Last week, the House Public Education Committee held two meetings to hear testimony from many stakeholders and advocates on recommendations from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance.

Among those who testified over the two days were teachers, board trustees, superintendents, and financial officers of school districts from across the state as well as representatives of several education advocacy groups. Many of them expressed support for the Commission’s recommendations to increase the basic allotment, the amount every school district is guaranteed to receive in state and local funds for each student in average daily attendance before adjustments on cost of education, school district, and student characteristics are made.

The majority of those who testified also expressed support for the Commission’s recommendations to increase adjustments such as for Compensatory Education (Comp Ed), English Language Learning (ELL), and the dual language weight, to create an allotment for dyslexia programs, and to increase funding for early childhood education. Many, however, were cautious about the sustainability of the early childhood education funding, which includes pre-kindergarten (Pre-K), given the prior history of stop-and-start funding.

Many superintendents and trustees expressed concern about the Commission’s recommendation to eliminate the Cost of Education Index (CEI), an adjustment from 1990 used in the school finance formula to account for regional variations in the price of goods and services beyond the control of school districts.

Some school districts who have a high CEI expect they will lose millions of dollars in funding if the CEI is eliminated without a replacement. Chair Dan Huberty (R-Houston) insisted the CEI will be removed because it is outdated. He has not, however, said how it will be replaced, suggesting it would be worked out in the coming weeks.

Representatives of small and midsize school districts expressed unease about the Commission’s recommendation to removing the Small & Mid-Sized District Adjustment from the formula. They argued it would hinder their ability to meet the federal maintenance of effort (MoE) requirement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires local education agencies to maintain funding for special education from one fiscal year to the next.

Assessments, Teacher Merit Pay and Outcome-Based Funding

The vast majority of educators who testified expressed concerns on the Commission’s recommendation on outcomes-based funding, particularly for improving early childhood literacy, which ties a school district’s funding and its teachers’ compensation to 3rd graders’ reading scores on STAAR testing.

In one heated exchange with Louis Malfaro, the president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, Chair Huberty asked, “What is plan B? Tell me how it is you want to measure successful student results [of reading at the 3rd grade level].”

Malfaro responded, “there is a place and a role for the STAAR test”, but there should not be funding tied to a test score that teachers do not see as an effective measure of students’ outcomes.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-Clint) offered to collaborate with Malfaro and other teachers to work out some creative alternatives for assessments and tools to measure student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

In that vein, Huberty had said throughout the two days of testimony there needs to be some mechanism for assessment. Similar to Dallas ISD’s ACE and TEI program, the blueprint for some of the Commission’s reforms, the assessment would not be the sole measure of teacher compensation vis a vis student outcomes. He also indicated he was open to fixing STAAR later in the session.

No Solutions for Special Education Funding… Yet

Important testimony on the issue of special education came in Monday’s hearing from a representative of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE) and Steven Aleman of Disabilities Rights Texas. In its report, the Commission postponed action on changing the special education weight because “[the] system is undergoing significant reform… [and the Commission] deemed it prudent to wait to implement special education formula changes until the Corrective Action Plan, having been approved by the Department of Education, can be fully implemented.”

Kristin McGuire of TCASE suggested the time is now to discuss the changes and urged the committee to use this opportunity at overhauling school finance to also fix the broken system for funding special education.

Aleman offered four principles of reforming the special education weight. It included efficiently and effectively targeting resources to students with disabilities to improve services and outcomes, simplifying the allocation system, expanding state support to service the student population which does not currently fit the legal federal definition to receive special education (e.g. students with dyslexia), and promoting inclusion of special education students into activities of the rest of the students.

Aleman and McGuire also testified how local school districts consistently spend more than the state and federal allotment on special education.

Huberty asked both witnesses to talk with TEA and come back to the committee on the finances of what a simplified special education weight looks like. He conceded the federal MoE compliance will not be met with the House budget and will have to be added in the supplemental budget.

History of School Finance Reform

On Tuesday, Chair Huberty invited three of the former chairs of the House Public Education Committee in the last 17 years to testify. The three chairs testified on their experiences on school finance, trying to fix it, their mistakes, and successes. Chair Huberty wanted to help the committee appreciate the complexity of the task.

Chair Kent Grusendorf testified first. He served from 2002 to 2005. He testified the Legislature only ever put patches on the school finance system, usually under threat of court orders, and never looked at the big picture to truly change it in a way that benefited kids.

Grusendorf, who served in the Legislature when “Robin Hood”, or recapture, began, suggested to reform recapture by keeping it within the county instead of statewide because it might be more politically palatable to taxpayers. For another reform on the equity side of school finance, he suggested looking at enrolled students at a district, perhaps using a statewide average, instead of taxable wealth per student as a measurement for recapture. He said it was the only objective measure. Chair Huberty was favorable to this idea.

Chair Rob Eissler testified next. He served from 2007 to 2011. He stressed the importance of early childhood education and even more so, language exposure for kids before the age of three. He recommended accountability on spending, training parents, competence-based education in elementary school, and better teacher recruitment, training and retention.

Chair Jimmie Don Aycock testified last. He served as Chair of the House Public Education Committee from 2013 to 2015. He explained how difficult school finance reform has been and detailed the following tripwires in the system: hold harmless provisions built into school refinance, recapture, and the antiquated, obsolete factors in the formula.

On the third tripwire, Aycock explained one such factor, the CEI. He added it was supposed to have been updated every two years but it never happened, in part because once a school district has the advantage of a high CEI, they are unlikely to give it up. The CEI multiplies at the beginning of the school finance formula and therefore exaggerates influence making it impossible for other weights to be valued fairly. According to Aycock, four chairs of the House Public Education Committee over the years have tried and failed to eliminate the CEI. He also suggested the weights ought to be spread more and the values of Comp Ed, ELL and Special Ed to be increased should the formula be kept.

Aycock agreed with other educators who testified high stakes testing like STAAR should not drive funding. Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) asked if there is a role in assessment in policy making. Aycock responded by saying there is a role for testing but evaluations of students should be an individual system and evaluations of school districts should be done by a “reasonably designed statistical sample.”

Aycock also testified on the benefits of early intervention in difficult populations. Research shows Pre-K and reading academies work; however, because both have had stop-and-start funding in Texas, they have been less effective than if they had been consistent.

Regarding recapture, Aycock suggested any regional system would need to narrow the band of taxable wealth per student.

Paul Colbert, the budget chair of public education on the House Appropriations Committee and one of the authors of HB 72, the bill which instituted the current system of school finance, testified next. He cautioned the committee not to ignore the differences between and within markets in Texas and their cost differences. Pointing to a presentation by the Governor’s office which suggested folding the CEI into the basic allotment, Colbert claimed it was misguided. He said if there are no other measures that account for market differences in the formula, the fix to school finance will only ever be partly effective.

Lastly, Colbert lauded the commission’s recommendation to put student weights on a spectrum based on need.

The House Public Education Committee hearings from last week can be seen here:

Monday – http://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=44&clip_id=16163

Tuesday – http://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=44&clip_id=16194