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Texas House Public Education Committee Hears Merit Pay, Voucher Bills and More

08.01.2017 — The Texas House Public Education Committee met today to hear public testimony on a long list of bills.

Teacher Merit Pay Bill
Of note was HB 198 by Rep. Travis Clardy. It would require, beginning with 2021-22, that each school district and open-enrollment charter school ensure that the average annual pay for classroom teachers is at least $1,000 more than the average annual pay for classroom teachers employed at that district or school during the school year immediately preceding the previous school year (except in districts or charter schools where the average annual pay is $51,000 or more). The bill also would require SBEC to establish "accomplished, distinguished, and master teacher" designations, would create a teacher quality allotment, and more.

House Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty said that he thought it was disingenuous to say the Legislature was going to give a pay raise when the Senate has shown there is "no will" to provide more state funding to schools with which to do so. "What's going to change next session that we're going to put more money in public education?" he asked, expressing particular frustration about a teacher pay raise being on the governor's list for the special session after bills that would have provided more state funding died in the Senate during the regular session. "If they'd just listen to us and work with us, and had the political courage to do it rather than just put out a mandate. I've been dealing with this crap for 15 years and I'm tired of it. We're either going to fix it or not."

Huberty pointed out that Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, who was present to answer questions about the bill, had assisted with crafting the bill, working through the governor's office. He asked if it was based on the Dallas ISD system that Morath had helped put into place when he was on the school board there. Morath indicated it was. Huberty asked how many superintendents he had spoken to about the bill. Morath answered that he had discussed the details with about 40 and the response ranged from "seems exciting" to "totally useless to us."

Several education-related groups testified on and against the bill. Texas AFT's position was that the best way to raise teacher pay is to increase the per-pupil allotment to districts. The teachers' group also expressed concerns with merit pay as well as the measures used to determine teacher quality for the designations in the bill (and opposition to using student test scores for determining pay). "We're not persuaded that the Dallas ISD system [used as a model for HB 198] accurately reflects what teachers do in classroom," Texas AFT's representative said, pointing out that Houston ISD had a similar system that went to court and that the district is no longer using.

Voucher Bill
Another bill of note is the House companion bill to Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Taylor’s SB 2 voucher bill, HB 253 (Simmons, et al.), which would establish a tax credit scholarship and educational expense assistance program for special needs students.

To be eligible to receive a scholarship from the educational assistance organization, a student would be required to be a student with a disability, eligible to attend a public school, enrolled in a public school in the state during the entire preceding school year, and attend a nonpublic school in the state during the entire academic year for which the scholarship is awarded. To be eligible to receive educational expense assistance from the educational assistance organization, a student would be required to be a student with a disability, and attend a public school during the entire academic year for which the education expense assistance is awarded.

The maximum scholarship a student would qualify for is the lesser of $10,000 or the full tuition amount for the nonpublic school the student attends. The maximum education expense assistance that would be awarded to a student would be $500 in fiscal year 2019, increasing by 5 percent per year.

The bill would require a student who receives a scholarship from an educational assistance organization to be included in the weighted average daily attendance of the school district the student would otherwise attend for purposes of determining the district's equalized wealth level under Chapter 41 of the Education Code in the first year the student is participating in the program.

The bill would authorize a taxable entity to receive a tax credit for money contributed to a certified educational assistance organization, up to 50 percent of the taxable entity's tax liability under the insurance premium tax. It would limit the total amount of tax credits available under the provisions of the bill for the insurance premium tax to $75 million in each fiscal year.

A committee substitute was laid out that would add up to $60 million per year for facilities funding for charter schools, include $150 million for ASATR districts facing hardship, and $60 million for the existing debt allotment.

Public testimony on HB 253 began mid-afternoon and continued into the late evening. The bulk of the testimony was from parents who were telling their individual stories of the challenges they have faced related to the education of their special needs children. Late in the evening, one parent commented that, while many of the parents who had testified earlier were asking for the bill to be passed so they could move their children to private schools, most were doing so because of problems they had faced in the public schools that could be fixed, so she asked why the Legislature didn't simply focus on fixing those problems rather than creating a voucher program.

Special Needs Education Enhancement Program Bill
Later, the committee heard testimony on HB 320 (VanDeaver). The bill would require TEA to establish an enhancement program for students with disabilities, including procedures and criteria, for the allocation of funds to school districts for the provision of enhancement services to certain students with disabilities and their families to promote and improve overall academic performance. The bill would establish a one-year participation timeframe for program participants and service providers; specify certain eligibility requirements for program participants; and would define the allowable uses of program funds for enhancement services.

HB 320 would specify the program to be funded at $10 million each fiscal year from the state's general revenue fund and establish requirements for awarding program funds to eligible students. The bill would specify eligibility, program participation, and accountability requirements for private service providers and would require the commissioner to annually review previously approved private service providers to determine eligibility status for the subsequent year.

The bill would require the TEA to report findings from a parent survey and study of the special education services received from the local school districts where children are enrolled to determine whether those services meet certain federal disability-related requirements and federally required student plan requirements by September 1, 2018. It would also require the agency to include a list of services that parents feel are needed but are not provided along with the reasons for a lack of those services. In addition, the bill would require TEA to review the performance of the program with input from certain stakeholders and report to the Legislature on the findings by December 31, 2020.