Investing in higher education

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Dear Friend,

Higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree used to suffice when I was growing up, a bachelor’s or associate degree is often a prerequisite for many of today’s best and fastest-growing jobs.

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for these jobs and move up the economic ladder, and an integral part of making those dreams become a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, Texas’ failure to invest in those opportunities has shifted the cost of higher education onto the backs of Texas families, forcing them to bear a significantly greater share of cost of college. Attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten much more expensive over past dozen years. In fact, the average cost of full-time attendance at a public university increased 104 percent from 2003 to 2013 – more than doubling!

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Addressing the Houston Community College commencement in 2014

In an effort to address this spike in cost, Representative Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and I have filed legislation – SB 271 and HB 1384 – to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree. These bills provide the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with the authority to allow community colleges that meet certain criteria to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science and nursing programs – provided there’s a demonstrated workforce need, student interest, resources to support the program, and the schools use a measured, phased-in approach.

These bills provide another avenue for students and working adults that want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, as estimates put the cost of a four-year degree at around $10,000 to $12,000 at a community college. In addition, community colleges often have more flexibility to offer courses in the evening and on weekends. Their graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

Texas universities and colleges are incredibly important to our state, and they will continue to provide and produce the majority of baccalaureate degree-educated students in our state. But Texas has some real workforce needs that will require the state utilizing all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree.

I look forward to working with the rest of the legislature to get the state a step closer to ensuring that all Texans who want to obtain a baccalaureate degree have an affordable pathway to do so.

Tuition deregulation leads to an explosion in tuition
The enormous growth in the cost of higher education didn’t happen overnight. In 2003, instead of continuing to invest in our schools, the legislature deregulated tuition and pushed increased costs onto families. I’m proud to have voted against the bill then, arguing that it would “make it more difficult for middle class families to afford to send their children to these public institutions.” That’s certainly proven to be true.

Since then, the average cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled. Our total growth in tuition and fees during that time period is the fifth highest in the nation, making it harder and harder for students to attend the state schools that were built to serve them. It’s pushing families to incur enormous debt loads to attend state schools and pricing others out of higher education altogether. That’s because the state has failed to do its job to invest in higher education. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, inflation-adjusted state support has dropped by 19.7 percent since tuition was deregulated.

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This session, I filed SB 255 to cap tuition at the current rate and force the legislature to adequately fund our public colleges and universities. Tuition deregulation allows unelected boards of regents to increase tuition completely on their own and without any public accountability.

My bill would remove that power from the regents and put it back in the hands of the legislature, forcing legislators to be held accountable to students and constituents for their decisions on whether to properly invest in Texas’ higher education system. The Texas Senate and House of Representatives are elected to make tough decisions and invest in our state’s future, and higher education has to be one of those investments.

TEXAS Grants: an answer to growing student debt
Reining in tuition will benefit thousands of students, but there will still be those who need some extra help. Many students already turn to loans to finance their educations. Over the past decade, student loan debt has grown more than 60%, becoming the second-largest source of household debt. In 2012, 20.5 percent of all student debt holders in Texas were more than 90 days delinquent. Aside from the risk of default and delinquency, student loan debt represents a large share of graduates’ salaries, requiring them to delay or forgo other opportunities.

Taking on growing debt loads shouldn’t be their only option. In 1999, I authored legislation establishing the TEXAS Grants program, an innovative scholarship program that provides funding for financially needy students to attend college. Since then, the state has invested over $2.98 billion in TEXAS Grants to assist more than 400,000 students in attending higher education. Most recipients have an expected family contribution of $0, so TEXAS Grants ensure that a family’s financial circumstances are not an insurmountable barrier to education.

This session, I’ll be fighting to ensure full funding for the TEXAS Grants program so that all eligible students that qualify for a grant can receive one. The legislature must continue to place a high priority on making higher education an accessible option for all Texans. Click here to see if you qualify for a TEXAS Grant and learn more about the program.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Reforming Texas’ DNA testing law

On February 9, I joined Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for murder until DNA evidence proved his innocence, and Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, to urge the passage of SB 487, my bill to improve access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans.

Fair access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans is a matter of justice and public safety. The numbers demonstrate this. DNA evidence has exonerated 325 wrongfully convicted Americans, and while the innocent were behind bars the real criminals went on to commit and be convicted of 145 additional crimes – including 77 rapes and 34 murders.

In Texas, DNA testing exonerated 52 innocent people, and the real criminals were later identified in 21 of these cases. Michael Morton is one of those proven innocent after DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator. His case shows the importance of a strong DNA testing law that allows the wrongfully convicted to prove their innocence.

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SB 487 will improve Texas’ DNA testing law with minor technical fixes to better enable testing of key crime scene evidence and to enhance the use of DNA databases in innocence claims. Almost exactly one year ago, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asked for clarity in both of these areas of law, and that’s what this legislation provides.

First, it clarifies that a court can grant DNA testing for key pieces of evidence that have “a reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material that may not be readily visible. Modern DNA technology can generate results from saliva, skin, and sweat cells that are invisible to the naked eye. We want to ensure that critical evidence that may prove innocence and guilt is eligible for testing.

Next, the bill makes it clear that the possibility of a match in the DNA database system could prove someone’s innocence by identifying the real criminal. The Combined DNA Index System or CODIS is the federal and state DNA database that contains over 10 million DNA profiles of known offenders. It’s a critical crime-solving tool that has helped identify actual perpetrators in 104 of the nation’s DNA exoneration cases.

These changes are simple, and would provide the courts with the clear guidance they’ve asked for. This is about making sure the right person is convicted, and making sure our communities are safe.

Since the press conference, a number of newspapers across the state have editorialized in support of the bill’s passage, including the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Immigration news

Last Tuesday, a federal judge in South Texas temporarily halted President Obama’s executive order, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  The President’s executive order would have provided immediate relief to millions of families that work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to our thriving community.

This move is politically motivated and damaging, but it is important for our community to know that this federal lawsuit does not invalidate DAPA or DACA – it is only a temporary setback. The Department of Justice will appeal the court’s decision and we expect it to be reversed affirming that the programs are on sound legal footing.

In the meantime, eligible family members in our communities should continue undeterred preparing for the administrative relief.

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En español

Este martes pasado, un juez federal en el sur de Texas temporalmente detuvo la orden ejecutiva de Presidente Obama, Acción Diferida para los padres de los estadounidenses y residentes legales permanentes conocida como DAPA y la expansión de Acción Diferida para jóvenes conocida como DACA. La orden ejecutiva del Presidente hubiera previsto alivio inmediato para millones de familias trabajadoras, que pagan impuestos y contribuyen a nuestras comunidades.

Aunque esta demanda es dañina, es importante que nuestras comunidades sepan que esta demanda es temporal y no invalide DAPA o DACA. El Departamento de Justicia apelara la decisión de la corte y esperamos que reversan la decisión y se afirme que las órdenes ejecutivas del Presidente, DAPA y DACA tienen base jurídica y podrán efectuarse.

Por lo mientras, familias elegibles en nuestras comunidades deberían de continuar de prepararse para aplicar a los programas.


Scenes from session

Ron Kirk - Virgil Lott Award dinner

Celebrating at the University of Texas with friends after former Ambassador Ron Kirk received the Virgil C. Lott Award

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Introducing Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez and El Paso City Representative Claudia Ordaz


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At the Barbara Jordan exhibit in the Capitol with Texas Southern University President Dr. John Rudley

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