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.