kent Gruesendorf. Patrick has taken up the banner in the two sessions since he became Lite Guv, but the fight long predates him.

And this is why Randan Steinhauser is wrong. At this point, there have been many elections, mostly Republican primaries, in which public education has been a big issue. Even with the likes of Leininger and then-Speaker Tom Craddick and now Dan Patrick behind them, voucher proponents have basically gained no ground, and aren’t anywhere close to a majority in the House. Hell, we’re at a point where they had to rebrand themselves, because “vouchers” has become a toxic label, and resort to a third-rate astroturfing campaign for their lobbying. Voucher supporters are the definition of a narrow interest group seeking to carve out an advantage for themselves. I’m not going to say they’ll never succeed, because politics doesn’t work like that, but I see no evidence that they are gaining public acceptance. They got the fate that they, and Dan Patrick, deserved.

What HISD is saying about recapture

Here’s their official webpage. I think you’ll be able to discern their position.

HISD voters will be asked on May 6 how the district should pay its Recapture obligation to the state of Texas: by Purchasing Attendance Credits or through Detachment of Commercial Property. Here’s the language that will appear on the ballot:

“Authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the State of Texas with local tax revenues.”

A vote FOR means Purchasing Attendance Credits by writing a check to the state for local property taxes. It also means:

  • The district will continue to make annual recapture payments as long as property wealth grows.
  • Our total tax collections will continue to grow to offset these payments as property values rise.
  • The district will have more capacity in the future to fund schools.

A vote AGAINST Purchasing Attendance Credits means Detachment of the most valuable non-residential, commercial properties from the district’s tax roll. The properties will be reassigned to other school districts for taxing purposes. It also means:

  • Under current law, those commercial properties will be permanently detached, and the district will permanently lose those tax collections for district operations.
  • The district will lose debt service tax collections used to pay back bonds, which is debt used to build schools.
  • The district will face budget cuts and have less capacity to fund schools.

There’s more, but you get the idea. In addition, Trustee Anna Eastman, who was one of the louder voices in favor of the November referendum, has am op-ed touting this one as well. Please note that the referendum wording is dictated by state law – HISD has no discretion, so don’t gripe at them if you don’t like it. The HISD Recapture Flyer (English version) and Recapture FAQ came home as printouts in my fourth-grade daughter’s weekly folder, so at least one school is getting the word out to parents. Have you received any official communication on this, from your school or an elected official? Leave a comment and let me know. Remember, early voting begins on April 24 and runs for a week, with the final vote on May 6.

MALDEF files suit over change to recapture

This is a twist.

Texas education officials illegally changed how property taxes are calculated in wealthy school districts, with the effect of substantially reducing the funds available for schools in poorer districts, a lawsuit filed Thursday charged.

The change would cost the state’s poorer schools districts and their students approximately $440 million per year or $880 million for the two-year funding cycle, according to the lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and the law firms Gray & Becker, P.C. and Ray & Wood, on behalf of Le Feria and Joaquin Independent School Districts.

The La Feria Independent School District in Cameron County and the Joaquin Independent School District in Shelby County want the court to permanently block the newly amended rule adopted February 1, calling it invalid and unenforceable.

“Breaking the rules to once again benefit property-wealthy districts to the detriment of our property-poor districts is not the fix we need for our broken public school system,” said Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest regional counsel. “We look forward to vindicating in court our clients’ efforts to ensure fair funding for all students.”

Texas’ system of “recapture” requires wealthier school districts with more valuable property to send some of their tax funds to the state to help fund poorer districts. Those funds are then administered through the Foundation School Program.

The recapture formula assesses the contributions of wealthier districts based on the full value of each property. But those districts may provide two types of tax deductions to residents. The first is a mandated $25,000 homestead exemption. The second deduction allows districts the option of granting an additional homeowners exemption of up to 20 percent of a home’s value, known as a local optional homestead exemption (“LOHE”).

State law allows some wealthy districts to reduce their contributions to recapture and the Foundation School Program by recognizing the LOHE-reduced property values. However, state law provided clear conditions to ensure that poor districts aren’t underfunded. Those conditions required that either state lawmakers appropriate more funding, or that there be a surplus in the Foundation School Program. Until recently, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) interpreted the law to apply only when those conditions were met.

But in February, state education officials issued a statement changing its longstanding rule. Lawyers for the two plaintiff school districts argue that education officials illegally bypassed the existing rule, allowing certain wealthy districts with LOHE’s to reduce their contribution to recapture, without appropriating funds to fill the gap.

“The Education Code provides that the mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to a quality education,” said Richard Gray of Gray & Becker, P.C. “The recent actions of the Commissioner work squarely against that mission and will result in funding flowing only to students in certain property-wealthy districts of TEA’s choosing while at the same time cutting funding to other districts. It is estimated that the recent actions of the Commissioner could cost close to one billion dollars for the 2018-2019 school year and that cost will only increase in future years.”

Under the new rule, La Feria ISD will lose over $225,000 per year, or $1,435 per classroom a year. Joaquin ISD will lose over $48,000 per year, or $1,548 per classroom. These financial losses are reflective of the financial loss that many property-poor school districts throughout the state will incur as a result of the new rule.

The lawsuit comes as state lawmakers debate how Texas will finance public education for the more than 5 million students currently enrolled in schools across the state. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in May last year that while the state’s school finance system met “minimal constitutional requirements,” it needed comprehensive reform.

Read the lawsuit here.

This would of course affect HISD, though MALDEF did not mention them by name in that release. KUHF has the only news coverage of this I’ve seen so far.

HISD is not a party in the lawsuit, but said in a statement that it believes the commissioner’s decision was legal and will monitor the case and “is prepared to intervene if necessary to protect the interests of our students and taxpayers.”

At the very least, this puts a bit of uncertainty into the May 6 recapture re-vote, which the HISD Board is trying to sell to voters. One possible way to satisfy the conditions MALDEF is suing over is for the Lege to make up the difference to the school districts that are affected by the re-interpretation of the recapture rules. Rep. Dan Huberty’s HB21 might be able to do this, in an amended form if need be. I don’t know how likely that is to happen, but it’s a possibility. There are a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll have to wait to see what the defendants, the Lege, and the courts do.

Reintroducing recapture

The tune has changed, and it’s time we make sure everyone knows it.

It felt like déjà vu to many of the 150 people who packed into Tinsley Elementary School’s auditorium Wednesday evening.

Facing another controversial Houston ISD school finance referendum, speakers debated two unfavorable options, both of which will cost the school district millions of dollars.

Wednesday’s forum served as the latest update in a school finance saga that has pitted Houston ISD against the state after 62 percent of local residents voted in November against paying the state millions in so-called recapture fees.

Board President Wanda Adams, who hosted the town hall, thanked those present for voting against recapture in November. But she asked them to vote in favor of writing a recapture check. “Because of your no vote, you actually won. We were the first district ever to tell the state no, the first to say we will not write a check until you fund public education,” Adams said.

The Houston ISD Board of Education voted in February to hold a second referendum on the issue May 6 after the state lessened the amount HISD would pay in recapture fee and threatened to “detach” commercial properties.

Glenn Reed, general manager of HISD’s Budgeting and Financial Planning, said this referendum is different than the one that appeared in on the November ballot.

“This is not a vote on recapture; it’s a vote on how you want us to pay it,” Reed said.

Well, to be exact, the November referendum was about how to pay for recapture, too. Adams is right that we got what we wanted out of that No vote. As you know, I believe we should accept that victory and vote Yes this time around. Early voting begins April 24, which is just over three weeks from now. We’re not used to voting in May in Houston – we have primary runoffs in May, but that’s different. There’s no turnout model for this, we’re all just going to be guessing. Those guesses are going to be on the low end, it’s just a matter of how low. HISD is going to have to convince some people to show up for them if they want to win again.

Vouchers get their Senate hearing

Here we go again with this nonsense.

Senate Bill 3, authored by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, would establish educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships to fund various costs associated with parents moving their children from traditional public schools to private, parochial, or charter schools.

In an online payment process, parents could use the accounts, called ESAs, to pay for items like private school tuition, educational software and tutoring for home school students. However, the bill would prohibit parents from using the money for food or child care.

SB 3 would also allow low-income students to qualify for a tax break, Texas businesses can donate to the scholarship fund, according to the proposal.

Senators did not take a vote on SB 3 after Tuesday’s meeting, leaving the matter pending for another day. However, Taylor’s counterpart in the House, Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty of Humble, long has opposed so-called ‘school choice’ measures and said the bill likely is dead on arrival in his committee.

At Tuesday’s hearing, which drew more than 100 witnesses, Taylor defended his bill from charges that it diverts public money from cash-strapped public school districts and gives it to private schools. He said districts would retain some funding in the first year that a student decides to leave a public school, giving it time to adjust without losing all per-pupil money they currently receive from the state.

“Basically, the school will have money without a student. It will actually have more money to spend on the kids who are still there,” he said. “It gives them a year to transition or maybe in the year, to see what they need to do to move their program forward, to be more competitive.”

I’m not going to rehash the arguments for why vouchers (by any name; there’s a reason they have been rebranded as “education savings accounts”) are lousy public policy. Search my archives for “vouchers”, or read this from the CPPP if you need a reminder. Though a vote wasn’t taken at the time of the hearing, the committee did subsequently pass it out on a 7-3 count, with Republican Kel Seliger voting No. This is one of Dan Patrick’s priorities, and a rare bill on which Greg Abbott has an opinion he’s willing to say out loud, so I’m sure it will pass the Senate, and most likely die in the House. This is what victory looks like these days.

In the meantime, there was this.

A number of House members said they have received fraudulent letters in the last couple of months addressed from constituents asking them to back the ESAs.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was suspicious when his office fielded 520 letters between mid-February and mid-March from constituents of his rural district, who are more likely to oppose private school choice than support it. All the letters were addressed from Austin and had the full names and addresses of each constituent at the bottom.

Springer started making calls. “We talked to a couple of dozen constituents. No one knows where they’re coming from. None of them agree with the positions that they’re even taking,” he said. He knows of about 10 other representatives who got similar letters.

One of Springer’s letters was addressed from former state Rep. Rick Hardcastle, who vacated the seat currently held by Springer about six years ago. “I don’t believe in vouchers of any kind,” Hardcastle said Monday. “It ought to be illegal … representing me for something I have no interest in supporting or helping.”

Asked about the letters, school choice advocate Randan Steinhauser said there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the issue. “We’re excited to see that many folks are contacting their legislators. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the ways these elected officials are being contacted.”

Sue Dixon, a public school teacher in Gatesville for the last 20 years, got a call from state Rep. J.D. Sheffield’s office asking whether she had sent a letter lobbying her representative to vote for vouchers.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not!'” Dixon said. “I’m upset that someone would hijack my views.”

Sheffield, a rural conservative from Gatesville, said he had received about 550 of those letters.

Here’s a more detailed article about this bizarre story. I am reminded once again of Daniel Davies’ words, that good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I don’t know if this was the work of amateurs or exceedingly hardened cynics, but I do know it is not the work of someone who is confident that the people are with them.

Mike Floyd for Pearland ISD

What were you doing when you were 18 years old? Probably not running for school board.

Mike Floyd

Michael Floyd isn’t your typical high school senior.

The Dawson High School student says he’s been involved in politics since he was in fourth grade.

“I was the one kid who had a Barack Obama bumper sticker on my bike as I rode around town,” Floyd said. “Since then, I’ve worked on two Congressional campaigns, I’ve managed a state representative race, and I worked on a presidential campaign, managing it for our county.”

This spring break, while his classmates are enjoying their time off, he’s campaigning for a position on the Pearland ISD Board of Trustees.

“As a student, I’ve seen a lot more than the trustees have,” Floyd said. “I’ve been with teachers, students and faculty members for nine and a half months out of the year for 40 hours a week. I just see flagrant issues in our district.”

The 18-year-old is running against two-term incumbent Rusty DeBorde, who served as president during four of his six years on the board.

The Chron has also taken notice.

Floyd said one of his goals as a trustee is to improve the district’s communications efforts and allow improved access to information for tax payers.

“We need to open up and be as transparent as possible,” Floyd said. “I firmly believe that our district needs to be far more transparent than they are today both in regards to posting videos of board workshops online as well as disclosing what’s going on during closed-door meetings. Now, I understand there are several things that the State of Texas will not allow school board members to talk about publicly. But, I want to reduce the amount of business that the district does behind closed doors. We are a district that is funded publicly and I firmly believe that tax payers have a right to know how the district is operating.”

Unlike the Pearland City Council, Pearland ISD does not post videos of board workshops on their website. If elected, Floyd said he would work to change that. In addition, he said he supports posting more information on the district website such as the names of trustee candidates and campaign finance reports.

You know I support those last two items. Floyd’s campaign webpage is here, and his campaign Facebook page is here. His issues page addresses student rights, among other things, which is a topic I doubt you’ll see covered by other candidates. One issue I would have liked to have seen addressed there is Pearland’s pro-potty bill superintendent, whom Mike Floyd would have a role in overseeing if he gets elected. Having said that, he has made his opposition to SB6 and his support for transgender students very clear on his campaign Facebook page. Floyd was endorsed by the Texas Democratic Party in its first round of support for local candidates in the May elections. His father John Floyd was a candidate for State Rep in HD29 last November, so despite his young age he at least has some campaign experience. I wish him good luck, and I’ll be keeping an eye on this one on May 6.

It’s HCDE hunting season again

Every two years, like clockwork.

A Houston-area legislator has filed two bills targeting the Harris County Department of Education, renewing his assault on the agency that provides special education therapy services to hundreds of students.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican whose district covers much of northwest Harris County, said he was upset that the HCDE board last week rejected a proposed “sunset review” to evaluate the need for the continued existence of the department.

Bettencourt has introduced three separate bills that would study closure, or alternatively prevent it from collecting property taxes or eliminate it outright.

“I’m going to keep filing bills until we get what I think is an adult response from trustees,” said Bettencourt, who has concerns about the agency’s financal accountability. “It’s very disappointing that the board wouldn’t vote for a sunset review.”

James Colbert Sr., the superintendent of the HCDE, said that although bills that would hamper or close the department have been proposed before, he’s perplexed by the multiple bills filed by Bettencourt.

“One calls for a sunset review, one calls for abolishment. It seems odd to ask for two different things, especially as you’re asking for it to be abolished,” Colbert said. “It makes you wonder what is going on.”

Bettencourt said he would prefer to see the department undergo a sunset review to study its closure than close it outright.

One pretext is as good as another, I suppose. HCDE does good work and helps the many smaller school districts in Harris County save money. You would think that would make it uncontroversial, but these are the times we live in.

House releases school finance fix bill

A step in the right direction.

Rep. Dan Huberty

The top public education policymaker in the Texas House unveiled a $1.6 billion plan on Monday that he described as a first step to overhauling the state’s beleaguered school funding system.

At a Capitol press conference, state Rep. Dan Huberty said House Bill 21 would boost per-student funding for nearly every public and charter school in the state while reducing the amount of money wealthier school districts are required to give up to buoy poorer ones. The state’s so-called Robin Hood plan has become a hot-button political issue as large districts like Houston have recently had to begin making payments.

“House Bill 21 will not only improve our schools but it will also reduce the need for higher property taxes,” said Huberty, a Houston Republican who chairs of the House Public Education Committee.

[…]

He said HB 21 would increase the basic funding for almost all school districts from $5,140 to $5,350 per student per year. That would happen in part through an increase in transportation funding by $125 per student for all school districts, including property-wealthy districts that currently have limited access to that money.

It also would increase the amount of money the state gives to schools for students with dyslexia. And it would include additional funding for high schools and non-professional staff.

Huberty estimated it would lower payments that property-wealthy school districts pay to the state to subsidize property-poor school districts by $163 million in 2018 and $192 million in 2019. As the state’s share of school funding has decreased, more school districts with swelling enrollment are on the hook for such Robin Hood payments.

The bill is similar to an unsuccessful school finance initiative filed in 2015 that would’ve injected twice as much money into the system — $3 billion — and boosted per-student funding across the board. Still, $1.6 billion is a significant sum amid the current budget crunch.

This bill had a hearing yesterday as well, and despite being overshadowed by the sound and fury of the bathroom bill hearing, there was a report about it.

The bill would inject about $1.6 billion into the public education system, boosting funding for almost every school district in the state although a few would be left out. It also wouldn’t renew a soon-expiring program that awards supplemental state funds to more than 150 districts to offset a decade-old property tax cut — a major concern for education officials who depend on the funding. A provision in the bill that would award some grant money to make up for the loss isn’t enough, they told the committee Tuesday.

“My districts are going to lose,” said Mike Motheral, executive director of the Texas Small Rural School Finance Coalition. He said he represents 14 West Texas school districts that could lose up as much as 53 percent of their state revenue with the end of the state aid program.

“One of my districts will lose $4.5 million and they have a $10.5 million budget,” he said.

When the Legislature reduced property taxes by a third in 2006, it guaranteed school districts like the ones Motheral represents at least the same amount of funding they received in 2005-06 through a state aid initiative. The extra aid expires Sept. 1, so many districts have been asking for an extension to avoid falling off a funding cliff. About 156 school districts currently receive such aid.

As written, the bill proposes letting the initiative providing extra state aid expire and instituting a $100 million two-year grant program, prioritizing districts that would lose money through the new funding formulas. That’s not enough to cushion the blow, school officials told the committee Tuesday.

[…]

Numbers released Monday along with the bill show that about 35 of the state’s 1,200 school districts and charters would lose funding in 2018 and 58 would lose funding in 2019. The rest would see basic funding increase from $5,140 to $5,350 per student annually thanks to an increase in transportation funding and more money for students with dyslexia.

Many school officials and advocates who testified on the bill Tuesday said it leaves too many behind.

“We want a bill that has no losers,” said Christy Rome, executive director of Texas School Coalition, which represents mostly wealthier school districts.

Here’s HB21. I agree with Christy Rome and Mike Motheral. There shouldn’t be any losers in this. As much as HISD and the other districts affected by recapture should be made right, it should not come at the effect of these other districts. The right answer is the put enough money in to fix the formulas. Easy to say, and Lord only knows what kind of reception this gets in the Senate. But this is what it comes down to, and what needs to happen. The Chron has more.

Abby Whitmire: Why I’m running for Humble ISD Board of Trustees

(Note: As you know, I solicit guest posts from time to time. I am also working to follow the May 2017 elections more closely, to do my part for the renewed sense of purpose and desire to make a difference at the local level. I was delighted to learn that a friend of mine had taken that to the next level, so in that spirit I asked her to write about her candidacy.)

Abby Whitmire

Humble ISD covers over 90 square miles of northeast Harris County, including the communities of Humble, Atascocita, Kingwood, Fall Creek, and Eagle Springs. The population in the district is expected to rise from 40,500 to approximately 52,000 by 2025 – necessitating the construction of six new schools by 2022, including one high school, the seventh for the district. The district is 19.1% African American, 34.1% Latino, 40.9% White, and 5.9% Other. Almost nine percent of Humble ISD are Limited English Proficient and almost 34% are considered economically disadvantaged.

In the summer of 2016, the school board hired a controversial superintendent who had helped implement a private school voucher program in her previous job. The hiring of Dr. Liz Fagen as Superintendent was done over the very vocal objections of a large segment of the district. Many people in the district are still upset about that, and upset about how the board handled her hiring and how they tried to explain it to the public. A group of parents organized against this hire, and while we were ultimately unsuccessful in that objective, we have continued to serve in the role of watchdog for board and general district matters.

Part of this organizing includes supporting challengers to the six trustees who voted in the current superintendent (the seventh member was absent). Four positions are open in this election (one board member is not running for reelection so there is not an incumbent in that race). The day before the filing deadline, the incumbent in Position 4 was unopposed. I decided to run for Position 4 that day, because I believe the voters in Humble ISD deserve a real choice in who represents them.

I was blessed with amazing teachers who were committed and creative, and who cared so deeply about me and my classmates. I believe all children in Texas deserve a great, well-resourced school with respected and empowered teachers, regardless of where they live or how much money their family makes. I'm hoping to earn the votes of concerned parents in the district who want to protect public education.

I am the only candidate who has lived in a town – New Orleans – that is a living laboratory for charter schools. 93% of New Orleans students attend charter schools currently, and the number could soon approach 100%, as the Orleans Parish School Board intends to convert its five remaining direct-run schools into charters. This the highest percentage of any U.S. city (Source: Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives). The results are mixed at best. Living in that environment and hearing the concerns of parents and teachers made me extremely skeptical of charter schools and so-called "school choice" – the choice was often one of bad options.

My family moved to Kingwood for the schools. I want to make sure that the caliber of education in Humble ISD remains and even exceeds the level that has made it so attractive to families like mine. We know what works in education: Small class sizes, rich curriculums, experienced and accomplished teachers, and a system of support that helps to manage problems when students lose focus or fall behind. It's simple, but it's not easy. If I am elected to the school board, these will be my priorities.

Abby Whitmire is stay at home mom with a career background in non-profit fundraising, most recently in New Orleans for The Posse Foundation. Her campaign Facebook page is here.

(Ed. note: Kingwood State Rep. Dan Huberty, who is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee and an opponent of vouchers, had previously served on the Humble ISD Board. Just wanted to put that out there.)

Huberty says vouchers are dead this session

Always nice to hear.

The top education policy official in the Texas House said Tuesday that he would not allow the approval of school vouchers this legislative session, a blunt pronouncement that could be fatal to the prospects for legislation that is a priority for many top Republicans in the state.

The official, House Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said during a Texas Tribune event here that he and his colleagues in the House already had debated the issue at length and determined that vouchers would reduce school accountability by putting public dollars in private schools that are not subject to the same rules and also would distract from more pressing challenges, such as fixing the school finance system.

Asked whether that meant a high-profile voucher proposal from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was “dead, dead, dead,” Huberty said yes. Asked whether there was anything that could change his mind, Huberty said no.

“Why don’t we talk about the real issues?” Huberty said.

Excellent question. You can see the video of this conversation here. Rep. Huberty has been backed by the Texas ParentPAC, which came into existence back in 2005 for the purpose of supporting legislators who support public schools, which among other things means opposing vouchers. Why should we oppose vouchers? Well for one thing, they just don’t work.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos has been a champion of school vouchers for decades, and has claimed students don’t benefit from better funding of public schools. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that vouchers do not improve student achievement in any meaningful way.

A significant body of research on vouchers over the past 15 years has found that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that vouchers significantly improve student achievement, wrote Martin Carnoy, Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford University. In some cases, vouchers exacerbate issues that hurt students’ quality of education, such as racial and economic school segregation and a flow of inexperienced young teachers into schools.

Research on voucher experiments in New York City, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showed that there were no significant improvements for students, especially for students Republicans argue will benefit from them the most: students of color.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., which is directly funded by Congress, showed no significant reading or math gains for students who used vouchers and scholarships compared to students who did not. Still, the Trump administration may move to expand the program, The Washington Post reported.

In Milwaukee, which has the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, only one in four students attend their public school. But black students, who are the main recipients of the vouchers, had lower eighth grade math scores than students in every city but Detroit. The scores were even worse for reading, where Milwaukee eighth graders scored lower than black eighth graders in all other 12 cities included in the study. Although Milwaukee students made large gains in the 2007–2008 school year, there were not significant gains in reading between 2007 and 2011.

Although proponents of vouchers say that competition forces public schools to improve, Carnoy came to the conclusion that it is more likely that accountability measures are driving improvements in struggling public schools.

You can see that well-timed research here. Closer to home, RG Ratcliffe highlights another issue with the Patrick plan: There just aren’t many private schools in poor neighborhoods, which is both screamingly obvious when you think about it and also kind of a logistical problem.

Dallas County has more than 30,000 children attending about 100 accredited private schools. The majority are clustered in wealthier areas of North and East Dallas, the News’ analysis of education and demographic data shows.

Meanwhile, entire swaths of southern Dallas County lack a single private school. These poorer neighborhoods have lots of low-rated public schools — the very schools that voucher supporters say they want to help kids escape.

And of course, the Patrick plan wouldn’t pay the full tuition for poor kids who wanted to go to St. John’s or Hockaday or wherever, so the end effect would be even more limited. You can see why Rep. Huberty isn’t excited. What’s far less clear is what Patrick and Abbott and so on keep pushing this idea.

Trump and the anti-vaxxers

In case you needed another reason to dislike Donald Trump.

President Trump’s embrace of discredited theories linking vaccines to autism has energized the anti-vaccine movement. Once fringe, the movement is becoming more popular, raising doubts about basic childhood health care among politically and geographically diverse groups.

Public health experts warn that this growing movement is threatening one of the most successful medical innovations of modern times. Globally, vaccines prevent the deaths of about 2.5 million children every year, but deadly diseases such as measles and whooping cough still circulate in populations where enough people are unvaccinated.

Here in San Antonio, 80 miles southwest of the state capital, Texans for Vaccine Choice convened a happy hour to encourage attendees to get more involved politically. The event was among dozens of outreach events the group has hosted across the state. The relatively new group has boosted its profile, aided by a savvy social-media strategy, and now leads a contentious fight over vaccines that is gearing up in the current legislative session.

The battle comes at a time when increasing numbers of Texas parents are choosing not to immunize their children because of “personal beliefs.” Measles was eliminated in the United States more than 15 years ago, but the highly contagious disease has made a return in recent years, including in Texas, in part because of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. A 2013 outbreak in Texas infected 21 people, many of them unvaccinated children.

The modern anti-vaccine movement is based on a fraud. A study published almost 20 years ago purported to show a link between childhood vaccines and autism. The data was later found to be falsified, and the study was retracted.

[…]

Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, predicts that 2017 could be the year the anti-vaccination movement gains ascendancy in the United States. Texas could lead the way, he said, because some public schools are dangerously close to the threshold at which measles outbreaks can be expected. A third of students at some private schools are unvaccinated.

“We’re losing the battle,” Hotez said.

Although the anti-vaccine movement has been strong in other states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, experts say the effort in Texas is among the most organized and politically active.

“It’s a great example of an issue that has a targeted, small minority but an intense minority who are willing to mobilize and engage in direct action,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

We’ve discussed this plenty of times before, and as you know I agree with Mark Jones. There’s no reasoning with these people. There’s only organizing, and making it so that being anti-vaccination – and let’s be clear, that’s what allowing broad parental-choice exemptions for vaccinating children is – is a disqualifier for public office. Either we vote these enablers out, or we suffer the consequences.

Trump Justice Department to drop appeals in transgender bathroom directive case

From ThinkProgress:

The Trump administration has elected not to contest a Texas federal judge’s injunction barring the federal government from implementing Obama administration guidelines that protect transgender kids in schools.

Oral arguments for the Obama Justice Department’s appeal of the judge’s decision were scheduled for Tuesday. The DOJ cancelled them in a legal brief submitted Friday.

“Defendants-appellants hereby withdraw their pending November 23, 2016 motion for partial stay pending appeal,” the brief says. “The parties jointly move to remove from the Court’s calendar the February 14, 2017 oral argument currently scheduled for that motion. The parties are currently considering how best to proceed.”

That brief was filed the day after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General.

As ThinkProgress reported last August, the Obama administration’s guidance “stated that Title IX’s nondiscrimination protections on the basis of ‘sex’ protect transgender students in accordance with their gender identity, such that they must be allowed to use the bathrooms and play on sports teams that match their gender.” But the brief filed Friday signals that the Trump administration no longer wants to implement that guidance.

See here, here, and here for the background. I suppose some other group could try to enter the proceedings at this point in place of the feds, but there’s nothing to stop Dear Leader from rescinding this executive order, which would moot the whole thing. We’re clearly not going to move forward in the next few years, so we’re going to have to fight to not move back.

How SB6 will hurt people

Nell Gaither counts the ways.

SB 6 identifies a target without naming it and erases policy intended to offer at least some protection for vulnerable populations, building a legal excuse for harming those people and for coercing them not to fight back. Once the law is in place, the “responsible adults” will turn their backs and let others carry out the actual violence.

For several years now, our schools have been expanding policy that protects trans children. This is much-needed, because about 77 percent of trans and gender-nonconforming students experience harassment or other violence due to their gender. About one-third of that violence comes from teachers and staff; 36 percent report being disciplined for fighting back against their assailant. Because violence against trans and gender-diverse kids is so pervasive, schools have increasingly allowed students to use gender-affirming restrooms and changing areas because not doing so identifies them as trans and makes them a target for violence. SB 6 would eradicate these protections for the estimated 13,800 transgender youth ages 13 to 17 in Texas.

Employment protections have followed the same trajectory. About 80 percent of trans Americans face discrimination or violence, or take steps to avoid violence, at work. Denying access to appropriately gendered spaces is a sure way to place a target on them for violence. Wouldn’t we rather support positive engagement with employees than set up barriers? Encouraging violence could drive trans Texans out of the workforce and into underground economies and emergency access to social services.

General social ostracization also increases negative social and health outcomes. One measure of this is the lifetime attempted suicide rate: 40 percent for trans people compared to 4.6 percent for the general population.

And finally, SB 6 will negatively impact trans people in how it criminalizes assault. Marginalized groups tend to be disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, and the trans community is no exception. As one trans survivor of a sexual assault described their experience: “The legal system would blame us for our own rapes and say we had it coming.”

Lifelong problems increase as a result of discrimination and violence in schools, where trans people often underperform or drop out, and in workplaces, which deny us jobs or set up barriers that impede not just success, but often simple continued employment.

We’ve already established that SB6 singles out transgender people and that its passage will harm them. Gaither is just detailing the ways in which that harm will take place. What else is there to say about this?

A re-vote on recapture?

This is very interesting.

After reconsideration of an 18-year-old law, state education officials are adjusting their school finance calculations in a way that could save several dozen school districts roughly $100 million — while costing the state the same amount in revenue.

One of the apparent beneficiaries is Houston ISD, where the change means taxpayers will be sending about $60 million less to the state for public education than they had expected.

At issue is a calculation for recapture — the state’s term for the money that districts with higher property wealth send to the state for use in districts with lower property wealth.

It’s more commonly known as the Robin Hood system of school finance.

Some of those rich districts — “rich” here refers to the value of the districts’ property and not the income of its residents — have adopted homestead exemptions that are bigger than the exemptions mandated in state law. All school districts in Texas have to let homeowners deduct $25,000 from their taxable property values, but districts are allowed to raise those exemptions up to 20 percent of a home’s value.

Not all districts do that, and not all of those that do that are property rich. But some — including Houston ISD, the biggest one in the state — offer the higher homestead exemptions and are also subject to recapture, and they’re the ones subject to the new calculations from the Texas Education Agency.

In a letter sent Feb. 1 to school administrators, the agency’s associate commissioner for school finance said that starting in the current school year, TEA will include half of the money the districts have forfeited in optional homestead exemptions when calculating how much recapture money those districts should pay. That’s the agency’s new reading of a law that’s been on the books since 1999.

“The commissioner thinks he has the latitude to give them half credit for this,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

The recalculations would trim those districts’ bills considerably — by $100 million in rough numbers. In addition to Houston ISD, the unofficial list of beneficiaries of the new calculation include Spring Branch ISD, Highland Park ISD, Lake Travis ISD and Comal ISD. Officials with TEA said they have not yet calculated exact amounts for each district but said the $100 million is a reasonable estimate of the total cost this year.

[…]

Houston ISD said Friday evening that the board will consider a do-over and will vote next Thursday on whether to hold another election on May 6 to give voters an opportunity to reverse that November vote.

The effect of this new interpretation of the law would be to reduce HISD’s bill for recapture by about $60 million. HISD would still need to pay a bit more than $100 million to the state, so this is hardly a cure-all, but it’s a significant savings.

To me, this is a win for the No vote on recapture last November. As the story says, the TEA could have interpreted the law in this fashion, to allow districts that grant the higher homestead exemption more credit in the byzantize school finance system, years ago. I believe one reason – maybe not the only reason, but surely a big reason – why it didn’t happen before now is because there wasn’t a loud enough voice demanding the change. HISD’s No vote on recapture was a big deal that got people’s attention and focused some energy on just how screwy the system had become. Another boost to their argument was that HISD was being penalized for having a lower tax rate than it could have had. This particular kink in the way the finances were calculated was one of the things that “No on recapture” advocates like David Thompson pointed out, as it was a simple fix that could be easily implemented and would not only be fair but also have a big effect. Maybe this happens anyway if HISD meekly paid its recapture bill, but if anything should be clear at this point in time, it’s that kicking up a fuss tends to be a better way to get what you want.

Bettencourt’s office put out a press release lauding HISD for scheduling another vote. I haven’t seen any other reporting on this – as of Saturday there was nothing on HISD’s website or Facebook page about this – so he’s either being a bit premature or he’s gotten some verbal assurance that the Board will indeed approve a May election at its Thursday meeting. The Board can claim a victory here, and it should be able to sell the idea of writing a smaller check to the state to its constituents and allies from the last election. I’d be inclined to vote Yes this time around – the problem isn’t fully solved, and even without a big school finance overhaul there are other things that could be done for recapture districts like giving credit for pre-K students, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the Board reacts, and to see if groups like CVPE and the teachers’ union go along. Whatever else happens, this was a good thing.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.

[…]

The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

Senate to begin studying school finance changes

We’ll see what this looks like.

Leaders in the Texas Senate are vowing to find ways to overhaul the state’s school finance system, saying a recent Texas Supreme Court decision granted them a prime opportunity to shake up the heavily criticized status quo.

On Monday, they announced the creation of a Senate budget working group — led by Friendswood Republican Larry Taylor — to tackle the issue. That group will work with the Senate Education Committee, which Taylor chairs, to propose replacements for the current school finance system.

“The opportunity is huge for us to get it right,” said Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee. “We need a whole new method of school finance.”

They’ll face an uphill climb in a session where legislators face several obstacles to major reform, not the least of which is money. The announcement comes a week after the Senate unveiled its preliminary budget, which did not include additional funding for public education.

During the Finance Committee’s first hearing of the 2017 legislative session on Monday, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, advised the newly formed working group to “start with a clean slate” in recommending a new school finance scheme. “It should be less complicated, innovative and should meet the needs of our students,” she added.

[…]

“We’re left with a question mark as to what this effort will mean by the Senate,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert at the Austin-based consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates. The main question is “whether they’re trying to reform school finance within existing dollars or looking for possible additional dollars to fund the system.”

Nelson last week unveiled the Senate’s $213.4 billion two-year budget proposal, calling it a bare-bones starting point for financial discussions in what promises to be a particularly tight-fisted year. That proposal did not touch funding formulas for public education.

The House’s base budget — also released last week — included an additional $1.5 billion that could be spent on public education only if the Legislature reforms the school finance system.

Here’s the Chron story, which has the local angle.

In Houston, where voters last November overwhelmingly rejected having local taxpayers pay the state for $162 million in so-called “recapture” of school funds, HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones said the creation of the Senate group signaled that the message from the ballot initiative had been heard in Austin.

“They’ve done more with HISD pushing back than they have in 24 years of hearing school districts complain about it,” Jones, a vocal opponent of “recapture,” said Monday. “Recapture is based on the premise of Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but that’s never what it did. It took from the poor and reallocated to the poor. Help me understand why 75 percent of our kids are poor, really poor, receiving free and reduced-priced meals, and you’re taking money from us? It makes no sense; we need more money, not less.”

Because the district will refuse to pay the recapture fee, the Texas Education Agency has threatened to remove commercial buildings from HISD’s taxing district this July so it can give the money to other “property poor” districts.

HISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she hopes lawmakers will act before the TEA takes the property tax revenue from local commercial properties, though she is not sure overhauling the school finance system can be done in one session. But she was heartened to see the Senate look at the funding system.

“School finance can’t be based on some kind of cryptic formula that makes it so kids in a certain pocket are getting lots of money and others are getting little,” Eastman said. “Areas such as ours shouldn’t be picking up all the slack for areas that can’t generate revenue off property growth. It shouldn’t be that big of a gap.”

In Pearland, where local schools receive $9,358 per student, the lowest share in the Houston area, Superintendent John Kelly said that if the state does not increase its share, his district may have to dip into reserve funds to provide any kind of an increase to employees or to meet rising costs. He said lawmakers have been disingenuous in saying they want to lower taxes while requiring districts to raise more local taxes.

“They talk out of one side of their mouth ‘tax cuts’ for people, but on the other side they’re confiscating the increase in tax values across the state,” Kelly said of the Legislature.

That would need to be a part of any overhaul for it to be worth the name. I’m more wary than optimistic. I fear what we will get will be another shuffling of existing funds that will mostly change who’s getting screwed less. I don’t have any faith that Dan Patrick’s Senate will put more money into the system, or that they will alter it in a way that allows for, let alone mandates, covering the costs of growth in a sensible fashion. Let’s not forget that at the same time this is going on, there will be a renewed push for private school vouchers, which will only drain more money from public education. They could surprise me in a good way, and I will reserve judgment until I see what they come up with, but I do not start out feeling very hopeful about this. The track record of the players involved argues otherwise. RG Ratcliffe, who also sees vouchers in this, has more.

Time to pay attention to the HCDE again

Some highlights from the HCDE meeting agenda for this Thursday at 1 PM, as emailed to me:

1. Changing board meeting dates.

2. Michael Wolfe wants to name our Post Oak facility for his deceased mother.

3. Create a Home School Division.

4. Create a School Choice Division.

5. Create a board services division that reports directly to the board. Transparency anyone?

6. Create a new travel policy for superintendent and board – no reimbursement for out of town travel or training. Most board training conferences are out of town.

7. Change superintendent’s spending authority without board approval from $50,000 to $5,000. If something were to happen at one of our schools and they needed emergency repairs, etc., the superintendents hands would be tied.

8. Fire current attorney and hire a new one.

9. New construction for special ed school and recovery high school are still on hold.

The meeting is tomorrow, Thursday, at 1:00pm at the main HCDE Administration building, 6300 Irvington. We had a couple of blissful years of sanity with the HCDE after 2008, but the craziness came back in 2014 when Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners were elected to at large positions. If you have the time and capacity to attend and keep an eye on them and their shenanigans, that would be a good thing to do.

Paxton courts the business lobby

Not sure what to make of this.

Best mugshot ever

Making his case for the “bathroom bill” to Texas business leaders, Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that Senate Bill 6 would have a narrow focus, and he urged them to listen to parents “just concerned about the safety of their children.”

[…]

Paxton, who has been battling the federal government in court over transgender student guidelines it issued last year, struck a conciliatory tone Tuesday as he spoke at the association’s meeting. He acknowledged that the group has been involved in the debate before stressing that the bill “doesn’t apply to businesses, from what I can tell.”

SB 6 would pre-empt local ordinances — as applied to bathrooms — that protect transgender individuals from discrimination in public accommodations. Those ordinances effectively require businesses, such as restaurants and retail stores, to allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

Paxton also said the legislation “doesn’t apply to entities that are leasing government facilities,” apparently referring to a part of the bill that would, for example, exempt a sports league that rents a publicly owned venue. It is a key component of the legislation in light of concerns the legislation could cause the state to lose out on major athletic events such as the Final Four, which is set to be held in 2018 in San Antonio.

This talk was given during a conference held by the Texas Association of Business. It’s basically the Buckingham pitch, which seems to me to be contradicted by what’s actually in the bill, and is clearly aimed at blunting the opposition to the bill. Plus, of course, the ever-popular Won’t Someone Please Think Of The Children? angle, which very conveniently overlooks the fact that lots of children are already being harmed by this debate, and will be even more harmed by SB6.

There’s nothing in the story to indicate how receptive the audience was to this message, so it’s hard for me to say if any of it may have worked. And as it happens, Paxton wasn’t the only one giving a speech to the TAB about potties.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday further brought the battle lines over the “bathroom bill” into focus, saying lawmakers should be “very careful” about doing anything that makes the state less economically competitive.

“There’s been a lot of work put into our state’s economic success,” Straus said in a speech to the Texas Association of Business, which has vocally opposed the legislation. “We want to continue that success, and we want Texas to keep attracting the best and the brightest. One way to maintain our edge is to send the right signals about who we are.”

[…]

On Wednesday, Straus emphasized that he was not speaking for all House members but expressing a personal view and reflecting the concerns of constituents in his San Antonio-based district. The city is set to hold the Final Four in 2018, and Straus detailed all it has done to prepare for the college basketball event.

“Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that can slow down our overall job-creating machine,” Straus said. “They are also watching what happened in North Carolina, and they are not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention,” Straus added, referring to the state that incurred controversy when its lawmakers pushed a similar bill.

While Patrick has been outspoken about the legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott has not commented on it since its release. Straus applied some pressure on Abbott to weigh in, saying his view could make a “big difference.”

“If you are concerned — I know many of you are — now is the time to speak up,” Straus told TAB members.

Straus, in his typical way, didn’t say he was taking direct action to kill this bill, just that he’d talk to his members about it. This isn’t the first time he’s poured some cold water on it. Giving Abbott a nudge is a good move, though one that could backfire. He’ll either get some cover, or a doubling of the pressure on him, assuming Abbott ever bothers to grace us with an opinion. RG Ratcliffe adds a few thoughts.

Having said all that, this Observer story suggests that the all-about-the-children pitch may be a harder sell than Ken Paxton and Dan Patrick think.

For Texas Values, a right–wing advocacy group, the small, relatively conservative community of Dripping Springs may have seemed like a good target for its latest anti-transgender bathroom campaign.

But three months after the group stormed into town, Dripping Springs ISD officials were standing firm in their decision to allow a 9-year-old trans girl to use restrooms according to her gender identity.

Soon after Texas Values launched its campaign, a large group of parents formed to support the third-grade student and defend the district. Organized as “Many Stripes, One Tiger,” the group plans to take its fight to Austin to lobby against Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s anti-trans bathroom bill.

“We’re trying to get the message out that our school district is doing just fine without Dan Patrick coming in and regulating our bathrooms,” said Andy Hutton, whose son attends Walnut Springs Elementary School with the trans student.

[…]

Hutton said he believes Texas Values chose Dripping Springs for its proximity to the Capitol and its status as a rural district in which few have been exposed to the debate over LGBT rights. But he doesn’t think the group anticipated the backlash it would receive from parents who personally know the trans girl and trust the judgment of school officials.

“I don’t think anybody questions that her gender identity is true and heartfelt and sincere,” Hutton said, adding that “even a lot of social conservatives” stand behind the girl.

Emphasis mine. Funny how things can change when politicians and special interest groups are saying horrible things about people you know, isn’t it? Let’s hope there’s more like this out there.

The GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey

A lot of the stuff we talk about when we discuss Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill is business – the opposition from businesses, the political ramifications of a GOP/business schism, the economics of the bathroom bill, etc etc etc. But schools and students are a big piece of the picture here, as the lawsuit against the US Department of Education directive on student access to bathrooms and other facilities shows, and the effect of a bathroom bill on schools and students has been in the background. With that in mind, let me direct you to the GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey, for which a much more easily read executive summary is here. Let me quote a bit:

In 1999, GLSEN identified that little was known about the school experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth and that LGBTQ youth were nearly absent from national studies of adolescents. We responded to this national need for data by launching the first National School Climate Survey, and we continue to meet this need for current data by conducting the study every two years. Since then, the biennial National School Climate Survey has documented the unique challenges LGBTQ students face and identified interventions that can improve school climate. The survey documents the prevalence of anti-LGBT language and victimization, such as experiences of harassment and assault in school. In addition, the survey examines school policies and practices that may contribute to negative experiences for LGBTQ students and make them feel as if they are not valued by their school communities. The survey also explores the effects that a hostile school climate may have on LGBTQ students’ educational outcomes and well-being. Finally, the survey reports on the availability and the utility of LGBT-related school resources and supports that may offset the negative effects of a hostile school climate and promote a positive learning experience. In addition to collecting this critical data every two years, we also add and adapt survey questions to respond to the changing world for LGBTQ youth. For example, in the 2015 survey we expanded upon the types of discriminatory practices we explore by including questions related to extracurricular activities, school athletics, and gender segregation in school activities. The National School Climate Survey remains one of the few studies to examine the school experiences of LGBTQ students nationally, and its results have been vital to GLSEN’s understanding of the issues that LGBTQ students face, thereby informing our ongoing work to ensure safe and affirming schools for all.

[…]

LGBTQ students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of their sexual orientation:

–Were more than three times as likely to have missed school in the past month than those who experienced lower levels (62.2% vs. 20.1%);

–Had lower grade point averages (GPAs) than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.3);

–Were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any post-secondary education (e.g., college or trade school) than those who experienced lower levels (10.0% vs. 5.2%);

–Were more likely to have been disciplined at school (54.9% vs. 32.1%); and

–Had lower self-esteem and school belonging and higher levels of depression.

LGBTQ students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of their gender expression:

–Were almost three times as likely to have missed school in the past month than those who experienced lower levels (59.6% vs. 20.8%);

–Had lower GPAs than students who were less often harassed (2.9 vs. 3.3);

–Were twice as likely to report that they did not plan to pursue any postsecondary education (e.g., college or trade school; 9.5% vs. 5.4%);

–Were more likely to have been disciplined at school (52.1% vs. 32.7%); and

–Had lower self-esteem and school belonging and higher levels of depression.

42.5% of LGBTQ students who reported that they did not plan to finish high school, or were not sure if they would finish, indicated that they were considering dropping out because of the harassment they faced at school.

I highlight this for three reasons. One is that we as a state and as a society put high expectations on our students, which are reflected in the never-ending and continually-increasing academic standards we demand that they meet. It is therefore on us to ensure that we are doing all we can to remove barriers to their success, of which harassment and discrimination are two of the most pernicious. Two, Dan Patrick presents his bill as a way of “protecting” children. I would challenge him and his minions to explain why this “protection” of some undefined set of children must come at the direct cost of so many other children. And three, to remind the business lobby that is now doing the hard work of opposing this travesty that it is not just about how their employees and customers are treated, but also how the children of their employees and customers are treated, or to put it another way, how their future employees and customers are treated. The Supreme Court is about to hear a case that may force the issue nationally, or it may punt it back to the states. We need to be ready to respond appropriately and compassionately.