Issues: Education

Ready to fight

Dear Friend,

Today is the first day of the 84th Legislative Session. In addition to nine new members of the Senate, Texas also has a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other statewide elected positions.

Over the next 140 days, I will be fighting in Austin for my constituents in Senate District 13, pushing Texas to address the significant number of challenges it continues to face. Before the committee hearings and floor votes begin, I want to share with you the priorities that I will be pursuing.

Striving for fairness and equality in our criminal justice system

Though Texas has taken important steps in recent years, we have long way to go on the path to providing all Texans the reliable and effective justice they deserve, and ensuring that all Texans, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law.

Recent media coverage has brought deserving and needed attention to the unfortunate disparity between the promise of equal justice and the reality of unequal treatment under the law. I will continue to fight, as my predecessor Barbara Jordan famously stated, to make “America as good as its promise” and push Texas toward a justice system that is more equitable, reliable, and effective.


Texans deserve an accurate and reliable justice system – one with proper checks and balances and transparency to make sure all relevant facts come to light, evidence based on real science and best practices, and adequate procedural safeguards to ensure dependable verdicts.

Unfortunately, if we measure reliability and accuracy by verified mistakes, Texas leads the nation in the shameful category of proven wrongful convictions. There are essential advances Texas needs to make to ensure we have evidence and results we can trust in our justice system. These include specific changes like SB 181, which would require the recording of interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions, and SB 81, which would create an innocence commission to consistently evaluate wrongful convictions and make recommendations to improve the integrity of justice.

Texans deserve an effective justice system. Our criminal justice policies should effectively improve public safety and efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars.  That seems basic enough. But Texas has historically been criticized for its wasteful, ineffective, and overly “tough” approach to criminal justice that has too often relied on incarceration first and asking questions later, resulting in disparate treatment of the poor and communities of color.

We cannot continue to over-rely on incarceration as the primary means of addressing low-level drug use. I filed SB 82 to be smarter on crime by diverting more non-violent drug possession offenders into alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be successful at reducing crime and drug use. Advancing this smart on crime approach will put Texas on the path to a more effective and efficient approach to justice.

Perhaps most importantly, Texans deserve fair and equitable justice system.  The promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice. Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation, have juries of their peers, and are treated equally and fairly by law enforcement when they are suspected and accused of a crime.

Unfortunately, in everyday Texas, quality of justice is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. I filed SB 260 to apply mandatory caseload limits for attorneys taking appointed cases representing indigent defendants. Too many lawyers are taking excessive numbers of cases – often hundreds upon hundreds a year – which inevitably means a lower quality of defense being provided by those lawyers.


Equal justice further requires we all be judged by a jury of our peers, and I will join my colleagues in fighting for reforms to ensure our juries reflect our community’s makeup and values. And finally, I will file legislation to study disparate impacts in our justice system, propose solutions to remedy them, and ensure more transparency and accountability in law enforcement practices.

Invest in Texas’ future

I will fight to ensure we work toward a state budget that is not only fair, responsible, and protects Texas’ most vulnerable populations, but also invests in our future and begins to address the needs of our growing and changing state. We’ve got to find real solutions to the real problems facing our state’s physical and human infrastructure. This includes adequately funding our unconstitutional public school finance system and opposing risky public education voucher schemes that will gut our already underfunded neighborhood schools. It means ending smoke-and-mirrors and diversions in our budget that reduce our state’s much-needed transportation funding. It also means valuing hardworking Texas families over ineffective tax giveaways and loopholes.

High quality educational opportunities for all Texas students

Supporting our neighborhood schools

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. 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 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. Growing by 80,000 students each year, Texas’ public school enrollment is more than 5.1 million – the second highest in the nation. It’s time to provide those students adequately-funded neighborhood schools so that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.


High quality, accessible pre-k

Attending high-quality pre-kindergarten has a lasting impact on a child’s success both in school and life. Early childhood education creates learning foundations and allows students from all backgrounds begin to establish the skills that will last the rest of their lives. Children who attend high-quality programs are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education, and more likely to graduate from high school. I filed SB 72and 73 to open up pre-k to all Texas four-year-olds and place class size limits to ensure too many students aren’t packed into a classroom.

Make higher education affordable again

In 2003, the Texas legislature passed tuition deregulation, which gave authority to set tuition rates to unelected boards of regents at our state’s public universities. Texas stopped investing in our children’s future and instead pushed the cost onto families. Now thanks to tuition deregulation, the cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled in just ten years.

This is pricing hard-working families out of higher education, forcing students to incur enormous debt loads and push back their graduation and eventual entrance into the fulltime workforce. I filed SB 255 to cap tuition and force the legislature to adequately fund higher education. The people of Texas send senators and representatives to Austin to make tough decisions and invest in what is important to our state’s future. Higher education – affordable higher education – is no doubt one of those items.


More paths to four year degrees

In an effort to address both the high cost of getting a college degree and the serious workforce needs across our state, I filed SB 271 to allow community colleges to provide certain four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. This proposal would provide another avenue for working adults and students who want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, and they often have more flexibility to offer courses in the evening and on weekends. Community college 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.


Give families access to affordable and quality health care options

Texas has a historic opportunity to finally do something about its dismal health insurance numbers by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, up to this point, our state’s leadership has simply chosen to say “no.” As a result, about a million poor adults in Texas are left with no real health coverage option.

Closing the coverage gap simply secures federal aid for what your tax dollars pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. Accepting the $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable health care options is just common sense, which is why I filed SB 89.  Last session, according to the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board, an investment of $50 million would have drawn down $4 billion to insure one million additional Texans through 2016. I will continue to do my part to advocate for closing the coverage gap to ensure that we are creating a Texas where all families have the opportunity to be healthy and successful.

Promoting a fair economy that works for all Texans

Review Texas’ tax loopholes

Tax giveaways and loopholes to special interests have perverted our tax system and made it blatantly unfair for the average Texas family. We need accountability measures, checks, and balances on corporate welfare and tax giveaways. After all, the legislature makes extensive efforts to determine the efficacy of every state dollar spent in our education, health and human services, and criminal justice systems. Yet we still have an astounding lack of knowledge when it comes to tax loopholes – including basic information like how many exist and their cost to the state.

Out of fairness to taxpayers, the Texas Tax Code should undergo a review of all its exemptions, discounts, and special treatments to answer one simple question: are they working? I filed SB 80 so that Texas can step forward, shine a bright light on the Tax Code, and make real reforms to ensure taxpayer funds are protected and wisely invested.

Raising the minimum wage

Texas is a land of opportunity, where we believe that hard work is rewarded with honest pay. If you work hard at a full-time job, you should earn more than poverty level wages.But for too long, Texas families employed full-time at minimum wage have not been able to make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 under my SB 67 will provide Texans with income to spend on the basics they need. This, in turn, generates business for our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win.

Raising the minimum wage helps build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthiest among us. After all, Texas has more minimum wage workers than any state in the country. We can help 2.8 million hardworking Texans – including 1.5 million women, 1.5 million parents, and 377,000 people over the age of 55 – by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10.


Strong regulations for payday lending

Payday loans and auto title loans are low-dollar, high-interest loans that target low-income Texans. These predatory loans are usually a last resort for Texans struggling to provide for their families, and they carry annual percentage rates upwards of 500 percent through excess fees and interest alone. Payday and auto title lenders often downplay the risks of their loans, profit from trapping borrowers in debt, and push Texas families deeper into financial hardship. Strong bills like my SB 91 and 92 regulating payday and auto title lenders are essential to improve the economic conditions of Texas citizens, including working families, students, the elderly, and veterans.

Equal pay for equal work

Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, and they are the equal or main breadwinner for four out of ten families. But in 2012, Texas women only earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. This is legally and morally unacceptable. I’ve filed SB 65, which will allow equal pay cases authorized under federal law to be heard in state courts. Currently, Texans must file in federal courts, which are more expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants.

Over the coming months, I plan to explore these issues in depth in future Email Expresses. I look forward to hearing from you this session as we try to steer Texas onto a brighter path.

RE Signature
Rodney Ellis

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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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Statement from Sen. Ellis on Bill Powers

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement in response to news that University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers had submitted his letter of resignation, effective June 2, 2015.

“I’m glad that a resolution was worked out that justifiably allows Bill to leave office at a time of his choosing and with his head held high. The acrimony and conflict that would have arisen – both on campus and in the Capitol – had Bill been fired would have been an enormous distraction and a disservice to the University as a whole. I look forward to working with Bill during the upcoming legislative session and his successor in the years to come.”


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Letter from Senator Ellis to UT System Chancellor Cigarroa

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent the below letter (also attached) to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa regarding recent news reports that University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers was asked to resign last week.

July 7, 2014

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa
The University of Texas System
601 Colorado Street
Austin, Texas 78701

Dear Chancellor Cigarroa:

Recent news reports indicate that you have asked University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers to resign, and if he does not do so, he will be fired at the July 10 Board of Regents meeting.

I hope these reports are not true, as President Powers has been a strong leader during his tenure. In the past eight years, UT Austin has experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of top five programs, and the University now has 59 top-ten programs and 111 top-25 programs. UT’s Dell Medical School is under construction on campus, a boon to the central Texas area. UT Austin is nearing the completion of its $3 billion capital campaign, an accomplishment that is made even more significant by the fact that much of it occurred during the country’s recent economic downturn.  In 2013 alone, President Powers helped to bring in a record $453 million in gifts and pledges, a 23 percent increase over the previous record.  Plus, President Powers currently serves as the chairman of the American Association of Universities, the premier organization of public and private national research universities.

Forcing President Powers out of office immediately prior to your departure does a disservice to both Bill’s record in office and your legacy as Chancellor.  Further, the University itself deserves better than this.  I am concerned that a forced resignation will further inflame an already stressed relationship between legislators and the Board of Regents. This strain has tarnished the University enough; it shouldn’t also end the career of a popular and successful public servant.

As an alumnus and as a state senator with thousands of current and former students living and working in my senatorial district, I strongly urge you to reconsider.


Rodney Ellis


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Ellis Statement on SCOTUS Decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

“I am glad the Supreme Court has decided that more discussion and deliberation is needed on the issue of using race as one of many criteria in admissions decisions. This is a victory for the University of Texas, the state and people of Texas.

“This decision ensures that the well-established use of affirmative action to ensure diversity on campus can be maintained. I hope the extended review of this issue continues that policy. Importantly, the court ruling means no legislative action is needed and that we can take a wait and see approach next session.

“I am gratified by Justice Ginsberg’s determination that Texas has done everything it was supposed to do under Grutter. I hope the appeals court hears that message loud and clear.”

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Ellis: Expand Special Session Agenda to include Priorities Texans Care About

(Austin, TX)Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today sent the following letter to Governor Rick Perry asking him to add reviewing tax loopholes, Medicaid expansion and college costs to the special session agenda:

June 11, 2013

Governor Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711

Dear Governor Perry:

The 83rd Legislative Session closed with work still left to be done on several important issues beyond just redistricting. As you consider adding additional subjects to the special session agenda, I hope you will keep an open mind and ask the legislature to find solutions on cataloging and reigning in wasteful tax expenditures, expanding access to affordable health insurance, and making college more affordable to Texas families.

As you proudly point out, Texas continues to grow rapidly, with more and more Americans and businesses choosing to make our state home. But that growth comes at a cost, as more people mean more schools, more roads, more hospitals and more services. Texas is at a budget crossroads; tax increases are ruled out, so each session we struggle to find the revenue to meet our growing needs and to invest in the very things that will continue on our success. With these challenges, it is critical that we know exactly how every tax dollar is used. To this end, I urge you to add review of over $44 billion in state and local tax loopholes to the special session call.

During the session, the Senate unanimously approved just such a study to identify and review Texas’ tax preferences, ensure that they are carrying out their intended purposes, and advance more efficient and effective economic policy. Unfortunately, this provision was removed in the dead of night, protecting these special interest tax subsidies in a cloak of darkness and secrecy while adding hundreds of millions of more tax giveaways to the code. It is time to shine the light on these loopholes, but it will require your assistance and leadership.

Another challenge that will determine Texas’ future success is addressing the staggering health care crisis facing our state. Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, with one in four Texans lacking any health insurance at all and, according to a new report, 54 percent lacking any meaningful coverage. There are more uninsured in Texas – 6,080,000 – than the entire populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined – 6,021,410. And our Medicaid program currently spends less than the national average per enrollee and also reimburses doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the national average. We can provide insurance to 1.5 million Texans if we act now on the Affordable Care Act, but we must get to work now.

Providing health care access to 1.5 million Texans does not just make moral and social sense, it makes economic sense. Two recent studies show just how good a deal expanding Medicaid would be for Texas. According to an economic analysis by the Perryman Group, Texas would see a return of $1.29 for every $1 spent on Medicaid expansion, and the burden on local governments would be reduced by $1.21 for every dollar the state spent expanding the program. Furthermore, Medicaid expansion would create approximately 300,000 Texas jobs per year for the next decade, and will reduce the $5 billion per year Texas hospitals pay in uncompensated care. These costs are currently passed on to all Texans in the form of higher prices, as well as a direct tax in areas that have hospital districts. I hope you will address this crisis by adding this important issue to the special session call.

Finally, the rising cost of college continues to be a serious challenge to Texas families. Since tuition deregulation was passed in 2003, the cost of tuition and fees at state colleges and universities has increased by 90 percent, and has risen even more at some of our top institutions.

While some of us warned this would be the outcome, those who supported tuition deregulation assured Texans price spikes would not happen. It is past time for the legislature to stop abdicating its responsibility to Texans on higher education and make the tough decisions on tuition. I believe there is more than enough support in the legislature to explore new ideas on college affordability and end tuition deregulation.

I know you believe that tuition deregulation was the right thing to do in 2003, but it has long since outlived its usefulness and has become a significant barrier for Texans trying to afford college. I urge you to add a review of tuition deregulation and college affordability measures to the special session call.

I sincerely hope you will take these important issues into consideration as you deliberate whether to expand the call for the 1st Called Special Session of the 83rd Texas Legislature. Hard-working Texans deserve no less than a full and open debate on these critical matters.


Rodney Ellis

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Senator Ellis 2013 UT School of Law Commencement Speech

Thank you, Dean Farnsworth, distinguished faculty, honored graduates and family members, it is a thrill for me to be here on this special day. I am honored you invited me to share it with you.

The Class of 2013 hails from thirty-two different states and four different countries and can speak twenty-two languages, from Arabic to Danish to Mandarin to Wolof.

Your class counts among its members a national championship skier and college varsity football player as well as a professional ballet dancer, a modern dance improviser, and players of the oboe, trombone, guitar, and piccolo. Several Eagle Scouts are part of the class, as are a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a graduate of the United States Naval Academy.

The Class of 2013 has contributed nearly 25,000 hours of pro bono service during their law school tenure.

They volunteered their time with charitable, not-for-profits, and governmental organizations throughout Austin, the state of Texas, and the United States during both the academic year and summers.

I know everyone hates commencement speeches; they’re never memorable and you just want to celebrate with your family and friends. But, to prepare I read through a lot of them and the best advice might have been:

“Always use sunscreen.”

Hard to argue with that one.

But being here today reminded me of my time at UT Law and how that prepared me for my career in law and government.

Women/Ann Richards

This class = 46 percent women; 1994 class= 41 percent women


Today you are this close to being one of the few, the proud, the reviled: a lawyer. You are a law school graduate, from one of the premier institutions in the country, and well on your way to becoming the man or woman your parents dreamed of. To the joy of many and the surprise of a few.

You are ready to become the defenders of the Constitution, the guardians of liberty and the champion of the common man and women. Protector of the powerless and stewards of that most important principle: everyone in America, regardless of the content of their character or the size of their bank account, is equal under the eyes of the law.

It is a sacred trust and one that deserves respect. It is your job to earn it.
One of my favorite lawyers, John Adams had a simple motto in his life: “Be just and good.” That is your obligation as an attorney and citizen of this world.

Unfortunately, despite today’s validation of the last three years of your work, the truth is you’re not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here.

While each of you will have triumphs, I want to make something perfectly clear: Failure is an option. Not only is it an option, it is a certainty. You are going fall flat on your face, not once or twice, but often. Most of the times it is going to be when and where no one can see you, but sometimes it is going to be in full view of everyone you know and work with

We all have.

• Joe Jamail, one of the greatest and most successful lawyers in history, struggled mightily with torts.
• Steve Jobs got fired from Apple.
• Barack Obama and George W. Bush could not get elected to Congress.
• Steven Spielberg made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
• Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Bobcats.

See? Unbelievably successful people fail. So will you, and it is going to be scary, but you will recover and do great things. Success doesn’t mean one is successful and failing doesn’t make one a failure. In fact, it is your response to failure that will determine just how successful you will be.

I leave you with this observation from Joe Jamail:

“From the beginning, to all of us, it has been said that the law is a jealous mistress. That is what we are told. What they did not tell us is that the law is a nymphomaniac. It will leave you tired, worn out, exhausted, sometimes delusional, but at the end, knowing the experience was and is beyond pleasure and satisfaction. It is priceless.”

May your life and careers bring you the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. May you turn your back on darkness, face life head on and live your dreams.

And, for God’s sake, wear sunscreen.

Thank you all.

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Rainy Day Fund OK for Water, Roads & Schools

Last week I told you about SJR 1, legislation to take $6 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and invest it water and transportation projects. I was wary of using the Rainy Day Fund solely on water and transportation and said we had to use money from the fund to restore the disastrous cuts to public education enacted in 2011. Continue Reading »

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Rainy Day Fund OK for Water, Roads & Tax Cuts, But Not Kids & Seniors?

As you know, last session the $23 billion budget crisis was the biggest challenge to deal with.  To fix that fiscal mess, those in power decided on a “cut first, ask questions later” agenda, slashing funds for Texas schools, health care and seniors.  Some of us disagreed with their approach and offered alternatives to protect Texas schoolchildren and seniors.  Unfortunately, we were ignored at every turn.

The budget lowlights included:

  • cut over $5 billion from Texas schools;
  • shifted another $2 billion in payments to Texas schools into the 2014-15 budget cycle;
  • cut $4.7 billion in Medicaid and cut nursing home reimbursement rates by 3 percent;
  • counted more than $1 billion from unlikely federal waivers and other rosy scenarios;
  • slashed higher education $1.5 billion, a 10 percent cut from current levels and $2 billion below what was needed to maintain than current services;
  • eliminated financial aid for over 43,000 students, including 29,000 students who lost their TEXAS Grant, the state’s largest financial aid program.

Those in power chose to irresponsibly cut vital services for Texas families to the bone.  They chose to sacrifice our children’s educational opportunities and eliminate or reduce vital services for those in need, while continuing multi-million dollar corporate giveaways.

Some of us fought to reduce those draconian cuts.  We said we faced an emergency and should use some the state’s then $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to protect families.  At every turn, those in charge blocked it, saying the fund could only be tapped in the case of some massive natural disaster.  We had to sock money away for an even rainier day.  They set a precedent: the Rainy Day Fund is untouchable, even under the direst fiscal circumstances.  We were told we had to ignore an immediate, obvious crisis just in case another, bigger crisis comes down the road.

That was then, this is now.

In just the last two weeks, those in charge have now called for spending billions from the Rainy Day Fund.  Senate Joint Resolution 1 takes $6 billion from the Rainy Day Fund and spends $2.5billion for water projects and $3.5 billion for transportation projects.  And Governor Perry has called for using $1.6 billion from the fund for tax cuts for businesses.

So the message is the Rainy Day Fund can be used, but only for those priorities important to those in charge of Texas government.  Restore funds to our kids’ schools? Not a priority.  Provide billions of dollars for water infrastructure?  Please proceed!  Provide health care for 1.5 million Texans?  Sorry. Invest billions in roads? You betcha!  Fund tens of thousands of new college scholarships?  Maybe next time.  Give businesses more tax breaks?  But of course!

Rainy Day Fund for Our Schools Should Be Priority #1

Restoring the cuts to our children’s schools must be the top priority for any money coming from the Rainy Day Fund.  As seen in the chart below, the inflation-adjusted budget levels proposed in the budget do not make up for the cuts imposed last session.

For instance, after $594 in cuts per pupil last session, this budget only adds about $20 per pupil to Houston ISD, and per student funding in is lower in FY 2014 ($9,381/$3,921) than it was in FY 2012 ($9,676/$4,132), the first year of the budget cuts.

We need to use the Rainy Day Fund to invest more in our children’s schools.

education funding

(Adjusted to 2013 dollars)

Use Rainy Day Fund to Invest in Health Care

Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, and 6.1 million Texans lack real access to health care.  We have one of the chintziest Medicaid programs in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of truly needy Texans left without insurance.

We have a historic opportunity to finally do something about these dismal numbers, but, instead, some choose to stand in the doorway and say ‘no.’

For an investment of $15 billion, we could draw down as much as $100 billion in federal funds and expand health care coverage to 1.5 million low-income Texans over 10 years.  The feds will cover 100 percent of the costs for expansion for the first three years, and then gradually reduce to 90 percent thereafter.

Texas has long had the highest uninsured rate in the nation, and our Medicaid program currently spends less than the national average per enrollee and also reimburses doctors, hospitals and other providers less than the national average.

This is not to diminish the need for investments in water and roads.  I know that Texas faces a severe water shortage as we move deeper in the 21st century, and we have to begin to address this problem.  And I have served on the Senate Transportation Committee for six years, so I fully understand the crisis we have in transportation and support investing more resources to get Texas moving again.  However, considering that just two years ago we were lectured by those in charge that using any of the Rainy Day Fund for just about anything was simply impossible, to now be told that we are going to take $6 billion and not invest it in our children’s educational future is simply beyond reason. 

The bottom line is if we are now allowed to use the Rainy Day Fund as intended, we need to put our kids on an equal footing with our cars and our creeks.  My solution: let’s do both. Let’s truly invest in Texas’ future and save our natural resources and our most precious resources.  Let’s restore the cuts to our children’s schools and fulfill our promise to our kids.

We have the money; we just need the will to do it.

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Strengthening Our Schools

Dear Friend,

Last session the legislature dealt with a $27 billion budget deficit by slashing funding for services vital to Texas families. No area was hurt more by draconian cuts than our children’s schools, which were slashed by $5.4 billion. Teachers were laid off, programs were cut and, for the first time, the state did not even attempt to fund enrollment growth.

I want to use this week’s Express to update you on the impact of those cuts on our schools, the effort to restore that funding, and a court case that will have a major impact on how — and how much — we fund education going forward.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I look forward to your feedback on this important subject.


Rodney Ellis

Draconian Cuts from 2011 Hurt Our Schools

Last session, the legislature chose to close a record budget shortfall through draconian cuts to vital services, including over $4 billion in state funding from Texas public schools and slashing over $1 billion in grants that would have otherwise gone to help struggling students, provide full-day pre-kindergarten, and fund other essential services. These cuts forced schools to lay off thousands of teachers, pack students into classrooms, and eliminate extracurricular activities which enrich our children’s lives.

For example, from the 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school year, 11,487 Texas teachers and 14,896 other school staff lost their jobs – all while schools served an additional 44,454 students. While the loss of over 11,000 teachers is an astonishing figure, the reality is actually worse. Just to maintain the status quo due to that enrollment growth in students, Texas schools should have added over 4,400 additional teachers above the 11,487 that lost their jobs. So last year, our neighborhood schools should have operated with an additional 15,000 teachers!

This dangerous shortfall of classroom leaders has had an immediate impact on our schoolchildren. From kindergarten to fourth grade, Texas law requires a class size cap of 22 students, as studies show that smaller class size provides lasting benefits for students, especially minorities, low-income students, and students with exceptional needs. School districts can seek waivers from the law, however, and the cuts to our schools have resulted in an explosion of elementary classrooms exceeding the cap: from 2,238 classrooms in the 2010-11 school year to 8,479 in 2011-12, almost a four-fold increase.

Continue the Cuts? I say no!

With the legislature once again in session and facing a better budget picture compared to 2011, we have an amazing opportunity to reverse the cuts to our children’s schools. Tax collections are estimated to be $8.8 billion over what was projected for the current biennium, and the state’s Rainy Day Fund will have almost $12 billion sitting in it by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, those in charge seem to want to continue to bleed our schools.

The initial budget released last month continues the dismal funding levels set for schools in 2011, and proposals to use the Rainy Day Fund to restore funding to public education have been summarily dismissed by those in control of the Capitol.

It is going to be a fight to save our schools. I believe we must restore every penny we can from last session’s education cuts. Last session, I repeatedly proposed to use a portion of the then nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund to reduce the cuts to our children’s schools and to health care in Texas. At every turn, those in charge blocked it. Now, the fund is up to nearly $12 billion (!) and they are still dragging their feet on using it to save our children’s schools.

That must change. We didn’t use our reserve fund last session and our kids paid the price, which bordered on willful neglect. To once again refuse to help when we have funds set aside for just that purpose moves from neglect to outright abuse.

Money does matter, after all. Effective teachers, small class sizes, and intensive interventions for struggling learners all cost money and have been proven to deliver results. Accountability systems from Austin and Washington, D.C. increase expectations and punish schools that fail to meet them. At the same time, schools’ energy, transportation, and health care costs continue to skyrocket. Properly funding public education is not an extravagance – it is an obligation we must meet to ensure the future success of our state.

School Finance Back Before the Legislature?

In other pressing education news, on February 5, 2013, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that Texas’ school finance system was once again inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional. The court found that the current system violates the Texas Constitution because the amount of money invested by the state is inadequate, funding is not distributed fairly, and local school districts have little discretion but to tax at the maximum of their ability.

Over 600 school districts representing three-fourths of the state’s five million public school students had sued the state over these disparities. The court’s ruling came as a great relief to those who, like me, believe Texas’s refusal to invest in our children imperils our future.

Evidence in the trial showed that the average tax rate for the poorest 10 percent of school districts is 11 cents higher than the wealthiest districts, but yield $1,400 less per funding per student. That amounts to $28,000 per classroom in a standard elementary school. In 2005-06 — the last time our school finance system was struck down — the per-student gap between students at property-wealthy vs. property-poor districts was $965. That figure has nearly doubled, rising to $1,592 per student today.

Texas currently ranks dead last in percentage of population that has earned a high school diploma. According to the Texas Association of Business — Texas’ leading business organization — only 25 percent of high school graduates in Texas are career or college ready. We rank 46th in the country in per-student spending, 44th in high school graduation rate, and 47th in SAT scores. Texas can do better, but it will require opening our minds and our pocketbook.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Call to Action!

For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court. The school finance system has always been patched up 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. If Attorney General Abbott appeals directly to the Texas Supreme Court, a ruling could take a year to 14 months. If he goes to a first level of appeals, a Supreme Court decision may not happen until sometime in 2015. Our children should not be forced to attend underfunded schools and sit in packed classrooms for at least another year while the case slowly winds its way through the judicial system.

While those in charge say we must wait until the Supreme Court decides before we act, there is nothing preventing legislators from treating this situation like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. In fact, there is ample precedent for us to get working on this issue right now. In 2004 and 2005, the last time the legality of Texas’ school finance system was in court, the legislature worked hard to solve the problem in three special sessions and one regular session…all before the Texas Supreme Court finally ruled the system was unconstitutional.

So that argument is bunk.

During his State of the State speech, Governor Perry said “our State is stronger than ever.” If that is the case, then there is no reason to put off the hard work of reforming our school finance system. After all, if we are doing that well, who is to say we will be in a better position two years from now?

The only reason we are not acting today is politics. Those in power want to put off any difficult decisions until after the March 2014 primaries. This is an abdication of responsibility and a cynical attempt to put off difficult decisions for electoral gain. It is unseemly, irresponsible and punishes our school children. Why should they have to wait for us to do our jobs?

This is where your voice is needed. By rallying around public education, Texans like you can put pressure on the legislature to act now and finally get it right by creating a sustainable, equitable and adequate funding system that treats all Texas children and taxpayers fairly. Talk to your neighbors, family, and friends, and urge them to get involved, too. Together, we can create a groundswell of support to invest in our children, their schools, and the state’s future. We must get to work – our kids cannot wait.

Texas Has Underfunded Education for Too Long

“It’s a low-tax, low-service state – so shoot us. The only depressing part is that, unlike Mississippi, we can afford to do better. We just don’t.” Molly Ivins on Texas

When it comes to education in Texas, Molly Ivins was exactly right. Every ranking that ought to be down is up, and every ranking that should be up is down! Contrary to what some say, that is not a strength; it is a glaring reminder of how much more work we have to do to ensure all Texans have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

While some argue that we have “phenomenally” funded our schools and claim we have dramatically increased state funding, the chart below clearly shows the truth. According to the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board, state spending in 2003 was about $31 billion in “constant dollars” (adjusted for inflation). In 2013, it was slightly above that. That’s despite the growth in student population in that decade from 4.3 million to nearly 5 million, according to the Texas Education Agency.

While it is technically true that state funding has increased, the truth is much of the increase was plan was simply a tax swap, increasing state investment so local governments could lower property taxes an equal amount. Furthermore, those state increases have not kept up with cost inflation and enrollment growth, meaning a net decrease in school funding over the past 10 years! According to non-partisan Politifact , once you adjust for those factors “Texas schools in 2012 fielded 25 percent less in state aid than what they fielded in 2002.”

So we are actually falling further behind, despite “investing more” in education.

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