Issues: Education

Happy Thanksgiving

Dear Friend,

Today is about more than the traditional feast – it’s about giving thanks. As I count my blessings today, the honor of serving as the State Senator from District 13 is close to the top. I want to thank my constituents, family, colleagues, and staff for making my time in public service meaningful in so many ways.

I pledge to continue fighting for the families of District 13 to make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family. Texans deserve a state that gives its residents a fair shot at a good-paying job to support their family, offers all children access to quality educational opportunities, and provides every family access to affordable and quality health care.

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Time for schools to end suspension-first mindset

This ran as an op-ed in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle. Click here to view it on the Chronicle’s website.

Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of four-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.

A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.

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Recently, the Houston ISD Board of Education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third through fifth graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.

A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.

Unfortunately, the Board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.

Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.

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Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”

Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.

If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether, and entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of pre-k out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-k through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.

Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of twenty-five trainers and sixty school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff, and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.

Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the Houston ISD Board of Education will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.


Now is the time to plan for climate change

The science is clear: the world is getting hotter. Scientists announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and 2001-10 was the hottest decade on record. There is convincing evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been exacerbated by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use. And even if there’s disagreement about what’s causing the increased heat, you must have spent too much time in the sun to not think it’s getting hotter. So Texas has to plan for this hotter future.

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For the past four sessions, I’ve filed legislation to require 12 state agencies to produce climate adaptation plans every four years assessing each agency’s role with respect to climate change. Each climate adaptation plan must include: an assessment of vulnerability; how existing programs will be impacted; specific mitigation steps; budget impacts of mitigation; potential funding sources for mitigation steps; a statewide strategy to monitor the continuing effects of climate change; and a written statement by the Texas state climatologist regarding the adequacy of the scientific basis of the plan.

The bills haven’t passed, but I pledge to continue the fight. Plain and simple, it’s a bad business practice to not manage risk and uncertainty. With millions of lives and billions of dollars relying on sound state policies, the lack of risk mitigation around climate change exacerbates future economic uncertainty and sets the state up for potentially destructive surprises.

Organizations of all kinds – whether in the public, private, or non-profit sectors – have formalized planning processes to mitigate climate change impacts because planning is a prudent business practice. Adaptation plans would give Texas state agencies a roadmap to contend with unknown future climate conditions and help minimize their impact.

Click here to read a recent Houston Chronicle article on my efforts at the Capitol.


Do you have health insurance?

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” – millions of uninsured Americans now have access to new health insurance options through a Health Insurance Marketplace at www.healthcare.gov. This is great news for Texas, as our state has the highest uninsured rate in the nation with nearly one in five lacking coverage – around 5 million people. In Harris County, almost 1 in 3 people are without health insurance coverage.

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Beyond the benefit for my constituents and community, I’m personally grateful for Obamacare, as it has allowed my oldest daughter, Nicole, to get health insurance while she attends school in New York. She’s more than 26 years old and is no longer able to be covered under my health care plan.

If you don’t have health insurance, you now have an opportunity to enroll in coverage, as the marketplace opened again on November 1, 2015. We will all get sick at some point in time, and access to health insurance is a critical part of ensuring that individuals and families are healthy and successful. Plus, if you are eligible and don’t enroll in coverage by January 31st, you might have to pay a fine at tax time of $695 dollars per person or 2.5% of your income, whichever is more.

Many people are able to get a plan that works for them and is not too expensive because financial help is available for individuals who make between $11,670-$46,680 and between $23,850-$95,400 for a family of four.

According to estimates for Houston, a 27 year old with an income of $25,000 might be able to purchase coverage with assistance for as a low as $81 per month. A family of four with an income of $50,000 may be able to get coverage for $52 per month after tax credits.

v>These plans purchased on the exchange will have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care – ensuring consumers get comprehensive coverage instead of a bare bones policy.

Information about these new health insurance plans, where to get in-person assistance, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found at www.healthcare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596. Remember, the deadline for enrolling is January 31, 2016.

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with: , ,

Ellis: School policies must shift from suspend-first mindset

Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of 4-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.

A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.

Recently, the Houston Independent School District’s board of education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third- through fifth-graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.

A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.

Unfortunately, the school board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.

Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.

Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”

Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.

If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether and entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of Pre-K out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-K through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.

Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over-reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of 25 trainers and 60 school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.

Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the HISD school board will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with: ,

53 members of Texas Legislature file amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas case

(Austin, TX) // Yesterday, 53 members of the Texas Legislature filed an amicus brief with the United State Supreme Court in support of the University of Texas in the Fisher v. University of Texas case.

The brief, which is available for download here, argues in support of the University of Texas’ holistic, individualized admissions process, noting that the “standards are not a process that has been unilaterally imposed by a university administrator but […] rather reflect a unique, bipartisan, multi-racial process in which legislators, the Board of Regents, and educators worked together to advance important State educational priorities.”

Those standards reflect the members’ “obligation to be aware of demographics so that we can ensure, as we must, that visibly open pathways to leadership and opportunity exist for all Texas citizens.”

Summarizing the members’ argument, the brief states:

[We] submit this brief in support of respondent, the University of Texas – our State’s flagship institution of higher education and the alma mater of many of the State’s most important leaders, including many members of the legislature – in furtherance of [our] responsibility to ensure that the citizens of Texas have equal access to higher education and unfettered pathways to leadership and opportunity in the State.  [We] also do so in recognition of [our] sworn obligation to advance the interests of all the people of Texas and to adopt bold solutions to the problems that affect their lives.

The 53 members who signed the brief:

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston, District 13) has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 1990.

Representative Hubert Vo (D-Houston, District 149) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2005.

Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Houston, District 139) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1989.

Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas, District 103) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2005.

Representative Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City, District 27) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2011.

Representative Donna Howard (D-Austin, District 48) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2006.

Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo, District 21) has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 1987.

Representative Ramon Romero, Jr. (D-Fort Worth, District 90) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2015.

Senator Royce West (D-Dallas, District 23) has served as a member of the Texas Senate  since 1993.

Senator Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio, District 19) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1997 to 2006 and has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 2006.

Representative Ana Hernandez (D-Houston, District 143) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2005.

Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston, District 6) has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 2013.

Representative Armando Walle (D-Houston, District 140) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2009.

Representative Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio, District 120) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1996.

Representative Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco, District 39) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2005.

Representative Terry Canales (D-Edinburg, District 40) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Senator Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen, District 20) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1981 to 1991 and 1997 to 2003 and has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 2003.

Representative Justin Rodriguez (D-San Antonio, District 125) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Senator José Rodríguez (D-El Paso, District 29) has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 2011.

Representative Mary González (D-Clint, District 75) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Representative Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie, District 101) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 2009 to 2011 and again since 2013.

Representative Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin, District 49) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1991.

Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston, District 15) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1973 to 1983 and has been a member of the Texas Senate since 1983.

Representative Jessica Farrar (D-Houston, District 148) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1995.

Representative Celia Israel (D-Austin, District 50) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2014.

Representative Helen Giddings (D-Dallas, District 109) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1993.

Representative Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass, District 74) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville, District 27) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1987 to 1991 and has been a member of the Texas Senate since 1991.

Senator José Menéndez (D-San Antonio, District 26) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 2001 to 2015 and has been a member of the Texas Senate since 2015.

Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin, District 14) has served as a member of the Texas Senate since 2007.

Representative Alma Allen (D-Houston, District 131) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2005.

Representative Carol Alvarado (D-Houston, District 145) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2009.

Representative Yvonne Davis (D-Dallas, District 111) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1993.

Representative Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont, District 22) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1999.

Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston, District 147) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1991.

Representative Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston, District 142) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1985.

Representative Eric Johnson (D-Dallas, District 100) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2010.

Representative René Oliveira (D-Brownsville, District 37) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1981 to 1987 and again since 1991.

Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston, District 141) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1973.

Representative Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio, District 116) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2001.

Representative Abel Herrero (D-Robstown, District 34) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 2005 to 2011 and again since 2013.

Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin, District 51) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2003.

Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston, District 137) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Representative Nicole Collier (D-Dallas, District 95) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Representative Borris Miles (D-Houston, District 146) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 2007 to 2009 and again since 2011.

Representative Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas, District 104) served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1993 to 1997 and again since 2003.

Representative Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio, District 123) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2015.

Representative Joe Moody (D-El Paso, District 75) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2009.

Representative R.D. “Bobby” Guerra (D-Mission, District 41) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2012.

Representative Toni Rose (D-Dallas, District 110) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2013.

Representative Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio, District 119) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2008.

Representative Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin, District 46) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 1995.

Representative César Blanco (D-El Paso, District 76) has served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2015.

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Ellis: HISD schools shouldn’t honor Confederacy

On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, I sent the below letter to the chairwoman of the Houston ISD Board of Education, Rhonda Skillern-Jones:

The Honorable Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Chair, Houston ISD Board of Education
4400 West 18th Street
Houston, TX 77092

Dear Chairwoman Skillern-Jones:

This week, we have witnessed a nationwide uproar regarding the continued government support and endorsement of Confederate symbols. Their presence on the South Carolina Capitol grounds, Mississippi state flag, Virginia license plates, countless street names, and elsewhere has resulted in much-needed conversations about the appropriateness of sanctioning painful symbols of slavery and racism. These are longstanding debates that were again brought to the forefront of our national consciousness days after a white supremacist who proudly waved the Confederate battle flag brutally murdered nine Charleston parishioners solely due to the color of their skin.

As the nation collectively reexamines vestiges of a discriminatory past, I turn my eyes closer to home. By my count, at least six schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) are named after men whose notoriety stems from their fealty to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, an insurrection aimed at preserving the institution of slavery. When we name a school after someone, we send a message to our children that this individual is worthy of honor and praise. It serves as a community-wide endorsement of the person as a role model for our children to strive to embody through educational achievement.

The time has come for a change. I ask that the Board put in place a process to review and consider renaming HISD schools named after Confederate loyalists.

Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes. But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children. For a large portion of HISD students, the Confederacy is a past that would have prevented them from ever attending school and made them subordinate to fellow students. Many of them would have lived in chains and been sold like chattel had the namesakes of their school been successful in the cause they espoused.

Given that the Confederacy was – in the words of Texas’ February 1861 official declaration of secession – “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity,” it is illuminating to see the current demographic makeup of the schools that bear Confederate names:

Dowling Middle School is named after Richard Dowling, a Confederate army officer. According to the most recent data from the 2013-14 school year, the school is now 57.7 percent Hispanic, 40.3 percent African American, 0.4 percent Asian, and 1.1 percent white.

Jackson Middle School is named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a brigadier general in the Confederate army. The school is now 87.6 percent Hispanic, 10.7 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent white.

Johnston Middle School is named after Albert Sidney Johnston, a general in the Confederate army. The school is now 49.3 percent Hispanic, 32.9 percent African American, 3.3 percent Asian, and 12.5 percent white.

Davis High School is named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. The school is now 88 percent Hispanic, 10.8 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 0.9 percent white.

Lee High School, which has notably stopped using the “Robert E.” portion of the school’s original name, is named after the commander of the Confederate army. The school is now 71.6 percent Hispanic, 15.7 percent African American, 7.8 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent white.

Reagan High School is named after John H. Reagan, postmaster general and secretary of the treasury of the Confederacy. The school is now 83.3 percent Hispanic, 8.6 percent African American, 0.5 percent Asian, and 4 percent white.

As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another. I hope that the Board will use this unique opportunity to move the district in a new direction and away from a discriminatory past by creating a process to review and consider renaming schools named after Confederate stalwarts.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with: ,

Let more community colleges offer four-year degrees

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Sarah Davis

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for today’s best and fastest-growing jobs in order to move up the economic ladder, and an integral part of making those dreams become a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

After all, higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree once sufficed in previous generations, a bachelor’s degree is often a prerequisite for jobs in today’s 21st century economy. Texas leads the nation in job growth, and economic indicators point to continued growth and the rising need for a skilled workforce, particularly in the critical fields of nursing and applied sciences.

Unfortunately, attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten considerably more expensive over the 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.

In an effort to address the ongoing need for a skilled workforce and the spike in the cost of higher education, we filed legislation this session – Senate Bill 271 and House Bill 1384 – to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree.

These bipartisan 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 either applied science or nursing – provided the schools use a measured, phased-in approach, and meet other safeguards we include in our legislation.

Proposed community college baccalaureate degrees would be reviewed according to the same standards used for baccalaureate program approvals at universities. This would include demonstrating short- and long-term workforce needs in the field, adequate faculty and library resources to meet accreditation standards, sufficient funding to support the program without harming existing programs, and regular review processes to ensure quality and effectiveness.

The proposed legislation offers 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 a community college around $10,000 to $12,000. In addition, community colleges often have more flexibility by offering courses in the evening, on weekends, and hybrid classes making it much easier for folks with fulltime jobs to continue their education. Community college graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their local community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

Community colleges can and should be leveraged to provide limited and affordable four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. Seventeen states, including Texas, already allow some community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Currently, three Texas community colleges are authorized to offer a maximum of five baccalaureate degree programs in applied technology. The experience of South Texas College, Brazosport College, and Midland College suggests that these programs can be rolled out in a gradual, thoughtful manner. This experience has already put those regions of the state in a better position to meet local workforce needs.

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 still has real workforce needs that are not being met – needs that will require the state to utilize all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree.

We look forward to working with the legislature to prepare Texans to participate in today’s competitive global economy.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis responds to DOJ investigation into Texas truancy laws

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s announcement that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) would begin an investigation into Texas truancy laws:

“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has begun looking into Texas’ truancy system,” said Senator Ellis. “I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students. Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity and avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of school and further away from those opportunities.”

On March 18, Senator Ellis sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the DOJ begin an investigation into racial disparities concerning the application of Texas’ truancy laws. According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in 2013, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases, more than twice the number of all other states combined. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately impacted.

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Sen. Ellis asks DOJ to investigate Texas’ truancy laws

(Austin, TX) // Yesterday, March 18, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) begin an investigation into racial disparities concerning the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

In particular, Sen. Ellis drew attention to Fort Bend ISD, which is in his senatorial district. From his letter:

According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

The problem is statewide. In 2013, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases, more than twice the number of all other states combined. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately impacted.

“I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students,” wrote Sen. Ellis. “Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.”

A .pdf of Sen. Ellis’ letter to Attorney General Holder may be downloaded here. The text of the letter is below:

 

March 18, 2015

The Honorable Eric Holder
United States Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I write to urge the United States Department of Justice to use its authority to investigate truancy laws in Texas, where failure to attend school is considered a Class C Misdemeanor and prosecuted in adult criminal court with fines of up to $500.00 plus court costs. Specifically, I have concerns about a potential violation of 42 U.S.C. § 14141(a), which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any governmental authority … to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct … by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Only Texas and one other state criminalizes students for truancy violations. After consulting with juvenile justice advocates at Texas Appleseed and other organizations, I believe the systemic approach to criminalize students for truancy deprives Texas students of their right to an education.

While the criminalization of truancy is an issue throughout Texas, much of my concern stems from the racial disparities in how the law is applied – particularly in Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), which is located in my senatorial district. According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

Racial disparities surrounding the disproportionate application of truancy laws are not limited to Fort Bend ISD, however. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately sent to court statewide for truancy. For example, African American students comprised 20 percent of reported truancy cases filed statewide, but account for just 13 percent of enrollment. Latino students comprised 64 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but account for 52 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 13 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but only account for 8.5 percent of enrollment.

All told, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases in 2013, more than twice the number of all other states combined. This leaves students with criminal records that endanger the prospect of future jobs and higher education. Simply put, these laws hurt students, particularly the African American, Latino, and special education students who are sent to truancy court at rates much higher than students from other communities.

I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students. Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.

Again, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately begin a thorough investigation into the racial disparities associated with the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis on his vote against SB 11, the “campus carry” bill

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s debate on Senate Bill 11, the “campus carry” bill:

“To those who say campus carry preserves our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, I disagree, and I’m in good company. Our founding fathers knew guns had no place on campuses almost 200 years ago, just as they shouldn’t be there today,” said Senator Ellis.

In the minutes of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting of October 4-5, 1824, when Thomas Jefferson was Rector and James Madison was on the board, a rule was established banning certain items and behavior, including keeping firearms on campus. Specifically, the rule adopted by the University of Virginia stated that:

“[n]o Student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder, keep a servant, horse or dog, appear in school with a stick, or any weapon, nor, while in school, be covered without permission of the Professor, nor use tobacco by smoking or chewing, on pain of any of the minor punishments, at the discretion of the Faculty, or of the board of Censors, approved by the Faculty.”

“This is not a constitutional issue,” said Senator Ellis. “This is an issue of ensuring our young people have a safe place of higher learning as they grow from childhood to adulthood. The fact that Thomas Jefferson and the drafter of the Bill of Rights, James Madison, established these rules is pretty conclusive: guns have no place on our state’s college campuses.”

“As I’ve said before, this bill is a reflection of misplaced priorities. Instead of arming students with guns, we should be arming them with 21st century educational opportunities, better paying jobs and fairer wages, and access to quality, affordable health care.”

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Investing in higher education

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.

RE DNA presser
 

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

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis on Texas’ school finance ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

 “For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult issues facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court,” said Sen. Ellis. “The school finance system has always been patched rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it sputter along another two years in spite of its obvious inequities.”

“Now that our school finance system has once again been ruled unconstitutional, you may hear some elected officials claim that the legislature cannot act until after the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and the nine justices have had an opportunity to rule. I firmly disagree.”

“The legislature should treat the underfunding of our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. In fact, there’s ample precedent for us working to solve this issue prior to the Texas Supreme Court weighing in. In 2004 and 2005, the last time the constitutionality of Texas’ school finance system was in court, the legislature worked on school finance for three special sessions and one regular session – all before the Supreme Court finally ruled the system was unconstitutional.”

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