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A liberal activist trying his best to help revitalize and reshape the state of South Carolina. God knows, it needs it!

State Senate Votes to Continue More Than 70 Percent of Education Cuts: A Clarifying Debate

by: Jamie Sanderson

Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 11:28 AM CDT

The Texas Senate today bowed to the wishes of top state leaders and voted to continue deep education cuts for another two years under SB 1, the Senate draft of the state's 2014-2015 budget. But senators on the short end of a lopsided 29-to-2 vote on SB 1 did a fine job of clarifying the wrongheaded priorities of the current Senate plan, which now goes over to the Texas House for further action.

Texas AFT President Linda Bridges issued the following statement on today's Senate action:

"The Texas Senate voted today for a budget bill that would continue for another two years 72 percent of the cuts enacted in funding for public schools last session. Texas can do better, especially with plentiful revenue remaining available to the legislature for use this session. Today's Senate discussion of SB 1 on the Senate floor is just the beginning of debate over the central issue of the 2013 session-whether the legislature will take the opportunity offered by surging state revenue to restore funding for public education and other essential services that were needlessly cut in 2011.  Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) and Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) are to be commended for standing up today for Texas schoolchildren who 'are expecting us to do right by them,' as Sen. Davis said.

"Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), the author of SB 1, spoke today of additional spending this session envisioned to finance highway and water projects.  If more dollars can be found for these purposes before the legislature adjourns in 10 weeks, then more dollars can be found for the state's number-one priority--educating the schoolchildren of Texas."

Sen. Davis in floor debate laid bare the preemptive choices by state leaders that have constrained Senate budget writers.  For example, the Senate Finance Committee felt compelled to use up more than $7 billion in readily available revenue for one-time catch-up spending on Medicaid and for a mere change in the date of a payment due to school districts. Those one-time expenditures to undo budget gimmicks enacted in 2011 could have come out of the Rainy Day Fund with a two-thirds vote, Davis said, leaving budget writers with $7 billion more in general revenue to restore education funding fully, by a simple majority vote.

Sen. Williams, intentionally or not, also exposed some of the priorities for use of the Rainy Day Fund that state leaders have put ahead of restoring funding for schoolkids. Williams cited not only billions of dollars desired for highway and water projects but also the governor's call for new business tax cuts.

So there you have it. Those now in control at the state capitol would rather not use available revenue to help the 60 percent of Texas schoolchildren who are economically disadvantaged. They would rather not invest to bring Texas up from the bottom tier of interstate rankings of educational attainment. They would rather not invest in the knowledge and skills of the youth who will make or break our state's economic future. Those now in control at the state capitol seem to be stuck in the last century, seeing the state's future in terms of bricks and mortar and yet more tax breaks for businesses.

Fortunately, the debate is not over-far from it. Texas voters, in one opinion poll after another, have voiced support for using available revenue first and foremost to increase funding for public education. Many legislators, including not a few senators who voted for SB 1 today, will tell you they agree. They have the next ten weeks to act on their convictions. Today, Sen. Davis and Sen. Garcia pointed the way.

In fact, Sen. Davis made her point quite concrete today, by filing a proposed constitutional amendment to let Texas voters decide if they want to use $4 billion (out of the total of $12 billion) in the Rainy Day Fund to put an end to the ongoing cuts in public education. The amendment is SJR 63. Coauthors of the legislation are Sens. Davis, Garcia, Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Jose Rodríguez (D-El Paso), Royce West (D-Dallas), and John Whitmire (D-Houston).

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Lobby Day Brings 3,000 Texas AFT Members to State Capitol

by: Jamie Sanderson

Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 10:06 AM CDT

Some 3,000 Texas AFT members converged on the state capitol today from all across Texas to lobby their legislators to restore school funding, reduce the state's over-reliance on high-stakes testing, oppose private-school vouchers, and bolster Teacher Retirement System pensions. AFT members from Brownsville to the Panhandle, from deep East Texas to far West Texas spent the better part of the day visiting their area lawmakers one by one to make the case for public education.

Speakers at a mid-day rally on the main steps of the capitol put an exclamation point on key messages of the day. Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) lambasted the state comptroller for giving the 2011 legislature an official budget estimate that understated by $8.8 billion the amount of money lawmakers would have to spend. That "colossally bad" budget forecast had a lot to do with the ensuing $5.4 billion in education cuts, Davis said.

Now, Davis pointed out, lawmakers have close to $12 billion available for the next budget in the state's Rainy Day Fund reserve, but state leaders are keeping that money off limits for education, even as they propose to tap the fund for water and highway projects. Those are important items, Davis said, but nothing is as important to our state's future as the kids in our public schools and the education we offer them.

"Our Kids, Our Future" was the recurring theme sounded by Texas AFT President Linda Bridges, Secretary-Treasurer Louis Malfaro, and others who addressed the throng of Texas AFT members under a perfect blue sky in downtown Austin.  State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) denounced the tendency of some lawmakers and state leaders to treat teachers as nothing but "order takers" and students as little more than "test takers." He said any schools that draw state support, including charter schools, ought to operate by the same rules that apply to traditional public schools.

Allen Weeks, coordinator of the parent/community group Save Texas Schools, observed that we are up against a mindset hostile to anything "public," but the "public is us." Weeks said we are simply demanding that lawmakers restore $5.4 billion that was "stolen" from public schools last session.  "Just put it back!" he said.

Ministers John Ogletree and Charles Foster Johnson delivered pro-public-school messages of solidarity from the faith community. Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, Texas AFL-CIO, forcefully defended teachers' pension program as "the intergenerational bargain that helps make up for the thanks we don't always give our teachers" and for the modest pay they earn during their career in public education. Corpus Christi mayor Nelda Martinez roused the crowd with a "show me the money" call and response. Dick Lavine, expert revenue and budget analyst for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, challenged misplaced legislative priorities that put needless new tax breaks for businesses above restoration of education funding.

Texas AFT President Bridges closed the rally with an exhortation to members to head back into the capitol for afternoon visits and to keep the calls and e-mails flowing after they got home. Today's show of strength at the capitol would have an impact, she said, but only a sustained grass-roots push will drive the political process forward in Austin.

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Action Alert to Stop Vouchers ... Jeb Bush Expected to Testify at State Senate Hearing

by: Jamie Sanderson

Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 06:16 AM CST

"National Best Practices in Education Reform" Do Not Include Vouchers, Privatization-Let Your State Legislators Know It


Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), chair of the Senate Education Committee, likes to label his policy preferences as "national best practices in education reform." But he has not yet sold a majority of his legislative colleagues on his agenda, which includes private-school vouchers, privatization via charter expansion, shutdown and conversion of neighborhood schools into privately run charter schools, and more.  

Hence Sen. Patrick is expected to bring in some out-of-town talent to help his cause tomorrow in a special hearing of his committee occurring in the Senate chamber. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said to be readying himself for a presidential run in 2016, is expected to appear and to tout what his private foundation calls the Florida formula for student achievement.  

That Florida formula, which Bush and his foundation are peddling in state legislatures across the country, requires state legislators to:

   create third-grade retention policies
   grade schools A-F based on performance
   provide performance funding for schools
   expand vouchers, online privatization, and charterization of schools
   encourage alternative certification and evaluating teachers based on student test scores

That's supposedly the prescription that gave Florida some modest test-score gains since 1999. However, this "Florida formula" is in fact a distorted and incomplete version of Florida educational policy in the Bush years. What other factors does the former governor fail to give their due? Well, it turns out that Florida invested heavily in reading coaches, adding 2,000 of them, and in early-literacy screening. Extra help for students also included substantial investments in summer school and remediation. And Bush prefers not to recall that voters, over his opposition, passed an expansion of pre-kindergarten and also created a class-size reduction program. No thanks to Jeb Bush, grades preK-3 in Florida now have average class sizes with fewer than 16 pupils per teacher.

In fact, the "reforms" that Bush and his foundation prefer to tout do not have the same research foundation as class-size reduction or pre-kindergarten. What evidence there is on his testing, voucher, charter, and online-learning agenda does not bear out his claims. These "reform" notions do not deliver improved educational achievement; in many instances they actually produce inferior results.

What drives this agenda in spite of the evidence against it is a cadre of corporations that stand to profit if these policies are adopted. Thus, the Pearson testing company, its Connections online-learning subsidiary, and other entities such as K12, Inc., another for-profit "virtual school" operator, all turn out to be donors to the Bush foundation--whose chief executive officer on at least one occasion has even lobbied state education chiefs to use the services of a company partly owned by Bush himself.

Enough! It's time for you to make your voice heard! We urge you to start by sending the new letter from the Texas AFT Web site opposing vouchers and the rest of the anti-public-education agenda. We don't need the false nostrums and quackery of the "Florida formula" in Texas. We need a realistic Texas formula-one that restores funding for the services our five million students need, curbs the excessive, punitive use of standardized testing, and helps parents, educators, and communities build up their neighborhood schools rather than allow them to be undermined.

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Court to Legislators: State System of School Finance is Inadequate, Inequitable, Unsuitable

by: Jamie Sanderson

Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 10:50 AM CST

State District Judge John Dietz of Austin issued a strongly worded ruling today in favor of the legal challenge brought by more than 600 Texas school districts against the state system of school finance.  Dietz pointed to the higher achievement targets the state has imposed on school districts even as their schools face rising percentages of high-need students and suffer from stagnant or reduced funding from the state.  "We either want the higher standards and are willing to pay the price or we don't," said the judge.

Today's sweeping victory for the plaintiff school districts will be buttressed by detailed findings of fact from Judge Dietz in a month or so. Then the state attorney general will decide whether to seek a fast review by the Texas Supreme Court or take the case first to an intermediate court of appeals. Either way, it could take a year to get a definitive ruling from the high court.

Texas AFT President Linda Bridges offered this comment on the judge's ruling:

"Today a state district judge has said the evidence is clear:  The state's system of school funding is unconstitutional on multiple grounds. It is inadequate, providing insufficient funding to school districts to meet state achievement targets. It is inequitable, failing to distribute school aid in a manner that gives all students a fair chance to succeed regardless of local property wealth. And it leaves rich and poor districts alike with no meaningful discretion over their local tax rates as they struggle to raise the funds to try to meet state mandates.

"Today's ruling should spur the legislature to do what it ought to be doing anyway-using the state's resurgent revenue to restore school funding that was cut severely last session, and reforming the school-finance system to satisfy constitutional requirements. The inevitable appeal that the state's lawyers will pursue in this case must not become an excuse for legislative inertia. The state needs to invest more in public education immediately, because the kids can't wait."

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Guns in Schools--Texas Senate Hearing on School Security

by: Jamie Sanderson

Tue Jan 29, 2013 at 07:21 AM CST

Two Texas Senate committees Monday heard testimony from contrasting perspectives on the issue of school safety and how to ensure our schools are safe havens for students.

Superintendents from three small districts were invited to testify on their policies of relying on teachers with concealed guns to provide protection for students in case of an armed attack like the deadly one in Newtown, Connecticut, last month. They said the option of relying on armed peace officers was too impractical or too costly for their communities.

Spokespersons for the state associations of superintendents and school boards said each school district is unique and the matter should be decided locally. Senators such as Houston Republican Dan Patrick, chair of the Senate Education Committee, seemed to welcome that message.

Texas AFT, the Dallas ISD chief of police, and a spokeswoman for the Texas PTA took a different stance. To varying degrees all three argued that arming teachers and administrators with guns and expecting them to serve as adequate substitutes for trained officers is bad policy. Hence they strongly urged reliance on trained law-enforcement personnel instead. The discussion on all sides stayed at a fairly general level, with no specific legislation having been introduced as yet.

Testifying on behalf of our 65,000-plus members in more than 800 school districts, community colleges, and universities, Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi said:

"Our members have always been concerned about campus safety and security, and their concern is especially acute in light of the recent incidents in Newtown, Connecticut, and right here in Texas at Lone Star College.

"Texas AFT is currently conducting a survey of members regarding school security and other safe-schools concerns [see survey.texasaft.org]. We will share our findings with the committees once the analysis is complete. But we can already share with you what we are hearing from many of our members and local leaders.

"Teachers are saying:

· They want to focus on their core mission of teaching rather than trying to serve as armed guards against armed assault.

· Public officials should follow the "first, do no harm" principle. Applying that principle, they think proposals to arm teachers in response to the threat of school shootings would hurt rather than help, creating new risks and dangers. Guns, except in the hands of trained officers, do not belong in our schools.

· The state should make sure school districts have real, well-thought-out action plans for dealing with security threats, not just paper plans.

· Teachers and other school employees want to have a voice in working out new policy initiatives to keep schools safe.

· School-safety initiatives should include school-based responses such as increased attention to students' emotional and social development through enhanced counseling, social work, and health services. In this regard, Texas AFT's recent surveys of superintendents have shown that the state's education funding cuts enacted in 2011 have reduced school staffing, inflated class sizes, and eroded the capacity of our schools to maintain safety and order and to give students the individual attention they need.

· School-based responses alone are not going to solve all the problems caused as the ills of society are brought into the schoolhouse. Other measures are needed, including measures to restrict access of unstable individuals to weapons and to improve mental-health services in the community at large. The issue is community safety, not just school safety.

· If new resources are to be made available to school districts to address school-safety concerns, those resources should be made available on an equitable basis to all districts, not in a manner that makes school-safety improvements depend on local wealth.

"Texas AFT believes that creating safe communities and safe sanctuaries for our children to learn and grow will require a balanced approach, from measures to prevent gun violence to increased mental-health services and resources for schools. We stand ready to assist your committees and our local educational authorities to make sure our schools and communities are safe for all Texans."

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Texas AFT Calls for Restoration of K-12 Funding

by: Jamie Sanderson

Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 08:36 PM CST

In testimony before the state Senate Finance Committee, Texas AFT legislative counsel Patty Quinzi today made the case for fully restoring the educational funding that was cut last session by the legislature.

Quinzi said: "Texas AFT urges you to recognize that this legislature has the ability, with the revenue available to you, to undo the damaging biennial cuts of $5.4 billion in public education enacted in 2011. And you can do so without any need to raise additional revenue for 2014-2015.

"As you know, in the last school year, the first year of the 2011 education cuts, more than 25,000 school-district jobs were eliminated according to TEA data, including more than 10,000 teaching positions. Waivers of class-size caps in grades K-4 to allow additional pupils per teacher more than tripled. All state grants for full-day pre-kindergarten were eliminated, along with nearly all Student Success Initiative funding, which had provided extra help for students struggling to pass state exams.

"The comptroller now has identified more than $113 billion available to you this session. That includes more than $101 billion in available general revenue and nearly $12 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund. (The $101 billion is made up of $92.6 billion in available general revenue generated in 2014-2015 plus $8.8 billion in leftover revenue that was not anticipated in the last biennial revenue estimate, as Comptroller Combs has acknowledged.)

"As a result, you have a realistic opportunity in this session to undo the needless damage done to public education and other core public services such as health care in 2011. We join with a wide array of other organizations affiliated with the Texas Forward revenue coalition in urging you to seize this opportunity to restore the state's investment in our schoolchildren and in our state's future. With state revenue rebounding so dramatically, there is simply no good reason to sacrifice our children's and our state's future prospects by continuing the deep cuts of 2011 in the 2014-2015 budget."

Committee chair Tommy Williams, Republican of The Woodlands, laid out a hearing schedule that would bring a budget bill to the Senate floor by March 18. The next seven weeks will give us an opportunity to influence the committee's deliberations not just with testimony from your Texas AFT legislative spokespersons in Austin but you're your own grass-roots lobbying of these lawmakers. Here's the roster of the 15 senators who will need to hear from you before they send that budget bill to the full Senate in March:

Tommy Williams, chair, Republican of The Woodlands
Juan Hinojosa, vice-chair, Democrat of McAllen
Bob Deuell, Republican of Greenville
Robert Duncan, Republican of Lubbock (also on Senate Education Committee)
Kevin Eltife, Republican of Tyler
Craig Estes, Republican of Wichita Falls
Glenn Hegar Jr., Republican of Katy
Joan Huffman, Republican of Houston
Eddie Lucio Jr., Democrat of Brownsville (also vice-chair of Education Committee)
Jane Nelson, Republican of Flower Mound
Dan Patrick, Republican of Houston (also chair of Education Committee)
Kel Seliger, Republican of Amarillo (also on Education Committee)
Royce West, Democrat of Dallas (also on Education Committee)
John Whitmire, Democrat of Houston
Judith Zaffirini, Democrat of Laredo

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Notable Bills Include One to Curb Spread of Excessive Testing to PreK, Kindergarten

by: Jamie Sanderson

Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 00:09 PM CST

Noteworthy Bill Filed to Block Testing Excesses in Early Grades:  Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, Democrat of Houston, has filed HB 504 to block the spread of excessive and inappropriate testing to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. HB 504 would restrict both state and district assessments of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.  With few exceptions, the bill would bar the Texas Education Agency, the State Board of Education, and school districts from requiring the administration of "a standardized criterion-referenced or norm-referenced assessment instrument, including an achievement test, to students in prekindergarten or kindergarten."

The only exceptions would be for an instrument to diagnose reading development and comprehension, a test to determine English language proficiency and eligibility for bilingual or other special language programs, or a test to assess learning of specific instructional material, such as spelling, covered in a child's pre-K or kindergarten class.  The bill would take effect beginning with the 2013-2014 school year.

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Budget Bills Filed, With Underfunding Intact

by: Jamie Sanderson

Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 00:08 PM CST

SB 1 and HB 1, the initial Senate and House versions of the 2014-2015 budget, would continue severe cuts in public education passed in 2011, as discussed in yesterday's Hotline.  As we delve deeper into these massive bills, we'll have more to report not just on the shortfalls in public education but also on the corners being cut in TRS funding, higher education, and elsewhere in the budget plans.

Though committee assignments have not yet been announced for either chamber, it appears likely that committees will be up and running and budget hearings will begin by next week. That's when the hard work of restoring funding for education and other core public services must commence. In the meantime, the House and Senate adjourned today until January 23.

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House and Senate Unveil Budget Starting Points-Continuing the Cuts in Education, Even Though More T

by: Jamie Sanderson

Wed Jan 16, 2013 at 06:25 AM CST



House and Senate Unveil Budget Starting Points-Continuing the Cuts in Education, Even Though More Than Enough Money is Available to Restore Funding

Public education got the cold shoulder Monday from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his appointee as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, as they unveiled the Senate's starting-point plan for the state budget for 2014-2015. Despite the availability of more than enough money to undo the damaging biennial cuts of $5.4 billion in public education enacted in 2011, the Senate offered a plan that would restore nothing-zero-for public schools, continuing the cuts for two more years at the same destructive level.  Like the Senate proposal, the House plan announced at the same time by Appropriations Committee chair Jim Pitts, Republican of Waxahachie, also does not restore the funding that was cut in 2011.

Last school year the 2011 education cuts chopped more than 25,000 jobs from school-district rosters, including more than 10,000 teaching slots. Waivers of class-size caps in grades K-4 more than tripled, and all state grants for full-day pre-kindergarten were eliminated (along with nearly all Student Success Initiative funding, which provided extra help for students struggling to pass state exams).

Responding to the release of the initial 2014-2015 budget proposals, Texas AFT President Linda Bridges said:

"The Texas House and Senate budget bills announced today would continue deep cuts in public education for another two years-in spite of the availability of resurgent state revenue that makes it possible to undo those damaging cuts. While the authors stress that they cover 'enrollment growth' in public education in these budget plans, the truth is that funding per pupil would stay at the same reduced level established two years ago. Thus, their plans would continue the cuts of more than $500 per pupil enacted in 2011.

"The best that can be said for today's initial spending plans is that they are just the starting point, not the ending point, for writing the 2014-2015 budget. Texas can do better. The money is there. What's needed is the will to make the needed investment in our schoolchildren and our state's future."

The next step will be the introduction of House and Senate bills (to be labeled HB 1 and SB 1) that would implement the proposals sketched out today. In dollar terms, these proposals leave more than $23 billion in available revenue unspent. While $6 billion of that total will likely end up being used in a supplemental spending bill just to cover already-promised health and education spending for fiscal 2013, some $17 billion would still remain for 2014-2015--more than sufficient to reverse the harsh budget cuts passed in 2011, not just in education but also in other vital state services.  

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Now It's Official: Resurgent State Revenue Creates the Opportunity to Undo Destructive Budget Cut

by: Jamie Sanderson

Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 05:04 PM CST

Texas AFT President Linda Bridges offered the following comment today on the state comptroller's announcement of the official biennial revenue estimate, which will guide the new state legislature in its budget deliberations beginning tomorrow:

"Texas lawmakers begin their budget work tomorrow with revenue flowing into the state treasury at a prodigious pace. Even under the conservative initial revenue estimate for 2014-2015 announced by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs today, it is clear that the legislature will have the money to undo severe cuts in education and health care enacted in 2011. Today's revenue forecast leaves no excuse for state leaders and the legislature-they have the money, if they have the will, to restore the funds cut last session, including $5.4 billion in unprecedented cutbacks to public education.

"It turns out that two years ago the comptroller seriously underestimated state revenue for 2012-2013-so much so that the new legislature will have at its disposal $8.8 billion in leftover revenue that was not anticipated in the last biennial revenue estimate, as Comptroller Combs acknowledged today.

"In addition, for 2014-2015 the comptroller today projected that the legislature also will have $92.6 billion in available general revenue coming into state coffers. On top of that, Comptroller Combs further projected a rise to nearly $11.8 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund--the state's ready-reserve fund, informally known as the Rainy Day Fund, created to sustain state financial support for essential services such as education when revenue has temporarily dropped during an economic downturn.

"The upshot is that Texas lawmakers now can count on having more than $113 billion at their disposal--$101.4 billion in available general revenue and $11.8 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund-presenting them with a real opportunity to undo the needless damage done to public education and other core services in the 2011 session. We urge them to seize that opportunity and to reject the unwise counsel of those who would again needlessly sacrifice our children's and our state's future prospects by continuing the deep cuts of 2011 in the 2014-2015 budget."

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