(Pictured: Mike Morath)

AUSTIN, TX – The Texas House of Representatives Public Education Committee held the first hearing of the 86th Regular Session on Wednesday, January 30th.

Returning as chairman of the committee this session is Rep. Dan Huberty (R – Houston), and returning as vice-chair is Rep. Diego Bernal (D – San Antonio). Returning committee members include Rep. Alma Allen (D – Houston), Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. (D – Houston), Rep. Ken King (R – Canadian), Rep. Morgan Meyer (R – Dallas), and Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R – New Boston).

Several new faces have joined the committee: returning House members Trent Ashby (R – Lufkin), Keith Bell (R – Forney), Mary Gonzalez (D – El Paso), and Scott Sanford (R – McKinney) as well as freshmen legislators Steve Allison (R – San Antonio) and James Talarico (D – Round Rock).

Chair Huberty previewed the committee’s schedule of upcoming hearings. Two hearings next week will cover School Finance, with a “101” primer to be held on Tuesday, followed by the School Finance Commission’s presentation of its report on Wednesday. The following week, the committee will hear invited testimony from those wishing to comment on the report. On Feb. 19th, the committee will begin hearings on bills referred for consideration.

The highlight of the hearing agenda was testimony from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff. Morath began his testimony by giving an overview of where Texas kids stand: Just 47% of 5-year olds are ready for school when they begin kindergarten; by the end of 3rd grade, half of the kids are on grade-level for reading and math, which improves to a little over half by the end of 8th grade.

One issue the Texas Legislature will debate this session is funding full-day pre-kindergarten (pre-k), which advocates argue could improve both kindergarten readiness and subsequent academic performance for at-risk children. This debate comes in the context of cuts made to pre-k programs in the last session, which have hurt Texas students and school districts, according to a new report.

Despite those troubling numbers on the elementary school level, Morath cited positive trends in secondary education, including Texas being in the top five in the nation for high school graduation rates. Morath continued, “55% of new [high school] graduates are in college [trade school, junior college or 4-year degree programs], 60% of young people have some form of post-secondary credential and one in four young people [within six years of graduating high school] have a post-secondary credential.”

The hearing then switched to the hot topics of education funding and school finance. Chair Huberty first asked the Education Commissioner: has the state share of education funding declined in the last decade? Confirming the findings of the School Finance Commission, Morath responded in the affirmative. He noted how even as TEA  classify “recapture” (where money is redistributed from property-wealthy school districts to poorer districts) as a state contribution, the state share has still declined. Texas ranks in the bottom half in the country for per pupil spending.

Morath also discussed TEA’s efforts to move quickly on overhauling special education, in response to a US Department of Education investigation finding that Texas had illegally denied services thousands of kids with disabilities who needed themcuts in 2012 and 2017 that led to a multi-million dollar fine from the federal government, and a federal judge’s warning Texas is at risk of losing future federal dollars because of the cuts. Morath said fixing special education will likely be a five-year process, “we are not at the end, nor are we at the beginning of the end. We aren’t even at the end of the beginning.” For the upcoming biennium, Morath said it would cost a little under $3 billion to fix it.

Participation in special ed has gone up from 8.6 percent to 9.2 percent in the last year, which will likely increase state costs. One of TEA’s legislative appropriations request was compensatory services, i.e. creating funding support for acceleration of students for special ed, which would enable kids who did not previously receive special ed services to catch up once they qualify. Morath also said that rider requests, including for special education, were met in the House budget.

When it comes to increasing teacher pay, a much-discussed topic among lawmakers, Morath praised teachers, saying “Recruiting, supporting, and retaining our teachers,” is Morath’s highest priorities. He says, “Nobody has a bigger in-school impact on our students than our teachers in the classroom”, but Morath did not take a position on compensation.

On school safety, Morath said that TEA’s legislative appropriations request for “Safe & Healthy Schools” is fully funded in the House budget, which would include school hardening and increased mental health resources.

Rep. Meyer asked Morath to explain the recommendations, which is a joint report by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education covering threat assessment protocols and techniques. For example, building a system in place where because of good relationships between teachers and kids, at-risk kids can be identified and case management can occur. Morath added that Texas schools are woefully understaffed for mental health counselors, ranking near the bottom in the country. He recommended against any unfunded mandates for such protocols.

Chair Huberty asked about the effects on education from Hurricane Harvey, noting that it happened only a week after the 2017 special session ended. Morath reported that the last estimate of damage to schools comes at a $900 million cost, 90 percent of which is covered by insurance and FEMA. Updated cost estimates will come out next week. In addition, the final picture on property value and property collections will not be released until March. The last estimate, however, said that the Legislature has a $500 million to $1 billion hole in local school district budgets to fix from the last biennium because of Harvey, or else layoffs will occur.

Morath noted that $60 million in direct appropriation and $30 million in recapture tax abatements are in the supplemental House Budget to cover some of these costs.

Post-Harvey, twelve school districts submitted for reappraisals of property values, a $150 million hit. Chairman Huberty advocated the state reimbursing ISDs for the cost, along with county appraisal districts, as had been done for school districts after Hurricane Ike.

The final section of Commissioner Morath’s testimony dealt with assessments, from STAAR to the A-F accountability system.

Earlier this month, Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R – Odessa) filed a bill to end STAAR testing. Huberty asked Morath to clarify why that would be impossible. Morath answered that getting rid of STAAR testing, without an alternative assessment, would cost the state $2 billion of federal education funds.

In a response to Rep. King earlier in his testimony, Morath talked about including the extracurricular activity of students as another metric into the statewide accountability system, which would take effect in four years.

Rep. Dutton was absent during Morath’s testimony but was present later during TEA staff testimony on charter schools and HB 1882, a bill that governs school district’s partnerships with open-enrollment charter schools to operate a district campus when they have low accountability ratings for five consecutive years.

The Public Education Committee’s home page is here:

https://house.texas.gov/committees/committee/?committee=C400

To watch the committee hearing with Commissioner Morath’s testimony, click on this link below:

http://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view=id=44&clip_id=16061