What is Going on in Austin during the 85th Legislation Session?

VLK Architects is committed to staying abreast of the public education issues facing our clients. As Educational Planner, I naturally put on my educator hat and headed to Austin to participate in the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Legislative Conference, which took place on February 21, 2017. Texas school administrators and school board members heard from Senators Larry Taylor and Royce West, Representative Dan Huberty, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, Fort Bend ISD Board of Trustees President Kristin Tassin, and the TASA/TASB staff focused on the major education issues of the 85th session. Prior to the detailed updates from both the House and Senate, veteran Capitol reporter Harvey Kronberg warned all in attendance of the factors in play as the legislators work through another biennium of difficult discussions, varying priorities, and compromised resolutions that will result in new laws.

Senators Taylor and West admonished the room, 'Don't think you'll get a whole lot of money. We don't have it.' Texas Health and Human Services demands much attention this session with foster care needs across the state cited as a critical priority. The senators also shared the intention of providing E-rate funds to provide for broadband in schools, as all districts need the opportunity to increase and/or enhance technology-based instruction. The specific example of 1:1 in a blended learning environment was discussed. Technology access across the state will put less of a need on textbooks, and will better support testing online. School Choice and A-F were hot topics with the room, with many taking the microphone to share their frustrations and offer suggestions.

Commissioner of Education Morath shared that his directive is to cut 4% from his budget needs; the only exception being the Foundational School Program. Base bills exist in both the House and the Senate chambers to offer solutions for level funding. There is awareness of the funding inadequacies for our public schools, but we need to better inform our legislators to understand that student growth will also require additional funds in order to truly realize a level funding solution. Special program proposals were presented, including an increase to E-rate, additional funds for pre-kindergarten to sustain the districts that received the initial funds for pre-k improvement, funds for Math Innovation Zones designed to integrate technology in a blended learning environment, and the annual release of STAAR exams rather than releasing every three years.

Representative Huberty asked us to 'stick with the House' as they are working on a bill that will be "balanced and fair" with regard to school funding. This is Representative Huberty's number one priority. He asked attendees to focus on students, and not on district size, location, Chapter status, or growth rate. As a former trustee from Humble ISD, he recognizes our school districts' needs and asked for support upfront for the work his committee will do. He remarked that the bill they will put forth "will be something you like." When asked about vouchers without accountability, Representative Huberty explained that we must be able to track public dollars with accountability. Furthermore, he indicated, "There is a plan if the bill makes it over." The room exploded with standing applause as he exited the room, illustrating the level of support of his relevant leadership.

TASA and TASB staff updated attendees with additional bills that are anticipating discussion including:

  • Clarification on the special education camera requests that parents and staff make;
  • Changes to the special education cap;
  • Alignment of student testing with that of ESSA requirements;
  • Repeal of A-F (although this will probably be refined, not repealed);
  • Consideration of vouchers: traditional vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships;
  • Disclosure of trustee personal financial data; and
  • Mobile voting locations.

Kristin Tassin, Fort Bend ISD School Board President, shared her position on educating our representatives as the legislative session continues. She recently wrote an open letter to the Lt. Governor where she clearly stated her role as strong advocate for Texas public education. She received an overwhelming positive response from the room, inspiring many trustees and school administrators to visit the Capitol.

Every two years I say, "These are uncertain times." It is true again today as much will be debated, and priorities will be passed through or die in committee. Most of all, I appreciate the insight provided by the joint efforts of TASA and TASB to keep everyone committed to education informed on the issues, the politics, and the advocacy for a strong public education system in Texas.