Back to school

As students and teachers head back to school, I wanted to highlight some of the new laws going into effect following the recent legislative session that will impact students, teachers, parents and taxpayers.

INCREASED FUNDING FOR OUR SCHOOLS
HB 3 is the omnibus bill aimed at addressing our state’s broken school finance system and adding more state funding for our schools. As passed, $4.5 billion was allotted for education reforms and full-day Pre-K. Another $2 billion is earmarked for increased compensation for public school teachers, counselors and librarians. I am proud to have co-authored this legislation and to have written the amendment that helped lead to substantial pay increases for most employees. 

In addition to adding more money to our schools, the bill “buys down” $5 billion in property taxes. However, homeowners will not see much of an impact on their tax bills and what relief you do see will likely be short-lived. A better solution, one supported by House Democrats, would have been to increase the homestead exemption. Doubling the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000 would have saved the average homeowner $325 each year.

RETIRED TEACHERS
Retired teachers also deserve a raise, which is why the Legislature dedicated $589 million for a 13th check averaging $2,000 per retiree. In addition to this extra payment, $524 million was appropriated to make the Teachers’ Retirement System of Texas actuarially sound and another $230.8 million will be spent to keep retired teachers’ healthcare premiums from increasing.

A-F RATINGS
Last week, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released district and school level A-F ratings. Arlington ISD received a B (86%) and Mansfield ISD an A (90%). I congratulate both districts on a great score and the hard work that went into them. That said, these scores simply cannot tell the whole story.

I have had serious concerns since the inception of the A-F system. Like many teachers, parents and school administrators, I believe that the rating system oversimplifies the way schools are evaluated and doesn’t give the full picture of the strides and successes made in our classrooms.

As we’ve seen in at least one case, districts are at risk of being penalized for issues out of their control. At the beginning of the legislative session, I met with AISD about their 2018 grade and how some meaningful data was not counted toward their score, which likely suffered as a result. In response, I filed two measures to fix the issue. Both passed and both go into effect on September 1st. Now, going forward, districts will have access to all data collected in order to confirm that it is correct and complete before a grade is issued by the state.

SCHOOL SAFETY
The tragic shooting at Texas’ Santa Fe High School last year served as a devastating reminder that we must do more to ensure that our school campuses and communities are safe. To provide additional support from the state, the Legislature passed SB 11, which will help add on-campus security personnel, provide avenues for districts to upgrade security and technology, and increase access to school mental health counseling and trauma-informed care.

Hopefully, these reforms will make a real difference for Texas public schools. Our students and teachers deserve nothing less.

To all teachers, students and their family members — best wishes for a successful school year.

El Paso

On Saturday, 20 people, shopping for groceries and back-to-school supplies, lost their lives in a hate-fueled act of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It was just reported that two of the more than two dozen wounded in this heinous attack have also died, bringing the number of victims to 22.

And amazingly, though it’s only been 48 hours, El Paso was not our nation’s most recent mass shooting. Thirteen hours later, another nine people would be gunned down in Dayton, Ohio. 

El Paso is a strong community and I know its resolve and spirit are unbreakable.  We need to help our fellow Texans in El Paso as they deal with the aftermath of this terror attack. If you would like to help the victims in El Paso, visit the El Paso Community Foundation’s Shooting Victims Fund by clicking here.

Helping people in need must be our first priority. But the work cannot end there. We have to take action to put an end to mass shootings and the growing white nationalist threat in this country.

Just think: Dallas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe and now El Paso. Four mass shootings in Texas in three years and little has changed.

In Washington and in Austin, common-sense gun safety measures have been ignored or defeated. Harmful and hateful rhetoric coming from the White House is nearly always unchallenged by members of the president’s party. There is far too much finger-pointing and deflecting of blame. All while innocent people continue to die, needlessly.

Here in Texas, why won’t our Republican leaders act?

In large part, they are too afraid to stand up to the NRA and the Tea Party. They’re afraid to challenge the powerful gun lobby for fear of being challenged at the ballot box. Instead, they place the blame on mental health or on video games.

Yet, when the opportunity presents itself to do something meaningful to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, nothing happens.

Texas needs a Red Flag Law, a measure strongly supported by law enforcement that would help reduce the number of dangerous or unstable people who have access to firearms. In fact, after the Santa Fe massacre, Greg Abbott briefly put Red Flag Laws on the table. Unfortunately, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said he was opposed, so the governor dropped the idea and backed off.

This was a major missed opportunity due to lack of leadership. And this is but one example. 

A few months ago, on his way to school, my 7-year-old godson told his mother, “I like lockdown drills because I like to hide.” What a hard thing to hear from a child. In 1st grade, he should not be preparing for mass murderers, learning to hide from weapons or living in near-constant fear when he’s in his classroom. Unfortunately, however, that has become his generation’s new normal.

We can’t allow this to continue.

Humanitarian crisis in Texas

On Friday, I joined several of my colleagues in Austin for a House committee hearing focused on the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. For six hours, we heard from state agency heads, officials from border counties and representatives from immigrant-rights organizations. We discussed the treatment of detained children, the separation of families and the bleak conditions at many of these facilities, including the lack of access to the most basic needs.

It was apparent that a lack of resources and coordination among federal agencies and other levels of government is in part to blame for these conditions — an issue that I hope was brought more into the light as a result of this hearing. I continue to question, as I did in the hearing, whether Governor Abbott’s recent deployment of 1,000 National Guard to help run detention facilities is the best use of resources.  We heard from city and county officials who are literally on the front lines of this crisis who would benefit tremendously from direct support from the National Guard in particular and the state and federal governments, in general.

Of course, we wouldn’t be having these discussions if the Trump Administration had not handled this entire situation so incompetently from the beginning.  The president’s apparent indifference to this humanitarian crisis is what has rightfully angered so many Americans.   

Saturday, I traveled to Carrizo Springs, located between San Antonio and Laredo, to visit a recently opened migrant shelter currently housing 206 teenagers, with the capacity to house over 1000 more. This facility, run by the US Health and Human Services in partnership with Baptist Children’s and Family Services, is an improvement over the overcrowded and harsh conditions at Border Patrol facilities on our border.

The shelter staff is working to reunite children with their families, with a goal of no one being there more than 30 days. I appreciate the work being done there, and how the facility differs from the horrific conditions at detention centers on the border.

The migrant shelter and the detention centers do share something in common — they are both a symptom of our nation’s overall failure to deal with immigration policy in a comprehensive, effective manner. Until we do, we will continue to pay a human and financial cost.

If you would like to help detainees and others impacted by this humanitarian crisis, click here for a list of opportunities to provide support.

HHSC Strikes (Out) Again

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is the largest state agency in Texas and one of the largest in the entire nation. The state’s current two-year budget totals $217 billion; HHSC is responsible for about $80 billion of that.  Given the sheer number of dollars involved – and the important programs it oversees – it’s really important the agency is well-run. 

Under former Governor Rick Perry, HHSC was rightfully criticized for bungling huge, multi-million dollar contracts – wasting taxpayer money and sometimes failing to deliver health care services efficiently.  When Governor Greg Abbott took over three years ago, he made a big show of putting his own people in at HHSC and signaling with him in charge, things would be different.

Not so much.  It’s really just more of the same. 

Last Wednesday, Abbott’s HHSC Executive Commissioner, Charles Smith, appeared before House budget writers in response to two more state contracts being mishandled by the agency. 

In an effort to acknowledge the agency’s mistakes, Smith said: “I’m sitting before you because we failed. We let you down. We let the governor down. We let taxpayers down. We let our vendors down. We let our fellow professionals down. Everyone deserves better.”

That same day, the agency’s chief operating officer stepped downTwo days later, the deputy executive commissioner for procurement and contracting services followed and became the fifth departure in two short weeks over this new set of failed contracts that have followed years of contract mismanagement.

The first of this month’s bungled contracts impacts Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) providers servicing rural areas of our state. The agency incorrectly scored potential providers’ applications, resulting in the cancellation of five contracts worth $580 million. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was the competing providers, not internal agency controls, that identified the errors.  Fortunately for CHIP recipients, the contracts were not set to go into effect until September 1, 2018 and current coverage will be extended to prevent a gap in service.

The second set of errors were revealed via a State Auditor’s report outlining problems with a $17.5 million contract from 2016 for the maintenance of the state’s birth and death records database. As with the CHIP contracts, HHSC failed to use the correct methods to score vendor applications. HHSC officials also used incorrect information to award the contract to Genesis Systems, Inc. The errors ultimately led to the database launch being delayed by a year at a cost to taxpayers of an additional $1 million.

These contracting errors are unacceptable. But what is even more unacceptable is what is missing from Smith’s mea culpa to the committee. It’s the millions of Texans — our state’s most vulnerable who rely on programs administered by HHSC — that Smith, our state’s leadership and this agency have let down.

These contracting errors and mistakes have to stop. There is far too much at stake.

Two weeks

Two weeks ago, 17 people in Parkland, Florida — 14 of them students — were murdered, shot by a 19-year-old with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. 

In the hours and days that followed, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School quickly turned tragedy into action by calling on elected leaders to do something to stop mass shootings. Their determination has inspired many more across our country to speak up and speak out.

Nationwide, it seems that the tide is turning when it comes to people’s attitudes about gun violence. Following the tragedy on Valentine’s Day, Quinnipiac polled a cross-section of Americans and the results were pretty clear. Of those polled:

  • 75% want Congress to do more to address gun violence
  • 97% support universal background checks
  • 83% support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases
  • 76% support an assault weapon ban

However, as has become the norm after a gun-related tragedy, many Republican leaders at both the state and national levels have succumbed to the extreme NRA’s influence. The head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, has made it clear that he cares more about the right of someone – even an 18-year-old – to buy an AR-15 than he does about school safety. He’s even gone as far to say that those in support of gun safety measures “don’t care about our schoolchildren. They want to make all of us less free.”  How offensive.

For some, the answer has been to increase the number of guns. For example, President Trump thinks that arming teachers is the solution. It’s not. He talks about a need for more mental health care — I agree, we need more access to care — but if he really cared about making mental health care more accessible, he would stop undermining the Affordable Care Act.

Common sense solutions that have broad support from the American people, such as universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, banning assault weapons like the AR-15 and raising the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21 won’t threaten anyone’s freedom. They will, however, save lives.

In addition to keeping guns out of the wrong hands, we need to look for ways to intervene when a child or adolescent shows signs of destructive behavior.

In 2016, when I served on the House Select Committee for Mental Health, I learned how some Texas school districts have put mental health providers and centers on campuses and who are available 365 days a year to students, their families and school staff members.  Austin ISD, which has taken a lead on providing these services, reports incredible results, including higher graduation rates, lower suspension rates and a more positive atmosphere on the campuses served. This could be replicated across Texas if there is the funding and the political will.

Our state’s leaders must make this type of intervention a priority.

Once and for all, we must do everything we can to stop high-powered weapons from falling in the hands of those who want to cause harm and we must make it a priority to help troubled children and adolescents before it’s too late.

It is my hope that we see swift action at the federal level and that this issue carries through to the November election and on to the next legislative session. For far too many have died tragically in schools, churches, restaurants, movie theaters and other public places.  It’s up to us to have the courage and conviction to do something to stop it.

 

PHOTO CREDIT:  RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

Early voting starts now!

Today is the first day of early voting for the March 6th primary election.

I think we can expect this year’s election – both the primary and the November general election — to be historic. People are fed up with Donald Trump and politicians like Ted Cruz and Konni Burton, who put extreme Tea Party interests above neighborhood schools, the economy and our healthcare.

It’s time to send a strong message that we need change from the top down, which is why I urge you to be a part of this historic election by voting in the Democratic Primary. There are many important contests in this year’s primary and I hope you will consider voting for the following candidates I have endorsed:

Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate – Beto is mounting a strong challenge against the extreme Ted Cruz.  Beto’s grassroots campaign is inspiring a lot of people across our state and as our Senator, he will put Texas first, for a change.

Marc Veasey for U.S. Representative, District 33 – We have one of the best congressmen around, and we need to keep him! Marc is a hard-working leader for Tarrant and Dallas Counties and is fighting for us and against the Trump agenda every day in Washington.

Beverly Powell for State Senate, District 10 – I’ve known Beverly for more than a decade and know she will put people ahead of politics.  With her service on the Burleson ISD School Board and years of involvement in our community, Beverly has what it takes to beat Konni Burton in November. When elected, she will be a strong advocate for Tarrant County, something we have been missing in Senate District 10 for the last few years.

Devan Allen for Tarrant County Commissioner, Precinct 2 – I was fortunate to work with Devan when she served as my District Director and know firsthand her commitment and passion for serving others.  When elected, she will be a needed addition to the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court and a strong voice for Precinct 2.  In addition, I know Devan will be an effective ally on key House District 101 priorities, including health care and transportation.

If you live in Arlington, Grand Prairie, Mansfield or Kennedale and would like to learn more about Devan, Lisa and I are hosting a meet-and-greet event at our home in Grand Prairie onSaturday, February 24 from 2 to 4:00 pm. For more details or to RSVP, email vanna@mrmandco.com.

Early voting runs through Friday, March 2nd. For Tarrant County early voting times and locations, click here.

2018’s going to be a good year – be part of it by exercising your right to vote!

Chris

 

#Blowingthewhistle

Last week, people across the state took to Twitter to share stories of public school educators whose sacrifices have made real differences in the lives of children across our state.

The hashtag #blowingthewhistle was in response to a divisive and derisive campaign launched by an extreme right-wing group called Empower Texans. The intent of this anti-education group is to target public school employees and attack educators for their civic participation.

As with many of Empower Texans’ stunts, this quickly blew up in their face.The #blowingthewhistle stories went viral and are more proof that Texas teachers are making a real difference in the lives of children and their families.

Read a few of the posts for yourself:

Carol Fernandez @CarolJFernandez
@EmpowerTexans I am #blowingthewhistle on one my public school teacher friends. She has purchased several pairs of cool tennis shoes for some of her students. Thekids aren’t positive who they are from. They just magically end up in their locker. This way no one knows but them.
Mrs. Justice @justi_saurus
@EmpowerTexans I’m #blowingthewhistle on my fellow teacher friend who takes time out of her weekends to take Senior pictures for free for students who can’t afford them so that they can have the same special Senior experiences as everyone else.
Arï @AriRhea17 
I’m #blowingthewhistle on a teacher of mine that gave me a shoulder to lean on when I was crying, food when I was hungry, and a second family. Teachers don’t get enough credit for what they do. They do more than teach. They change lives.
Cajuntexan @Cajuntexan77
@EmpowerTexans I am #blowingthewhistle on a teacher who takes her student’s clothes home to wash every Friday afternoon so they will have clean clothes to wear on Monday morning.
Bowie Hogg @bowiehogg
Hey @EmpowerTexans I am #blowingthewhistle on my wife who used to buy a painted rock from one of her 5th grade students so he could bring money home for his family instead of fighting for money. #blockvote #Over4500TeachersinArlington

Inspired, I added a story of my own –

Chris Turner @ChrisGTurner

.@EmpowerTexans – I’m #blowingthewhistle on an @ArlingtonISD asst principal I met recently. He was on a high from his success in breaking through to a student who had been cutting class. Now the student is always in class and doing well – meant everything to this AP. #txlege

I hope you will join me and share a story about a teacher or school district employee you know. It’s not too late.

We must continue #blowingthewhistle to honor these women and men. We must also give them the tools to succeed, such as increased funding and better support from elected leaders.

 

Black History Month

Today marks the start of Black History Month, an annual celebration of African Americans’ incredible achievements and contributions to our nation’s history. During the month of February, I will highlight various African American leaders on social media and on my website. I hope you will join me in honoring these men and women and share the posts among your networks.

This Sunday, February 4th, marks what would have been Rosa Parks’ 105th birthday.  As you may recall, last year I passed a measure to name the Arlington and Grand Prairie portion of the SH 360 South extension the Rosa Parks Memorial Parkway.  This will both honor her legacy and pay tribute to the rich diversity of our community.

Over the last few months, my staff and I have worked with the North Texas Tollway Authority and Dr. Jason Shelton, the Director of the Center for American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, to finalize the language for the commemorative plaque that will be installed when the road is complete.  It will read:

The Texas Legislature has designated this important Southeast Tarrant County road the Rosa Parks Memorial Parkway, in honor of an American hero whose courage helped to change our nation for the better. As a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Ms. Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. This act of courage inspired the Civil Rights Movement, which aimed to eliminate racial discrimination and make the American Dream possible for all people. Ms. Parks’ fight for equality and fairness spanned her entire life, as she continued to tackle issues such as affordable housing and public education until her death in 2005.

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to befree…so other people would also be free.” – Rosa Parks 

This spring, there will be an event to open the highway and unveil the plaque.  As we get closer and confirm the details, I will send additional information so that you may mark your calendar.

In the meantime, I hope we can all reflect on the rich contributions of African Americans in Texas and across our nation this Black History Month.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In my Capitol office, on the wall beside my desk, hang two pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The photograph on top is of Dr. King waving to an audience of 250,000 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. That day, he gave what many consider his most notable speech and where, in a boomingMLK National Mallvoice, he delivered the words that moved a nation.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The picture below it is of Dr. King in the Oval Office, sitting in the foreground, listening, or perhaps deep in thought. President Lyndon B. Johnson can be seen behind him.  I hung thisMLK and LBJphoto as a reminder of the progress these two made addressing civil rights and voting rights. It also serves as a reminder of the constant battle to fight for and to protect these rights.

Today, we remember Dr. King’s words, we celebrate his life and we honor his legacy. Let’s not just focus on thoughts and celebrations. Let’s act.  Let us work collectively to serve our communities and make our cities, state and country a better place for all.

The night before he tragically died, Dr. King delivered his final speech. In it, he challenged those listening to come together to work for the greater good.

He said, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

These words ring as true today as they did in 1968.

I ask you to please join me in making a commitment to stand with greater determination and to help the people in our communities, our state and our nation. Not just today, but every day.

I filed

Today, I filed for re-election in House District 101 and I released the following statement:

“Serving the constituents of our district is the best and most important part of my job,” Turner said. “I look forward to continuing to work on behalf of Arlington and Grand Prairie by fighting for local priorities, such as transportation. I will also continue to work hard for UT-Arlington, Tarrant County College and the Arlington and Mansfield school districts. 

“In Austin, I look forward to continuing to fight for greater transparency and ethics reform, better access to healthcare, more funding for public education and making higher education attainable for all Texans who want to attend college,” Turner continued.

“And as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, I will continue to oppose the Dan Patrick/Greg Abbott extreme right-wing agenda, which puts divisive, Trump-style politics ahead of the real solutions Texans deserve.”  

Turner has received numerous awards and honors for his legislative service, including “Legislator of the Year” from the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars (2009), “Best of the House” from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) (2013), “Legislative Champion”from Planned Parenthood Texas Votes (2017), the Sierra Club of Texas’ “New Leadership in Environmental Protection Legislative Service Award” (2013), and “Champion of Equality” from Equality Texas (2013 and 2015).

Turner is a native Texan who grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.  A 20-year Tarrant County resident, Turner lives in Grand Prairie with his wife, Lisa.   


The Democratic primary election will be held on March 6, 2018

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