School Funding Déjà vu– Back to the Supreme Court

October 21, 2014

A court has found the state of Texas’ school funding system unconstitutional.


Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced late last month that he will choose to appeal that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.


Does this seem story seem familiar to you? It should, this dance between Texas’ public schools, its state legislature, and its judicial system has been going on since about 1972. Here’s how the Texas school funding tango works: schools find themselves inadequately and/or inequitably funded and sue the state of Texas; courts find the state’s school funding system unconstitutional or otherwise unacceptable; the Texas legislature slaps a bandage on the system to stop the bleeding, but in most cases makes the system even less effective and more cumbersome; the legislature then watches haplessly as school districts sue them.


An entire generation of Texas students has now been educated within a funding system that has been found ineffective and/or unconstitutional time and time again. And now it’s time to grab your partners, Texans, because we’re going back to the dance.


In August Judge John Dietz ruled that the current system of school funding is unconstitutional because it not only provides limited funding to schools, but the system also is flawed in how it distributes money to school districts. Further, the system creates a de facto statewide property tax whereby school districts are capped and cannot raise funds locally to offset the $5.4 billion budget cuts made by legislators in 2011 (and still not restored – most schools are operating at 2010 funding levels).

Meanwhile, these cuts came at a time when schools were being asked to meet new expectations and challenges, including:

  • Increase rigor and instruction for students, including implementation of college and career-ready standards and programs
  • Increase the number of standardized tests given (ultimately reduced in 2013) for a more challenging testing system (welcome, STAAR!)
  • Implement technology
  • Address increased language and cultural diversity
  • Implement rigorous and national leading state standards,
  • Give standardized tests to every Texas student from grades 3-11
  • Increase the graduation rate
  • Teach an increased number of students enrolled in public schools, adding an average of 80,000 students per year
  • Teach students from a state where 1 in 4 children come from poverty

Clearly, the state of Texas has great plans for its schools; however, they don’t provide funding to meet those goals. They desire an admirable and progressive Waldorf-Astoria-public education system on a Motel 6 budget. But Texas can’t have it both ways.

Schools and educators were asked to meet these new challenges without an additional cent of funding; rather, they saw their funding cut. In fact, in that 2011 legislative session, for the first time since World War II, the state of Texas failed to fund student growth. Texas schools have consistently set new records for student enrollment in recent years, educating one in 11 U.S. students, but were funded at a per student rate that ranked 49th in the nation.

Despite these challenges and requirements, the state of Texas still operates public schools at 2007 funding levels (when adjusted to 2014 dollars). To make matters worse these funding levels are driven by Cost of Education formulas that were established in 1991 and never re-visited or updated.

This, apparently, is how Texas values and prioritizes public education.

Ideally, the Texas state legislature would recognize the issues facing its schools and address this problem – re-examine the decades-old Cost of Education Index, re-evaluate funding formulas and mechanisms, and do right by Texas students. The 84th Texas Legislature, convening in 2015, could step up to address the ruling laid out by Judge Dietz; avoid an appeal by the Attorney General saving taxpayer money; and help improve a public education system that is struggling against underfunding, over-testing, and other challenges.

Or they may choose to wait for the political cover of yet another judicial decision. I guess we’ll see in January whether we’ve elected real statesmen with the political will and a propensity to lead and serve the needs of Texans; or if we have again elected political hacks content to disregard their constitutional responsibilities to public education, doing their best to shortchange yet another generation of Texas students. Time will tell.

Assuming the latter, we’re going to have to wait some time to find out how this dance ends. Sorry for the tease, but you won’t know the rest of this story until 2018ish. Why? By the time Attorney General Abbott’s appeal is heard and decided likely in 2015, the state legislative session will be over. Because of the nature of Texas’ part-time legislature, in the absence of a special session, it would likely be 2017 before legislative change would be addressed. Based on this scenario, new school funding formulas or finance systems would be seen some time between 2018 and 2019 at the earliest.

Yes, that’s 2018-19? Will your child still be in school by then, by the way? By 2018-19, our schools will be nearly a full decade behind on the funding required to meet the federal, state, and local expectations for public schools. And we stand by to watch as yet another generation is educationally under-served by a system that is known to be broken, but continues to be ignored.

And Texas continues to dance…

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 3: Instruction

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the third in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards and curriculum. In this article we show the relationship between standards, curriculum and instruction. This beginning article on instruction will provide a general overview. In future articles we will explore specific approaches to instruction.

Standards are the expectations, or goals, that are established to drive student learning and mastery of content and grade levels. Curriculum is a method of ordering standards in concise tools for teachers to use to plan lessons and help inform teachers as they create their instruction. Curriculum is WHAT content the teacher delivers to students. Instruction is HOW teachers deliver that content.

Instruction is the method or way of teaching students. The standards, or goals, will never be achieved without a guaranteed viable curriculum. But, that is not enough. Without effective instruction, even the best curriculum cannot lead a student to success. Effective instruction is the most critical factor in student success.

There are a variety of instructional strategies that have been used by teachers to deliver content to students, making every students probability for success very dependent on the instructional approach in the classroom. Some teachers have stood before their students and lectured for hours and hours to deliver content with little or no student interaction (i.e., Lecture). Other teachers have repeated information over and over again (i.e., “Drill and Kill”), forcing students to memorize endless facts without explanation or discovery of their origin. And some teachers have passed out worksheets for students to complete while the teachers retreat to their desk (i.e., Teacher-Centered Instruction).

While many of us have experienced teachers who have used these types of instructional techniques educational researchers have discovered through peer reviewed research and study that these instructional techniques are NOT EFFECTIVE.

For example, many of us had to memorize the 50 state capitals during our time in school.  While this information stayed with some of us, many people have forgotten over time. Unless you are a geography teacher or a contestant on a game show, have you ever had a need in your life to know the 50 state capitals?

Or, would it have been more useful for you to understand why these capitals were chosen?  Maybe study the various forms of state government throughout the United States? Or perhaps to think critically about how they were built and the concepts around how they became central hubs for government?

Although you may have forgotten the factual parts of those questions, the real skills you would have acquired are the ability to think and process information related to those capitals, which are attributes that employers seek in the workplace.

Research in the area of instruction tells us that effective instruction includes a small group environment, working on projects that are designed to push students to think critically.  In addition, teachers serve as facilitators of student learning, guiding students through cross-curricular lessons and infusing technology into the instruction where necessary and appropriate.

The table below outlines several strategies, their characteristics, examples, and classroom effectiveness.

Category Characteristics Examples Effectiveness
Direct Instruction Teacher-directed, practice and drill Teacher lecture, demonstrations Effectiveness is limited to providing information, step by step skills, and basic knowledge construction.
Indirect Instruction Inquiry, induction, student-centered Reflective, discussion, problem-solving, guided inquiry Very effective for problem-solving, life-long learning, student motivation, comparing/contrasting, influence, predicting, summarizing, and analyzing.
Interactive Instruction Peer-learning, discussion, multiple solutions Socratic discussions, collaborative learning, debates Very effective for debates, brainstorming, and problem-solving
Experiential Learning Hands-on learning, active participation, analysis, application Project-based learning, problem -based learning, simulations, lab experiments, building models, surveys Most effective. Greatly increases understanding and retention compared to other strategies. Increases student motivation
Independent Study student-decision making, analysis, self-reliance Student centers, research projects, flipped learning, essays, computer assisted instruction, online instruction Very effective in developing student initiative, self-reliance, self-improvement, and lifelong learning.

Most educators agree that teachers should have enough autonomy to make the best instructional decisions for their classrooms. However, all teachers should be held accountable for implementing the curriculum and using classroom strategies that best meet the needs of their students. A skilled teacher will use a mix of each of these strategies when they are appropriate. For example, when given the TEKS standard:

1.6A The student is expected to: classify and sort regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes based on attributes using informal geometric language,

it would not make sense for a teacher to lecture on the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. First grade students are not likely to retain information from a demonstration on an overhead projector describing the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. It would be much more effective to provide the students with actual hands-on experience sorting the shapes and classifying the differences on their own, with teacher guidance.

Effective teachers analyze the standards and the curriculum to determine the best strategy for their students. Ineffective teachers stick to one approach and choose that approach based on the teacher’s needs rather than the needs of the students.

The reality in education is that the game has changed. The game changer is technology. Technology has created access to knowledge that our world has never seen. As such, students no longer have a need to regurgitate the capitals of the 50 states and they no longer need the teacher to drill and kill those capitals. Teachers are no longer the supreme keepers of the information; Google now has the stronghold on that. Facts are free and readily available.

However, what Google can’t do is help students facilitate, analyze, synthesize or process this knowledge. They need a teacher for that. They need a teacher who can take well-written standards, use a powerful curriculum tool, and plan research-based instruction to help facilitate a purposeful learning environment for students that will help them think critically about the information that is being delivered.

This is learning in the 21st century.  It’s not a conspiracy.

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 2: Curriculum

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the second in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards. In this article we show the relationship between standards and curriculum and why it is necessary for a school district to have curriculum to meet the educational standards. Consider the following:

  • Does it make sense to teach World War I before World War II?
  • Should a teacher conduct a lesson on area before showing her students what a square looks like?
  • How many different ways are there to teach multiplication? When should it be taught?

The three examples above are all expectations derived from our state standards that Texas students are required to learn. Educational standards, like the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), are goals. These goals inform educators and parents about the content and skills their students are to master in a given school year. Unfortunately, these goals don’t come with a plan. We want our students to know and understand concepts from World War II but much of that lesson will be lost if World War I wasn’t covered first.  It would be impossible to measure area unless we know what the square looks like. And multiplication can be taught in multiple ways for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Below, is a real example from the Texas standards (TEKS). Each of the four standards are exactly the same at the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade:

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 5.42.06 PM

Common sense would tell you that a teacher would not teach these concepts exactly the same at the third grade level as she would at the sixth grade level. But, teachers need a plan to know what should be mastered at the 3rd grade level to be prepare for the 4th grade level and so on. This is why school districts need curriculum. While standards are goals, curriculum is the plan to meet the goals. Curriculum is a detailed description of how students and teachers interact with specific content in a specific sequence over a school year to meet the educational standards. The execution of the curriculum, or plan, is the instruction.

Standards are typically written in a plain, straightforward language and are designed to simply state a student expectation of learning. However, the standard does not explain HOW to teach the student expectation or WHAT materials to use to allow the student to demonstrate mastery on the standard. Standards are goals and do not specify curriculum, textbooks, workbooks, or lesson plans, all of these things are at the discretion of the district. It is good that the districts have this discretion. They each have different needs and require the ability to determine which curriculum would best meet those needs.

Research has shown that one of the most effective tools in successful schools is a guaranteed, viable curriculum. A guaranteed and viable curriculum is one that guarantees equal opportunity for learning for all students and adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. District curriculum is a large body of work and it takes trained educators to ensure the that a curriculum is guaranteed and viable. Educators who write curriculum must be familiar with the state standards, understand the conceptual development of subject matter over several grade spans, and have adequate time to plan and write the curriculum.  Often, the process includes master teachers who meet over the summertime, evaluate the current curriculum, suggest changes based on data, and then train colleagues on the new curriculum when school begins. Unfortunately, many of the districts in Texas do not have the resources to write their own curriculum.

Another struggle for school districts in Texas is the ever changing nature of our standards. Every time the TEKS are changed, districts have to rewrite their curriculum. The same is true for the timing of the state assessments (STAAR/EOC). The assessments are the means for the state to determine if students have met the goals (standards). For a curriculum to be guaranteed and viable, a district has to have a curriculum (plan) to make sure all of the content and skills are mastered at the time of assessment. Everytime the date of an assessment changes, the district has to update the curriculum to ensure there is adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. In other words, curriculum is a very necessary,  never ending process and expense for school districts.

What are these districts to do? Some districts have joined together to write curriculum. Some use the curriculum of larger districts that have the resources to write their own curriculum. Many have purchased curriculum for their districts. There are several curricula available for schools in Texas. One very popular curriculum is the TEKS Resource System (TRS) curriculum, formerly known as CSCOPE. Once plagued by controversy over a few lessons created for instruction (not curriculum), the TRS is now just a curriculum built to be guaranteed and viable for Texas school districts.

There are other curricula used in Texas schools. For example, if a student is in an Advanced Placement course, the instructor is required to use the AP curriculum. When Texas was one of the largest consumers of national curriculum, publishing companies used to write curriculum to meet the Texas standards. However, with the adoption of the Common Core standards in 43 states, we are no longer a top priority for these publishing companies. Therefore, most the curriculum published is aligned with the Common Core. Publishing companies haven’t forgotten the Lone Star state. They now retrofit the curricula written for Common Core to meet the TEKS. As a result, much of what we see in Texas, created at a national level, will be considered aligned with the Common Core.

The national organizations who write these curriculum follow a process to develop their content. The writers collect and analyze standards from all 50 states and attempt to align similar standards found in each state.  It is common to find standards in some states that are not found in others.

All of this begs the question: How do we ensure that our districts are not using Common Core standards? The answer has already been given. The goal for all of our educators in Texas is to meet the standards given to us by the state of Texas, the TEKS. The plan is to have a curriculum that is guaranteed and viable to meet this goal. Teachers will execute this plan with high quality instruction based on their curriculum.

Since a variety of instructional materials are frequently used by teachers to meet their standards, one could expect to see a worksheet, lesson plan, workbook, or instructional guide with the words “Common Core Aligned” printed on the material; especially since 41 states (40 as of Thursday, June 5, as Oklahoma has dropped CCSS) have adopted CCSS and Internet resources with a “Common Core” label are easily found. This simply means that the curriculum writer who developed that content went through a process of aligning similar standards from a particular state with the Common Core Standards.

In fact, if a district has adopted a national curriculum to meet the state standards, teachers may have to use instructional materials that are “aligned” with the Common Core. Consider this, humans share 92% of their DNA with mice. But, mice and humans look nothing alike. The TEKS share 68% of their standards with Common Core. The curriculum and instruction in Texas classrooms will look nothing like Common Core, or we won’t meet our goal. In part three of our series, we will examine classroom instruction and the variety of instructional techniques teachers can use to process both standards and curriculum.

Ten Things Texas Students Need for the 21st Century Classroom

Our world, our nation, and our state are a changing at a rapid rate.  As the world changes, the goals and methods of public education must change as well to prepare students for the requirements they’ll face in the 21st century. We can no longer rely on outdated practices, technology, and approaches.

Our future is dependent on producing students who can think critically, collaborate, and produce project and systems driven assignments. We have talented students in our schools, and it’s time to give them the tools they need to be the next generation of great leaders. So what does Texas’ public education system need to keep up with the needs of educating a changing workforce?

1)   Update the cost of education
Simple fact: The state of Texas has not updated the cost of education since 1991.  We are currently funding schools using a complicated funding formula based on data that is more than 22 years old – from a time when a gallon of gas cost $1.12, a pound of bacon cost $1.95, and Internet usage reached a whopping one million users. Fortunately, the ruling from the most recent school finance law suit will likely require the state legislature to update the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which will create a new baseline for funding.  The adequacy and equity will hopefully come later.

2)   Funding
Once the state of Texas updates the CEI, the need for adequate and equitable funding for Texas schools will be paramount. Texas is the second most populous state in the US with a growing population of students.  Among these students are immigrants, students whose first language is not English, students in poverty, and students with special academic needs.  These are aspects of our schools that are costly and desperately need attention by the state.  Funding our schools is complicated and will require strong leadership in the next couple of years to see it through.  This important need and constitutional requirement cannot be ignored and is a critical for the future our state.

3)   Reduce the class size
After $5.4 billion was cuts from Texas school funding by the Texas legislature in 2011, many school districts adjusted by reducing teachers and raising the numbers of students in classrooms.  School districts across the state asked for record numbers of waivers from the Texas Education Agency to increase class sizes beyond the required 22:1 in grades K-4.  As the 83rd legislature returns some (but not all of the lost) funding to schools, it will be imperative for school districts to work to reduce the student to teacher ratio. Students are easier to mange, instruct, and are more engaged in smaller classrooms.  This is also a similar argument used by charter school advocates to promote more charter schools across the state.  Again, with adequate and equitable funding, manageable class sizes – for all grade levels – is essential.

4)   Technology
How quickly do things change?  Five years ago, Twitter, Facebook, and iPads were not found in any classroom in America; now they are essential.  The methods by which we need to educate students have to change and that will happen through technology.  Many students today are coming to school as “digital natives,” having experienced a wide range of technology but are not being allowed to use that experience in the classroom environment for a variety of reasons (lack of funding, equipment, training, ideology, etc.) Nonetheless, technology is here to stay and will continue to change through the life of our students. In addition, the education research related to instructional technology is conclusive that it has a significant place in our schools and in our students’ learning.

5)   College Readiness
Many of the jobs that will be available to high school graduates in 15 to 20 years will more than likely require a college degree.  This is a simple fact. More jobs are requiring students with prerequisite knowledge that can only be attainted through higher education in a two-year or four-year setting.  In addition, our students will be in significant competition with students from India, China, Japan, and Western Europe for the top jobs in engineering, science, math, and technology.  Our students will need to be critical thinkers, creators, evaluators, and more than likely need to speak more than one language –not French, German, or Italian – but Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin, or Spanish.

As such, it will be essential that we provide challenging instruction for students, promote them to take upper academic courses, and have better advising for them to promote careers that best support their individual skill sets.  As we work to differentiate their instruction through their lives, we may also need to differentiate their career choices when they are ready for the “real world.”  This means helping to make our kids “college ready” and “ready for college.”

6)   Best practices
In every profession, people maintain their skills through professional development and practice.  Education is no different.  There are countless conferences, staff development sessions, and other learning opportunities that education professionals attend—year round—to maintain required certifications and improve their craft.  This is commonplace in education. However, professional development has been cut in recent years due to the school finance crisis.  There have been less opportunities for educators to travel for staff development sessions or for districts to bring staff developers into their district.  Training is being compromised and students will ultimately feel the impact.

As such, it is increasingly important that educators are using the best practices research has to offer in our profession. We have a multitude of research to support the best instructional (Marzano, Danielson), discipline (Sprick), classroom management (Danielson, Jones, Emmer), and curriculum (English, Resnick, Stenhouse) and educators needs to employ these strategies early and often in our classrooms.  We are at a time when parents and politicians are expecting the best from our schools; we need to offer them the best.

7)   Support programs for students in poverty
Federal sequestration has hurt our poorest schools by cutting funding to low socioeconomic schools.  In addition, the poverty rate among children in Texas is significant at 25%,presenting a clear need for quality programs for students in poverty.  Texas schools will need more social workers, food programs, tutoring opportunities, and increased personnel to help teach, support, and grow our students.  Research tells us that students in poverty come to our schools with learning gaps, family problems, and a culture of low expectations. In addition, education has a habit of placing teachers with alternative certifications or limited experiences in our highest need schools. These schools, students, and teachers need our help and support to meet the expectations of state testing, college readiness, and the public.

8)   Deeper understanding of our changing population
Our state is changing.  Texas’ Hispanic population is growing, we have more children, we have more Spanish speakers, and we have more poor people than ever before.  However, our legislature is primarily made up of white men with private school educations from affluent areas of Texas.  This dichotomy in ideology and lack of understanding of our changing population cannot continue. Ultimately, it will hurt our schools. Our state must understand and adapt to our changing population by implementing training, funding, and supporting the educational system that will ready the next generation of Texas’ workforce.

9)   Instructional differentiation
We can no longer teach like we did 50, 25, 10, or even five years ago.  Technology has changed much of this need, but so has a significant amount of quality research dedicated to instruction.  In addition, our students are not “one size fits all”; meaning that one type of instructional technique is not going to work for every student.  We have a variety of students with various learning needs.  Special education students often need very different instructional techniques as gifted students do.  The same can be said for Hispanic students and white students.  The method of delivery must be adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Texas teachers will need help in learning various instructional techniques and be provided training on how technology can enhance and improve the learning experience of our students.  In many school districts, teachers are turning to Twitter chat sessions and Pinterest to work with educators nationwide to learn ways to improve instruction in the classroom.

There are many different ways to teach a single concept and teachers need to employ as many ways as possible.

10) Early childhood education
I want to make a bold suggestion that would be a significant paradigm shift in education:  it’s time to change the first grade. No longer should first grade be for six year olds.  First grade should begin at three years old.  The education gap is a significant challenge for our schools, as educators cannot control the level to which students are prepared before they enter school.

Many parents have the time, resources, and interest in providing their children various opportunities to prepare them for school before they begin and many parents do not have these resources or desire. It’s time that Texas schools take the lead and begin to close that gap by providing high quality instruction for children as young as three years old.

Many students begin kindergarten without having learned their alphabet, numbers, colors, or shapes when these concepts could be captured earlier in life. In addition, the very young brain is a sponge that soaks everything it can when it is in tune with the environment.  We can teach our young children two languages at once, provide opportunities to experience their environment through local travel, give them opportunity to interact with other children, adults, and various types of technology.  These learning experiences will close the education gap that so many of our students in poverty encounter and set our students up for fruitful adult lives.

A Peek Under the Big Top – PTA Mom’s Look at the 84th Legislature

motdcarneymascot01A Peek Under the Big Top – PTA Mom’s Look at the 84th Legislature

January 27, 2015

Come one, come all — the circus is back in town! The spine-chilling 84th Texas legislature that convened in Austin this month promises to feature daring radicals and tantalizing ideologues in the center ring. And this year public education is in their cross hairs!

Step right up and watch… as Texas’ public schools attempt to survive the legislative high wire, with threats of privatization, punitive accountability, unfunded mandates, and school “choice” schemes.

Ooh and aah…as educators continue to juggle oversized classes, expanded curriculum requirements, and high-stakes testing run amok.

Watch in wonder… as still-underfunded school districts educate Texas’ growing student population while fighting off the deadly combination of falling oil prices and ill-advised campaign promises of tax cuts.

More than 300 education-related bills had been filed by the beginning of this session. Before we look at the three-ring circus that awaits public education this year, let’s recap where we left off since the gavel fell on the 83rd legislature in 2013.

  • Election 2014: As the cliché goes “elections have consequences,” and November’s elections may have dire consequences for Texas’ public education system. Let’s just say, the 84th legislature may be even less friendly to public education than its predecessor. And that’s really saying something; since 65% of legislators in the 83rd legislature had less than stellar voting records on public education issues according to a University of Mary Hardin Baylor/Texas Kids Can’t Wait study in 2014. 

The study rated then Senator Dan Patrick’s voting record on public education issues the worst in either chamber of the 83rd legislature. And we just elected him to Lieutenant Governor in charge of Texas’ Senate. Buckle up! Without strong voices of opposition from parents, educators, and advocacy groups, the radical make-up of this legislature may allow anti-public education legislation to be pushed through fairly easily.

  • School Funding: In case you hadn’t heard, Texas schools are under-funded. Remember those history-making education budget cuts in 2011? The ones that forced class size waivers across the state, loss of bussing, cuts to sports and arts programs, and the elimination of thousands of education jobs? Those cuts were never restored. Despite record-setting revenue growth, an $8 billion rainy day fund, and leaving $7.5 billion on the table in “leftover” funding, the 83rd legislature chose not to fully restore education funding in 2013.

Today Texas students remain underfunded by $600 per pupil from 2008 when adjusted for inflation. And, of course, that’s based on funding formulas driven by an outdated cost of education index that the legislature has conveniently forgotten to update since the 20th century. With that, it’s not surprising that yet another recent national study has Texas weighing in at 49th in the nation in per pupil spending and graded the state a “D” in school finance.

  • School Finance Trial: In 2013, a district court ruled that Texas schools are inadequately and inequitably funded in violation of the state constitution. This ruling was re-visited and upheld in 2014 following the partial restoration of $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in education cuts in 2013. Governor Greg Abbott (as then Attorney General) appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case later this year. A ruling could come in early 2016.
  • Testing: With HB 5, Texas made strides in reducing its over-use of standardized tests for accountability purposes. Following public outcry, testing requirements were dropped from 15 end of course exams to five end of course exams for high school students. Elementary and middle school students? Well, they didn’t see any relief and continue to be saddled with testing and prep that can run into more than 40 instructional days per year depending on the district. In the meantime, high stakes testing has continued to secure its place as public enemy number one as the grassroots’ disenchantment with Texas’ long-term love affair with the scantron continues to grow.

With that, there’s a lot you’ll want to watch for over the 140 days of the 84th legislature. Here’s a preview of some key education issues:

  • Operation CHOICE: “School choice” has a lovely ring to it, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want “choice?” McDonalds even offers “choice” between a yogurt and fries these days. If Texans can have choice in their happy meals, they should have choice in their schools too, right? Actually, Texas already offers a wide variety of public school choice options (open enrollment districts, intra-district transfers, public school academies, magnet schools, charters schools, not to mention transfers required by the federal government for schools failing to meet No Child Left Behind requirements). With all of these options and choices currently in place, why the outcry? Well, the wide variety of public choice options already available aren’t really the kind of “choice” these folks seek.

Instead, when politicians lament for “school choice” this session, it’s actually a thinly veiled code word for school vouchers. Vouchers (also known as they friendly sounding “tax payer savings grants” or “tax savings scholarships”) are a scam to shift public taxpayer funds for public schools to private institutions without the same educational or financial accountability. Wisely, Texas had ducked vouchers for more than a decade, particularly after watching how poorly they fare in other states, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. But, if passed this session, Texas legislators will soon funnel your tax dollars from Texas’ already under-funded public schools to unaccountable, non-transparent private organizations that don’t have to answer to taxpayers. How’s that for fiscal responsibility?

Let’s look at how this scam could work: when a local coven opens their Wiccan-focused private school, a voucher scheme would allow your tax dollars to fund the coven’s educational operations and Wiccan curriculum. With all due respect to Wiccans, this doesn’t seem to be a palatable option to most Texans, especially since the state’s educational standards, testing/accountability, and employment/certification requirements typically don’t apply to these private entities. There’s also that pesky religious establishment thing. Nor does financial oversight or public voice in the private entity’s operations apply. Texas has an infamous history of doling out taxpayer dollars to private enterprises without accountability or oversight – it’s just this time they’re robbing your under-funded public schools to do it.

In fact, the voucher scheme isn’t even palatable to most forward-thinking private schools that recognize the shackles they accept with public funding, which may well eliminate the very aspects of their school operations that differentiate them from public options. Last session, then Senator Dan Patrick tried unsuccessfully to push through a voucher scheme. This session now Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has promised to ram the voucher scam through in his barely hidden quest to dismantle public schools. Unless met by strong grassroots opposition, he likely has the fringe votes to make it happen this time.

  • Money, Money, Money: With the school funding trial waiting to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court later this year, conventional wisdom would suggest that most legislators are less than eager to address the funding issue and content to kick that can down the road.

Let me tell you about their dirty, little secret – your legislators actually have no idea how to fix the school funding system. A patchwork quilt of bad ideas, years of convoluted legislative band aids, and reactionary responses to three decades of court decisions, Texas’ school finance system is a muddled mess that the majority of your elected representatives do not understand, do not know how to fix, and do not know how to fund.

At best, they might try to hide behind rising property tax receipts when preparing this year’s budget. Increasing local tax dollars due to rising property values will result in more funding to public schools courtesy of property owners, but with no thanks to the body that’s actually constitutionally responsible for funding Texas schools and that has failed miserably to do so for years. Yes, I’m looking at you, Texas Legislature. It’s time to stop being a dead beat and fund your responsibility instead of relying on over-burdened property owners to bail you out each session.

With a huge knowledge deficit among legislators and lack of political will to face the looming school finance trial elephant in the room, the issue will likely be left unresolved until the Supreme Court directs the legislature to fix it. That fix might come sometime in 2016 if we’re lucky. So, my child who began his public school career as an unfunded kindergartner may finally see relief as he prepares to begin middle school. If all goes well…

Yet, despite these challenges a few proactive legislators recognize that when it comes to school funding Texas is doing it wrong. They’re making moves in the right direction to fix it and have filed legislation in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling. Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Representative Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), has filed House Bill 654 in an attempt to create school finance districts to overcome the state’s inequitable funding woes. Aycock said in a memo to fellow legislators, “While we do not know the final outcome of the school finance lawsuit, I believe it is appropriate to foster broad conversations on the matter while awaiting the final decision.” Other proactive legislators include Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) who pre-filed several bills to reform school funding and formulas and Representative Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), who filed a bill to update the 24-year old cost of education index that determines each school district’s funding allotment from the state.

  • Testing Mania: Even as implementation of HB 5 continues, state testing remains a top issue. Some bills filed propose allowing students to graduate despite not passing end of course exams if other requirements are met, while one bill forbids the use of state test scores on teacher evaluations. An interesting bill filed by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston) largely resurrects a failed bill from last session. Huberty’s efforts would require the STAAR test be verified as a valid and reliable assessment tool (it’s widely argued that it’s not) by an independent entity and place time limits on the tests (two hours for elementary school and three hours for secondary students).

Clearly, the fervor for testing reform continues as legislators and parents advocate taming the high stakes testing beast. Of course, if Big Testing magnate Pearson and its well-paid lobbyists have anything to say about this sideshow, it’s a battle that is sure to rage on for sessions to come.

From the governor to lobbyists to policy wonks and watchers, education is being billed as a key issue in this year’s legislative session. Whether that results in positive policy and change for our students and schools, however, is yet to be seen. And much of that depends on those of you well outside of the big pink Capitol dome and the role you’ll play in this circus.

Will this be the session when parents demand adequate funding for their neighborhood schools and less reliance on standardized testing? Will educators speak out loudly about the impact of teaching to the test and over-crowded classrooms? Will taxpayers allow their funds going to unaccountable private organizations without oversight and unknown standards, requirements, and practices? And if all of that happens, will it be enough to stop the radical legislators riding an anti-public education tide in Austin? Will this be the session when the grassroots steps up to demand that Texas make public education a priority? Or will legislators advance their continuing assault on Texas public schools as parents, educators, and taxpayers stand idly by? Again.

So grab your popcorn and prepare to be spellbound as we watch this year’s performance in Texas’ ongoing battle for public education. It just might be the greatest show on earth, after all.

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