Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | November 3, 2016
It’s that time of every-other year. Another legislative session is set to begin in Texas in January, and early bill filing starts this month.
In the meantime, lawmakers have been conducting hearings as they gear up to address the biggest political issues facing Texas. With a high-profile school funding vote on the ballot in the state’s largest school district, education is sure to be near the top of that list.
Here’s a look at five K-12 (or, more accurately, pre-K-12) debates on tap for the 85th legislative session in Austin.
1. Funding: Many advocates and school districts were hopeful that this year the Supreme Court of Texas might demand an overhaul to the way schools are funded. But those hopes were dashed in May when the court ruled that although the state’s school funding system was imperfect, it was not “imperfectible.” In other words, the court said the system isn’t illegal, and if it’s to be reformed, the legislature will have to do it — not the judicial system. Two-thirds of the state’s school districts were part of that litigation against the state, which gives a good indication of just how unhappy many in education are with the status quo.
They’re hoping the legislature could address a convoluted system many say doesn’t adequately reflect today’s needs. First, the state’s education funding formulas are outdated, with some parts last updated roughly 30 years ago. Last session, when many legislators were waiting to see what would come out of the state supreme court case, the legislature increased per-student funding by $100, but according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a think tank based in Austin, that wasn’t even enough to keep up with inflation. Then, there’s a host of related issues including facilities funding, how to weight the state’s growing low-income student population and a system of tax redistribution known as recapture.
For the first time this year, the Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, is considered “property wealthy,” meaning it will have to start sending tax revenues back to the state for redistribution through a process called recapture. Voters, however, could vote against doing so. If that happens, the district would have to cede some of its commercial property to another school district and lose out on the associated property tax revenue. Of all the issues on the table, wrote Ashlea Graves, HISD’s government relations director, in an email, “Getting out of recapture is #1.”
2. Testing and accountability: A regular frustration for teachers and parents alike, the state’s standardized testing requirements are once again in the spotlight. The tests, which are tied to teacher evaluations, are criticized for their high stakes and frequency and districts and parents alike have rebelled against the system in recent years through resolutions to the state and a growing “opt-out” movement among parents. Adding to the controversy, last school year Educational Testing Service, which administers the state’s STAAR tests, had a host of issues that delayed results and led the state to ignore the scores of fifth and eighth grade students who failed and would have been held back. The company got a $20 million fine from the Texas Education Agency and the issues added fuel to the testing fire. Some lawmakers want to do away with STAAR altogether. Others will be looking to recommendations that came out of the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, established in the last legislative session and tasked with making recommendations for a new system. The commission’s final report urged the state to consider a variety of strategies, including using adaptive, computerized testing throughout the school year, locally-developed writing assessments and more streamlined testing that focuses on core skills “that are most critical to student success,” among other steps.
The report also recommended changes to the state’s accountability ratings, which were overhauled last session. Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, instead of schools only receiving one of two ratings — “met standard” or “improvement required” — schools will be graded on an A-F scale that has some officials concerned it could say more about a school’s wealth than its students and teachers.
3. Vouchers: Building on a measure that failed in the last session, Republican lawmakers are hoping to see Texas embrace what are known as “education savings accounts” or ESAs. A handful of states have implemented some form of ESAs, including Arizona and Florida. As with vouchers, parents would be able to spend the funds on tuition at a private or religious school, but unlike vouchers, they would also be allowed to spend the money on tutoring, educational materials and other such services. Many ESAs are open only to specific students, like those with special needs or who are economically disadvantaged. In Arizona, where ESAs began in 2011, the accounts were originally open only to students with special needs. Over time, the state has added more students to the pool of potential applicants. But in Texas’ case, at least one of the big names pushing the accounts is calling for them to be open to all students, regardless of background. Those in favor say ESAs increase choices for parents. Those opposed say they rob funding from public schools and lack regulation.
4. Pre-Kindergarten: Gov. Greg Abbott declared early education one of his top priorities early in his tenure, pushing through a bill last year expanding pre-kindergarten across the state through a grant program. But funding fell short of promises, and a year after the legislation was approved for the program in 2015, many of the districts that were approved for funding actually gave the money back because it wasn’t enough to fund their programs. “[Q]ualifying school districts and charters were supposed to receive $1,500 per pre-kindergarten student each year in exchange for implementing certain improvements,” wrote Kiah Collier for The Texas Tribune. But because so many districts applied, they ended up getting $367 per student instead. Still, Republican lawmakers are already asking whether the program is worth it, setting pre-K up for a fight in the coming session.
5. Special Education: Back in 2004, the Texas Education Agency set a benchmark for the percentage of students it would like to see in special education, requiring some districts that surpassed it to create corrective plans, according to a recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle. Instead of the national average of roughly 13 percent enrolled in special education programs, the state agency said districts had to enroll no more than 8.5 percent of their students in special education. To meet the mark, some districts simply shut out students with special needs, according to the investigation’s findings.
The state’s low rate of special education enrollment and the agency’s monitoring system had long been a concern for Disability Rights Texas, an advocacy group, but, following the paper’s investigation, the issue has gotten more attention, with local, state and even federal officials weighing in to denounce the alleged benchmark. The U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to stop the policy or prove that no students have been denied access to appropriate educational services because of it. In response, the Texas Education Agency issued a statement denying the charges.
“The allegation that the special education representation indicator is designed to reduce special education enrollment in order to reduce the amount of money the state has to spend on special education is clearly false,” wrote Deputy Commissioner of Academics Penny Schwann, in the agency’s response to the federal government. “Allegations that TEA issued fines, conducted on-site monitoring visits, required the hiring of consultants, etc. when districts provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of their students are entirely false.” At the same time, the agency said, “because of recent confusion,” it would not be using its special education indicator in the monitoring of school district performance going forward.
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have vowed to change the way the state provides special education.