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The Senate Education Committee held its first hearing of the interim May 24. When Sen. Brandon Creighton called the hearing to order, he noted that this was his first hearing as chair of the committee. He thanked Sen. Larry Taylor for serving as chair for eight years and stated that he would be missed. Creighton introduced the charges before the committee, which follow:

COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Educator Talent Pipeline
Interim Charge: Examine the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the public school educator talent pipeline, staffing patterns and practices, and declining student enrollment and attendance. Review any policies and regulatory actions that prevent students from receiving instruction from a highly effective teacher. Monitor the impact of both the Teacher Incentive Allotment and non-administrator compensation increases directed under House Bill 3 (86th Legislature), as well as the teacher pay raises implemented in 2019. Explore innovative models to improve recruitment and make recommendations to maintain a strong educator workforce pipeline, while adapting resilient school strategies to meet emergent demands in public education.

Commissioner of Education Mike Morath provided an overview of public school enrollment as well as current teacher recruitment and retention challenges. He noted that teacher retirements increased in 2020-21 but appear to be tracking closer to average during 2021-22. He also provided data on teacher pay and the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA).

Morath then discussed teacher training, reporting that traditional preparation now represents only 20% of the teacher workforce; the dominant preparation route is alternate certification (69%). He shared data on novice vs. experienced teachers, with experienced teachers being generally more effective and less likely to leave the profession. He stated that there is not a significant state investment (other than the “Grow Your Own” program) in teacher preparation; it’s up to districts and teachers themselves to pay for that.

Morath showed data comparing teachers in Texas (and the U.S.) with other countries, with U.S. teachers spending much more time with students, and less time for preparation and planning, than teachers in other countries. He said making teaching profession sustainable will require taking a different approach to staffing and the structuring the school day that allows for more balance, noting this is happening in some places. Morath said making these changes more widespread would require a sufficient number of teacher assistants and specific planning support for districts — and time to implement changes.

Questions and discussion ensued about expanding TIA, the value of increased pay vs. improved working conditions, stress caused by the Reading Academies, and more.

Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri, part of a panel providing invited testimony, shared the multi-faceted strategy his district has used to go from 300-plus teacher vacancies to 50, including increasing teacher and other employee pay, providing supplemental compensation in areas of shortage, participating in TIA, which he called a “difference maker,” developing teacher and leadership pipelines, creating a pathway to counseling, and more. His recommendations: continue to support districts of innovation, continue to provide funding for national-board certification of teachers, continue support of TIA, and provide funding for innovative solutions such as Opportunity Culture and collaborations with higher education.

Comal ISD Superintendent Andrew Kim, also on the panel, began discussion of teacher shortage recommendations by noting the fast growth of his district. He said that there are certain areas that are worse within the teacher shortage and focus should be given to these, such as American Sign Language teachers. He also said that additional support needs to given to create incentives for high school students in teacher-prep programs. In response to questions about bus driver shortages, he mentioned that many drivers are retirees who are obtaining health insurance by working for the district so perhaps some additional outreach/incentives could be offered with that in mind.

On the issue of student conduct raised by Creighton, Kim said classroom management is key to great instruction and perhaps enforcement of legislation already in place should be looked at as well as legislation surrounding DAEPs. Muri brought up the need for preventing some discipline issues by better supporting students’ mental health needs.

Sen. Menendez asked if the superintendents had experienced that their students/faculty were having difficulty accessing mental health assistance. Muri said that despite a concerted effort to bring together disparate entities involved in mental health in his community that has helped, there is a mental health professional and also a school counselor shortage that presents challenges. Kim said that students often seek “counseling” with adults who are their coaches or teachers because they feel more comfortable with them, so schools’ challenge is supporting these employees with support/training in this area.

HB 3, HB 1525
Interim Charge: Monitor HB 3 and HB 1525

Morath then provided an update on implementation of HB 1525, the “clean-up” bill for the HB 3 (2019) on school finance.

During public testimony, Frisco ISD CFO Kimberly Smith on how the cap on the fast-growth allotment will negatively impact the district. Seminole ISD Superintendent Kyle Lynch testified in support of an increase to the basic allotment, noting the increased costs to districts due to inflation and revenue districts do not receive due to recapture.

HB 4545
Interim Charge: Monitor HB 4545

Morath also gave an update on the implementation of HB 4545 on accelerated instruction/assessment, noting that bringing together administrators from different districts has been the most useful practice in supporting implementation.

Alief ISD Superintendent
HD Chambers
, was on a panel providing invited testimony. In response to a concern voiced earlier in the hearing about a small percentage of federal funds allocated for tutoring having been spent by districts, Chambers stated that some funding has not been expended for tutoring due to districts’ inability to find people to hire, even when offering $50-75 per hour. Chambers also noted that districts are now receiving their STAAR data for the year, and there has been growth in student performance, though he said caution should be taken when comparing results because the students tested in 2021 may not be the ones tested in 2022. He also said that school leaders all understand the positive impact that tutoring and remediation have, saying districts have always offered that. But he noted that HB 4545’s provision requiring tutoring to be built into the school day is very difficult to implement; building a master schedule and trying to embed tutoring time within that is “an algebra problem on steroids” and carving out 30 minutes a day or week to address HB 4545 removes students from first-line instruction. He asked for some flexibility with the required 3-to-1 student-to-teacher tutoring ratio and the 30 hours that are required. He said that some students need 60 hours; some need six. He also said that he has only four days between receiving the STAAR data and the beginning of the summer school program so flexibility there would be appreciated.

Kim addressed the master scheduling issues by suggesting that more flexibility be granted within graduation requirements to allow counselors more flexibility in scheduling and students more room in their schedules for tutorial periods, etc.

During public testimony, Wes Cunningham, chief academic officer for Frisco ISD, testified about the challenges schools are facing with HB 4545 requirements, including the blanket 30-hour tutoring requirement. He recommended that flexibility be granted for campus committees to be able to determine students’ accelerated instruction needs.

Bond Efficiency
Interim Charge:
Conduct a comprehensive review of the school district bond issuance process. Specifically, review public notice and disclosure requirements, the bond election process, procurement requirements, and how unused bond proceeds may be utilized. Study the best practices implemented by school boards and make recommendations to improve bond issuance efficiencies.

Taylor ISD Superintentendent Devin Padavil and Frisco ISD CFO Kimberly Smith provided invited testimony, as did Rolinda Schmidt, president of the Kerrville ISD Board of Trustees. Schmidt provided an overview of the bond process, shared her experiences with the process, and noted bonds have become more difficult to pass statewide. Padavil shared his experiences and need for a bond election in Taylor and recommended changes to the bond ballot language for clarity about what is/isn’t a tax rate increase. Smith shared Frisco ISD’s process and stressed the importance of flexiblity for fast-growth districts that cannot always accurately project their needs years in advance. Committee members and panelists engaged in a lengthy discussion on transparency, clarity of language, tax rate vs. appraisal value, and more.

Homestead Exemption
Interim Charge:
Study the use and effect of the optional homestead exemption available to independent school districts. Examine and report on costs to the state if school districts receive incentives to increase the optional percentage exemption.

On the homestead exemption panel included Abilene ISD Superintendent David Young and Comal ISD Superintendent Andrew Kim, as well as TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez and Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. Both superintendents shared the expected impact of an optional exemption on their district budgets.