Education Front and Center in Texas Legislature

When the Texas legislature gavels into session in January, education will be a hot topic. (Photo courtesy Nicolas Henderson/Flickr)

When the Texas legislature gavels into session in January, education will be a hot topic. (Photo courtesy Nicolas Henderson/Flickr)

When the Texas legislature reconvenes January 10, it will have a laundry list of things to tackle – some controversial, some mundane (you can keep up to date on the full list of bills filed here). But some of the biggest issues will involve the trajectory of public education in the state.

While we can’t provide an exhaustive list of everything the legislature will address this session (although rest assured – we’ll be keeping you abreast of the most vital pieces of legislation), I thought it would be a good idea to look at three key things legislature will have to address this session.

The biggest, of course, will be school finance. This is the one that not only affects how schools budget for education and innovation, but also how good and great schools stay good and great schools, and schools that need improvement have the tools to improve. And this, of course, directly impacts the bottom lines of Realtors and homebuyers and sellers, since schools are frequently in the top five considerations when it comes to looking for that family abode.

And, of course, school finances are currently tied to property taxes, which makes whatever the legislature does of vital importance to homeowners. And trust me, the legislature will have to do something – the courts have mandated it. It won’t be cheap, and it won’t be easy, but expect much discussion over better funding formulas in the 85th legislative session.

Why is school funding such a clustercuss? Because, frankly, we never really deal with it, except to cut it or to campaign about it. The legislature’s current modus operandi is to cut state funding back, which shifts the share of school funding to the individual districts, who are then faced with the prospect of selling a property tax increase to voters. Eventually, voters squawk, and the blame for both the inequities and the higher property taxes falls on the district – not the legislature that is slowly turning public education into yet another unfunded mandate.

This school year, the state will spend $40.5 billion on public schools. In the 2017 fiscal year, state spending will go up about 7 percent from 10 years ago.

Now, that seems to contradict my previous statement about unfunded mandates, right? Well, only if we stop talking right here.  You see, in 10 years, the state has increased its spending by about 7 percent. But student population has increased 16.8 percent. So while the state can say, “Hey, we’re spending more than we did 10 years ago,” they’re right. But if they had kept the funding model consistent over the last 10 years, instead of taking a lot away, then giving some back, but then taking a little away again, etc., your property tax bill would be lower, and funding would’ve kept pace with student enrollment.

Capisce?

Also up is school choice. Legislators are currently eyeballing the idea of providing private education savings accounts – which would provide families who didn’t want to utilize the public school system with an account that would allow them to pay for other options like private schools, tutors, homeschooling curriculum or college courses. If it worked as it does in other states who have adopted it, the money would be loaded onto a debit card for the family to use.

While it sounds good on its face, opponents counter that it’s just the same voucher program that has been threatened before, and siphons money away from public schools who are already strapped for cash after repeated cuts by previous legislative sessions.

And while this may help parents who truly live in districts where the educational offerings are lackluster, many districts offer quite a bit of choice already – from magnet schools, STEM and fine arts academies, leadership academies and others. Also, while public schools are mandated to offer educational opportunities for all, private schools are under no such mandate.

Surprisingly, many homeschool families are against this bill.  

And then there is also pre-K, which will find itself back up for discussion this session because, hi, that funding Governor Greg Abbott herded through in the last session? It has to be renewed every session. Yeah. So we get to hear people say that pre-K is “godless” (which seems a little harsh for preschoolers – if you ask any teacher they’ll tell you even the worst day at pre-K is nothing a bottle of red wine can’t solve) again. Again.

The original bill was also criticized – and fairly so – by education advocates, who said it lacked the funds and the chops to really enhance quality pre-K, especially in light of a $200 million pre-k grant program that was sliced and diced by lawmakers in 2011.  The bill also didn’t provide for a full-day program (in this session, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has filed a bill the create prekindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds), which is imperative if you really want to make inroads in literacy rates overall.

The original bill provided $130 million in grants for school districts and charter schools that adopted new standards for pre-K curriculum and teacher qualifications, as well as improving parental engagement and progress monitoring measures. Without action by the legislature in the upcoming session, the funding will peter out.

In a recent analysis of six districts in Dallas County, Commit Dallas (in conjunction with Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy and Texans Care for Children), it was discovered that many of the participating districts said they had goals in mind when they applied for the money – things like enhancing supports for teachers and aides, beefing up their family engagement programs and possibly expanding their programs to offer full-day pre-K options.

Their analysis of participation (which included Dallas, DeSoto, Duncanville, Irving, Richardson and Mesquite ISDs in Dallas County and McKinney ISD in Collin County), found that some districts actually hesitated to use the funds for long-term goals like program expansion or additional teacher hires for fear that, since the bill had to be renewed in the next legislative session, they would have to pull back plans or reduce staffing and plans later. In fact, Duncanville ISD ultimately opted to decline the funds.

Now, if the legislature wants to really get serious about pre-K, it will take up Zaffirini’s bill and run with it. Universal, full-day pre-K for all four-year-olds, and half-day offerings for three-year-olds in certain circumstances will pay off. How do I know?

Because the data is already there. A study by Children at Risk revealed that after tracking 47,000 poor pre-K students in 17 districts over five years, students that attended high-quality pre-K in 2010 scored about 28 points higher (on average) on the 2015 STAAR reading test than students who attended lower quality programs or no pre-K. Students enrolled in full-day pre-K had 40 percent higher odds of reading at a college-ready pace in third grade, too. And Dallas ISD has seen a 13 percent increase in kindergarten readiness in just four years of focus on quality pre-K programming.

As I said, this certainly isn’t all of the education bills that have been or will be filed for the 85th session. But these are the big three – and we will be keeping an eye on more as the legislature is gaveled into session. Curious about who your state representative and state senator are because you now have a fire in your belly and a spleen to vent? Check here.