Texas Public Policy Foundation

Another reason for educators to vote – sharks are circling their pensions


Retired teachers who already are worried about their state pensions will be even more threatened during next year’s legislative session, unless they start doing something about it now. The same warning holds true for active school employees who , sooner or later, also will be retirees.

So, you may ask, what else is new? With low salaries, modest pensions and rising health care costs, school employees and retirees are under constant attack by most of the powers that be in Austin. True enough.

But the 2019 session, which convenes in January, may be even worse, following last week’s decision by the Teacher Retirement System Board of Trustees to lower the assumed rate of investment return on the educators’ pension fund from 8 percent to 7.25 percent. It was a technical move, required by global economic factors, to maintain the financial integrity of a very strong fund. The action didn’t lower anyone’s monthly pension payment – only the Legislature can do that — but it nevertheless will have consequences for retirees and future retirees.

The first consequence is that the Legislature will have to increase contributions to the TRS fund to make up for the anticipated losses in investment income. The Legislature also will decide who pays the higher contributions. At present, teachers and other active school employees pay 7.7 percent of their salaries to the fund, the state pays 6.8 percent of the total teacher payroll and school districts pay 1.5 percent.

Texas’ contribution rate is the lowest of any state’s contribution rate to a teacher retirement fund. Nevertheless, the current state leadership, which has a history of shortchanging public education and educators, may not want to dig any deeper into the state budget. Instead, it may choose to add millions of dollars to the contributions that active teachers, school employees and school districts have to pay.

The Legislature could even choose to lower pension payments for retirees, although I am not predicting that will happen. At present, retirees’ monthly payments average only $2,060, which are among the lowest in the country, and most retired educators in Texas don’t get Social Security.

But the current leadership, if still in power in January, may attempt something equally detrimental for retired educators and future retirees because sharks already are circling, ready to grab an advantage from the opening that TRS has given them.

These sharks are the profiteers who want to wipe out TRS, as we know it, and its defined benefit plan for retirees and replace it with a riskier (for retirees) 401k-style, defined contribution plan. Each future retiree would determine his or her own contribution and roll the dice on future economic conditions to determine the eventual benefit.

A 401k can be a nice supplemental retirement fund for those who can afford it, and if the markets cooperate. But under-paid educators deserve and need a more-stable, defined benefit plan as their retirement base, especially educators who don’t receive Social Security benefits, which include most school employees in Texas.

But the 401k sharks are circling, salivating over all the lucrative management fees that could be pocketed from a $150 billion teacher pension fund and the hard-earned contributions that educators are making to it.

Such a conversion has been discussed in recent years without gaining much traction because of opposition from TSTA and other employee groups that recognize the dangers. But no sooner had TRS lowered its assumed rate of return last week than the sharks, including privatization advocates at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, were smelling fresh blood in the water.

And when the Texas Public Policy Foundation speaks, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and many members of the legislative majority listen and, more often than not, obey orders.

The best defense that educators and retirees have against the pension sharks is coming up on Nov. 6, Election Day. Early voting will start Oct. 22, and if you aren’t registered to vote, that deadline is Oct. 9. Abbott, Patrick and legislative offices will be on the ballot, and so will pro-public education and pro-retiree candidates endorsed by TSTA-PAC.

Vote Education First! Vote like your profession – and your pension – depend on it. Because they do.



Campaign to intimidate educators from voting not likely to go away


The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based, “free market” think tank, has long been an advocate of privatizing education, creating more opportunities, not for school children, but for the entrepreneurs it counts among its financial backers. TPPF views government, including public schools, as a potential profit center for investors, and its influence is evident among the state’s current leadership.

For good reason, educators have always been a threat to TPPF’s program. I don’t mean the people who go around calling themselves education “experts” and are on call for Dan Patrick to summon them to the Capitol to testify for his latest bad idea.

I mean the real education experts, the teachers, counselors and others who work in Texas’ public schools, trying to give every child an opportunity to succeed, including those kids who private schools and corporate charters don’t want to touch.

So it’s not surprising that the “free market” think tank has added its support to an obvious effort to intimidate educators from voting in this year’s elections. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, who has consistently voted to under-fund public schools and promote vouchers, got the anti-educator campaign started late last year. He asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for a legal opinion on what school districts can and can’t do to encourage employees and students of voting age to register and vote.

He was responding to efforts of a nonpartisan group called Texas Educators Vote that is urging school districts to help drum up a large voting turnout among educators and urging educators to vote in the best interests of Texas school children. TSTA also has launched a similar, but separate, Vote Education First campaign.

Paxton promptly answered Bettencourt’s request and in a non-binding political opinion that was as predictable as 100-degree temperatures in Austin in August suggested that educator voting campaigns were a nefarious plot. TPPF applauded.

In a statement, TPPF said Paxton had recognized the educators’ campaign was “a thinly veiled coercion of government employees, who were urged to support an oath in support of Texas school children by a group that seems to support a particular political agenda.”

Imagine that. Educators urging educators to vote in support of school children.

Individual educators have a constitutional right to support a political agenda of their choosing, and they certainly have a right to vote in the best interests of their students and their professions. But’s that the kind of voting that scares the school privateers.

At lot is at stake in this year’s elections. Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick, two of the biggest school privatization advocates in state government, are on the ballot. And so are legislative races that will determine who the next speaker of the House is. Speaker Joe Straus, who is retiring, opposed vouchers and other privatization schemes. But who will be his successor?

Vote Education First!



Whining in the wind over education “reform”

Self-styled education “experts” are a dime a dozen and contribute about that much to educational quality in the public schools. Although that description could apply to a number of individuals and groups cluttering the political landscape these days, I am referring specifically this time to the Texas Association of Business (TAB) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

TAB and TPPF are members of a group calling itself the Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workforce, which is trying to convince the Legislature to save the ill-timed and highly unpopular STAAR testing program. Many parents and educators, on the other hand, believe Texas school children would be much better off if the Legislature were to toss STAAR onto the trash heap next session. And, more than 850 school districts have signed a petition criticizing the state’s over-reliance on standarized, high-stakes testing.

It simply is wrong to base a school accountability system on a single collection of high stakes tests, which is what STAAR does. And it is made worse by the fact that STAAR, a higher hurdle than the TAKS tests it replaced, was imposed on teachers and school children as the legislative majority was slashing $5.4 billion — or more than $500 per student — from school funding. In other words, lawmakers demanded more success from children and teachers while cutting back on the resources – smaller classes, up-to-date books, teaching aides – that help them succeed.

Yet, to hear TAB, TPPF and their allies tell it, you would think that the demise of STAAR would be the end of educated civilization, at least in Texas. Their alliance held a news conference in Austin yesterday and plans others around the state in advance of the legislative session. TAB President and CEO Bill Hammond defended the state’s effort to hold local schools “accountable” for the performance of their students.

Hammond’s declaration to the contrary, the future of public education in Texas does not rest on children’s passing rates on STAAR. Texas already has great teachers and strong school administrators. The future of public education in Texas rests on the commitment of the state leadership in Austin to quality public schools that are adequately and equitably funded. That is why the Texas State Teachers Association continues to protest the budget cuts, and that is why 600 school districts have sued state government over education funding.

Have TAB, TPPF or their allies tried to hold the governor and the legislative majority accountable for their lack of support of public schools? No. In fact, in their own hypocritical fashion, they have done a lot to undermine public schools. TAB is a long-time supporter of Gov. Rick Perry and many members of the legislative majority, which voted last session to cut $5.4 billion from public education and may try to squeeze more money out of classrooms next year. They like Perry’s insistence on keeping taxes low, even at the expense of education and other state services. And, TPPF promotes government privatization for the benefit of its members, and it encourages all the budget-cutting. In TPPF’s view, the more privatization and profiteering at the expense of public education, the better. TAB and TPPF also propose the siphoning of more tax dollars from public education to support a private school voucher program.

TAB and TPPF are part of the problem. Neither group knows the first thing about education “reform.” So, keep that in mind as they continue their whine-song over STAAR. If they really want to improve the public schools – and the rank-and-file TAB business membership should demand it –they should demand that the governor and the legislative majority start restoring school funding.

Otherwise, they are whining in the wind.