Education

Daily Digest | May 28

The 84th Legislature comes to a close in just five days. Here’s what we have our eyes on at the State Capitol:

Governor Greg Abbott signed his priority pre-K bill into law this morning. Calling the legislation “just the start,” he put pen to paper on House Bill 4 at an early childhood center in Southeast Austin. Governor Abbott said,

“If Texas is going to compete to be #1 in the nation for jobs we can’t wait for tomorrow. We must start today to ensure the best education.”

The plan offers about $130 million in extra funding that can be divided among school districts that follow certain guidelines in their pre-K programs. Early education was Governor Abbott’s first emergency item in his “State of the State” speech, but it found opposition later in the session from Tea Party groups, who called the program unnecessary. The plan was also criticized from Democrats and teachers groups who were pushing for a full-day pre-K program. In the end, schools could get up to $1,500 in state funding per eligible student under the plan. Governor Abbott avoided commenting on the status of gun legislation, saying he’s waiting to see what lawmakers come up with. He also said he does not expect to have to call a special session this year.

The House and Senate both got a late start today. The Senate convened at 1 p.m., but the House won’t gavel in until 2 p.m. Lawmakers in the House could take up the budget as early as this afternoon.

The Senate approved a resolution late Wednesday expressing the state’s opposition to same-sex marriage. It comes after House Bill 2977 was amended in the Senate to include a provision that would have forbidden state or local governments from using public funding to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The author of that bill told Capital Tonight on Wednesday that he would pull his bill down if the language was kept in there. The resolution came after it became clear that legislation would not pass. Opponents of SR 1028 voiced opposition to passing a resolution they say was unnecessary, had no real effects, and would prove to be on the wrong side of history. Supporters argued it was important to represent their constituents who oppose same-sex marriage anyway. Texas already has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of such bans this summer.

Finally, here’s an update on several key pieces of legislation that were sent to conference committee last night. State Representative Byron Cook (R – TX House District 8) resisted attempts to strip his dark money disclosure provision in Senate Bill 19despite the author of the bill, Sen. Van Taylor (R – TX Senate District 8) coming out in strong opposition to it. The language calls for political nonprofits to list their donors. Those two lawmakers will join other conferees to try to come together on a bill that has been called a key part of Governor Greg Abbott’s call for ethics reform, one of his emergency items for this session.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” We’re joined by Rep. Sylvester Turner (D – TX House District 139), who is leaving the Legislature next week after 26 years representing Houston. We’ll hear his assessment of the budget process, education, gun laws and his future as he continues his campaign to become Houston’s next mayor. All that, plus political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi join the show with their analysis. Tune in tonight at 7 and 11 on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | May 27

The final gavel of the 84th Legislature drops in just five days. Here’s what we’re watching out for at the State Capitol today:

Law enforcement agencies from across the state are meeting at the Capitol to protest gun control laws being pushed through the Legislature. House leaders passed a watered-down version of the “campus carry” bill (Senate Bill 11) just minutes before last night’s midnight deadline. The bill looked destined to fail with more than a hundred amendments still left to debate with just minutes left on the clock, but a last-minute deal led to lawmakers approving the legislation. But that included a key amendment pushed for by university leaders that would allow some campuses to determine where on school grounds that they would allow concealed guns. The controversial piece of legislation has seen staunch opposition from police as well as university leaders; UT System Chancellor William McRaven has spoken out on several occasions against the legislation, saying it will hurt recruiting and will make campuses less safe. Supporters say a person’s Second Amendment rights shouldn’t be infringed when they step onto a college campus.

Two other controversial bills did fall victim to the clock. Senate Bill 575 would have blocked women from using health insurance plans to get an abortion.  And Senate Bill 206, a Sunset review bill to streamline the Department of Family and Protective Services also died. That included the amendment that would have protected child welfare agencies from being sued if they don’t allow same-sex couples to adopt or foster children.

That led to an unusual scene in the House this morning. A Tea Party coalition led by Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R – TX House District 92) killed off several bills with wide support, but were mainly sponsored by Democrats. It happened during a session on the Local & Consent calendar, which is usually reserved for noncontroversial bills with only local impact that had near unanimous support in committees. There were about six bills knocked down, included a bill to monitor special needs classrooms in an effort to stop cases of abuse. Several lawmakers accused Rep. Stickland of retaliation, after he voiced criticism of the House’s failure to pass the aforementioned bills. Wednesday was the last day for the House to consider local and consent bills.

Finally, we now know when Governor Greg Abbott will put pen to paper on his priority pre-K bill. Today, he announced a signing ceremony for House Bill 4 tomorrow at an early childhood center in Austin. The plan offers about 130 million extra dollars, that can be divided among school districts that follow certain guidelines in their pre-K programs. Pre-K education was Governor Abbott’s first emergency item in his “State of the State” speech, but it found opposition later in the session from Tea Party groups, who called the program unnecessary. The plan was also criticized from Democrats and teachers groups who were pushing for a full-day pre-K program. In the end, schools could get up to $1,500 in state funding per eligible student under the plan.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” We’re joined by Rep. Jason Isaac (R – TX House District 45), who represents much of the area hit by the massive flooding in Central Texas this week. We’ll hear his assessment of what’s needed from both the state and federal government. All that, plus the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg joins the show with his analysis. Tune in tonight at 7 and 11 on Time Warner Cable News.

Daily Digest | May 19

We’re now thirteen days from the final gavel of the 84th Legislature. Here’s what we have our eye on at the State Capitol today:

Immigrant rights advocates are marching on the Governor’s Mansion to call for changes in immigration policy. The group “United We Dream” is protesting the Governor’s lawsuit against President Obama’s executive action on immigration, which would have shielded millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. It comes as two bills that critics have called anti-immigrant return to the Senate intent calendar, which is usually an indicator the legislation has a chance to pass.

Senate Bill 1819 would repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates if they have lived in Texas for three or more years. The other legislation recently added to the calendar is Senate Bill 185, or the so-called “sanctuary cities bill.” That proposal would expand immigration enforcement authority for local law enforcement. Supporters say it helps enforce immigration laws, while critics argue it leads to discrimination and would turn Texas into an anti-immigrant, “show me your papers” state. Our Karina Kling will explore the political implications of those bills as the House’s border security funding bill, House Bill 11, makes its way through the Senate.

In other headlines, the House Public Education Committee is set to take up Senate Bill 14, the so-called “parent trigger bill.” It would make it easier for parents to intervene and make changes at low-performing schools in their district. The author of the bill says it gives parents more power in shaping their child’s education, but critics argue it will just hurt schools that are already struggling even more instead of bringing them up to speed. And the House’s major overhaul of the state’s economic incentive funds is going before a Senate committee. House Bill 26 would abolish the Emerging Technology Fund and put that money toward Governor Abbott’s University Research Initiative. It would also create an Economic Incentive Oversight Board to monitor how state incentives are being distributed, after accusations were leveled at Governor Perry over lax oversight policies in the awarding of state funds.

For more on all of these stories, check out tonight’s episode of “Capital Tonight.” Our guest tonight is Gary Godsey, the head of the influential group, the Association of Texas Professional Educators or ATPE. We’ll discuss the major education-related legislation this session, including the parent trigger bill, the A-F campus accountability bill and school funding, which is still in question. Plus political strategists Harold Cook and Ted Delisi will join us with their perspectives. Tune in tonight at 7 and 11 on Time Warner Cable News.

Grand Jury Calls for Removal of Regent Wallace Hall

A Travis County grand jury is calling on the University of Texas System to remove Regent Wallace Hall, Jr. A four-page report released Tuesday fell short of indicting the UT system regent, but said, “we are appalled at the Regent’s unaccountable and abusive behavior,” and added that it “is in the best interest of the state” to remove Hall from office.

The grand jury had been asked to look into allegations of abuse of office, misuse of information and official oppression against Hall after he conducted a personal investigation into UT Austin President Bill Powers. The grand jury said Hall’s “abusive excess” overwhelmed the system with 800,000 pages of open records requests, and added he tried to avoid paying for the report that cost about a million dollars to complete.

“Outrageously, after requiring university staff to double their effort to fulfill these parallel requests, he actually requested not to be charged (like other private citizens are) for the cost of his private open records requests.”

The report accuses Hall of avoiding transparency and accountability by communicating orders verbally to avoid a paper trail, and said his actions led to leaks of confidential student information. The report says Hall’s “over leveraging of his power resulted in lost talent, lowered morale, exposure of student information and unreasonable expenses.”

The grand jury also recommended changes in protocols for regents in the future, including making regents pay for open records requests and establishing consequences for distributing confidential data. It also suggests requiring regents to use university email accounts for all official business like other employees.

A House Committee censured Regent Hall last year due to his investigation, and several lawmakers called for his resignation. Hall’s supporters, including then-Governor Rick Perry who appointed him, said Hall’s investigation showed irregular admissions practices at UT-Austin. Hall got some vindication from an independent investigation released earlier this year that said it did find some applicants who had been accepted to UT despite objections from the admissions office due to the insistence of UT-Austin President Bill Powers. But Powers defended those actions, saying it was a common practice at colleges around the country and was in the long-term interest of the university. System Chancellor William McRaven did not discipline Powers after that report.

Rep. Dan Flynn (R – TX House District 2), who was a co-chair of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released this joint statement after the grand jury report on behalf of himself and fellow co-chair Rep. Carol Alvarado (D – TX House District 145):

The grand jury report that came out this morning demonstrates why our committee needed to investigate Regent Hall and his behavior. Taxpayers expect their elected representatives to provide oversight of state agencies and executive appointees. Such oversight is especially important when appointees abuse their office. With this investigation now complete and with an outstanding new chancellor and strong new regents in place, we are optimistic that the UT System is ready to move forward and focus on the needs of its students and our state.

Regent Hall released the following statement after the grand jury’s decision not to indict him was made public:

The campaign by Speaker Straus, Representative Flynn and Senator Seliger to criminalize my service as a Regent constitutes abuse of office.  Their use of the levers of political power to cover up wrongdoing by legislators should now be investigated, and those exposed for their abuses should be driven from office.

Texas Candidates for Governor Respond to School Finance Ruling

Any possible changes the Texas Legislature makes to the school finance system will happen under the watch of the next governor. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott is the current attorney general. His office represents the state in school finance litigation. Officially, his office said he would defend this law in court, just as he would any other law passed by the Legislature.

Later Thursday, his campaign released this statement:

“Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago. In my campaign for governor, I have proposed substantial improvements for our schools that will do a better job of educating Texans while spending tax dollars wisely. My plan will make Texas top-ranked in the nation for education by returning genuine local control to school districts, ensuring all children are reading and doing math at grade level by third grade, and graduating more students from high school than ever before.”

Sen. Wendy Davis is also weighing in on today’s ruling. She has long criticized the Legislature’s decision to slash $5.4 billion in school spending in 2011. In a statement Thursday, she said:

“Today is a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans. The reality is clear and indefensible: insiders like Greg Abbott haven’t been working for our schools; they’ve been actively working against them. Abbott has been in court for years, defending overcrowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and public-school closings, and today, Judge John Dietz ruled against him. This ruling underscores the crucial need to invest in education and reminds us of just how much our schools, teachers and students have had to sacrifice over the past three years just to get by.”

UT reacts to Supreme Court ruling in Michigan admissions policy case

The University of Texas is reviewing Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan ban to use race as a factor in college admissions.

In a 6-2 ruling, the justices said voters had the right to change their state constitution to prohibit public colleges and universities from considering race as part of the admissions process. The decision reverses a lower court ruling.

Meantime, the University of Texas at Austin is awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel over its own admissions policy. The Supreme Court ruled on the Fisher v. University of Texas case last summer and sent it back down to the appeals court to enable a look at UT’s admissions policy under a more narrow set of standards.

Prospective student Abigail Fisher sued the university after being denied admission. Fisher, who is white, claimed she was the victim of racial discrimination because other, non-white students with lower test scores were admitted.

Reacting to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Michigan case, UT President Bill Powers said that based on its preliminary review, the university does not believe it has any effect on UT’s admissions policy or decisions.

Powers added:

“In today’s ruling, the court recognized that the Schuette case from Michigan was not ‘about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.’ The court also reaffirmed that in the case of Fisher versus the University of Texas, the court ‘did not disturb the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible, provided that certain conditions are met.’ UT Austin’s admissions policy meets those conditions and we are awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel. UT Austin uses race as one of many factors in our holistic review of applicants. Assembling a diverse student body is vital to the education of all students on campus and helps train the future leaders of our state and nation who will increasingly work in a diverse and global society.”

Capital Tonight: Public education chair talks frankly about school funding

Students starting high school for the first time next year will have a brand new slate of graduation options ahead of them. In the meantime, lawmakers are still wrestling with the complex process of implementing those changes, which were passed last legislative session.

In Wednesday’s Capital Tonight, we heard the concerns some lawmakers have about whether the pathways to graduation are too complicated for students and parents to navigate. Plus, we talked to the Public Education Committee Chair, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, about how counselors and increased funding will play a role in making the new law go more smoothly in the future.

BOND INFORMATION

Voters across Central Texas will have bond propositions to consider on the May ballot. But figuring out where exactly the money goes and how it affects local debt can by a tricky task. State Comptroller Susan Combs joined us in-studio next to talk about her office’s efforts to increase transparency with a helpful new website.

DEADLINE DELAY

The Obama administration is giving people more time to sign up for health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act. The deadline to sign up was slated for March 31st, but The White House had hinted last week an extension was in the works. We spoke to enrollment experts in Austin to see how they’re dealing with the change.

Cigarroa steps down as UT System chancellor, says fight over Powers unrelated

The head of the University of Texas System formally announced he would end his five-year tenure to return to transplant surgery.

In a press conference Monday, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said he had accomplished everything he’d set out to do as chancellor, and that it always had been his intention to return to medicine full-time. Cigarroa has accepted a job as head of pediatric transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Cigarroa touted his accomplishments as chancellor, including the establishment of two new medical schools: the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the Dell School of Medicine at UT Austin. He also cited his Framework for Advancing Excellence, which the UT Board of Regents adopted in 2011. The plan called for increased engineering education, expanded online learning and the Horizon Fund, which provides seed money for the commercialization of UT research.

The chancellor’s departure comes during a tumultuous time for the Board of Regents, UT Austin President Bill Powers and the Texas Legislature. In December, Cigarroa announced Powers would stay on as president, but cited strained tensions with the board. Meanwhile, a joint committee of lawmakers is investigating UT Regent Wallace Hall, who has been accused of a “witch hunt” against Powers. Cigarroa said the controversy surrounding the UT Austin president had nothing to do with his decision.

“I evaluate all presidents as I’ve always done, based on facts and performance,” Cigarroa said. “I support President Powers, and I will continue to evaluate presidents every day — not only President Powers but all 15.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who has been supportive of Powers, says she believes the decision has more to do with the fight over leadership than Cigarroa would admit.

“Although I am confident that he will deny any disharmony, I am equally confident that his decision was influenced by the continued negative circumstances at hand. His action personifies the harmful repercussions of the current attack on those who pursue excellence, protect the privacy of students and strive for true transparency for all,” Zaffirini said in a statement.

Cigarroa said he will remain as chancellor until his replacement is found, a process UT Board of Regents Chair Paul Foster says will likely to take 4-6 months. He will also continue to serve the board as an adviser for the UT Rio Grande Valley medical school.