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Late money in the HISD races

Here it comes.

A political action committee mostly funded by the nation’s largest teachers’ union has received $225,000 to spend on supporting four candidates for the Houston ISD school board election and a city ballot measure, campaign finance reports show.

Houston United for Strong Public Schools plans to spend in support of three incumbent candidates — Wanda Adams, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — and newcomer Elizabeth Santos ahead of Tuesday’s election, records show. The PAC doesn’t plan to spend on candidates in two other Houston ISD board races.

Political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns. Houston United for Strong Public Schools has received the most donations to date among PACs supporting local school board candidates.

Records show Houston United for Strong Public Schools took in $150,000 from the political arm of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.7 million public employees, most of them working in schools.

The PAC also received $75,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing about 1.6 million public service employees. In addition to supporting the four board candidates, the PAC plans to spend in favor of a Houston city ballot measure to authorize the sale of $1 billion in bonds under a pension reform plan.

That’s a lot of money, but at least from my perspective in District I, it hasn’t been particularly visible to me. I’ve received mail from the Santos campaign, but no more than what I’ve received from the Himsl and Richart campaigns. I haven’t received any robocalls or been visited by any canvassers – for whatever the reason, it’s extremely rare for someone to knock on my door on behalf of a campaign – and if there are ads running on TV or the radio, I’ve not seen them. I don’t think I’ve seen any Facebook ads or ads in my Gmail, either. Maybe the bulk of this money is being earmarked for a runoff, I don’t know. Risky strategy if that’s the case.

The eight day finance reports are now available, but you won’t see any activity related to HUSPS in there. For example, here’s Santos’ 8 day report, which includes a $5K donation from Houston Federation of Teachers COPE, but HUSPS is nowhere to be seen. You have to go to the Texas Ethics Commission page and search for Houston United for Strong Public Schools there. In their TEC report, you can see that while they’ve raised $225K, they’ve only spent $115K, and $47K of that was for polling, which ought to be fascinating given the turnout context. I can’t tell from this how much they have spent in each race – there isn’t a single entry that specifies a dollar amount for Santos, for example. I don’t spend as much time with PAC reports as I have done with candidate reports, so maybe I just don’t know how to read these. Point is, this is where to look to get the details.

All of this has caused some controversy, which has played out on Facebook. The HUSPS website has no “About” page, and it took some sleuthing to figure out their origin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but large amounts of money being spent on local races by groups whose backers are not apparent is generally something that many of us find alarming. As Campos has noted, it’s hardly unusual for the HFT to get involved in HISD elections – they’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone else, after all – but this method of doing so is new. I don’t understand the rationale behind this approach, either, but it is what they have chosen to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

Abbott appeals school finance case to Supreme Court

No surprise.

Still not Greg Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday appealed to the Texas Supreme Court a district court finding that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional.

State District Judge John Dietz’s Aug. 30 ruling called Texas’ current school finance system inefficient and inadequate, saying it created an de facto statewide property tax in violation of state law. The decision, a reaffirmation of his 2013 ruling, was a huge victory for the 600 school districts that sued the state after $5.4 billion was stripped from the public education budget in 2011.

Abbott’s office could have appealed to a lower appellate court. But it was widely suspected he would expedite the legal process by requesting the state’s highest civil court hear the case.

Lawmakers could avoid further litigation by addressing the system’s problems in the session that begins in January, but many agree they will wait for a court ruling to take action. Education leaders and policymakers are expecting a special session next year on school finance, since the state Supreme Court is unlikely to hear and issue a decision on the case before the regular session is over in June.

See here for the last update. Abbott of course also had the option of seeking to settle the suit rather than continue to pursue appeals, for which the Texas AFT took him to task. Despite his claim in the debate that he is barred by law from seeking a settlement, he is empowered to do so as long as he gets legislative approval of any settlement he wishes to make. That he doesn’t want to settle but instead is hoping to prevail at the Supreme Court so he wouldn’t have to spend more money on education as Governor should be clear by now. It’s his choice to make, and now he’s made it. The Trib has more.

HISD hires its defenders for the teacher evaluation lawsuit

I have to say, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this.

Earlier this year, seven teachers sued the Houston Independent School District in federal court over their evaluation system.

That system uses a statistical formula and student test scores to grade teachers.

At its meeting this week, the Houston school district decided to hire a high-profile law firm to fight that case.

The board will pay those legal fees with a grant from Houston billionaire John Arnold, who helped created that same system to grade teachers.

With a 6-2 vote, the trustees approved hiring the law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, LLP, to defend Houston’s teacher evaluation system in federal court.

“I think there’s the potential for this to be a high-profile case and I think it’s important for the district to have the best representation possible in this and any situation that we confront through the legal system,” said HISD Trustee Anna Eastman.

See here for the background. I have no issue with HISD being represented by top-notch counsel, and I can certainly see the merit in having what is likely to be an expensive legal bill covered by someone other than the taxpayers. But this raises an important and uncomfortable question: Whose interests are being represented by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher – HISD’s, or John Arnold’s? If the HISD Board of Trustees finds itself in disagreement with John Arnold over the legal strategy employed by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, who will the lawyers listen to? If the Board decides they want to negotiate a settlement, but John Arnold insists on pushing through to a verdict, whose opinion carries the day? What if Arnold threatens to cut off the spigot and leave HISD with the remaining bills if they don’t do things his way?

Maybe I’m being overly dramatic here, but my point is that lawyers represent clients, and this arrangement has the potential to complicate that relationship. Perhaps the Board has thought all this through and gotten an agreement in writing from all relevant parties about who gets to approve the decisions that will need to be made during this process. If they haven’t however, then all I can say is that billionaires tend to think they’re in charge, especially when it’s their money being spent. I just hope everyone went into this with their eyes open.

One more thing:

These particular outside lawyers just won a groundbreaking case in California.

There a judge ruled that California’s teacher tenure, firing and discipline procedures are unconstitutional.

That decision was controversial, to say the least, and there’s a good possibility it may not survive appeal. That doesn’t really have anything to do with the main point of this story, I just wanted to mention it.


Texas has a new teacher evaluation system on the way. It won’t come without a fight.

Texas’ more than 380,000 public school teachers are girding for a tumultuous few years as a new method of grading their performance is expected to generate heated legislative debates and perhaps legal challenges.

Already, the Houston Independent School District is facing a lawsuit challenging the effectiveness and accuracy of evaluating teachers based in part on their students’ performance. Legislators have scheduled a hearing on the issue this week as the state prepares to test a similar evaluation model.

For the first time in 17 years, the Texas Education Agency has proposed a new statewide teacher evaluation method, dubbed the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS. According to details released last week, 70 percent of teacher grades under T-TESS will be based on classroom observations, 20 percent on “student growth” data including test scores and 10 percent on self-evaluation.

After a pilot beginning this fall, the finalized method will be rolled out in 2015 and will mandate every school district base 20 percent of its teacher grading system on student performance, which for some teachers includes “value-added data” based on state standardized test scores.

Previous evaluation methods have been voluntary and developed independently of the federal government. T-TESS, on the other hand, was developed to enable the state to opt out of certain student performance benchmarks mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Federal approval of T-TESS is expected.

The T-TESS negotiations between TEA and the federal government have been cooperative, but that is likely to change. Teacher unions are raising the possibility of an HISD-like lawsuit, and lawmakers are preparing for another year of battles on the issue come January.

“Nothing is off the table,” said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Her group’s Houston affiliate is a plaintiff in the Houston lawsuit, and is one of many questioning the legality of the new method.

As noted, a lawsuit was filed over HISD’s teacher evaluation system, called EVAAS. That has to do with the way EVAAS does its evaluations, while the talk here is more over whether the TEA has the authority to implement something like T-TESS. It’s still more than a year before T-TESS would be rolled out, and there’s some suggestion in the story that this timeline is too optimistic. The later it actually goes live, the more likely there will be a court ruling in the suit against EVAAS, which could have an effect on things. There’s also likely to be some political backlash in 2016 one way or another, as education reform is an issue on which there’s a great deal of disagreement, in both parties. Keep an eye on this, it’s not going away.

Lawsuit filed over teacher evaluation system

A new front is opened in the war on standardized testing.

Seven HISD teachers and their union are suing the school district to try to end job evaluations tied to students’ test scores, arguing the method is arbitrary, unfair and in violation of their due-process rights.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court late Wednesday, could have far-reaching implications as more districts and states use student test data to grade teachers.

The Houston case focuses on the district’s use of a specific, privately developed statistical model that analzes test data to try to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness.

In some cases, according to the lawsuit, teachers see their scores fluctuate from year to year, while other results are based on tests not aligned to the state curriculum. The lawsuit also argues that all teachers aren’t treated equally, and they can’t adequately challenge their ratings because the formula is too opaque.

For example, the lawsuit says, Andy Dewey, a social studies teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School, received such high scores in 2012 that he qualified for the district’s top performance bonus; his results the next year dropped significantly.

“Mr. Dewey went from being deemed one of the highest performing teachers in HISD to one making ‘no detectable difference’ for his students,” the lawsuit said.

Dewey has told the Houston Chronicle previously that he does not understand why his scores vary when he and his fellow social studies teachers — they are rated as a team — don’t change their instruction significantly from year to year.


The system at the center of the lawsuit generally is called “value added.” It uses complex statistics to estimate how well students should perform on standardized tests based on their own past performance. Teachers whose students score better than expected get the best ratings, whether or not the students passed the test.

To do the analysis, HISD contracts with a North Carolina company, whose model is called the Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here, the press release from the AFT is here, and some background is here. The Texas AFT has an illustration of the EVAAS formula here. I am not opposed in theory to the idea of value-added evaluations. This is basically what the sabermetric revolution in sports has been all about, coming up with ways to measure performance and determine the value of players in various sports. In sports, however, the relationship between the various metrics – runs created, points per possession, DVOA, etc – has been demonstrably linked to the teams’s actual on-field performance. They also show what sort of things a given player needs to do in order to be valuable. Finally, there are multiple systems that have been created to measure value, and they have risen or fallen based on their usefulness and accuracy. I don’t know how much any of this is true for EVAAS. I do know that teachers should have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, and they should have some input on their evaluation. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. The Trib and K-12 Zone have more.

School districts deal with ACA paperwork

The headline for this story says that Texas school districts are “struggling” to deal with requirements of the Affordable Care Act, but there’s not much evidence of actual struggles in the story itself.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas school districts are scrambling to meet an Affordable Care Act provision that requires them to offer health insurance to thousands of substitute teachers, bus drivers and other workers who clock at least 30 hours a week.

While many of these workers are already eligible for health insurance, tracking compliance is proving cumbersome for administrators. Compared with traditional employers, school systems rely on more variable-hour workers and follow an unusual calendar.

“It’s kind of a nightmare. It’s extremely complex,” said Holly Murphy, senior attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards, who is touring the state to address school administrators’ questions about the new requirement.

How districts choose to handle the mandate could spell either good or bad news for employees. Some school systems may cap part-time employees’ hours, while others appear to be creating new full-time positions to ease the demand from hourly workers. Both options should make the bookkeeping aspect of compliance prior to the Jan. 1 deadline simpler, officials said.

The Fort Bend Independent School District posted job openings for 74 educational assistants – one at each campus – who will essentially be full-time substitutes eligible for benefits. Those positions should help take pressure off the district’s pool of 1,000 part-time substitutes, administrators said, although the district would still face the increased cost of providing benefits to more employees.

“We basically solved the issue around the Affordable Care Act,” said Kermit Spears, chief human resources officer at Fort Bend ISD.

Groups of suburban and rural school districts are considering creating co-ops that could share and provide benefits for full-time substitutes, Murphy said.


Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said limiting hours isn’t in the spirit of the law and wouldn’t even be an option in the Houston ISD, which already struggles with substitute shortages.

“That’s the sort of shoddy behavior we were worried about,” she said.

She applauded the Houston ISD’s move to begin offering this month a basic $5-a-month health insurance plan to employees earning under $25,000 a year.

“HISD did very early compliance,” Fallon said. “We have paraprofessionals and clerks and food service and custodial (employees) who can afford insurance for the first time, and we got told instantly it was the Affordable Care Act that did this.”

Sounds more like “School districts have a variety of options for meeting the requirements that workers’ hours are documented and that everyone who works at least 30 hours per week receives a health insurance plan” to me. Limiting some workers to a maximum of 29 hours per week, which a number of unscrupulous businesses in food service and similar industries have tried to avoid offering health insurance at all, is an option for school districts as well. The vast majority of these employees are already eligible for health insurance under the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, so the situation is very different here. School districts will have to do some more paperwork to be in compliance with the ACA, but if anyone is equipped to deal with paperwork it’s school districts, and the net effect will be that more employees wind up with health insurance. I’m okay with that.

Modified teacher retirement bill passes Senate

Modified again, this time enough to garner support from the teachers.

Teachers, the state of Texas and school districts all would pay more to help support the Teacher Retirement System of Texas under a bill passed by the Texas Senate Wednesday.

Under Senate Bill 1458, the $117 billion TRS fund would get a boost from members, whose contributions would increase from 6.4 percent of their salaries to 7.7 percent over four years. Meanwhile, the state’s contribution would increase from 6.4 percent to 6.8 percent, and school districts that do not pay into Social Security would contribute 1.5 percent. Additionally, about 102,000 teachers who have retired since 1999 would receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment under the new bill.

See here and here for the background. The main points of objection from the teachers had to do with the size of the state’s contribution, and with increasing the teachers’ contribution all at once instead of phasing it in. While this story has no details, the Texas AFT spells out the changes since the last time:

The combination of grass-roots pressure and hard negotiating by our legislative allies has led to this substantial improvement in the TRS bill. Sens. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), and Royce West (D-Dallas) played crucial roles in winning the Senate-passed improvements. Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) too gets credit for leaving his door open to negotiations to modify his bill.

As this legislation now moves over to the House and ultimately to a House-Senate conference committee, the same combination of grass-roots communication and tough negotiations in the capitol could bring further improvements sought by Texas AFT for retired and active school employees, such as an immediate benefit increase for all rather than just one-third of retirees, as well as prospective-only application of a new minimum retirement age for full pension benefits. (As it now stands under SB 1458, school employees who do not have five years of service credit by September 1, 2014, would be subject to the new minimum age of 62 for full, unreduced retirement benefits). So be prepared to launch another wave of messages to members of the Texas House!

To review: Under SB 1458 as amended on the Senate floor today, employee contributions would remain at 6.4 percent in fiscal 2014 (starting September 2013), while the state contribution would rise to 6.8 percent. In fiscal 2015, the employee contribution would be 6.7 percent, while the state continues to contribute 6.8 percent, plus school districts that do not contribute to Social Security would kick in another 1.5 percent. In fiscal 2016, the employee contribution would go to 7.2 percent, while the state and district contributions would hold at 6.8 percent and 1.5 percent; in fiscal 2017, the employee contribution would rise to 7.7 percent, which still would be less than the combined state/district total of 8.3 percent.

If the state were to reduce its contribution below 6.8 percent, employee and district contributions would fall by an equal percentage.

They released a statement thanking Sen. Duncan and the Democrats that worked to improve the bill and called on their members to support it. There are still issues to be settled, so don’t file this one away just yet. The Morning News has more.

On a related note, things were happening for the bill to modify the Employee Retirement System, but it didn’t get to a vote in time on Thursday, so whatever happens there will come from the Senate bill. At last report, labor had dropped its opposition to the ERS bill after some changes had been made. We’ll see what happens from here.

Senate to tap that Rainy Day Fund

It is just sitting there, not doing any good if it’s unused.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, laid out an ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on Thursday morning while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education.

Williams’ proposal, called Senate Joint Resolution 1, would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted the resolution out of the committee to be considered by the full Senate.

Williams said he was willing to consider amendments to the resolution that would put money toward public education. Since last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate have suggested tapping the fund to help restore some of the cuts made to schools in 2011. Most Republicans in the Legislature have dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, explaining that the fund should not be used for recurring expenses such as school spending.

“I’m willing to consider a thoughtful amendment that would address some of our public education concerns,” Williams said. He also didn’t rule out considering amendments related to spending from the fund on health-related state expenses.


Williams’ proposal as drafted would create two new state funds: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, also known as SWIFT, and the State Infrastructure Fund. The former would be used to fund projects in the statewide water plan, which lists $53 billion in water-supply projects including reservoirs, wells, pipelines and desalination facilities.

The Senate Finance Committee was unanimously supportive of the part of the plan spending money on water projects. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, described it as “visionary.”

The portion of the plan going to transportation was less well-received, as some senators worried the plan wouldn’t do enough to address a projected funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation and would increase public debt. Under Williams’ proposal, TxDOT would largely make use of the State Infrastructure Fund to help local communities move forward with road, port and freight rail projects by either loaning out money for the projects or helping public entities borrow money for the projects at lower interest rates.

Williams, a former Senate Transportation Committee chairman, made it clear that he did not believe his plan was enough to address the state’s transportation issues. TxDOT has said it needs $4 billion in new revenue each year just to keep traffic levels around the state from getting worse.

“I don’t believe this is the silver bullet that’s going to solve our transportation problems, but I believe it’s part of a solution that must include robust new funding for road construction,” Williams said.

The House has already passed a bill to use Rainy Day funds for SWIFT. I feel about the same way as described above – it’s a decent idea for water projects, less so for transportation projects, since it will mostly push the cost of those projects to local government, which will mean a lot more toll roads, not all of which will be successful. As for the debate about using some funds to make school districts whole (or at least whole-r), all I can say is that I wish everyone had been this enthusiastic about the Rainy Day Fund two years ago when we really needed it. Of course, at the time the Lege was likely counting on the Rainy Day Fund to cover the planned shortfalls they built in for Medicaid and the delayed payments to school districts. Turns out they didn’t need to be so tight, and they can thank Rick Perry and his lines in the sand for enabling them to avoid public discussions of why they weren’t planning to use the RDF to help schools. The Texas AFT is unimpressed.

The debate about using Rainy Day funds for schools when SJR1 hits the floor promises to be a lively one.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he wants to add $2.4 billion to the package to fully restore $5.4 billion in education cuts made two years ago.

“I think there’s information that I’d like to share with all the members of the committee and take a look at what really happened,” Williams responded, “because when we consider on an all-funds basis, there weren’t $5.4 billion in cuts.

“There were cuts and I wish that we hadn’t had to make any of those cuts,” he added. “But I think it was more on the order of $800 million when we look at the total impact on school districts.” Williams added that, as a result of a proposed state budget, school districts are now “up by about $4.5 billion from where they were.”

Williams’ assessment brought a fiery reaction from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has made restoration of education cuts one of her top priorities.

“It’s absurd,” she said following the committee meeting. “I’ts the same fuzzy math that the Republican leadership used we we finished the (2011) session claiming to have added money in public education when school districts all over Texas were laying teachers off and enlarging classroom sizes.

Davis said that cuts to education have totaled $8.3 billion since 2009.

Nothing like a dispute about the basic facts to keep things fresh. I’ll be greatly disappointed if at least some of the livestream video doesn’t get put on YouTube afterwards.

One more thing:

Williams’ resolution explicitly states that none of the State Infrastructure Fund’s spending can go toward passenger rail projects, which Williams described as “a black hole for money.”

“One passenger rail project would burn up the money in this fund,” Williams said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise use of state resources.”

I think that’s needlessly restrictive, but whatever. If the folks pushing that high speed rail network do a good job of it, I suspect there will be state money available to them if they ask nicely.

Early voting ends in SD06

Early voting ended in the SD06 runoff yesterday. As of when I went to bed, the final daily totals had not been sent out – the daily totals as of Monday, which are here, hit my inbox at 9:30 AM Tuesday, so I don’t really expect them till some time today. I’ll update this post after they arrive. As a reminder, here’s the final report from the first round. My guess is that Campos is right and the final total for the runoff will be at or slightly above that of Round One.

Election Day is this Saturday, March 2, from 7 AM to 7 PM. You can see a list of polling places here. The accompanying email from the County Clerk’s office emphasized that this was not final and could change, so be sure to doublecheck before you head out.

In other news, Sylvia Garcia got a late endorsement from the Texas Federation of Teachers. One never knows how much of an effect endorsements will have, but my general rule, especially for a low-turnout affair, is better to have them than not. Both candidates made appearances on KUHF this week, Garcia on Monday morning and Carol Alvarado on Tuesday. You can hear Garcia’s segment here, and Alvarado’s here. Both are very much on the attack – see PDiddie and this Chron story from today for the latest, if that sort of thing interests you. I for one will be glad when all of the nasty ads are done running on TV, in particular all the ads during basketball games on ESPN and CSN Houston. That’s the problem with live sporting events, you can’t zap the commercials. Be that as it may, the SD06 vacancy will be filled on Monday, when the victor is sworn in. Depending on the outcome, we may then have a vacancy in HD145 to deal with, but I’m quite certain that election, if one is needed, won’t be until November. Feel free to post your prediction in the comments.

UPDATE: Here are the final early vote totals for the runoff. So far, 8,780 ballots have been cast, which is a bit more than 500 higher than Round One. Given that some 2,500 mail ballots are still out, I’ll estimate that the ultimate early total will be about 9,000 by Saturday, also about 500 higher than before. We’ll see if that translates to a slightly higher final turnout.

Meet the new budget

Same as the old budget.

Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature on Monday offered spare first drafts of the state’s next two-year budget that continue $5.4 billion in cuts to public education made last session and freeze funding for an embattled state agency set up to find a cure for cancer.

Upending recent tradition, the Texas Senate is starting off with the leaner budget this session, one that’s about $1 billion smaller than the House budget but spends nearly the same amount in general revenue, the portion of the budget that lawmakers have the most control over. General revenue typically makes up around half of the total budget, with much of the remainder coming from federal funding.

The Senate proposed a $186.8 billion budget, a 1.6 percent drop from $189.9 billion, the amount the current budget is estimated to grow to after lawmakers pay for some unpaid bills in the current budget this session. General revenue spending makes up $89 billion of the budget, up 1.5 percent from the current budget.

The total House budget will be $187.7 billion, down 1.2 percent from the current budget. General revenue spending makes up $89.2 billion, a 2 percent increase from the current budget.

Both proposals drew swift criticism from Democrats and education groups, but Republican lawmakers in both chambers stressed that the budgets are merely starting points.

Let’s just say that they’ll have to show it to me before I believe it. The first time House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts or Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams starts talking about “tax relief”, I’ll know the fix is in. The debate over the supplemental budget, which will need to pay off some IOUs on Medicaid and school funds, will give us an indication of how this is going to go.

The embedded graphic above is from the Better Texas blog, which is a product of the CPPP and which you should be reading. Their point is that even with the higher revenue estimate, we’re still way below what we’d need to be spending to cover population growth and cost increases. It’s going to take a change in government to get to that point.

Still, some things do change, and the Statesman notes one of them.

One relatively small-dollar change will have an out-sized political effect. The House provided no money for the state standardized testing system, a $98 million reduction in state dollars, while the Senate fully funded the program.

Frustration has been building over the testing system, known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, and parents and some business leaders are pushing for major changes. The House appears ready to force the issue.

“It will at least force the discussion,” said Dineen Majcher, an Austin lawyer who helped found Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, a parent group seeking an overhaul of the state testing system. “I think it was a very bold move.”

It’s unlikely that the final budget will zero out funding for the STAAR test, but I do agree that this will prioritize the debate over just how much standardized testing we need. Keep an eye on that.

Here are responses to the budget from Rep. Mike Villarreal and the Texas AFT. So far everyone is taking Pitts and Williams at their word that what they’ve put out now is just a starting point. If we want to end up someplace better, now is an excellent time to let your Rep and Senator know what your priorities are. It’s also a good time to note that the first Save Texas Schools rally for the session is on the calendar:

In the face of underfunding, over testing and proposed vouchers, get ready to join thousands of concerned Texans as we stand up for quality education for ALL Texas students.

DATE: Saturday, February 23, 2013

TIME/PLACE: March: 10:45 a.m. on the Congress Avenue Bridge to the Capitol.  Rally: Noon – 1:30 p.m. at the Texas State Capitol on the South Steps, Congress Ave. & 11th St.

AGENDA: Speakers include Supt. John Kuhn and Diane Ravitch. More soon!

Organizing in Your Area: Click here to be an organizer in your area.

Transportation: We have scholarships available to local groups to help with buses this year. Click here to apply. Please contact Save Texas Schools as soon as possible!

Let us know you’re coming! Click here to sign the Save Texas Schools petition and to register for the rally.

As always, speak now or forever lose the right to complain about the end result. Burka is dumbfounded by it all, Grits says that “on the criminal justice front they’re not off to an inspiring start”, and EoW, Sen. Kirk Watson, and the Observer have more.

The revenue estimate is in

And under normal circumstances it would be very good news.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, laying out the parameters for state spending on the eve of the legislative session, said Monday that the rebounding Texas economy gives lawmakers $8.8 billion unallocated in state coffers for this budget period and an improving picture for the next two years.

The extra money has been eagerly anticipated by state lawmakers who two years ago slashed spending in the face of a budget shortfall.

In the 2014-2015 budget period, the state’s general revenue from taxes, fees and other income is estimated to reach $96.2 billion, with $3.6 billion earmarked for future transfers to the rainy day fund, Combs said.

The total $101.4 billion available for general-purpose spending through 2015 – taking into account the predicted $8.8 billion balance and future revenues – is 12.4 percent greater than the corresponding amount of funds available for the current budget period, according to the comptroller’s office.

To clarify what this means, Comptroller Combs is forecasting that the state will generate $96.2 billion in revenue for the next biennium. Of that, $3.6 billion is earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, which leaves $92.6 billion. However, Combs is also saying that her forecast from two years ago was too low by $8.8 billion. You may recall that two years ago she predicted there would be $76.5 billion in revenue for 2012-2013, with $4.3 billion needed to close a shortfall from the 2009 budget; the Rainy Day Fund was used to cover most of that shortfall. In actuality, there turned out to be $85.3 billion. Oops!

You may wonder why Combs was so far off in her estimate. The DMN tries to be sympathetic.

Nobody is blaming Combs, but all recognize a two-year revenue forecast is not, by any means, an exact science.

“You’re always wrong,” said Billy Hamilton, revenue estimator when Bob Bullock was comptroller. “It’s just a matter of by how much.”

The Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget, so lawmakers can plan to spend only as much as they’re projected to bring in. A large portion of revenue comes from state taxes, which until recently had been on a relatively stable 40-year pattern, said fellow number cruncher and retired fiscal analyst Stuart Greenfield.

But in the last four years, the state’s economy has been especially volatile. Greenfield said tax collections have declined four times since the new millennium, most recently in 2010, but has been higher than average the last couple of years.

Hamilton, now the interim chief financial officer for Capital Metro, Austin’s public transportation provider, estimates Combs was off by $6 billion to $8 billion in the tax revenue estimate for the current biennium. Greenfield says it’s worse, predicting tax revenue will be closer to $11.5 billion more than what Combs suggested.

Officials from the comptroller’s office declined to weigh in on Greenfield or Hamilton’s forecast, but spokesman R.J. DeSilva said that with growth in the oil and gas industry and car buying, the revenue for fiscal 2012 is up $3.7 billion from her forecast, and lawmakers will have the most up-to-date projections when they convene.

Greenfield said tax collections have held at 10 percent since the beginning of fiscal 2011, peaking in October 2011 at close to 16 percent. Hamilton says the result is “we’ll be swimming in money.”

“It’s going to be a big number because the sales taxes are going like gangbusters and performing at a rate that nobody in their right mind would predict,” Hamilton said.

This is all well and good, but the bottom line of Combs’ misfire is that the Lege cut billions of dollars from the budget that ultimately didn’t need to be cut. We may be able to do something good with this extra money now, but we can’t go back two years and un-fire all those people who lost their jobs as a result of the Republicans’ budgetary chainsaw massacre. We can’t go back and un-shortchange all the school districts and students that took those cuts right where it hurts. It’s all so much bloodstained water beneath the bridge.

Given that we can’t un-screw the past, the best thing we can do is work to make things better going forward. This is what many people, such as State Rep. Mike Villarreal, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, and the Texas AFT, both of whom are calling for the restoration of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session, are doing. The problem, and the danger, is that some people are saying that what this means is that we have too much money.

Can Texas afford to eliminate its state business tax?

As the federal tax bite grows, there is a nascent movement at the Texas Legislature to phase out the tax, commonly called the margins tax, without replacing it.

Business leaders and some conservative lawmakers say the tax, which taxes gross receipts as opposed to profits, is complicated and not applied evenly. Other critics of the tax say dropping it would make the state’s business climate even more attractive.

At first blush, eliminating the tax without a replacement might seem improbable. The tax raised $4.5 billion in 2012 and accounted for 10.3 percent of the state’s total taxes, according to the comptroller’s office.

Budget writers are already warning that any “surplus” from the rebounding economy must be used to restore $11 billion in cuts to public education and other programs from the 2011 legislative session and to pay for the accounting gimmicks lawmakers used to sidestep more cuts and tax increases. And the courts are hearing another constitutional challenge to the school finance system — similar to the one that prompted the 2006 creation of the margins tax — that could make more demands on the state pocketbook.

State leaders are also talking about weaning themselves from $5 billion of dedicated taxes and fees diverted from their intended purposes over the years to help balance the state budget.

Finally, more business leaders are expressing concerns about the need to invest in education, workers’ training, water, transportation and other long-term needs essential for a good business climate.

Despite those hurdles, Will Newton, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, argued that public services can’t expand without a growing economy.

“We’re starting the debate in the wrong way,” Newton said. “We need to ‘invest’ in the private sector to grow (state) revenue.”

Let’s be clear here and state that the NFIB, which was and continues to be a rabid opponent of the Affordable Care Act – they were, in fact the named plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought to declare the ACA unconstitutional – is acting solely in its own interest. They’re seeking a tax cut, as we all do, and hoping that we’ll forget that the margins tax, however flawed and kludgey it may be – was designed to help pay for a one-third cut in property taxes. How do they expect us to fund that massive expenditure now? By assuming, in the words of Molly Ivins, that it’s nothin’ but good times ahead. I mean, sure, we’ve had two ginormous revenue shortfalls in the last decade, but seriously, who expects that to ever happen again? No amount of empty blather about “investing” should distract from this point.

One more point: As the Trib notes, even with this healthy revenue forecast, we’re still behind where we ought to be.

“$108 billion is what it takes to actually undo the last session and get us back to where we used to be,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based think tank.

Early in the session, lawmakers are expected to commit several billion dollars to paying off bills that were purposely left unpaid at the conclusion of the 2011 session, including nearly $5 billion for Medicaid. That leaves the actual size of the surplus unclear.

“A lot of that gets sucked up right away just paying for the last session,” Castro said.

One hopes that the nearly-as-fat-as-it’s-allowed-to-be Rainy Day Fund would be tapped for that, since that’s what it’s there for, but the odds that the votes are there for that are basically nil. But this is the way we need to drive the discussion. We’re on more favorable turf now, let’s take advantage of it. Trail Blazers, the CPPP, and TM Daily Post have more, and you can see the official estimate here.

Some children left behind


Nearly half the public schools across Texas failed to meet tougher federal academic standards this year, according to preliminary data released Wednesday.

The failures spiked sharply from last year, when a quarter of the state’s schools missed the mark.

Nearly all the districts in the Houston area earned failing grades under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, prompting increased calls from educators to change the law.

Those that fell short include the largest in the area: Alief, Aldine, Clear Creek, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks, Houston, Humble, Fort Bend, Katy, Klein, Spring and Spring Branch.

The local districts that met the standard – called “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP – include Friendswood, Lamar Consolidated, Sheldon, Tomball and Waller.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, urged parents not to panic.

“Parents need to think about all the other information they know about their schools when they judge the quality of them,” she said. “This year to meet AYP schools had to be performing at the equivalent of about a B-plus level, and that’s a long way from failing.”

In one sense, this doesn’t mean much of anything, since Congressional dysfunction has prevented the passage of needed updates to the original law. In another sense, this is a glimpse of what’s about to happen as the state’s tougher accountability measures kick in. I picked a great time to have school-age kids, didn’t I? The Trib has more, and a statement from the Texas AFT is beneath the fold.


Make sure you measure everything

A lot of groups are measuring a lot of things related to the state’s cuts to public education funding, but there’s one big thing not mentioned in this story that needs to be accurately tracked as well.

In March, the Texas Education Agency will release the official numbers on school district employment for the 2011-12 school year, including job losses. The figures will be a reckoning in some ways — the first time the state will actually measure the affect of a historic reduction in financing. But several groups, including nonprofit organizations and professional associations, and at least one lawmaker, would like to have a better idea before then — to help shape their own policies and in some cases to be able to control how the discussion is framed.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, the state branch of the national teachers association, recently released a survey that showed that budget cuts had resulted in widespread layoffs and low morale among public school employees. Linda Bridges, the branch’s president, emphasized the strength of the study’s findings, but because it was an online survey, she said, it was “unscientific” in nature.

The KDK-Harman Foundation, a private nonprofit, is working with Children at Risk, an education advocacy group in Houston, to conduct a comprehensive study on how schools are managing with less money. Jennifer Esterline, the foundation’s executive director, said a lack of both quantitative and qualitative information on the effects of the cuts prompted the study, which was expected to cost just over $100,000.


Lynn Moak, whose school finance consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates, has kept track of job-loss estimates since the start of the session, said the figure of layoffs could vary widely by source, depending on which employees are counted.

For instance, if only teachers are included, it may be a much smaller number than if all employees are included, because many districts are trying to cut everywhere except in the classroom. Moak said that depending on their financial status, districts may face the greater bulk of their budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year — which could cushion the numbers districts report this year.

These are all good things to know, but to me it all comes down to student performance and graduation rates. Obviously, the state keeps track of those things, but I don’t know if anyone who is tying it to the financial effect on each school district. The cuts were distributed evenly across the districts instead of being proportional to how much each district received in per-student funding, so some districts were affected a lot more than others. How will that be reflected in standardized test scores and graduation rates? That’s what I want to know, and I hope everyone else with a stake in this wants to know it, too. We may not know everything for a fea years, given the addition of high school exit exams and the change to the STAAR test, but we ought to know enough to make a judgment about how the cuts affected the students. What we do from there will depend on the next election, and the one after that.

The job market for teachers

There are still some jobs available for new teachers and teachers looking for a new gig, but not nearly as many as there have been in the past.

Because of the Legislature’s initial $4 billion cut from public school funding, districts are slicing at least 6 percent from their budgets for the first year of the biennium. Options for grads trying to get their foot in the teaching door look bleak. But as districts work out budgets for the coming school year, many are finding a little more room than expected to hire new teachers because of resignations, retirements and pre-emptive cuts.

“Some districts, like those in San Antonio, may have skewed things when they offered incentives or people decided to retire,” said Linda Bridges, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers. “So districts will have to hire, but not in the large numbers they were before.”

Based on a general survey of most districts, the number of new teachers hired is down by 74 percent from last year. Though districts are hiring, open positions are limited. Many are shuffling employees to fill newly consolidated positions. Chalkley said she hit many such walls — notices stamped “For internal applicants only” — when applying in the Austin Independent School District.

In addition to the lower hiring and recruiting numbers, teachers are being hired later in the year. Jobs typically available in April or May might not appear until August, if at all, and graduates are starting to panic, said Denise Staudt, dean of the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word.


The schools are emphasizing the long-term outlook.

“We’re telling them that this isn’t going to last forever, people will start retiring and things will turn around a little bit,” said Blanche Desjean-Perrotta, associate dean for teacher education at UTSA.

When positions open, districts are likely to hire those on probationary leave or already within the district. Such was the case with Judson ISD, where officials cut teaching positions in April, but in the wake of retirements and resignations hired back 60 who had been put on leave.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas has seen a 25 percent increase in retirements since 2006, climbing to 16,706 in 2010. If those numbers continue to rise, districts will have to hire more than they planned, Bridges said.

“If people are reading the economic forecast and looking at some of the job statistics, we have an aging workforce across the country,” [Shari Albright, chairwoman of Trinity’s department of education] said. “Consequently, statistics would tell us we need new cadres of teachers.”

Prospects are still pretty good for the long term. Texas still has a young and growing population, and that means teachers will be needed. The short term is going to be hard, and the bargain newer teachers will be getting won’t be as good as those who came before them got. There’s a danger that the best and brightest will leave to find jobs elsewhere, and that fewer people will be encouraged to pursue education as a career, which may leave districts in the lurch when they need to start hiring again. To use a word that Republicans seem to favor these days, there’s a lot of uncertainty out there.

Eissler changes class size bill

Hair Balls was first with the news.

Rep. Rob Eissler (R- The Woodlands) whose House Bill 18 wanted to move the state to a cap of 25 students in each classroom, [Friday] instead made a floor substitution which only mildly tweaked the present classroom size regulations calling for a cap of 22 students in grades K through 4. This had to be good news for State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who has argued continually that upping the class size was a bad move for the state and its children.

And districts would still have to notify parents of children whose rooms exceed the 22 cap.

Superintendents have always been able to apply for waivers if they can successfully argue that holding students to the 22 cap “works an undue hardship on the district.” Eissler’s bill would have removed even that requirement. Instead, districts will still be required to prove why they should be granted a waiver.

In addition, the proposed new language now allows a waiver if the Texas Education Commissioner “determines that as a result of a reduction in state funding levels, the amount of state and local funds per weighted student available to the district is less than the amount…available to the district in the preceding year.”

Or in other words, if the district can mathematically prove a financial hardship. Any such waiver granted would expire at the end of the school year for which it is granted.

Teacher groups, who have fought the Eissler legislation from the beginning, have reacted favorably to the change. Add this to the Howard-Farrar amendment that will make available Rainy Day fund monies if possible, and I hope Democrats have adequately answered the question why they bothered to fight for their constituents and their convictions instead of folding like a beach chair.

Rally redux

Many of the folks who rallied in Austin on Saturday stayed around for an encore today.

“At a time when our educators and our educational system is under attack more than ever before, we are here to let our lawmakers in Texas know that our children should not be victims and we, as educators, are not the enemy today,” said Rena Honea, president of Alliance-AFT, a Dallas teachers association affiliated with Texas AFT.

Texas AFT, the statewide chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, organized the event, which spokesman Rob D’Amico said brought out more than 4,000 parents, students and teachers, including buses from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.


As the rally concluded, long lines formed at the Capitol entrances as the throng of protesters headed into the Capitol to lobby their representatives.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said lawmakers would be well advised to consider the protesters’ message.

“Look at the polls that are coming out of Texas right now; the public do not want these cuts to education,” she said “And ultimately, if one thinks that elections have consequences, kids should be immunized from those consequences. Kids don’t vote in elections.”

It’s the lobbying part that’s critical. I sure hope a lot of Republican legislators heard from their constituents today. You can see photos from the rally here. Martha has more.

UPDATE: The Trib has more.

Performance pay for teachers

I’m very wary of this.

Pay for Texas public school teachers should be connected to appraisals of their work and other factors instead of the 60-year-old salary schedule based on seniority, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and other school reformers said Monday.

They want more flexibility for school districts to base teacher pay on performance, professional development and educator career paths. The state’s severe budget shortfall creates an opportunity to dramatically reform public education by taking away state control, they say.

“Let’s get a compensation system that makes sense. Let’s get rid of the 60-year structure and relegate it to the Smithsonian where it belongs,” said Paige, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District before President George W. Bush appointed him to head the U.S. Department of Education.


The recommendations come from a report, “A Teacher Compensation Strategy for Excellence in the Texas Classroom,” by Chris Patterson for the Texas Institute for Education Reform.

Michael Aradillas, who helps organize about 1,600 Texas members of the American Federation of Teachers who work for Northside Independent School District, said he can appreciate the ideas coming out of Austin but wishes teachers were included in the conversation.

“A good launching point for all of that would be to say, ‘Let’s first start a dialogue and let’s include the teachers in the thought process of how they’re going to be compensated,” Aradillas said. “If it’s going to be a one-sided conversation then it’s going to be a one-sided evaluation. And that can, potentially, lead to unfair pay.”

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but everyone should take a moment to read Joel Spolsky’s essay about incentive pay and performance reviews. There may well be merit to allowing local districts to make their own decisions about salaries, and I don’t have any problems with scrutinizing how we do things in any context to see how we can do them better. My point is simply that any system of teacher pay we might transition to will have its own set of inefficiencies and inequities, and we ought to have our eyes open about that. And let’s be honest: In this context, the main driving factor behind any change to how we pay teachers will be cost cutting. Yes, reducing everyone’s pay a little is better than firing a huge number of teachers. But we all know that once their pay is reduced, it’s never going to get restored when times get better. We should be clear about what we’re doing.

The other point that should be made is that any performance-based pay scheme is going to be highly dependent on standardized test results. Don’t be surprised when people figure out ways to game that. If you think we might be leaning a little too heavily on standardized tests in the curriculum now, going this route will make them even more important. And the current shortfall is likely to have an effect on the new standardized tests that are in the pipeline.

The [Senate Education Committee] also took up the possibility of delaying the roll-out of STAAR, the state’s new achievement exams, a proposition popular with school officials. “If we need to put a pause on this testing because we don’t have the resources, you need to tell us,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who said he didn’t want to see “a bunch of ethnic minority kids being left behind” because the state couldn’t pay for the instructional materials to teach them what’s on the new tests.

[Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert] Scott said the agency is on track to implement STAAR, but added that if the new instructional materials weren’t funded in the final budget, it would affect students’ performance on the exams.

[Committee Chair Sen. Florence] Shapiro came out firmly in favor of keeping STAAR on track: “I want to make sure we don’t use the budget as an excuse to delay something that we’ve been working on for five years. … Let’s look at it as we are bringing rigor and more efficiency and effectiveness into the classroom, bringing meaningful and rich instruction for the first time.”

How fair do you think performance-based pay would be under these circumstances? Abby Rapoport has more.

School districts begin preparing for the inevitable

If nothing else, we have a clear winner in the furloughs versus layoffs debate.

School superintendents want more freedom in determining class sizes and permission to cut employee pay or to furlough teachers and other district employees, which school boards cannot do today under state law.

School districts also could save money by using the Internet to provide public notice about budget issues or hearings that now require paid advertising in newspapers, they said.

There will be many such hearings in coming months as Texas lawmakers deal with a budget shortfall estimated at $15 to $27 billion without raising revenue or dipping into the state’s $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund. Preliminary budgets released by the House and Senate last month would take a $10 billion slice out of public education.

“Recognize and be aware that this is the new normal,” Senate Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said during the daylong hearing on the challenge facing both legislators and school officials.

Sen. Shapiro has now filed a bill to allow school districts to cut pay and impose furloughs, among other things. It’s not fleshed out yet, so it’s too early to say what exactly it means. The bill in question is SB468.

Let’s be perfectly clear about what this all means:

Furloughs of teachers, support staff and administrators, including superintendents, may be one way for school districts to absorb some of the budget cuts. Increasing class sizes would put the state on a retreat from the 1984 landmark public education reform in HB 72 that capped public classroom sizes at 22 students per teacher in kindergarten and the first four elementary school grades.


“Our members are extremely concerned that a temporary budget crisis is going to drive permanent change in policy that will do lasting damage to students’ education and to our schools that will set us back for a very long period of time,” said Eric Hartman, of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

Liberating school districts from various mandates will not be nearly enough to absorb the budget cuts, they said.

The bigger issue will be the state’s effort to embrace new school accountability measures and increased academic rigor prescribed by HB 3 that lawmakers approved in 2009, said Richard Kouri, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

“You do not have the resources for the system to accept the mission that you have laid out,” Kouri said.

Add this to the pile, too:

If the Legislature fails to reform the state’s school financing formulas this session, [Texas Education Agency chief Robert] Scott said, a new school finance lawsuit over the equitable funding of districts will be “an inevitable reality.” Scott also addressed the possibility of postponing the roll-out of the state’s new student assessment program, the STAAR test — an idea that drew cheers from the audience. While he said the Texas Education Agency is on track to roll out the new standards, he said that will be “the debate of this Legislature.”

“If you are 15 billion in the hole, what are you going to do with student expectations?” Scott said, adding, “If there is no money, will you raise standards?”

Quite the reverse, it would seem. Put aside the question of how many teachers will ultimately get fired for a moment. The bottom line is that these “flexibility” measures are about undoing previous attempts to make schools and students perform better. Doing these things costs money, so since we don’t have any money we just won’t do them. I trust no one will be surprised when test scores go down and dropout rates go up and other bad things happen. Abby Rapoport has more.

Finally, it should be noted that some money-saving ideas don’t involve these kinds of cuts. State Sen. Wendy Davis has filed a bill that would give school districts the same 20% discount to their base electricity rate that Texas’ colleges and universities get, which would save them a few bucks here and there. That bill is SB504, and I would certainly hope that it can pass easily. Her press release is here. Also, State Rep. Mike Villarreal is circulating a petition to protest the Pitts and Ogden budgets. Please take a moment to add your name to it.

We will keep trying the same solutions until they work

Speaker Straus says that all options are on the table for dealing with the budget shortfall, as long as we’re talking about spending cuts. The table isn’t big enough to accommodate any other kind of options.

Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a rare appearance before the Appropriations Committee that the trick will be to write “a balanced, no new taxes state budget in the face of a daunting shortfall.”

He noted the federal health care overhaul law will require Texas and other states to spend more money on their programs for the poor and near-poor in coming years.

“This makes it even more imperative that the state of Texas cover its budget shortall without a tax increase,” Straus said. Higher taxes would slow the state’s economic growth, he warned.

Straus said state lawmakers should consider “a blanket moratorium” on new programs or services funded by state taxes; ways to improve collection of fines and fees; a halt to further state bond issues; and even the unpaid furloughs or four-day workweeks for state employees that have been tried in many other states.

“I’m not advocating for any one of these choices in particular but I do know that every cost savings idea must be on the table,” he said.

All this talk about cuts and furloughs and no politically correct stones being left unturned is little more than window dressing. Any conversation that doesn’t acknowledge the $4.6 billion structural deficit is a conversation that isn’t dealing with the problem. To his discredit, Straus not only doesn’t want to talk about this, he’d rather try to blame others for the fix we’re in. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a very bad feeling about the budget battle to come.

I know it’s bad form to talk about revenue, but as BOR noted, taxes are at a historically low level right now.

Federal, state and local taxes – including income, property, sales and other taxes – consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the past half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8.% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.

“The idea that taxes are high right now is pretty much nuts,” says Michael Ettlinger, head of economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. The real problem is spending, counters Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, which organizes Tea Party groups. “The money we borrow is going to be paid back through taxation in the future,” he says.

Taxes paid have fallen much faster than income in this recession. Personal income fell 2% last year. Taxes paid dropped 23%. The BEA classifies Social Security taxes as insurance payments and excludes them from the tax calculation.

And yet we can’t even put taxes on the table. Why are we so afraid to talk about this in any context but cuts?

One more thing: In his testimony before the committee, Straus specifically mentioned things like furloughs, moratoriums on new programs, and no more bonds to cover debt. Absent was any talk about reducing the prison population as a means of achieving savings. So I ask again: Is everything really on the table or not? Because it sure looks to me like there’s a lot of things that are not.

Beneath the fold is are statements from Becky Moeller with the Texas AFL-CIO and Linda Bridges from the Texas AFT calling on the Lege to spend down the Rainy Day Fund before making cuts to the budget. I endorse this approach, having seen what the 2003 budget cuts wrought on the state. I fear, however that, we will be as penurious as ever when the time comes.

Lawmakers will have more than $8 billion in the state’s so-called “rainy day fund” to help fill the budget hole. But it takes a two-thirds vote to spend any of it. For now, [Appropriations Committee] Chairman [Jim] Pitts thinks he only has the votes to spend half the fund.

I guess it never rains hard enough for some people to open their umbrellas. Read on for the statements from Moeller and D’Amico, and see EoW for more.


No race to the top

By now you’ve probably heard the news that Governor Perry has directed the Texas to not compete for “Race to the Top” stimulus funds.

Gov. Rick Perry said today that Texas will not compete for up to $700 million in federal grant funding for schools.

His decision to snub the Race to the Top grant competition defied pleas from several Houston-area school leaders who said their districts could use the money. But Perry, joined by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, said the money was not worth the federal mandates.

Texas, Perry said, “reserves the right to decide how we educate our children and not surrender that control to the federal bureaucracy.”

Phillip boils it down:

  1. Texas was eligible for up to $700 million in federal education dollars, if we submitted a “Race to the Top” application
  2. The Texas Education Agency spent between 700-800 hours preparing the application
  3. Perry has refused to send the application, as officials have said the $700 million would be “too little money” — despite the fact that over 200 local school districts have had to raise taxes in order to pay for the structural deficit created by Perry and Dewhurst in 2006
  4. Refusing to send the application nullifies Texas’ ability to compete for other grants

See also State Rep. Garnet Coleman’s letter to Perry about this. The Trib adds on.

State applications are due next week (Jan. 19), and the agency has been preparing the lengthy document for several weeks.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money that so much time was put into this application,” said Kirsten Gray, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. TEA confirmed that the agency has spent significant time on the application, and Gray says the application has already been put together.

“There’s just absolutely no excusable reason to not allow Texas to compete for this money,” she said.

Others agree.

“Every reason that I’ve heard so far to turn down the money makes no sense,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who chairs the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education.

Hochberg argues Perry’s decision was not motivated by policy.

“I think it’s all about politics because it makes absolutely no sense to not even apply for a significant amount of money that can be used to help our schools,” he explained.


Hochberg says the funds could have a significant impact if the state used them the right way.

After all, he said, per year the potential grant money is “roughly the total that we added to school funding in the last biennium that everyone is bragging about.”

It must be noted that the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also opposed the Race to the Top funds. A letter from their Chair Linda Bridges to Perry and others is beneath the fold. Their objections are similar to those of the HFT regarding the teacher evaluation proposal – specifically, they object to things like more standardized tests. Perry’s objection is all about politics and the primary, as just about everything else he does is. He’s predictable, I’ll give him that much.


Evaluating teachers

This is sure to be contentious, but I think it’s the right direction.

Teachers in Houston ISD could lose their jobs for failing to improve student test scores under a controversial proposal slated for a school board vote Thursday.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to tie teachers’ job evaluations to their students’ progress on standardized tests would put Houston among a small but growing number of school districts pushing to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers.


Under the HISD proposal, teachers’ value-added marks would be included in their job appraisals starting next school year. The policy does not say how much weight would be given to the value-added data in the overall evaluation.

Teachers could lose their jobs based on the data. The proposal would allow HISD not to renew a teacher’s contract because of “insufficient academic growth as reflected by value-added scores.”


[Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon] said her concern with the proposed changes center on its use of the value-added method, which she considers flawed, too complex and not transparent.

“If you’re going to fire me, it ought to be for something that I know how you calculate it,” she said. “You can’t show me this number predicts whether I’m a good teacher.”

I think the principle that poor teachers need to be, in the words of Trustee Paula Harris, professionally developed or out of the system, is reasonably uncontroversial. That said, it’s fair to be suspicious of the methodology used to determine which teachers fall into that category. As the Trib reminds us, the much-ballyhooed merit pay program was a bust. I don’t know what the best way to do this is – for all I know, this is as good as anything – but it’s imperative to get it right. I applaud Superintendent Grier for swinging for the fences, and I hope Fallon and her cohorts keep pushing him and the board to make this as fair and transparent as possible. I’ve posted a statement from the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as an email from former Trustee Natasha Kamrani, beneath the fold.


No check for you!

Nice little bit of holiday cheer for Texas’ retired public employees this week.

Retired public employees discovered yesterday that they would not receive additional $500 checks this year. According to Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, they shouldn’t hold their breath for more benefits next cycle either. “I don’t think we’ll be able to,” he said. “The constitution restricts … any sort of benefit enhancement unless the fund is actuarially sound. It’s not.”

The controversy hinges on the wording of the appropriations bill passed in the 2009 session. The legislature set aside $155 million for the additional checks, but rather than distributing the money through state pension funds, the bill put the Comptroller in charge of distribution. The payments would only be made if the Attorney General had a “conclusive opinion that such one-time payments are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,” according the bill’s language — yet the attorney general’s opinion said that there was no way to have a definitive position. “The appropriation provision on its very face makes it impossible for us to conclusively opine that such payments ‘are constitutionally and statutorily permissible,'” the opinion read.

Since the appropriated millions will return to the pension fund, Duncan says the attorney general’s decision will further the fund’s stability. The new money raised the state’s contribution rate to from 6.58 to 6.64 percent. Duncan said he is committed to keeping the fund healthy in the long term, even if that means no additional money for state retirees in the next few sessions. “The popular thing to do is, ‘Give me something today,’” Duncan said of the payments. “But if that’s what we continue to do, these funds will always be short. They will always be actuarially unsound.”

Advocacy groups that lobbied for the additional checks say that in a recession, teachers and other public employees needed the money badly and view the process with the Attorney General’s Office as an underhanded tactic. “We did not expect there to be such a discussion of semantics,” said Tim Lee, the president of Texas Retired Teachers Association. Lee said while the TRTA knew about the decision to go to the attorney general’s office, he did not know the focus would be on the complexities of the word “conclusively.” Duncan, however, said he told groups like TRTA that the language set a high hurdle, and all parties involved agreed to the language knowing the risks.

As you might imagine, the folks who will not be getting those checks in their Christmas stockings aren’t too happy about this. Here’s a press release from AFSCME that laments its loss, and another from the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that I’ve placed beneath the fold. It’s always fun times in budget land, isn’t it?

Here’s the Attorney General’s opinion on the matter. Burka weighs in as well. One place he’s wrong is in singling out the Education Committee chairs – according to Rep. Scott Hochberg, whom I asked about this, the bill in question did not go through their committees. I’m sympathetic to the idea of being conservative with pension funds, but the point of this was that it wasn’t pension funds being allocated for this one-time payment, it was general revenue. Using general revenue to boost the pension fund strikes me as iffy at best – if the investments these funds are tied up in continue to tank, it’s good money after bad, and if they recover with the economy, the general revenue infusion was unnecessary. Frankly, handing out a bunch of checks to people who are sure to spend them would have provided a nice stimulus at a time when the state economy could have really used one. But that’s not the sort of thing we do around here, so I guess it would have upset the natural order of things or something.