Author Archives: Aliyya Swaby

When school’s out, rural Texas towns struggle to feed their hungry kids

Clara Crawford drives a van without air conditioning to pick up and drop off children at a summer meals program sponsored by the East Texas Food Bank. The food bank provides meals for kids at similar programs at more than 70 different sites.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about the declining participation in Texas’ summer meals programs for students. You can read the first story here.

REKLAW — Clara Crawford tapped the horn three times. Seconds later, two young boys ran down the steps of their house, their mother waving goodbye from the porch.

Each summer, most days of the week, the 86-year-old Crawford drives a 1995 Ford cargo van 35 miles to gather up about 20 hungry children in Fairview, an unincorporated community in Rusk County, and the neighboring city of Reklaw. She takes them to a program she runs at a local community center where they can play basketball in the hot sun and get a full lunch plus a snack.

In this sparsely populated part of East Texas, where some houses don’t have regular access to potable water, for seven years Crawford and her blue van have been providing a summer lifeline to kids who otherwise might be home alone and without a healthy meal.

The Texas Department of Agriculture administers a summer meals program providing federal reimbursement for school districts and nonprofits to give out meals to hungry children — but in recent years, the program has failed to draw students in, with July participation rates crashing by 20 percent in 2016.

Experts and even the state have had trouble pinpointing exactly why, but they cite lack of transportation as the main reason rural Texas kids can’t reach free summer meals available at hundreds of locations across the state. The federal government does not compensate school districts or nonprofits for getting students to and from the free meal sites.

Which is why folks like Crawford who are willing to drive kids to those meals are so important. Despite the tight pickup schedule, Crawford sometimes finds herself waiting several minutes longer than planned outside a particular house, hoping a kid will hear the honks and rush out. Most of their parents are working, or are stuck at home with illnesses or disabilities, she said.

“I hate to not get them if they want to come,” she said, peering over the steering wheel anxiously. Every summer, she considers giving up on this volunteer chauffeur gig. She’s old and doesn’t need the extra stress. But then she wonders: Who else would do it?

The need for volunteers like Crawford goes beyond this corner of East Texas. In the tiny Panhandle town of Quitaque, residents also struggle to find summer volunteers to help provide food to hungry children after the local school had to end its program. Rural communities across the state face similar challenges.

In Texas, more than 4 million people don’t always know where their next meal will come from, often resorting to skipping meals, buying less food or choosing between buying food and paying other bills. Though it’s decreased over the years, the percentage of people at risk of hunger in Texas is significantly higher than the national average.

Even in towns that have a summer meal program, “if a site’s half a mile from a kid’s home, they’re unlikely to walk up there, let alone five or 10 miles,” said Tim Butler, coordinator of child hunger programs at the East Texas Food Bank, which gets federal money to provide meals for program sponsors like Crawford who want to feed kids locally.

The food bank also pays for Crawford’s gas and vehicle upkeep through a privately-funded “rural transportation grant.” Without that extra financial boost, kids in Fairview might not make it to the community center.

The federal government used to offer similar transportation grants to rural organizations that sponsored free summer meal programs, but it ended them after 2008 when the funding ran out, calling them “cost inefficient” for supporting rural areas.

‘It used to be a big community’

A lifelong Fairview resident, Crawford is related to many of the kids in the area, or knows them well enough that they’re basically family. As she drove — never faster than a steady 45 miles per hour — she spun out the stories imprinted in the lush landscape crowded with pine trees. She pointed out the place where, at eight years old, she got paid $3 daily to plant tomatoes. The place where her dad drove a tractor on another man’s farm. And all the empty places left by folks who moved to the cities.

“There used to be a lot of people here. Now they let their trailers rot here. It used to be a big community,” Crawford said ruefully.

Clara Crawford puts a milk carton on 6 -year-old Jaylynn Uniqe's plate as Ethan Smallwood reaches for ketchup at the Fairview Community Center in Reklaw.
Clara Crawford puts a milk carton on 6-year-old Jaylynn Uniqe’s plate as Ethan Smallwood reaches for ketchup at the Fairview Community Center in Reklaw. Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Larger school districts in East Texas don’t typically need someone like Crawford because they can usually offer their own programs, and sponsor others nearby. The East Texas Food Bank seeks to fill the smaller, more rural gaps across 26 counties and 20,000 square miles, in a region where one of every five adults and one in every four children is at risk of going hungry.

“There are tons of communities out there with little resources and low population,” Butler said.

Partnering with people like Crawford ensures the meal sites draw more kids, Butler said. “They know the people in the community. They know how to get something started. They know where the kids are.”

Besides the 20 kids Crawford drives to the community center, two or three wander over on their own, chattering and playing while the adults start to hand out food. At 14, Erica McCuin is one of the oldest in the room. She ends up watching over the younger ones, sitting and joking with them as they bite into cheeseburgers with whole grain buns and pick seeds out of orange slices.

She’s visiting her aunt for the summer two towns over and said without the program, she’d end up hanging around her aunt’s house. “I’d sit down and watch TV or play on my phone,” she said.

McCuin’s aunt, Savannah Williams, is one of three women who found out about the program through the local church and volunteer to run it. They said they’re determined to keep it going after Crawford someday turns in her car keys.

Panhandle volunteers try to restart summer meals

While volunteers in East Texas fight to keep kids fed, volunteers more than 400 miles away in a small Panhandle town are trying to bring back summer meals after the local school shut its program down.

In Quitaque — recently proclaimed the bison capital of Texas for its proximity to a herd of the shaggy beasts in neighboring Caprock Canyons State Park — a third of the 478 residents lives below the poverty line, nearly double the state average, according to recent Census estimates.

Kay Calvert talks about the food pantry she founded, Tri-County Meals, which helps relieve food insecurity in small rural towns around Quitaque, Texas.
Kay Calvert talks about the food pantry she founded, Tri-County Meals, which helps relieve food insecurity in rural towns around Quitaque, Texas. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Kay Calvert wears a few hats for Quitaque, as a founder and president of the local emergency food pantry and assistant vice president at First National Bank. She’s working with a local teacher to apply for federal funding to start a summer meals site in Quitaque for local kids, to take some financial pressure off their parents.

Having lived in Quitaque most of her life, Calvert was ignorant of the depth of need in the community until she helped start the food pantry 13 years ago.

She fought back tears when she told the story of seeing a pair of young siblings cooking beans on the stove in a house otherwise empty of food. At another house, a volunteer for the pantry checked in on an elderly woman and found cat food in her fridge — and no cat in the house.

“I thought I knew our neighbors. I thought I knew everybody was OK,” she said. “Guess what? We don’t take care of our neighbors.”

Turkey-Quitaque ISD Superintendent Jackie Jenkins said the district stopped offering summer meals two years ago, around the same time it stopped hosting summer school for lack of funding. Before that, Jenkins drove a van taking kids home from summer school and bringing sandwiches and fruit to hungry kids who were not able to attend the summer classes. She knew parents were likely working in the fields and unable to drive kids even 10 miles to get lunch.

“We knew it would be hard for them to come out here, so we delivered them,” Jenkins said. But the federal program that paid for the district’s meal program didn’t cover those transportation costs. Now the closest program is in Memphis, a town almost 50 miles to the northeast.

Local food pantry is a lifeline

It’s not just students who need help getting fed. In Quitaque, where the tiny town center is surrounded by thousands of acres of red-dirt cotton fields, many residents are day laborers, cleaning homes and mowing yards in town or working on farms seasonally during the cotton harvest.

“There’s not enough work here in these small communities. But yet they want to raise their kids here because it’s the cheapest place they can live,” Calvert said. “They don’t want to go to the cities because they can’t survive in the cities.”

The local food pantry, Tri-County Meals, collaborates with the regional High Plains Food Bank to bring boxes of food each month to elderly people and families who are regularly deciding whether to pay for heat during the winter or buy groceries at the single store in town. The food bank trucks the food to an old fire station in Quitaque, and volunteers from three nearby towns haul it away for local distribution.

By noon, the floors and tables in the old station are piled high with boxes of all types of foods: organic baby spinach, bananas, croissants and other assorted breads, packages of Hamburger Helper (popular with the kids), giant frosted chocolate cakes.

Sage Cabellero loads a family box onto a trailer for delivery to Silverton, Texas, a neighboring community in the Tri-County Meals network.
Sage Cabellero loads a box onto a trailer for delivery to Silverton, Texas, a neighboring community in the Tri-County Meals network. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

The box of food Judy Myers and her brother Danny Barrett receive every month from the mobile food bank gets their family almost through the full 30 days. Myers, 55, a former prison employee, and Barrett, 57, a former mail carrier, both had to stop working because of chronic health problems. Myers has back and kidney issues; her brother suffers complications from diabetes.

They live together in a house that sits on 200 acres that’s been in the family for nearly a century. Myers has about $1,700 in pension payments coming in each month, and they both are applying for disability benefits.

Last Christmas was “really black in our house,” Myers said, sitting on her back porch with two kittens napping at her feet. “We had nothing at the time to cook with.”

They got an emergency food delivery through Tri-County Meals. In January, when her daughter Breanna turned 12, Myers asked the food pantry for cupcakes so Breanna could hand them out to her classmates.

But during the summer, Breanna is home from school, and Myers babysits her 2-year-old grandson — two extra mouths to feed during the day. Myers said she wishes the school district was still giving out free food in the summer, to take some of the pressure off her wallet.

Local kindergarten and first-grade math teacher Shadi Buchanan is working with Calvert to re-start a summer meals program in Quitaque, applying for reimbursement from the federal government.

But first they need committed volunteers. Parents and teachers already serve several roles for the school district, transporting kids to sports practices or teaching four or five different grades of a subject, because the district can’t afford to hire additional employees.

“It takes us all to run this village, and I think sometimes it’s overwhelming to say, ‘Here’s one more thing to do,’” she said.

Buchanan wants to run the program at two separate sites, one providing meals in Quitaque and the other in Turkey, so students don’t have to make the trek more than 10 miles to school for a free meal without a bus. Jenkins has her fingers crossed that enrollment will increase once school starts in late August since more students means more state money to spend on school programs.

In the meantime, Calvert and the rest of the team at the pantry will continue to serve as many families as possible, for as long as they have the money.

“They’re out there if we open our eyes and look. The need is out there,” Calvert said. “We can only do so much.”

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After Texas “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Patrick lauds sanctuary city law

The truck with human trafficking victims — nine of whom died from heat exposure — was discovered at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio.

Following the deaths of nine people in what police are calling a “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took to Facebook Sunday to highlight the importance of cracking down on “sanctuary cities.”

Police found eight people dead in a tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning, with no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat, according to the San Antonio Express-News. One later died in the hospital, and about 20 survivors suffered from heat stroke and dehydration. Some survivors identified themselves as Mexican nationals.

Patrick wrote the incident was indicative of why Senate Bill 4 is so important. The law, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, requires local authorities to cooperate with federal immigration officials and allows police to ask about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.

“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Patrick, a Republican, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon, with a link to an ABC News report. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”

The cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and El Cenizo are among the local governments suing Texas over the law.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a formal statement with no mention of SB 4, instead highlighting the importance of a bill he signed to help the trucking industry report signs of human trafficking.

“The loss of these lives is a heartbreaking tragedy,” he said. “Human trafficking is an epidemic that Texas is working to eradicate. To that end, Texas will continue to provide protection for the victims who have been robbed of their most basic rights, and bring down the full weight of the law for the perpetrators of this despicable crime.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also weighed in on the incident Sunday morning. “Border security will help prevent this Texas tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

 

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Texas Senate panel approves teacher bonuses, retirement benefits

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, explains the benefits of Senate Bill 19 during a Saturday meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on July 22, 2017. 

The Senate Finance Committee Saturday approved a proposal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed as a priority for Texas education: providing bonuses and pay raises for long-term teachers, and reduced health-care costs for retired teachers.

The committee voted 10-3 to approve Senate Bill 19, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which would provide $193 million for teacher bonuses starting September 2018, put $212 million into state-run health insurance for retired teachers, and require school districts to increase teacher pay by $1,000 starting in 2019.

The senators who voted for the measure were Republicans; those who opposed it were Democrats. State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was present but decided not to vote.

The full Senate could consider the bill as soon as Monday.

Educators and activists who testified opposed the part of the bill requiring districts to raise teacher pay, since it would not necessarily come with additional money from the state.

SB 19 addresses one of the 20 priorities Gov. Greg Abbott put on his agenda for the July-August special session. Patrick laid out the specifics of the plan in a press conference earlier this month.

Nelson proposed borrowing money for the bonuses and health benefits from the Health and Human Services Commission, by deferring payments to health care companies that provide Medicaid through the state’s privatized system. “I will work to ensure that the deferral will not affect any services” for Medicaid, Nelson said.

She called SB 19 a “bridge” while legislators work to solve larger issues with the school finance system.

Legislators argued about whether, and how, to turn the short-term changes in the bill into long-term solutions to help teachers. With limited flexibility in the budget, which has already been approved by the governor, they are looking for creative ways to fund provisions they hope to pass during the special session.

Even with the additional money through SB 19, the state-run Teacher Retirement System will see a projected shortfall of $500 million to $700 million in 2020-2021, which will increase to $2 billion by 2022-2023, according to Brian Guthrie, TRS executive director. School employees have absorbed most of the healthcare premium increases over the years, with state and district inputs remaining close to fixed.

“We say we’re going to make a commitment, but we are also saying we’re not going to increase the state statutory contribution rate,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, begged the panel not to let political debate get in the way of accomplishing TRS reform during the special session.

“I am almost begging you. Please do not let the session end with nothing happening,” he said.

“We are going to stay focused,” Nelson responded, despite likely disagreement with the House on how to pay for school finance issues. She called the House’s willingness to use the Rainy Day Fund, a pot of emergency cash for the state, a “false promise” and short-term solution.

Educators opposed the part of the bill that would require school districts to fund teacher pay raises, without the promise of state funding to help bolster the cost. “We don’t want to have to reprioritize money from within our districts to find money” for pay raises, said Tonja Gray, a member of the Association of Texas Professional Educators and a reading intervention teacher at Abilene ISD. “I would rather have nothing than this bill.”

“It’s this or nothing,” Nelson said. She argued there are ways to fund the pay raises, which would start in 2019. Legislators would have to decide how to fund the pay raises during the next legislative session.

Disclosure: The Texas Retired Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Senate committee passes bills on private school choice and school finance study

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, during a July 21, 2017 Senate Public Education Committee hearing. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, is seated to his left. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Senate Education Committee got two major bills out of the way Friday, passing legislation that would create a “private school choice” program and start a commission to study the school finance system.

The committee voted 8-2 to pass Senate Bill 2, creating a tax credit scholarship subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities. It voted 10-0 to pass Senate Bill 16, which would task a 13-person committee of legislators and educators with developing recommendations on how to fix the beleaguered system for funding public schools before the 2019 regular session.

The bills could be taken up on the Senate floor as soon as Monday.

Gov. Greg Abbott listed both issues in his 20-bill agenda for the July-August special session, which the Senate has wasted no time in tackling, with several committees set to meet through the weekend.

Parents, educators and activists sat in front of the Senate panel from 10 a.m. until just after 6 p.m. to explain how subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities would sap resources from public schools, or how it would offer families a wider array of options.

Abigail Tassin, a 17-year-old Fort Bend ISD student with Down Syndrome, asked legislators not to pass the bill, instead urging them to focus on improving public schools’ resources for kids with disabilities.

“I want to be with everyone else,” she said. “Help my teachers be able to help me better.”

SB 2 is similar to several proposals that its author, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, pitched to the Senate during the regular session. Insurance companies would receive premium tax credits in exchange for contributions to scholarship organizations.

An estimated 6,000 students with disabilities would receive up to $10,000 in scholarships to private schools under the bill. In addition, an estimated 26,000 eligible students with disabilities could receive up to $500, if they stay in their school districts, to pay for transportation or needed services. The tax credits for businesses would be capped at $75 million per year.

Tara Cevallos, principal of St. Austin’s Catholic School, said Catholic schools do not have all the resources to provide services for students with special needs, but that tax credit scholarships would help them. Private schools can provide a “niche approach,” because they have so few students, she said.

Taylor also added a few unrelated programs to the bill, including $60 million for charter schools, $60 million for facilities funding for traditional public schools, and $150 million for a hardship grant program for struggling small, rural schools that relied on a now-expired state aid program.

The $270 million for those programs would be borrowed from the Health and Human Services Commission, by delaying payments to health care companies providing Medicaid.

Sen. Bob Hall, R-Canton, said he was concerned about that “deficit spending,” before he voted yes on the bill. “I would hope that between now and when we get to the floor, we find a way to solve that problem,” he said.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said adding programs that school districts actually want to a “private school choice” bill prevents in-depth discussion of school funding. He said the bill would not help improve public schools for kids with special needs who decide to remain in that system.

“One of the biggest philosophical problems we have with this bill is that it changes the mentality from ‘Let’s fix the problems that we have’ … to saying, ‘Well, now we’ve provided you with this out,’ ” he said.

The committee took under an hour to hear testimony and approve a bill that would create a 13-member commission to study the school finance system. The commission would have four members appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the House Speaker, and a member of the State Board of Education. It would deliver recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2018, intended to guide lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session.

Policy experts who testified asked the bill’s author to make the commission more transparent about how it conducted the study.

“We would appreciate the opportunity to ensure that the public can in some fashion or procedure submit public comments to the commission,” said Steve Aleman, policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas.

Taylor said regular public input was unlikely. “Generally someone who just comes from the public, they have a very limited view of public education Texas,” he said. “I don’t foresee us having a public hearing every time.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Abbott adds school finance, retired teacher benefits to special session

The three leaders of Texas make nice at a short Cash Management Committee meeting in the Betty King Room of the Texas Capitol on July 18, 2017, the first day of the special session. 

Texas legislators could end up passing bills to reform the state’s school finance system and help out retired teachers this special session.

After the Senate voted early Thursday morning to pass a bill keeping several key state agencies alive, Gov. Greg Abbott immediately expanded the special session agenda by adding 19 items — and dramatically expanded the focus of two education-related priorities he had announced last month.

When Abbott announced his call for the special session in June, he said he would ask legislators to increase teacher pay by $1,000, and to establish a commission to recommend improvements to the beleaguered school finance system.  The expanded call Thursday would allow legislators to pass bills improving a state-run health care plan for retired teachers and making major reforms to the school finance system, including the extension of a state aid program that would help mostly small, rural school districts.

The governor’s announcement came almost a week after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held an education-themed news conference to discuss school finance and teacher pay increases, a departure from his priorities during the regular session.

Patrick proposed a plan, funded through the Texas Lottery, that would provide bonuses for long-term and retired teachers, add $200 million to the Teacher Retirement System, and give $150 million to struggling small, rural districts that lost money through an expired state aid program.

Abbott’s additions of the new items appear to be a nod to the House, where his overall agenda is expected to face the most resistance. In a speech last month, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said legislators did not need a commission to tell them how to fix the school finance system, because they have already studied the issue at length. Abbott has pushed back against that notion, questioning why legislators have not come to a consensus if they have examined the issue so thoroughly. But the inclusion of retired teacher benefits, school finance reform and a fix for the expired state aid program in the final call looks like an overture to such skeptics.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the House public education chairman, welcomed the additions to the special session call — and said that school finance reform was particularly important for legislators to address.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues to address this critical need for our children and parents,” Huberty said in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning. “The House had made this a priority the last two sessions. I am glad the governor added this to the call as he recognizes we need school finance reform to accomplish property tax reform.”

Educator groups on Monday rallied in front of the Capitol against the governor’s agenda, demanding that the Legislature put more state money into public schools and reform the school finance system.

On Thursday morning, a number of House members took to Twitter to thank Abbott for listening to their chamber and adding their priorities to the call.

Huberty filed a bill this week — mirroring one he filed during the regular session — that would inject state money into public schools and simplify the formulas for funding them. It would also help small, rural school districts depending on the expired state aid program.

Several legislators in both chambers have filed bills to increase benefits for retired teachers.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposes millions for teacher bonuses and retirement

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addresses the media at the Texas Capitol on July 13, 2017, days before the start of a special session.

With less than a week before the start of a special session of the Texas Legislature, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick laid out a proposal Thursday to give teachers bonuses and increase their retirement benefits, with plans to pay for both long-term using money from the Texas lottery.

Patrick called a press conference to roll out his own priorities for the next 30 days and tear down the House’s plan for revamping a faulty school funding system as a “Ponzi scheme.”

Patrick’s plan, in part, would provide $600 to $1,000 bonuses to long-term and retired teachers, inject $200 million into the Teacher Retirement System, give $150 million to struggling small, rural districts, and provide $60 million for new facilities for fast-growth school districts and charter schools.

Over the next two years, Patrick said, $700 million to pay for the plan would come from a deferral of funds to managed care organizations. Over the long-term, $700 million would be directly allocated from the Texas Lottery if voters approved an amendment to the Texas Constitution to ensure that transfer of funds continues indefinitely.

Patrick called on school districts to reprioritize 5 percent of their funds over the next four years to increase teacher salaries. Districts, he said, “have to be better about how they spend the money. They have to put more focus on teachers.”

Mark Wiggins, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said most schools don’t have the financial wiggle room to reallocate funding without additional money from the state. “We haven’t seen any of these proposals. That’s why it’s tough to say where our members would come out on them,” he said.

The House passed a bill during the regular session that would have put $1.5 billion into public schools, in part by deferring a payment to schools to 2019. Patrick Thursday called that budget trick a “dangerous political stunt” and a “Ponzi scheme.”

The Senate tacked a “private school choice” provision to the House’s school finance reform package, effectively killing both issues in the regular session, since House members oppose public subsidies for private schools.

House Speaker Joe Straus and top House education leaders have appeared before education groups in the last month, chastising the Senate for not approving key reforms to the school finance system and refusing to change their positions on controversial issues such as “private school choice.”

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a 20-item agenda for the a special session beginning on July 18, including several education issues that the House and Senate clashed over during the regular session. Patrick stressed Thursday that he supported all 20 items, while pitching a multi-layered plan beyond the governor’s agenda.

Soon after Patrick’s press conference, Abbott praised the lieutenant governor’s efforts.

“My office has been working with lawmakers in both the Senate and House these past six weeks, and if these items do not get passed, it will be for lack of will, not for lack of time,” Abbott said.

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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House education leaders won’t budge on school finance, private school choice

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. “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.

Gov. Greg Abbott has called legislators back to Austin for a July-August special session to tackle a hefty 20-item agenda that includes several public education issues that the Senate and House could not agree on during the legislative session. Huberty, Bernal and VanDeaver on Sunday refused to budge politically from where they stood on major education issues during the regular session.

“I pretty much stand where I stood then,” VanDeaver said.

Educators argue private school choice saps money from the public school system, while proponents say it offers low-income parents choices beyond the limited scope of the public education system.

That position could put the representatives in private school choice advocates’ crosshairs as they gear up for re-election in 2018. Huberty, already a target of efforts to unseat him in the next Republican primary, called it an “onslaught” against public education.

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.

Abbott put several public education bills on the special session agenda, to be addressed only after the Senate passes crucial “sunset” bills that would keep several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, operating during the next budget cycle. 

Huberty said providing public schools with additional revenue is the only way to decrease local property taxes, another priority of the governor on the agenda for special session. “I’m planning on filing a property tax bill that will address school finance,” he said. 

Educators have argued school districts must push for higher taxes because the state is underfunding public schools.

Huberty said he did not know if he would re-file the exact same piece of school finance legislation the House passed in the spring. That bill simplified the formulas for funding public schools and injected $1.5 billion into public schools, in part by using a budget trick to defer a payment to public schools until 2019.

Huberty said the Legislature could still fund the bill by using that mechanism. “If there’s no money, I get it,” he said. “But we got a mechanism set up to be able to deal with it.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas Association of School Administrators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Straus needles Texas Senate on public education funding, “bathroom bill”

SAN ANTONIO — Speaking to educators Wednesday, House Speaker Joe Straus took some jabs at the Senate for focusing on a bill to regulate public bathroom use instead of putting more than a billion dollars into public schools.

The lower chamber’s leading politician spoke about the upcoming special session to hundreds of school board members and superintendents in San Antonio on Wednesday evening at the Texas Association of School Boards’ annual summer leadership institute. He urged educators in the room to keep speaking out for the issues important to public schools — and to act.

“There have been a few of you who would make good members of the Texas Senate,” he said, a joke that got him a round of laughter and applause.

Straus’ appearance comes as Texas legislators prepare to return to the Capitol for a July-August special session, with a packed agenda of 20 pieces of legislation Gov. Greg Abbott wants to see passed. Several of those bills would directly affect public schools, including a bill to regulate public bathroom use for transgender Texans.

“I don’t know what all the issues are with bathrooms in our schools, but I’m pretty sure you can handle them, and I know that you have been handling them,” Straus said. He said the “bathroom bill” sends the wrong message about Texas, instead of “making decisions that attract jobs, that attract families.”

Abbott put several public education bills on the special session agenda, to be addressed only after the Senate passes crucial “sunset” bills that would keep several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board, operating next budget cycle.

He asked legislators to revive and pass two specific bills that died in the House — one that would create a commission to study school finance reform and one that would create a voucher-like state program to subsidize private school tuition and homeschooling expenses for kids with disabilities.

School finance reform and “private school choice” died in the same bill late during the regular session. The Senate voted to attach a private school choice program to a major House bill injecting $1.5 billion into public schools. That angered the House, which staunchly opposes subsidies for private schools. Neither side would compromise.

Straus said Wednesday that even if the House had compromised on private school choice, the Senate stripped about $1 billion in funding for public schools. “Even if we approved vouchers, they still cut out the vast majority of the funding we had proposed for public schools, so there was hardly anything left,” he said.

He said the school finance reform study was too little, too late. “The Texas House has been studying this for years. We already passed a bill that’s a very strong first step,” he said. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

Abbott also put property tax reform on the special session agenda, pushing a provision the House excluded during the regular session to create automatic rollback elections when local property taxes rise by a certain amount.

Educators have argued school districts must push for higher taxes because the state is underfunding public schools. Before Straus arrived, Bret Begert, school board president of Fort Elliott CISD, explained that his property-wealthy school district sends a large portion of its tax revenue back to the state through a program known as “Robin Hood,” where wealthy districts subsidize poorer ones.

“We don’t mind sharing our money, but we don’t want to go broke doing it,” Begert said.

The Senate and House deadlocked on several issues during the regular session, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blaming Straus for blocking legislation that would restrict bathroom use for transgender Texans, cap property taxes and subsidize private school tuition for kids with disabilities.

Straus blamed the Senate for holding sunset measures hostage.

Abbott also added to the special session agenda two provisions that were not debated during the regular session. He called for a $1,000 increase in teacher pay and for more administrator flexibility on hiring and retaining teachers.

Public education advocates worry this means schools will be required to do more with less funding. The governor said in his special session announcement that the increase in teacher pay could be done by “reprioritizing” spending, without additional funding. He also said principals and superintendents need flexibility “to retain and to reward the very best teachers and to replace those who are ineffective.”

Linking those two issues does not bode well for public schools, said Dax Gonzalez, TASB assistant director of government relations. “Something that districts don’t want to get into the position of is giving raises to some by firing others,” he said.

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